16 JUNE 1950, Page 13


By HAROLD NICOLSON ISHOULD imagine that all human beings, once they have celebrated their jubilee, ruminate sometimes on what they would do with their life if they could have it all over again. Such day-dreams assume different forms. The student of human fantasy can, however, divide the " if-I-had-my-life-vier-again " day-dream into two main branches or categories. The first form is realistic. One starts by taking oneself as one really is ; one begins all over again at. the age of six or seven, endowed with the same faculties, or impeded by the same disabilities, as have helped or encumbered one during the last fifty-odd years. The only difference is that one carries back into this recovered infancy the experience of half a century. Thus one knows in advance what actions or friends to avoid, which horse is going to win the Derby, at what date the Marconi shares will reach their summit, and what line to adopt in regard to the occupation of the Rhineland or the Yalta Conference. One thereby acquires an enormous fortune, a solid reputation for prescience, and a host of enemies. But one ends by becoming oneself again ; just as fat, bald and wheezy as if one had never possessed this gift of foresight ; and very much disliked for having been always insufferably in the right. I therefore prefer the second and more imaginative form of day-dream. According to this type of fantasy one begins again at the age of seven, but endowed and featured in a wholly different manner. One's courage is only equalled by one's really startling physical beauty ; one wins the Newcastle and makes 210 not out at Lord's ; entering the House of Commons at the age of twenty-one plus, one's political career is accompanied by an ascending chorus of adulation ; one saves the country, produces the scented arum lily, publishes the final refuta- tion of materialism, and in the end one's coffin is followed up the aisle of Westminster Abbey by thirty grandchildren dressed in black. The disadvantage of this type of day-dream is that, by the time one has finished with it, one has ceased entirely to be oneself. It is not for Harold Nicolson that the flag flies at half-mast from the Victoria Tower ; it is for someone else ; and success is beastly anyway.

* * * * I have thus given up indulging in fantasies in which—handsome, authoritative and almost inconceivably courageous—I retrace my errant footsteps of the past. Such day-dreams end by leaving me, either with myself (which is not exciting), or with someone totally different (which is too altruistic to provide satisfaction). I find it much more stimulating to start with myself at the age of seven and to train the boy for a career wholly different from those which I have in fact adopted. It is no fun at all, I repeat, endowing the lad with gifts of intellect or character wholly remote from those which one actually possesses. He immediately becomes an alien and somewhat priggish little figure, with whom it is difficult to enter into any personal relationship. It is better to take those bits of oneself which have never been tested by experience, and which one assumes for this reason to be more powerful than those which the hard machine of life has stamped. By this device one can enjoy a truly remarkable career, without for one instant becoming someone else. I am convinced, for instance, that, had the chances of life fallen differently, I could have become a remarkable scientist. There must, I suppose, be some sciences in which my really astonishing gifts of intuition would be valuable ; and for which no great aptitude for mathematics would be needed The career I have chosen for myself is that of brain specialist ; in such a calling I could prove myself both kind and quick ; and I should concentrate specifically upon the functions of the memory, a branch of human ineptitude which has for me a deep fascinpion.

* * I pride myself upon possessing a good memory. I seldom forget a conversation, I can recite by heart long passages from the poets, and I can deliver a lecture without for one moment glancing at my notes. I have come to the conclusion, however, that my memory, excellent though it is, is of the aural rather than the visual type. Although my mind is stocked with quotations. and although I generally remember where to look for the passage I need I find it difficult, without verification, to reproduce my quotations correctly. It may be that my own version is an improvement on the language of the poets and thinkers of the past ; but this earth is rich in pedants who will point out that Ben Jonson did not write " But have you seen a lily grow ? " but wrote " Have you seen but a bright lily grow ? " It is no satisfaction either to others or to myself to point out that my version scans much better than his. Spelling also is an art which, not having a visual memory, I find it difficult to master. I detest those who spell incorrectly even as I dislike those who type foolishly or make ink-blots upon the page. Yet when I consider my own spelling and typing I find myself echoing the words: "Oh Seigneur Dieu, donnez tnoi la force et le courage de contentpler !non coeur et nton corps sans degoilt."

The reason why, if I were again seven years of age, I should wish to devote my life • to the study of human memory is that I want to discover what it is that makes some people so very good at remembering faces and other people so very bad. Members of the ruling dynasties of Europe, who possess a congenital gift of visual recollection, can recall that a man who is presented to them in 1933 explained to them the working of the Stokes gun one morning at Chatham in 1916. I have known retired diplomatists who, without one moment's hesitation, will recognise a stout and bearded Argentine as the man who, twenty-five years ago, was a stripling attaché in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at Buenos Aires. Yet I am capable of failing to recognise the person who was my neighbour at dinner on the night before. I pretend, of course, that this my inefficiency is due to the astigmatism from which I have suffered since childhood, an affliction which even the strongest glasses fail to mitigate. In my heart, however, I know that this is a lie. My affliction is caused, not by defective eyesight, but by some lesion in the brain. What is so sad about my predica- ment is that it does not arouse sympathy among my acquaintances or any compassionate movements of the heart ; were I really insane, or blind, or paralytic, I should find that those whom I met were all too willing to stretch out to me kind hands of assistance ; as it is, they just regard me as rude or odd. They do not realise the intense embarrassment which my affliction causes me or the pathetic devices which I adopt to conceal it from the eyes of man. Even as the habitual alcoholic will assume, in his rare interludes of sobriety, the slurred diction of the intoxicated—hoping that if he seems drunk when sober we shall think him sober when drunk—so also do I almost cut my intimates, hoping that if I assume an off-hand manner when I do recognise them, they will conclude, when I fail to recognise them, that I am only being off-hand. All of which makes -one feel shy and sly oneself ; and conveys to others the impression of arrogance, insincerity, inhumanity and absence of both manners and mind. In a person who enjoys the company of his fellows as much as I do this affliction should arouse generous sympathy and not resentment.

* * * The great men of Harley Street display delicacy in diagnosing, and inability to cure, this visual aphasia. It indicates, I suppose, progressive softening of the brain ; but if so, my brain must have started to soften from the moment it began. What I want to discover is why I should remember so easily what people say and forget so easily what they look like. Thus, if I could go back to the age of seven, I should start immediately fiddling with pituitaries and should by the age of sixty have invented a tablet which would enable me to recognise my neighbours with one single dominant glance.