Moving forth and back across this massive conurbation we call Sydney, as I do ten times a week, it is probably inevitable that I'm going to run into either someone that I know or who knows me, at some point. The world is sufficiently small enough that chance meetings do happen occasionally, such as James Cook meeting the same Pacific Islander on different islands on different voyages. There used to be a segment on the drive segment on a radio station called "Six Billion To One" and there were many of these chance meetings which callers would tell the stories of; so I don't think it unusual.
Except that because one can only observe the universe form one's own viewpoint, when it does happen, it is noteworthy and apparently remarkable. This is one such story.
I was coming home on the train and madly tapping away at my tablet on a piece about Frank Forde (the eight day Prime Minister), when a lady say next to me and after a few minutes, said: "You're Andrew Rollason", to which I replied in the affirmative and she proceeded to tell me that we had been to high school together.
The problem was that when I asked her name, it was someone that I didn't remember and given the fact that I left school almost twenty years ago, I didn't really have the necessary memory hooks or the context to work out who this was. She knew who I was but I genuinely wouldn't have been able to identify her from the four millions of people who live in this giant mass of humanity perched upon the eastern seaboard. If you do happen to be reading this and you were that person on the train, please send me a tweet @rollo75 or an email at firstname.lastname@example.org because (and I hope that this isn't taken the wrong way because I don't mean to be mean), I don't remember you at all.
I can remember a whole host of completely useless information such as the number on Philippe Alliot's Ligier in the 1985 Formula One Season, or the valency of Astatine, the various powers of the parliament under section 51 of the constitution, the explanation of the thousands of stars that John Glenn saw in his Mercury capsule but I don't remember the names of most people that I went to school with almost twenty years ago. Nor do I remember the names of the vast majority of people that I happened to have worked with in very large organisations.
I'm reasonably sure though, that this is probably true for a lot of people. There is an observable phenomenon where you can walk into a room and have no idea why you entered it, or you can forget whether or not you locked the front door, or you can drive home and not remember most of the journey. If you have a thing which in context is part of a larger system, then it's more likely that the whole system will remembered as a single item.
Could you remember the following string of numbers?
The more astute readers will have noticed that those numbers when broken up suddenly become 1776, 1812, 1915, 1945, 1966 and 2001. It has long been said that history is not about dates but about stories, and the only reason why any of those dates is important is because of the stories behind them.
For instance, I was playing a game of three a side knockabout football in the park on Sunday and when I got home, I couldn't for the life of me, remember where I'd put my mobile phone. Even after searching hither and yon, I had to drive all the way back to the park and it was only there that I'd remembered that I'd put the phone in the glovebox of the car. The reason why retracing one's steps works so well is that you return to the points where stories (however trivial) again have context.
I'm sure that this lady in her latter 30s is quite important to a great deal many people but the reason why I don't remember who she was is entirely due to the same reason why a string of numbers are so hard to remember - I don't remember any stories where our lives crossed paths. Yet the weird thing is that for some reason unknown to me, I must have figured in some story in her life which she remembers. Given there were 120 people in our grade, it is logical that the conditions existed where that must've happened but I've got no idea what they might have been.
A school teacher once told me that for the 30 plus years that she'd been in the job, she could remember most the children who had been trouble but that she couldn't for the most part remember any of the nicely behaved children. This speaks to me of some reinforcement process of memory and I hope that that's what's gone on here, that this person was one of the friendly forgettable people. What does that say about me though? I don't think that I was terribly ill-behaved but I guess that I must've been weird enough to be memorable. I don't know if I'm pleased about that or not.
I'm sorry that I don't remember who you are but I suppose that must mean that you were/are a nice person. That was literally half a lifetime ago and I'm afraid that my memory gallery must have thrown out a heap of stuff, a long time ago. I can remember where I was when I heard the news that Princess Diana died, or when the twin towers of the World Trade Centre were struck by those planes but if you asked me about a non specific day in 1994, unless it was the Bathurst 1000, or the FA Cup third round, I have no idea about who sat where in most classes high school or even who the heck these people were. Give me a name and I might nod my head but that's not the same as a shared story whose memory stretches on through the years.