Tag Archives: First World War

A cost-benefit analysis of selective memory

Today began oddly. First, I awoke from a strange dream in which I was cajoling a classroom of high school students to give me a definition of cost-benefit analysis. They were waffling really badly and missing the mark and I was trying to get them to understand that it was really very simple. “It’s just the pros and cons!” I was trying to tell them, but they weren’t really listening. It was one of those dreams you wake up from and breathe a sigh of relief: “I’m not a high school teacher. Whew.”

No, I’m just someone who’s been really ill and is now in an odd transitional zone in which it’s perfectly legitimate (I believe) to sleep in just about every morning. Except that this morning I was required to get out of bed early to drive the car to the auto electrician. As this was a major departure from recent habits I staggered around for a while in a half-sleeping, half-waking state. The synapses gradually started firing in the right order and I was able to accomplish this mission. When I got home, I discovered that my bedside lamp – a hideous faux-deco thing in which a nude woman, lying on her back, holds up a round white glass ball with her feet – was not on my bedside table but down on the floor in front of it. The lamp was standing up properly on its base but there was no sign of the round white glass ball. It looked like someone had put it there. Then I saw the broken pieces of glass on the bed. There was approximately one half of the ball on Steve’s side of the bed – jagged and sharp – and one half on mine. The placement looked intentional, not accidental. Steve was at work and there was no-one else in the house.

Or was there?

The hairs lifted up on the back of my neck (or they would have, if I had had any hair at all*). I walked from room to room in the house with the same caution and expression on my face as this cat.

There was no-one lurking in any corner and all our expensive things were just as we’d left them. Everything was fine, except for the mystery of the lamp. I took photos of the possible crime scene and sent a text-message to Steve. As I did this, I returned to the possibility that Bertie (our black labrador) had done it. He’d perhaps come in to the room to steal some clothes to take back to his bed (he does this all the time) and had tripped over the lamp’s cord. I’d dismissed this possibility earlier because the scene was too neat, not Bertie’s signature at all. But it was starting to look like the only explanation that made any sense.

Unless – unless I did it myself. Had I staggered out of bed in such a way as to pull on the cord and smash the lamp, exploding the glass ball, the sound all muffled by bedclothes? Was all this happening while I was still half a sleep, shouting at high school students about cost-benefit analysis? Did I only actually wake up when I got to the kettle? I suppose it is possible. It’s weird to think that I caused all that wreckage without any knowledge of it.


Forgetting, not knowing – these have their benefits as well as their costs. On the upside, it would be dreadful to remember – or even think about too much – every time we went to the toilet or blew our noses. I can already feel myself losing touch with some of the most awful moments of the six months. I do remember them, but they’re not punching me in the guts like they did. And that’s probably a good thing. The gentle fog of forgetting and selective memory allows us to keep turning up through the vagaries of life; keeps pain from stopping us in our tracks. The cost, the downside of forgetting is that it allows us to do things again that were awful last time and will be awful again next time. It’s happening now with the commemorations of the centenary of the beginning of the First World War. I’m going to watch ANZAC Girls on ABC TV (it starts on Sunday night), and I’ll probably get sucked in, but I’m already not liking the trailer, with its ’80s pop soundtrack washing over images of beautiful young people flirting with each other in their flattering uniforms (I’m sure teeth were not that white and straight in 1914). The grief and terror of that war soft-focused as backdrop for a national nostalgia-fest. Anyway, we’ll see. It could be better than its trailer.

Meanwhile, I’ve been following the progress of a DIY documentary being made in Wellington with a 90-something year old veteran of the Second World War. The old veteran sleeps on a mattress on the floor because he still has nightmares about his time in New Guinea that get him rearing up to fight, and he doesn’t want to fall out of bed. As he spoke, I was conjuring pictures of Australian prisoners of war on the  Kokoda Trail. It took me a minute to register what this old guy was actually saying. He was talking about the horrors involved in the capture and subjugation of Japanese prisoners of war. I had to switch mental gears to hear this. Later I thought about how it’s easier to hear variations on stories you already know than it is to hear new or different stories. Stories do well when they fall like seeds into earth that has been watered and fertilised. They’ll flourish and grow. The stories of the Kokoda trail and the Gallipoli landing mesh easily with our national narrative of the valiant underdog enduring hardship and looking out for his mates. They get told again and again. Other stories, especially those in which we are top dog, seem somehow “off message”. They  all but disappear in the national narrative.

By the way, the Wellington doco is being made by a group of people who have never made a doco before. I’m looking forward to seeing the finished product – and I’ll report on it here when it’s ready.

*I’m still bald. I thought I’d have a little bit of regrowth by now.