Our memory isn’t as good as we like to think it is. I’m not talking about the dementia epidemic. I mean collective memory. Societies are built on the stuff. What we remember makes us who we are.
But I have a theory. It’s this: our collective memory is only ever 4 generations old. Even the things that appear older are only the products of the last 4 generations – appropriating older stuff for their own ends.
Tell me about your great-grandparents
On a personal family level, this is about when memory peters out. How many of us even know who our ancestors were beyond our great-grandparents, let alone anything else about them?
It’s nice to think of our own selves as somehow stretching back to George Washington, King Arthur, Aristotle, Suleyman the Magnificent, Confucius, Muhammad, Jesus – or whichever historic figures and movements you identify with.
It’s nice to think that our traditions and preoccupations have vast root systems. Our way of seeing the world is time-tested. In reality, our own lives are much more limited. Our sense of the ancient past is informed by the last 4 generations.
Who do you think you are?
When Scots wear tartan, they are communing with Sir Walter Scott. When Englishmen sing folk songs, they sing through the prism of collectors like Cecil Sharp. When Swedes revel in whitewashed pine floors with pops of colour they are heirs to Carl Larsson.
You might say, well, it’s easy to unpick popular culture and folk tradition, but not the great foundational movements of the ages – the monotheistic faiths. Yet even there, the Christian or the Muslim from Birmingham to Malmo is channeling the revivals of the past 150 years more than the time of the prophets.
Go back more than 4 generations and our nations and people were often living in a way that would surprise us now. We’d find them doing things we don’t see as traditional to our countries and our communities at all.
The rule applies around the world. We are prisoners of unreliable memory, and short-term memory at that.
Talking of unreliable memories, Britain Isn’t What It Used To Be