Thursday, 18 November 2010

Unforgettable moments

Certain moments are iconic. And it’s become a received expression to sum them up by saying ‘you’ll never forget where you were or what you were doing' when the event took place.

‘You’ll never forget what you were doing when Kennedy was shot.’ That was probably the moment that enshrined the saying in our culture. And indeed if you’ve been around long enough, the Kennedy assassination – the first one, John F.’s – is very much that kind of brutally unforgettable event. Followed within five years by Martin Luther King’s and the second Kennedy shooting, Bobby’s.

But this kind of event isn’t limited to bad news, or indeed to the United States. In 1989, there was the fall of the Berlin Wall, and little more than a year later, the release of Nelson Mandela. Who could forget those young people, perched on top of a symbol of division and death, chipping away at the concrete of the wall with their hammers? Who could forget that proud but jailworn figure walking down a driveway to freedom?

Glorious moments forever seared into our memories.

Now we’ve had another one.

I was saying to myself just the other day, ‘I’ll never forget what I was doing when I learned that Aung San Suu Kyi was released.’ That frail figure with the warm smile and the message of forgiveness and reconciliation. Just what the world needs in these times of terrible division and tension. A little Burmese grandmother carrying today’s torch of hope for better things – the best news we’ve had for ages. If only she’s allowed to carry on.

And yet. And yet. When it comes to the expression itself – can I really remember what I was doing when all those things happened?

The clearest memory I have of all of them is when I learned of the assassination of John Kennedy. I can picture the scene in detail, playing with my brother and being told by a visitor. Except that the memory is of a weekend morning and the event actually took place on a Friday and, by our time in Europe, in the evening. So I have a brilliantly clear memory which is completely wrong.

As for King and Bobby Kennedy – no idea what I was doing when I heard about their deaths. Even the Berlin Wall and Nelson Mandela: I remember watching the news coverage, I remember the excited discussions, but the precise moment when I first heard? No trace. Complete blank.

And I hardly dare admit it, but I can’t remember what I was doing when I learned that Aung San Suu Kyi was released, even though that was just a few days ago.

‘You’ll never forget what you were doing.’ Sadly, that doesn’t seem to apply to me. It may of course just be my memory. Or maybe it’s just another one of those received expressions that aren’t to be taken too literally, like ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’ (I’ve had a few and, far worse, I’ve given a way a few, to people who have promised the earth in return and delivered nothing).

I suppose it isn’t the truth of the expression that matters so much as the truth of the thought behind it: it’s the events themselves that are burned into the memory. Certainly I won’t forget those devastating assassinations in the sixties. Equally, I’ll treasure those glorious moments of hope rekindled – after all, I need them as antidotes to the terrible killings.

As for where I was and what I was doing – well, frankly, who cares?

1 comment:

Mark Reynolds said...

In this day and age, half the time what I was doing when I learned something of import happened is "sitting in front of my computer." (Unlike Sept 11 in which I was about to interview an apparatchik at McGill, when his secretary, who was sitting in front of her computer called us over to show us the news).