At some time in my first two years at high school we were required to do a geography project on an African country of our choice. I chose Ifni, then the smallest country in Africa, with two motives in mind – I reasoned, incorrectly, that choosing the smallest country would mean the least work, but also chose that tiny slice of formerly Spanish territory as a statement of my own marginal status – I was not only an outsider, but the smallest boy in the class. The choice did not win favour with the geography teacher, Mr Ince, but I had not gone outside the terms he had laid down for the project, so there was nothing he could do to punish me.
Why do I remember this incident in my high school career and not others? Why is it that I can still remember that Ifni’s capital was called Sidi Ifni, and that Ifni was a slice of land scarcely bigger than a large farm, tucked into the Moroccan coast on the African continent’s north-western bulge? Of other geography lessons, which I endured for three years, I remember nothing. High-school history, Latin, mathematics and science have all gone the same way, so that it is as if I had never enjoyed the privileged education that my parents thought they were giving me.
In the small bits of teaching I have done in my adult life, I have come to understand something about the role of passionate commitment in learning. I did not have any kind of commitment to my education, and never studied or did homework unless there was a fearsome punishment for non-compliance. While I remember the punishments because of the strong feelings they aroused in me, they were unable to stimulate in me any interest in or passion for the curriculum. Without this necessary precondition of lasting memories, I have forgotten everything.
Personal memory and forgetting have something of the quality of a natural force, for although they exercise a profound effect on our lives, they are, by and large, beyond the control of our personal will. Memory is not voluntarily effaceable. We cannot choose to forget; nor can we choose to remember unless we make some extraordinary effort involving emotional commitment, which cannot easily be commanded by the will.
On winter mornings at Clifton, it was sometimes possible to see the vast grey face of a cold front as it approached from the north-west over the wine-dark Atlantic ocean, smothering the world in its foggy embrace and bringing, paradoxically, when it finally arrived, a world of misty whiteness that obliterated all differences beyond a few paces away.