It is a mini season of anniversary and memory. A major historical event, a personal re-connection, a television show. Remembrance daring consideration of what we were and what we are now.
The 1969 moon landing still resonates. It seemed to draw a hopeful line under two years of trauma—Vietnam, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy. For this scrawler, they were also the years when the boy was emerging from childhood. The memories are more complete, more rounded, although stunningly inadequate.
As someone whose memories are structured around the triangulation or coincidence of residence, education, employment, relationships and current events, there is a symmetry to fifty years. It’s arbitrary, but suggestive of experience and distance that bespeaks understanding.
But these memories are already lost to so many and unknowable to even more. It disturbs to realise that as we live our lives the history emerges and then blurs, distorts and fades. ‘Life was so different then,’ we hear someone say. ‘No, it wasn’t,’ we counter indignantly.
The measure is often technology. When childhood involved a crystal set hooked to the metal of a bedroom lamp, the progression to digital streaming is remarkable, even as the lived experience is mundane. The proposition that the internet and the mobile phone changed everything confuses form and function. Gutenberg will never be forgotten. Jobs already is.
Nothing developed since can top the technological miracle of the moon landing. In just three weeks it will be half a century since the boy stood outside on a cold, country night, the sky black and starless, the moon hanging so near and so far. He looked up, trying to comprehend Armstrong and Aldrin walking on that surface, not yet quite clear about why they were there. But that was awe. That was wonder.
The recall is vivid, but in black-and-white. A memory of the bus ride to school that Monday morning, and the belated radio announcement that students could stay home. Walking to grandma’s house near school and watching a scratchy black and white image of limited clarity. Completely missing one small step.
The footprints of the twelve men who walked on the moon are still there. No atmosphere, no wind, they don’t blow away. They are permanent, but our memories less so.
As Jill Lepore has written, the moon landing was the dawning, not so much of the Space Age, but the Digital Age. Memory recalls the scepticism of some, the protests of others and the boredom that soon set in. The search for new knowledge doesn’t always excite, and there were no little screens to tantalise back then. In any event, the promise of space has been problematic, and the planet is in peril.
Memories take us to contested history and to forgotten history. Like the search for the documents and artefacts that reveal the history, the individual’s memories are patchy and selective, always incomplete. The mind orders itself in ways not understood. A lifetime’s fascination with politics wasn’t fully formed in 1969 because the Don’s Party election that year doesn’t register. Gorton hadn’t yet given way to McMahon, let alone Whitlam.
Three years earlier, the memory shows the Grade Five boy alive in anticipation of the new decimal currency. ‘The fourteenth of February nineteen-sixty-six’ was just nineteen days after the retirement of Sir Robert Menzies but he doesn’t feature in the brain’s archive. Like a neurological Facebook feed, memory’s algorithm doesn’t offer up everything that flowed past.
But then there are the people who shared in one’s past and contributed to the patchwork. They are always in the feed. They provide the tangible and compelling memories.
A city hotel, Monday night. A meeting with an old school friend, first encountered at age five but not seen in something like forty-five years. Near neighbours, similar upbringings, but diverging long ago. Adulthoods lived separately.
Familiarity and ease are immediate. There is so much to recall. Jig-saw pieces. Every other sentence begins: ‘Do you remember…?’ A cavalcade of names. Remembrance of teachers. ‘What happened to…?’
And there’s the dead. In our seventh decade, mortality is on the move, even though we’re not ready. The conversation returns repeatedly to a mutual friend, a good friend, now gone. Two of our year died in the past few months, including a little boy’s first crush. Later, in the car on the way back, there are tears and a profound sense of sadness. Why do we let these connections slip? Why were they not nurtured?
At some level, the anniversary and the re-connection compel us to explore the age-old question, ever-present in us all: were we shaped, or did we do the shaping? How far have we come? How is it to be measured?
63 Up finished showing on SBS this week. They’re our age. Observing these British kids has been a ritual since the 1960s. Neil is a lay preacher now. Of course. You could see it coming. ‘Give me the boy until he is seven’. Indeed.
And they’ve had a death. Another may not be there for 70 Up. The new realities startle.
For some of us, the personal can’t be separated from the more expansive memories of a world beyond ourselves. Knowing the past, ordering it, seeing it from all its perspectives, gives it meaning and keeps it alive.
Anniversaries and reconnections serve as markers, offering moments of reflection. They should be savoured.
But the past is immutable, albeit capable of re-interpretation. We must believe the future can still be shaped.
Malcolm Farnsworth is the publisher of australianpolitics.com