The mysteries of memory

2011-04-29 00:00

IT was unprecedented. Lessons were halted and TVs were brought into the classrooms. It was 1981 and a nerdy-looking foreign prince was getting married to a pretty lady called Di.

At our school near the southern end of Africa a girl called Jeannette, the child of British immigrants, brought her royal family paraphernalia to school. We examined it with the same detached curiosity given to the wedding. Intrigued by the spectacle, we were mostly just glad to be released from the grind of matric revision.

These circumstances are probably why the last big British royal wedding has stuck in my memory. It did get me thinking, however, with another royal wedding today, about why we remember certain big global events and not others. Wading through a two-inch-thick volume of photographs of the last decade published recently by Phaidon, many images and events are remembered but some have more resonance. These are the events that for whatever reason caused me to pause and reflect on my own life.

Like the Y2K panic. One of the first pictures in the book shows a control room of geeks waiting for the big countdown to midnight, December 31, 1999. While I never got as far as stocking up on baked beans and bottled water, I did wonder idly about the possibility of computers messing with my life and the implications that might have for myfamily.

And when two planes flew into the Twin Towers in New York on September 9, 2001, I was at work at The Witness offices in Longmarket Street. Someone ran into the tearoom and switched on the TV just after the first plane flew into the building. From then on we were all glued to the screen. Watching an event of that magnitude unfold in a roomful of journalists is memorable. The news operation swung into high gear and already completed pages of the next day’s newspaper were stripped as work began on a revised edition.

The images of the planes flying into the towers, like those of giant waves hitting holiday resorts in Southeast Asia in 2004 and rolling across farmlands in Japan recently, are ones that stay with you. Most pictures are more ephemeral. But while you may not remember them they are instantly reminiscent of a certain time: the faces of youthful Harry Potter fans in their owlish glasses, a Zimbabwean farmer being driven off his land, the smirking faces of Osama bin Laden and Sarah Palin, the hellish pyres of burning cattle in the UK mad cow panic.

Africa and South Africa hardly feature in this 500-picture collection, with just two images each. Negative stereotyping persists with scenes of apocalyptic fires in Nigeria and a sinister stick-wielding mob in Kenya. Were there really no happy days this past decade in the whole of Africa? No lovers in springtime, no heartwarming triumphs or interesting trends? No, this is a compendium of broad brush strokes and significant moments so we, South Africa, are represented by Nelson Mandela attending the funeral of his son, who died of Aids, and Thabo Mbeki announcing his resignation, as the sum of our country’s events in 10 years.

Don’t get me wrong. Biases aside, this is an impressive collection. Erudite contributions by various commentators explain some of the most significant trends of this century’s first decade, including climate change and human inertia, 9/11 and its consequences, the globalisation of sport, science in the public eye and, curiously, how the art market survived the changes that buffeted it.

But most people will respond to this book at a visceral level, lingering over the pictures that speak to them for whatever reason. Because bad news tends to dominate our definition of significant events, lasting impressions after leafing through it are of strong emotions and high drama, but the transience of it all is also striking, each moment as fleeting as the next when lined up in a succession of photographs. The picture of Thabo Mbeki announcing his resignation brings to mind both the sturm und drang of that period and the realisation of how much it has been superceded by our current concerns. Is it any wonder then, that an estimated two billion people will switch on their televisions today to escape the grind of all this global angst by watching the over-the-top wedding of two people they don’t even know?

Decade starts and ends by telescoping away from all this human drama, showing first a sentimental picture of Earth from space, and finally a desolate Martian landscape.

It’s a useful reminder that the strident chatter of bad news we are assailed with needs always to be kept in perspective.

• Decade is edited by Eamonn McCabe and published by Phaidon.

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