When the past is a foreign country for everyone

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Should Peter Mandelson or Geoffrey Robinson find themselves with time on their hands in the next week or two, I can highly recommend Christopher Nolan's new thriller, Memento. It won't take their minds off things exactly, but it might be consoling for them to know they aren't the only ones afflicted by contradictory accounts of the past.

Should Peter Mandelson or Geoffrey Robinson find themselves with time on their hands in the next week or two, I can highly recommend Christopher Nolan's new thriller, Memento. It won't take their minds off things exactly, but it might be consoling for them to know they aren't the only ones afflicted by contradictory accounts of the past.

The hero of Memento is Lenny, a man attempting to investigate the murder of his wife, an inquiry which isn't helped by the fact that he is suffering from chronic short-term memory loss. Every time Lenny wakes up, his world starts from scratch again, so that he is reduced to tattooing a summary of the facts on his body, and to carrying around a sheaf of Polaroids with which to identify the total strangers who greet him with such familiarity.

I'm not suggesting, incidentally, that either Mr Mandelson or Mr Robinson adopt this rather drastic solution to disputed history - that would be taking political caution too far. But they might take note of one of Lenny's exclamations: "Memories," he insists, "are just an interpretation, not a record."

It's a distinction that seems to have escaped the excitable pack of journalists and political enemies who have spent the last two days baying after the scent of irreconcilable contradiction. When I first read the reports of Mr Robinson's "revelation", I thought at first I must be suffering from short-term memory loss myself. Surely I had missed something in the first paragraph that could account for these feverish accusations of lying? But, no.

A second reading confirmed that there was no contradiction here at all - just a masterly demonstration of English insinuation. You could no more say who did what first than say which of two men groping through a fog initiated contact. That they finally bumped, is all you might sensibly say, and, months ago, so did Mr Robinson and Mr Mandelson, after advancing gingerly through a contrived pea-souper of impecunious hint and casual suggestion.

Mr Mandelson knew an offer might be in there somewhere, and Mr Robinson guessed that an acceptance was just beyond his fingertips. Between them - without need for conferring - they contrived a delicate compromise.

A kind of Heisenberg uncertainty principle applies to memories (as Michael Frayn noted in his play Copenhagen, a wonderful study of how a single event can generate numerous contradictory interpretations). For as long as a memory is useless, it is likely to remain pure and undistorted - but the moment you have a need for it, you must necessarily approach it from a particular perspective, and that is likely to bend it out of true.

Mr Mandelson needed a memory of an unsolicited act of generosity, Mr Robinson one of an unexpected request for assistance, and the same occasion honestly supplied both.

To believe that either man has lied, though, you would have to believe that all of us carry around a kind of mental video-recorder which can replay any incident without distortion. This is a common fallacy in the world of politics and the law, both of which are heavily dependent on the fiction of unerring recall. But even those of us who have never had occasion to borrow thousands of pounds off a millionaire will know that such notions bear very little relation to ordinary human psychology.

Who hasn't had one of those infuriating "you just said/I said nothing of the kind" rows with a partner, often about a conversation that is only five minutes in the past? Who hasn't, either, fantasised that an insistence fierce enough might eventually budge their opponent?

The truth is, though, that two people can't play tug-of- war with a memory, because they're almost never holding the same piece of rope.

sutcliff@globalnet.co.uk

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