Category Archives: Psychology

The Retcon Files

In which The Author needs a memory upgrade

You won’t be familiar with the word ‘Retcon’ unless you’re a fan of the sadly discontinued SF series Torchwood – or, latterly, Doctor Who, where it got an unexpected namecheck in ‘Face the Raven’ a few weeks ago. For the uninitiated, Retcon is a drug which Captain Jack Harkness and his pals administer to the unwitting victims of extraterrestrial contact. It’s part sedative and part memory wipe, and it leaves the people of Cardiff with no memory of their close encounters.
I used to think that Retcon would be a great idea, personally. A few years ago I wrote a piece called ‘Memory Dump‘. I speculated about the real-life applications of the Mierzwiak Procedure, the selective memory erasure at the centre of Michel Gondry’s terrific (and terrifying) 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I could free myself from my traumatic childhood memories, wipe out at least one sort-of ex-girlfriend, and get rid of all sorts of crap I remember from the book trade and will never draw on if I live to be a hundred. It was a choice between the Mierzwiak Procedure (non-invasive but still dangerous brain surgery), or a little white pill to add to my nightly cocktail of Things Beginning With M. With no pun intended, it seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it?
However, to judge from a number of recent conversations, I seem to have been spiked with Retcon quite a few times already. Over the last year or so, I’ve lost count of the number of apparent strangers who’ve started talking to me like old friends. In fact, it’s reached the point where it’s embarrassing.
I used to put it down to the fact that I worked in a city centre shop with a very large catchment. Consequently I met a couple of hundred of people (at least) every week. It was hardly surprising if I couldn’t remember everyone. Oddly enough, when I was in Cardiff before Xmas, literally the first person I bumped into on my way from the station was one of the shop regulars. I groped around my neural archives for his name and came up with Neil. It’s actually Nick. Two letters out of four isn’t bad, though – especially after nearly seven years away from the place.
If I hadn’t met people in the shop, I might have met them on the train, where the same people tend to cross paths fairly regularly. If you don’t believe me, have a quick look at the daily feature in Metro, where lovestruck commuters can invite their fellow passengers out for coffee – or whatever else comes to mind. (My own commuting crush kinda paid off one evening, when I woke Shanara the Dippy Bint in Aberdare and rescued her from an unplanned journey back to Cardiff.)
The third place where I might have struck up a conversation with a random stranger is, of course, the pub. After all, who needs Retcon when there’s beer on tap? If you can’t even remember leaving the place – never mind who you were with, what you were talking about, or what karaoke songs you inflicted on the rest of the punters – then everyone’s favourite legal amnesia drug has obviously had the desired effect.
On Boxing Day afternoon I called into the Lighthouse for a pint, and ended up staying until the early evening. There was a cracking live duo playing there: The Shakes, from Swansea. They’re two middle-aged guitarists who’ve been doing session work for years, and now play gigs and small festivals across South Wales. I had a chat with them while they were setting their gear up, and stayed for the first half of their set. They managed to get through forty minutes without touching anything from the Kings of Leon’s or Stereophonics’ backlists, so that was a good sign. When they stopped for a break, I explained that I had another gig to go to. For once, I wasn’t just making my excuses and leaving.
The other gig was at Aberdare Rugby Club, and featured my friends Replaced By Robots (see ‘Robot Invasion of Earth (Phase II)‘) as the headline act.
[A digression: There wasn’t much competition, to be honest. On my way into town on 23 December, I passed the Constitutional Club, a huge place on the corner opposite the library. For well over a month they’d been advertising a show band (a guy and two women) for Boxing Night, with large full-colour posters in the windows. I know these agency photos are always touched up before they hit the streets, but the women both looked pretty tasty. If the tickets hadn’t been seven quid a throw – and if it hadn’t been in the Con Club – I might have been tempted to check them out myself. On 23 December, though, I noticed this:


I posted this photo on Twitter and added the message, ‘Now you know what happens when everyone in Aberdare will be Replaced By Robots on Boxing Night.’ Andrew L. (one of the keyboard players and vocalists in the band) added the comment ‘Oh dear!’ I just hope everyone who had tickets for the Con Club gig got their money back.]
Anyway, when I got to the Rugby Club the boys were still setting up, so I went into the bar and checked out the price list. Call me old-fashioned, but three quid a pint (in a club, for Goddess’s sake) is almost Cardiff prices. I bought a glass of Coke and killed some time with the big FT crossword until it was time to go upstairs.
The place was filling up nicely when I got into the big room, so I grabbed a chair and staked out a place at the back. I’ve previously mentioned Tug Wilson, who used to come to the Carpenters for the Thursday night gigs. He was well into his eighties, and would have a whale of a time grooving with the youngsters who frequented the place.
Well, on Boxing Night, I knew exactly how Tug must have felt when he was surrounded by people at least half his age. I checked with a couple of other people, and was reassured to find that I was officially the oldest person in the room.
I decided to stay on the soft drinks, mainly because I begrudge paying three quid for a pint and having to wait over five minutes to be served. It wasn’t all bad news, though. The boys played a cracking set; there were lots of attractive female punters in the room; there was a great atmosphere and a good crowd. Gareth L. came in and we attempted to have a chat before admitting defeat. I didn’t see him leave, but when I went to get my final drink there was no sign of him.
This was the point when the Retcon must have kicked in. I was on my way back from the bar when an attractive dark-haired woman started talking to me. She knew my name, and knew that I used to work in Waterstones. Her other half knew me too. A fortnight later I still have no idea how, or from where, though.
The three of us chatted for ages, and we decided to head to Thereisnospoon for a late(-ish) drink. The conversation continued until closing time, covering a wide range of topics. It turned out that she was interested in having a website for her business. I said I’d get in touch with Chris D., who’s sorting out the websites for the Lighthouse and Alwyn’s artwork, and put them in contact with each other.
This was the really awkward part. I simply could not remember her name – if I’d ever known it to begin with. Fortunately for me, my phone battery had died a couple of hours earlier, so I was spared the horror of asking her name when I was saving her number. She took my number, though (that was the easy part) and promised to get in touch when the Xmas and New Year nonsense had died down. Later on, her other half mentioned her first name, so I was halfway out of the dark. Halfway …
We went our separate ways and I walked home, racking my brains to recall how we knew each other. Over the next few days I spent quite a while wondering exactly where the hell we’d met in the first place. I’m still none the wiser.
All I knew for sure was that my new/old friend’s first name was Linda. That doesn’t really narrow it down. (On the other hand, I’ve absolutely no idea what her other half’s name is.) I wondered whether I could track her down via Facebook, but with only a first name it’s a very long shot. I didn’t even have the first letter of her surname, which might have narrowed a billion or so people down to a few million. It crossed my mind to ask my Facebook friends (many of whom were out that night) if they could fill in the missing information. The snag was that there was no guarantee anyone else would remember either – it had been a long few days, after all.
The whole affair reminded me of the time when Jeffrey Bernard was approached to write his autobiography. He famously wrote a letter to the New Statesman, asking, ‘Can anyone tell me what I was doing between 1960 and 1974?’
Michael Molloy, the editor of the Daily Mirror, replied, ‘On a certain evening in September 1969 you rang my mother to inform her that you were going to murder her only son.’
Next time I can’t think of anything to blog about, I’m going to get one of my friends to post the message ‘Steve O’Gorman is unwell.’
I was in Lidl on Wednesday evening when the woman in front of me at the checkout struck up a conversation with me. Once again, I was totally unable to place her. I knew her face, and I was sure I’d known her for a long time, but her name simply wouldn’t come to mind.
I’ve had to adopt a crafty tactic to cover up my Retcon phases: if I’m chatting to a guy, I call him ‘mate’; if I’m chatting to a woman, I can usually get away with ‘babe’ or ‘chick’.
I once bluffed my way through an entire sub with a book trade rep I’d known for years, by calling him ‘mate’ throughout the appointment. At the end I reached for the diary, flipped it open to that day, saw his name on the page, thought, ‘Oh, for fuck’s sake, of course it is!’ and said, ‘Right then, Dave, when are you in town next?’ Nicely saved, even if I say so myself.
I managed to hold a fair conversation with my friend at the checkout, all the time trying to remember her bloody name. She left before I did, and headed for her car. That saved me from digging an even deeper hole for myself.
Anyway, I was walking up Gadlys Road when – joy of joys – I bumped into Linda herself. It was perfect timing. I grabbed my pen and scribbled her number on my hand, to make sure I had it when the time came to store it in my phone. Just to complicate matters, it turns out she’s Lynda with a y – yet another Doctor Who reference, folks. Unlike me, though, the Doctor has the enviable gift of being able to remember everyone he ever meets.
It was only when I got home that I realised who the woman at the checkout was. Her name’s Liz. She grew up about half a dozen doors away from me. Not counting my cousins, I think she’s the woman I’ve known for the longest period in my entire life. Even worse – she used to be my local Plaid Cymru councillor, and her husband is the branch secretary! I’d seen him less than twenty-four hours earlier, when he’d given me a lift home from the meeting. Ridiculous!
When a computer runs short of memory, you can either delete some unneeded files or upgrade the hard drive. In fifty years’ time it might be possible to do the same thing with the human brain – plugging in extra storage as and when required. Until then, unfortunately, we’re all in the same position as the schoolboy in Gary Larson’s cartoon, asking to be excused because his brain is full. (Of course, the cybernetic memory add-on could be an uncomfortable affair, because human beings have only a limited number of expansion slots.)
If I’m like this now, a couple of months short of my fiftieth birthday, can you imagine what I’ll be like when I’m in my eighties? It doesn’t bear thinking about. Even Tug managed to remember people’s names on the odd occasion. Scary prospect, isn’t it?

Adventures in the Book Trade (Part 15)

In which The Author has some more strange dreams

I knew my recent visit to Cardiff would stir up memories of working in Dillons/Waterstones. I even told my friends that I was bracing myself for post-traumatic stress flashbacks as a result of calling into the shop to catch up with Jeff T. and Christos. Well, boys and girls, don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Dr Davies has prescribed me a small amount of melatonin, in addition to the 45mg of Mirtazapine I currently take at what I laughingly refer to as ‘bedtime’. She was quite horrified when I told her that, if anything, my chronic insomnia had been exacerbated by the maximum dose of the antidepressant.
‘Did you see the trailer for last week’s Doctor Who?’ I asked her, last time I was in the surgery. ‘One of the characters said, “Now you can go for a whole month without sleep.”‘ Dr Davies laughed, and I added, ‘Only a whole month! Bloody amateurs!’
I’m taking a third tablet to address my recurring stomach upsets. I can’t remember what it’s called, but it also starts with M. I teased Dr Davies that we could work our way through the British National Formulary, letter by letter, until we find a combination that works.
At first she wasn’t sure about the melatonin, but she checked my blood test results and apparently I’m okay to take it – ‘You haven’t got any liver problems or anything like that.’
That was a pleasant surprise, I can tell you. I’m slightly on the young side, but (as Dr Davies said), I’m not far off my fiftieth birthday. I told her about my last visit to London, when we were delayed for some time outside Reading.
‘The overhead sign said 50 AHEAD. I thought, “Yeah, really don’t remind me.”‘
It’s always nice when you can have a laugh and a joke with your GP.
Anyway, the combination of the three Ms hasn’t done anything to give me a good night’s sleep, but on the rare occasions where I do go into a REM cycle, the results are even more bizarre than usual.
Last night I was working in a bookshop (not Dillons and not Waterstones), along with some of the people I used to work with. There were mountains of stock everywhere, so it must have been the period between Freshers’ Week and the start of the January sale.
I was helping a customer to find a number of titles from his list, and we were nipping around tables and dumpbins, grabbing books as we shot past. He was quite impressed by the speed at which I was able to pin them down, and I told him (quoting Dr Donald ‘Ducky’ Mallard from NCIS), ‘It’s more an art than a science.’
At one point we stopped to examine his list again. When I turned around, one of the temporary Xmas girls had picked up our pile of books and was quite happily re-shelving them. At that point, I knew I was dreaming lucidly, because no self-respecting Xmas temp would ever have shelved a book on his/her own initiative.
The weird thing is that, unlike many of my dreams, that one is based on a true story. I was working late in Dillons one evening, and I decided to kill the last half hour of the day by picking a load of travel guides which were due for return. (Final quote of the day, I promise!) As Prof. Jim al-Khalili would say, Let me explain …
One of the quirks of the book trade was the fact that almost everything was supplied on a Sale or Return basis. It was a fantastic tool during the academic season. We could order large quantities in relative security, knowing we wouldn’t be stuck with a mountain of surplus stock when the initial rush subsided.
There was another side to it, too. As new editions of books were published, we sent the previous editions back to the publisher for full credit against the original invoice. I kept a watchful eye on the publication schedules, and a few publishers would also issue recall notices just before the new editions came out. That’s why my Law section was always bang up to date, unlike its counterpart across the road. Shanara and I once called into Borders after work for a look around, and I was amused to see current and old editions sitting quite happily together on their Travel shelves.
By an odd quirk of fate, this story concerns travel guides, too. A batch of updated Rough Guides were due to hit the shelves any day, so Penguin had sent a recall for the obsolescent editions. I printed out the paperwork and started gathering them up. By closing time I’d found ninety per cent of them, so I decided to tuck the paperwork in the top book and resume collecting them in the morning.
Unfortunately, Jeff nearly always got to Cardiff before I did. It was great for him, because we operated a system of unofficial flexitime. If he started work as soon as he got to the shop, he could bank that time and shoot off to get the through bus to Abertridwr. He also looked after the Travel section.
Needless to say, when I arrived at the shop, he’d re-shelved all the books I’d picked the night before. How he’d managed to miss the paperwork remains a mystery which neither of us ever solved.
It gets better.
‘Here’s a strange thing,’ he said. ‘I’ve just had a load of Rough Guides in, and there was exactly enough space on the shelves for them.’