Friday, 12 September 2014

To memorise, or not to memorise? That is the question! (And a nice sunrise)

Dear all,

I bought a few Spanish poetry ebooks this week. An unusual purchase I will grant you, being that I can’t speak or read Spanish, but I thought they might help me learn. They are dual language versions; they have the poem in Spanish first and then an English translation.

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It got me thinking…as I’m trying to memorise the new words I come across, why not just memorise the whole poem? It would be quite nice to have some Spanish poetry under my belt for the impossibly random time it may one day come in useful! Then I tried to think of all the things, poetry or otherwise I have memorized in my life…depressingly, not much was forthcoming. And that was quite a surprise to me. So I wanted to share with you today a few thoughts I had on memory. Before I go on I had a bit of trouble sleeping a couple of days ago (still not used to this heat, I think that proves that I never will be, eight months must surely be enough to adapt if you ever will, I have learnt my lesson about what I can handle…) and so I decided at around 4am that I would watch the sunrise. So I went for a walk, took my camera with me and at around 7am onwards started taking pictures (the first few show the moon large and bright and was still visible like that for hours). I thought I would share these with you so these are the images that intersperse this post.

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Back to my terrible memory - How can that be I thought? I’ve learnt loads of stuff! What about…well, what about the…okay, no, but, well okay, what about that time when I had to learn…oh what was it again? What! I actually know nothing ‘off by heart’ anymore! How depressing!

Think back Rob. Okay, I studied a Literature degree…that is a degree in Literature…what about that unit on the Romantic Poets! Oh yes! Of course, so there was Keats, Byron, Shelley…erm…there was Browning…erm…come on…oh yes, Wordsworth of course, definitely haven’t forgotten her, I mean him…erm, Coleridge! Blimey can’t forget him, Iron Maiden wrote a song about the mariner for God’s sake…Blake…is he of that period? Erm…

Hold on Rob. You did a ‘Literature’ degree, not an ‘English Literature’ degree…what about those units on the Russian writers…and more importantly for your Spanish education, the South American writers? Oh yes, I remember those…there was…

Without wishing to insult the aged here, I am going to be 35 years old in a couple of months but I’m already feeling like a large proportion of grandfathers and grandmothers out there who have to cycle through an a-z of names in order to strike lucky with their children’s names… “Nice to hear from you…Alan, Andrew, Bob, Chris, Dave, Edward, Frank, GEORGE yes GEORGE, how have you been darling?” I’m sitting here typing this saying out loud, “…there was Doest…Doste…Dos…what about Toki…Torgi…Turge…oh bloody hell what were their names….

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What has happened to my mind that I cannot recall anything? The thing is, it's not the names I am worried about, I'm only teasing on that really, yes I can recall names but then it does get a tad harder to recall an extensive list of their works and not just the incredibly famous few that everyone knows, and the point of this blog is that even if those do come to mind, how many come to mind with any sense of decent in-depth recall. I may have read a book but I'm surprised at how much I can't remember of the is actually hurting my head right now trying to think of details of some of my favourite books. Yes, I feel that I have a good memory for facts and figures (although don’t ask me about birthdays) the historical dates of this that and the other, random information that comes in handy in pub quizzes but where has all the contextual stuff I used to know disappeared to? I have lots and lots of books at home that I remember reading with an intensity that stuck with me long after I had put down the book, collected works of prose and poetry that was significant to me at the time. Aside from the vast number of textbooks and anthologies required for my studies, I picked up all manner of books…yet now, nothing whatsoever comes to mind. 

Actually, there is one section of my memory that never faded. Prayer and scripture. I attended a Roman Catholic primary and secondary school (in the UK that is from ages 5 to 16) and with that goes daily assemblies and at the very least a weekly mass. We would recite prayers and also sing hymns and right now, sitting in my terrace in Spain, miles away from friends and family, thirty years later, I can fairly easily recall, “Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed by thy name…” and “Hail Mary, full of grace…” and if I put my mind to it, I can remember the responses to the mass and certain passages from the Bible. Now here’s the thing, I lost my faith a long time ago. Well, lost isn’t the right word, I chose to not believe. The more I thought about it, studied it and read various texts (including one certain Christopher Hitchens of which I’ll come back to later) that discussed faith in general, the more I came to put my upbringing in Catholicism behind me, so although it took a while, I would say by the time I was 25 I was an out and out atheist. I’m sorry to have suddenly focused on this, I’m not starting a debate here promise, if you are reading this and feel yourself getting annoyed at me quickly throwing this in, the reason I am doing so is because it just shows that when I was studying (and by default memorizing, sometimes it was dedicated memorization, but a lot of the time it was just memorizing by repetition and study) daily during a period in my life when I wasn’t in the slightest aware of the pressures adults are under (money, relationships, jobs, etc.) - being a child there is just so much free time isn't there, the concept of having to 'make time' to read, or study just isn't a necessity back then – things really sunk in. When you dedicate yourself to learning, you learn! A simple equation really. Hence decades after attending church regularly I can still remember most of it and a demonstration of this is as one (non-believers I’m talking about now) gets older one starts to attend church for two reasons, weddings and funerals. The thing is, no matter how much time has passed since the last time you went to church, it could be weeks, months or years, the second you take your place in the pew and you inhale the incense (do they do that anymore?) and adjust to that particular brand of silence, it all comes flooding back and no sooner has the priest starting talking you are ready with all the responses and know all the verses of the hymns. I always find it amazing. I’m only now trying to recapture that sense of unlimited learning, of daily repetition and seeing if I can bring the young student back into existence.

Anyway, enough of what I can remember, this is about what I can’t remember. Let me take you back to my GCSEs for a second. I have a little story. GCSE stands for general certification of secondary education; it is what schoolchildren in the UK take aged 16. It is the last set of compulsory exams. You can chose to leave school and go to work after those if you like instead of carrying on to college and university. I took mine in 1996 so excuse me if I am out of date on today’s set up but anyway, before you do your exams you do your ‘mock’ exams which is the full dress rehearsal in theatrical terms. During that period a funny thing happened that I remember very clearly. A friend came round my house, probably under the guise of studying but whether we did or not I can’t recall, but I do remember the following week he turned up at my house (it could have been my birthday I don’t remember) with a gift – a rubbish bin. He was so disgusted by the state of my bedroom that he went a got me a rubbish bin to encourage me to sort it out! Now that’s an unusual gift for a 15 year old to give someone but anyway, I remember it was a funky looking thing and I seem to recall I did get my act together a little bit…but the other gift he gave me as a serious counter balance to the joke (insulting?) gift was a book by someone called Tony Buzan ( My friend's sister was studying at university at the time and she bought it for him to help with his studies and he in turn bought it for me. Now, I do not want to sound all Hollywood and say that changed my life or anything, but I remember reading it and really taking it’s advice and guidance on board. It was all about developing your memory, practicing mind maps and things of that ilk. I can only speak for myself but I found it very helpful. I went on to practice some of its recommendations and I did very well at my final exams. I’ll sound all showy off now by saying that out of the ten or eleven we took (can’t remember now how many) I was awarded all A’s except two and they are the only reason I am telling you this because I find it quite amusing even now…I got a B in Art and I ended up working in an art college for nearly ten years, and I got a C in religion and I ended up becoming an atheist…funny how life works out isn’t it. Thinking back on it I wish I kept up using some of those memory techniques, they really work and help keep your brain keen and sharp. If you haven’t explored that type of activity before I recommend it, give it a go and see if it works for you.

Okay, back to the Hitch, Christopher Hitchens. He is sadly no longer with us, a terrible loss to the world of journalism and debating as far as I am concerned but I know he was a divisive figure so I’m sure you have your own opinions of him, but anyway, the reason I am bringing him up is that you can’t watch a talk of his, or his participation in a debate, or read one of his books without him attempting at some point a recitation of poetry, a quote, a fact, an anecdote or some other act of recall. He is an example of that breed of public speaker that can really captivate a viewer like me by throwing in such a random mix of information. The issue I am exploring here by the way is not concerned with intelligence - as with all my blog posts I am no expert in any of this, I am just a rambler who likes to talk about his experiences – it is all about being ‘cool’.

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There is one thing that I cannot continue without divulging…it is going to sound narcissistic and vain, weak and indulgent and a little base, but I’ll tell you anyway. I wish I were just that little bit ‘cooler’ by being able to imitate those great speakers. As I said, I’ll be 35 years old in a few months with no plans to take on any more formal study (at this point anyway, but who knows, I am always battling the urge of robbing a bank to do a MA or similar) so I don’t need to study to pass any exams, I don’t need to regurgitate dates, facts and explanations for any other reason that the simple pleasure of it. However, if I look back, I wish when I was at various stages of my life studying hard and doing so much reading I had memorized a bit more so that I could have the self-admiring satisfaction of blurting out passages of books, quotes, stanzas of poems when the opportunity arises. I’m not talking about a party piece of anything, I’m sure being able to moonwalk will always be more appreciated in the middle of a dance floor than grabbing the mic off the DJ and reciting 'Howl'. I’m talking about in general, just being that kind of smartarse who has a quote for every occasion. There is part of me that really wishes for that no matter how bad it sounds. Also, I don’t mean just learning a few lines of something for its own sake. I’m talking about stuff I have actually read and studied. I don’t just want to learn one line of a Shakespeare play without reading the whole thing, I’m not that bad. Look at the title of this blog. Is it worth knowing this soliloquy if you don’t know what play it is from, who is speaking and why?
          The example I think back on is the nonsense poem Jabberwocky in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through The looking Glass’. I went through a period of really enjoying his books and learning about him the man (bit of an eye opener that one, ahem.) the life he lived and the times he lived in. There was a time I could talk about him and his books with an amateur level of authority and there was a time when I could remember most of the poem. I can't do that now, it's simply not there. And what is worse, when I looked the poem up, parts of it didn't even look familiar! And if it is like that for something I once reasonably knew, what about all the stuff I never committed to memory, I never revised heavily, I just read and moved on...there must be wastelands of memory never to see life again. Maybe I was always too keen to move on to the next. I never applied any memorisation techniques and that’s a shame because there is a extrovert part of me (says the person who ran away to another country to be alone for a year) that would love to be able to recite Jabberwocky on command, a la the Hitch. I’m not saying that makes me a better person, it’s just the sort of thing I would like to be able to do.

So all the way back to the Spanish poetry. I hope it will help me learn new words and pick up more of the language. But it has also rekindled my love for learning in general. I am going to try and memorize some poems for the pure joy, whether or not I ever use it for any practical purpose. I think it’s just good for me. As I joked on Twitter a while back, I’m currently at the children’s rhyme:

A mi burro, a mi burro,
Le duele la cabeza,
El médico le ha puesto
Una corbata negra

A mi burro, a mi burro,
Le duele la garganta,
El médico le ha puesto
Una corbata blanca

A mi burro, a mi burro
Le duelen las orejas
El médico le ha puesto
Una gorrita negra.

It’s not Cervantes but it’s a start. The books I have cover from the early medieval period right the way up to modern times and cover many dozens of Spanish language poets from around the world. I was going to put a few stanzas here of some of them but perhaps I’ll leave that for another time, I’ll wait until I have grasped some of the easier stuff and know it a little better and come back to you.

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I’ve talked in a previous blog post about how I enjoy learning from actors when it comes to dialogue. I love the movies and it's fascinating to me to see how actors approach a role. An odd thought has just occurred to me while writing this, when actors take on very substantial roles they have to memorise huge amounts of text, and I wonder how much of that sticks with them over the years as they move on from project to project. During the actual performance, as well as being able to recall with accuracy they must be able to portray emotion, all kinds of emotion and all levels of strength of that emotion, so I wonder if the impact of that emotion and the whole experience of working with others in such a collaborative environment helps to give them greater recall when looking back? It's just a thought. I mean it's so different from just reading a play on your own in the back garden or something isn't it. Perhaps that's why actors can recall events and experiences, excerpts of dialogue from many years past. I know now why this has popped into my head! If you follow me on Twitter you may have noticed I just bought Roger Moore's latest book Last Man Standing: Tales from Tinseltown ( That explains it. Right, sorry I digress. Anyway. When I write, I try and think like I am acting. I speak out loud, I act out movements (perhaps not if I’m in the coffee shop or pub…) and I imagine as best as I possibly can being that person I am writing about and what the scene I am writing would look like if it were the reality in front of me. Speaking out loud is hugely important to me and I think having a good memory and being able to recall speeches and texts that you admire maybe a good evaluatory device to see if what you are doing is up to par. 

So I have decided to try and memorise some poetry...what does that remind you of? All of the promises we make to ourselves when we get a new idea and feel energetic...yes of course I’ll make time to do one hundred sit ups, one hundred press ups and a five mile run every day, no problem – yes of course I’ll make time to practice an hour of guitar scales every day, no problem – yes of course I’ll make time to conjugate some verbs every day, no problem – yes of course I’ll make time to INSERT EVERY NEW YEARS RESOLUTION YOU'VE EVER HAD HERE every day... I see that a mile off, but as with all these things I’ll give it a good go until it just seems to disappear from my life and I’ll look back in some months time and go, ‘oh, I don’t seem to have read poetry every day like I thought I would.’ And that will be that.

For no reason, here’s the aforementioned Jabberwocky.


Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird,
and shun
 The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

"And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
He chortled in his joy.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

I do have the book, ‘Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There’ but it’s at home in London so I’ll reference Wikipedia instead so you can remind yourself of its craziness: I mean, seriously, who wouldn’t want to have that ready to come out when called on?

I have a confession to make and it relates to my school days. I never memorized my times-tables. I remember exactly when at primary school we were meant to learn it (up to 12x12) and I also remember the point when I refused to do so. It was an act of rebellion on my part and considering I was a good pupil verging on a teachers pet goody two shoes type I am not sure where it came from, but there was a moment when I said I am not going to learn this specifically because you just told me to learn it. Silly really. And I liked maths. So that just goes to show, you have to want to learn something. If I had memorized it as a kid then I could recall it now no problem, just as the hymns and prayers of the same period I mentioned earlier. There have been a few ‘stubborn as a mule’ moments in my life and that is a good example of such a simple thing, a few weeks of memorising numbers could have really helped the rest of my life, that's not an exaggeration, being good and quick with basic calculations does come in very handy – but now I have no inclination to learn my tables thank you very much, I will go to my grave having to base all calculations from a starting point of six multiplied by six is thirty six, which is the main one I do remember.

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We all know songs don’t we. Think of how many dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of times you have listened to your favourite songs. All those years! Week after week…no wonder we know them inside and out. I wish I could have spent a bit of that time and energy learning my favourite passages from books too. I can remember the exact second a song on one of my mid 1980s cassettes cuts off because the tape runs out (I don’t think I heard the full version of The Eagles ‘Life in the Fast Lane’ until I was in my late 20s.) but can I recall a single line of dialogue in ‘The Secret Garden’ or ‘Dracula’? Books I loved as a kid? No, can I hell. Same applies to favourite scenes in movies, television commercials, radio jingles...

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The thing is, if you boil it down, whether it is for narcissism, exams, or whatever – if it is a reason to read more then that can only be a good thing. If it expands your range, if it opens you up to new writers, if it broadens your diction, then great, give it a go, try and memorize something. If it makes you question why a piece is well known, why it is famous and forces you to examine it, scrutinise it, dissect it and ultimately strive to achieve its level yourself; I think it's worth a few hours of tedious repetition! And if it helps you look cool at a party then you’re either going to the wrong parties or you know you have the right friends.

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Or at the very least, just learn a few dirty limericks. Using the Hitch one last time, it is always handy to know a few of these bawdy rhymes because at least you can get a laugh if all else fails:

There once was a young man from Nantucket…

Take care everyone,

P.S - this is most certainly one of those rambling blog posts I'm guilty of, sorry for not really having a point to all of this. I just enjoy thinking of a subject and then writing about it, as I've said countless times, I am no professional, I'm just a novice writer who can't stop himself talk, and talk, and talk, and talk...


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