If you are a regular reader of this blog – or a friend, as many of you are – you will know that I was born and grew up in South Africa in the seventies and eighties, a privileged white child in a bizarre time and place. It didn’t seem strange then… as a child you don’t know that the way you live is not the way other people live. Life just is. I studied drama at Wits, a highly politicised university in Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela’s alma mater. It was a tempestuous time to be a student, and though we didn’t know it at the time, we were in the dying days of apartheid.
Over the years, I’ve talked about my memories of those times with friends and family who were there. And then along came facebook. Now I’m a massive facebook fan, and I find it an invaluable way to keep in touch with people from all times and tides of my life… I’m hopelessly curious and I love to see who’s doing what, what their kids look like and what they’re up to work-wise.
What facebook has done most of all, however, is put me in touch with my past. It has led to reunions with schoolmates and university friends. There have been other reunions I couldn’t attend, but have witnessed in pictures and anecdotes others have put on facebook. And whenever these reunions take place, IRL, as they say, or virtually, we talk about the past. We say, “Remember when,” or we describe an incident we shared, or we talk about people we knew – fellow students, teachers, family – and through all of this we feel united, and we build a joint story of our pasts. On the facebook group we have for the students of Wits Drama School of our generation, we often post (half-jokingly) about the film or the book we should make that expresses that bizarre period in South African history and the way it played out in that weird and wonderful creative space. These connections are enormously seductive, and when they happen, I know I feel great rushes of affection for these people who know where I came from, who knew me then, who were there. And I find it very tempting to yearn for those days … when we were young and beautiful and certain about everything.
But the more we try together to make sense of it, the more I’m convinced that the past is a strange and changeable country. Memory is a fickle beast. Anyone who’s read different witness accounts of an incident will know that human recall is faulty, inaccurate and subjective – and so easily altered. Think about something you remember from early childhood. Now ask yourself… is it a real incident you remember, or is it a photograph? A story you were told by your parents? We also alter our own memories in the telling… when you tell that funny story about the thing you did when you were a child, it’s likely you might embellish it a little for comic effect, until eventually the amusing version of it becomes the memory, even if that isn’t quite what happened.
It’s also impossible to remember an event as it happened to the person you were then. You can only look at it with hindsight, filtered through the experiences of the more mature person you are now, with everything you now know about the situation and what happened after. That’s one of the things that makes our childhood and university memories so poignant – South Africa has changed beyond recognition in the twenty or so years since I left university. Nothing is as it was then, politically or socially, and on a personal level, I have seen more than my fair share of loss and change and death, which colours many of my memories of the distant past.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the fallibility of memory and the alluring nature of reminiscence lately. I’ve been trying to work out why I feel so drawn to the people of my past, but at the same time so separate from them. I think it’s because I know that what I remember from “then” is false, or at the very least, incomplete. And I also know that my background as a writer tempts me to turn what happened into narrative – to try and make the unconnected, random and ill-remembered experiences of a silly, naïve girl into a coherent whole that casts me in a better, more thoughtful light than I deserve.
If I am honest with myself, I spent a lot of my days as a schoolgirl and as a student feeling very alone. I was desperately self-conscious, desperate to please, desperate to fit in and do well, but I didn’t have a clue how to do it. As a result, I probably did loads of stupid, attention-seeking, sometimes cruel and insensitive things to people who deserved better. I thought only about myself, how I was doing, how I looked to other people, how I could get what I wanted. So I fear I didn’t really connect with the people around me, not because of who they were, but because of who I was… selfish, shallow and unformed. And when I think back on the unkindnesses or thoughtless actions I experienced from others, I wonder if we weren’t all a bit like that… just very young people, inexperienced, and totally faking it, as you do until you grow into your own skin.
I love facebook for giving me a second chance to get to know these people, who, largely without exception, seem to have become fascinating individuals with great stories to tell. I’m so glad to have this opportunity to be a better friend, albeit often a long distance one, than I might have been then. But I would never, ever, wish to be back in those days. Our waistlines may have been smaller, but I believe our hearts and minds have grown.
One monkey, one typewriter, seldom Hamlet.