Just Because the Memory is False, it Doesn’t Mean it’s Not Real

I have a distinct memory from my very early childhood, of watching ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ on television at home. I remember finding the film disturbing for its scenes of bullying and institutionalised violence. But there was another, rather dramatic scene that stuck in my memory. It was my recollection that Tom Brown’s father was a master shipbuilder, and was supervising the manufacture of a large wooden sailing ship. The ship was constructed outdoors in a forest and was supported by ropes attached to tree trunks. In one striking scene, while the orchestra played, ‘The Lincolnshire Poacher’ the hull of the ship broke away from its ropes and came crashing down.

Only it never happened. I saw the film again recently, in fact I found it on YouTube. There was no such scene. All the other scenes I remembered were there, I had accurately remembered them, and the score was based on ‘The Lincolnshire Poacher’, so yes, I’d got that right. But the shipbuilding element just was not a part of the story – nor was it in the book. The memory that Tom’s father was a master shipbuilder was pure invention. It looked like a clear case of ‘false memory’.

Now false memories can be implanted, I have no doubts about that. But I was sceptical that I could invent a memory out of whole-cloth. The memory seemed clear enough to me, I remember sitting watching the film with my parents. I hadn’t a very clear idea about what was going on, but I knew it was about a school, and I remembered the song, ‘The Lincolnshire Poacher’ and someone was being bullied, and there was a ship being built and it came crashing down. That is how I remembered it.

So I tried to reconstruct where this false memory had come from – if such it was. About the same time or later that I saw this film I also saw the Disney film ‘Treasure Island’. This film did feature a large wooden sailing ship, and it also had music that rather resembled ‘The Lincolnshire Poacher’ – the well known, “Fifteen Men on a Dead Man’s Chest’. Could I have confused the two? But no ship came crashing down. There was another film that I saw when I was a young child, and that was, ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’. It featured a shipwreck, but it also featured a large treehouse built by the castaways. So thought I could reconstruct the route my mind took linking up these disparate elements; the similar sounding music linked ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ to ‘Treasure Island’. The similarity of theme linked ‘Treasure Island’ to ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’ and thus the recovery of materials from the ship wreck became linked to the building of the treehouse which eventually morphed into the building of a ship in the trees after all, they had transferred a lot of materials from the ship to the tree house so in a way, the ship had been rebuilt in the trees. The collapse of the ship out of the trees after a storm was, perhaps derived from the Robinson’s ship running aground during a storm.

This all fits with a theory of memory called, ‘The Semantic Store’ which suggests that we remember thinks by linking like with like. Over time, as we forget little details, we confuse one fading memory with another; they all run together.

The only trouble is, I didn’t believe it. Even when I was presented with the evidence that Tom Brown’s Father was NOT a shipbuilder and there was NO large wooden ship slung between trees in either the film or the novel, my brain insisted on running the memory of the ship crashing down to the strains of The Lincolnshire Poacher. Part of me still half expected a ‘more complete’ movie version of Tom Brown’s Schooldays to surface that had that non existent scene in it, along with references to Tom’s father being a shipbuilder by profession.

And to make matters worse, in researching all this, I discovered there actually WAS, in the early 19th Century, a Thomas Brown, Shipbuilder of Wearmouth, Durham. So make of that what you will!

All this seemed to go to show how memory really can play tricks, and things that we remember from many years ago might be false memories.

But then I found a much simpler explanation for this distorted memory.

I discovered a video on YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aELFGK8H_54

If you listen to the music – especially the closing and opening theme – you will note a resemblance. It is not exact, but to a small child, the resemblance is enough for the two tunes to be confused. Watching this video, even before I had seen very much of it, I was struck by the familiarity. Here was a ship being constructed under the direction of a master shipbuilder. It was being supported – not in the trees, but by logs, which acted as supports, and there were plenty of trees around to give the impression of woodland. There were lots of irrelevant scenes included for comic relief involving schoolboys: swimming playing sports; pranks; and so on – scenes that could easily be confounded with scenes from Tom Brown’s Schooldays. And then, there was the dramatic conclusion where the ship came crashing down, as it was launched – to the strains of ‘What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor’, which, to a three or four year old, I am sure could be easily confused with ‘The Lincolnshire Poacher’. I was too young to understand what was going on, let alone know the difference between a ship being launched and it crashing to destruction. Afterwards, I remember asking my mother to explain ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ to me, as I had found it disturbing and wanted reassurance.

So certainty can be of different kinds. Had I convinced myself that I had never seen the shipbuilding scene, and that it was a false memory constructed out of other films, but basically invented, I would have been satisfied, I am sure. But when I saw ‘The Shipbuilders of Essex’ I was immediately certain I had seen it before. I did not need to be persuaded. I recognised it as something I had seen, half understood, and mistakenly thought it was a continuation of Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

* The Shipbuilders of Essex – 1940’s American Shipbuilding Educational Documentary

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About Zoe Nightingale

I am a writer of short stories, novels, poetry and non fiction.
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