Memory, its loss, and sometimes its unexpected return, has exercised the minds of the great writers through the ages.
Proust’s epic Remembrance of Things Past begins when the narrator bites into a Madeleine cake and his memories come flooding back.
Joyce recreated the city of Dublin, lemon soap in Sweney’s chemist and all, from his memory while in exile in Trieste.
But the man who came to me in my hour of need this week was not Proust, nor Joyce, nor even Beckett himself, but one Pelham Grenville Wodehouse.
You may regard Wodehouse and his coterie of jolly jokers (Bertie Wooster, Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle, Psmith et al) as mere light relief. But when it comes to the great themes, Wodehouse is up there with the masters.
Great art has the ability to speak to us in times of need, times of hardship and loss (especially loss of keys, of which more anon). Wodehouse’s short story ‘The Rummy Affair of Old Biffy’ is a timeless exemplar of that ability.
For it was Biffy who came to mind this week as my own memory seemed temporarily to desert me.
My journey into the void of memory loss began as I got the bus into the city with the intention of retrieving my bicycle from the environs of Store Street garda station.
(How it came to be abandoned there is a long story, involving rugby, Italians and the produce of a prominent Dublin brewing family, which need not detain us here.)
I approached the said bicycle, relieved to see it still had all its constituent parts, and reached for my keys. To paraphrase Arundadhti Roy, there was a key-shaped hole where my keys should have been.
Blast. Would I have enough time to walk into work? I looked at my watch. Or rather at the place on my wrist where my watch ought to be. No watch either.
Better get a taxi in case time in short, I thought. I hailed one down, and, out of habit, checked that I had my wallet in my hip pocket.
Again, nothing. No keys. No watch. No wallet. Now, either I had been the victim of the greatest pick-pocketing con artist of all time, or I was losing my mind. I vowed to start on a course of fish oils when I got home (and someone was there to let me in).
It was then I remembered Biffy, or Charles Edward “Biffy” Biffen to give him his full title, who was “as vague and woollen-headed a blighter as ever bit a sandwich”.
Biffy runs into his old chum Bertie Wooster in Paris. The following exchange is paraphrased and truncated from the original, but old PG won’t mind:
“Biffy! Well, well, well. What are you up to, old man?”
“Bertie, thank God. Don’t leave me. I’m lost. I’m trying to find my hotel.”
“Well, where is it?”
“What’s the address?”
“I can’t remember.”
“But you gave it to Jeeves on the phone this morning…”
“Oh yes, I’d forgotten that.”
“What are you doing in Paris anyway, Biffy? I thought you were enjoying love’s young dream in London.”
“Oh that. It’s over. And I came here to forget.”