The Name of a Famous Woman

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I’ve forgotten the name of one of the most famous women in the world. She’s the daughter of the star of ‘The Wizard Of Oz’ whose name I have also forgotten.

I can picture their faces. In fact, I was looking at the daughter’s face through an episode of ‘Arrested Development’ when I realised I’d forgotten her name. That was about 15 minutes ago and it hasn’t come back to me yet, although I have, just this second, remembered Judy Garland.

I can remember that the daughter starred in the screen version of ‘Cabaret’, and I can picture her in that. I can also remember that she was, in recent memory, married to a guy called David Guest who was, I believe, a music producer of some sort, although mainly famous for being married to one of the most famous women in the world. The daughter of Judy Garland and star of ‘Cabaret’ no less.

I’m still writing, and the name is not sneaking in via some back door. What the hell is going on?

I’ve been drawing similar blanks over the last 6 months or so. I usually let them ride and, sure enough, after a little while and some distraction, the missing name, and it always seems to be a name, comes back. This time I haven’t let it ride and it seems only to have compacted the void. I know I can solve it in five seconds by googling, but what will that solve? I have a hard, round hole in the part of my head that used to store the name of Judy Garland’s daughter and I do not seem to be able to think myself back into knowing that single solitary fact.

I have wondered to myself as these lapses come and go whether I’ve simply reached a point where my head is just full. There are too many songs, too many catchphrases from 1980s sitcoms, too many people, too many places, too many memories and so, as new information finds a home, it does so at the expense of an old piece of data that I can probably do without. I’m working hard, immersed in family life and constantly tired. Surely that’s going to take a toll? And perhaps one of the ways it might is to cause unusual gaps in one’s mental rolodex. My wife would tell me that she never remembered that woman’s name in the first place, so I’ve nothing to worry about.

Maybe. But all that sounds to me like self-deception, pure and simple. Even worse, it sounds like exactly the sort of half-baked explanation I came up with when, approximately 7 or 8 years before he died, having suffered terribly with late-onset multiple sclerosis, my father sat me down and told me he was worried because he was forgetting words in certain situations. “Don’t worry Dad,” I told him. “It happens to everyone. It happens to me all the time and I’m 30 years younger than you.”

But what happened to my father does not happen to everyone, and he knew that what was happening was substantial and serious. I read recently about some research suggesting that a significant number of dementia sufferers know they have a problem before they get anywhere near a diagnosis. I think the piece even went so far as to suggest that one of the most effective ways to spot dementia in its very early stages is simply to ask someone if they think they may have early stage dementia.

I say I think the piece suggested that, because I can’t trust my memory, and I am terrified to look it up. And I still can’t remember the fucking name of one of the world’s most famous women.

Update: It just came to me, from out of nowhere, an hour after I started thinking about little else. That’s too long.

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Hannah and Jack

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Seventy years ago today, Hannah and Jack were half way up a mountain in Scotland. They were married two days earlier, on 14 February. The date was chosen for practical reasons. Both were serving in the armed forces, Hannah with the Women’s Air Force reading radar signals and updating charts to predict the paths of fighter planes, Jack with the Royal Electrical and Mechanics converting his apprenticeship as an electrical engineer into connections between circuits which kept signals flowing from antennae to screens.

In two week’s time Jack would be in Europe, moving with the Allies up from Southern Italy and across to Trieste. Hannah would be back in her cabin with 5 other women, focussing through the noise of the North Sea winds to read and translate the signals she was picking up, only occasionally allowing herself to wonder whether any of the aircraft she was tracking had passed over Jack’s head.

So on Valentine’s Day 1944 they took leave, met 10 of their family and friends in St John’s Church, Edinburgh, and were married. Their courtship had been shorter than the time most couples spend just planning their wedding nowadays, weddings which cost more than Jack and Hannah’s first house would.

Their marriage was not a declaration of defiance in the face of existential threat, although this still applied. In January 1944 V1 ‘doodlebug’ flying bombs began buzzing over Southern England and Jack’s electronics helped to coordinate what still sound like extraordinarily advanced automated systems for tracking them and shooting them down. Their marriage was made from love, but created in tough times by people who had learned to be tough.

Today they told me the story again, on the seventieth anniversary of the day they climbed a mountain on the South side of Loch Lomond. They never reached the top, where they’d been hoping to catch a glimpse of the Clyde estuary but, in Hannah’s words, “we got as far as that one tree”.

The metaphors are easy to reach for, but I can’t help thinking about that tree. Long gone, I assume. I’ve been married for 7 years, and I couldn’t with confidence tell you a single thing I did on the second day of my honeymoon. Perhaps for Hannah and Jack those moments had to be held tight, those memories pressed away against an unknown future. And perhaps as a result they made themselves strong enough to fill the next seventy years with memories just as precious.