On just my second day away from home last week, I was puzzled by the disappearance of my change of underwear. Certain that I had packed it, I made an extensive but fruitless search of the rooms, concluding that I must have inadvertently recycled it with the previous evening’s bottles – or something. Still, apart from a spot of unscheduled laundry and shopping, the loss did not disrupt my plans unduly.
I was keen to see the exhibition Charmed Lives in Greece at the British Museum so that I could ‘join up the dots’ that connect the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor with the artists John Craxton and Nikos Ghika. While in Athens a couple of years ago, I had been enchanted by Ghika’s town house – now a museum – that is full of art and memorabilia from post-war Greece. Fermor and Craxton featured among the exhibits but I did not then appreciate the extent of the connection between the three. My appetite having been whetted in Greece, this exhibition presented an opportunity to find out more. But I have a self-imposed limit when it comes to amassing information on any one subject, since my aspiration is not to become an amateur specialist in just a few fields, but to make connections with as many strands of history as I can. This is an ambition that can easily get out of hand though, since the scope is enormous. Sometimes, friends look nervous when I launch into a “Did you know?” – as in, for example, “that Maida Vale in London was named after the Sicilian village of Maida where, in 1806 General Stuart’s British force beat the French? And there was, until recently, a pub called the Hero of Maida with Stuart’s portrait on the sign?” (I am reading a history of Sicily because I plan to go there soon.)
Sometimes, however, it is refreshing to know nothing. When, days later, I went for the first time to the Hertfordshire town of Ware (for a family birthday celebration) nothing connected it to anything I knew – although its name always reminded me of a childhood sweetheart called Christine Ware. Arriving early, I poked my nose into the town’s museum, where civic pride in its history as “one of the oldest, continuously occupied sites in Europe” was evident. As I scanned the captions, I half hoped to see a mention of the Ware family but there was nothing. The only connection – and a tenuous one at that – is the Roman road, Ermine Street, which runs through Ware and up to Lincolnshire, where my courtship of Christine was conducted on the playground swings of our innocence.
The acquisition of facts in this age of information is easy. So easy, in fact, that the quantity we can amass threatens to outstrip our ability to process it. How much capacity do our brains have? Until recently, it was supposed that older people’s brains were unable to create new cells. Latest research, however, indicates that this is not necessarily so, as long as the person is fit and healthy in mind and body. Despite this, we all have limited life spans and are unlikely ever to match, say, Facebook algorithms’ ability to make zillions of connections between zillions of scraps of knowledge. Not that FB’s conclusions can be relied upon: there is no way, for example, that I can be persuaded to pay £70 for a pair of poncey slippers. On the other hand, there is a possibility that it could put me back in touch with Christine.
But that is mere fantasy. What I really want is for my brain to continue making new cells, especially since, when I got home yesterday, I found that my underwear had never left its drawer.