Spectator on failing memory

We are sitting around the table in a garden in Burgundy, a tapestry of ancient friendships who have gathered for a week-long celebration of the 40th wedding anniversary of Nick and Susanna. Half of us took the Eurostar to Lille, then the TGV to Montbard. The other half drove from England, moseying through Champagne en route, before converging at La Maison du Château, a beautiful and rambling house on the edge of a Burg-undian village that could be straight out of Suite Française. That we are all here is proof that the bride and groom are as gifted at friendship as they are at married love.

Over dinners round the long table, we keep to the choreography of Turn to the Left, Turn to the Right. But lunch in the garden is free-range and we talk in groups, conversations flowing in a mingle-mangle of food talk, wine talk, Euro versus Franc talk. Did I say flowing? I meant starting and stopping. Every few minutes, the conversation hits a certain lull as someone tries to remember the name of the actress who plays Joyce Grenfell, the abbey near here where the monks made blotting paper, the local cheese that is only produced for four months of the year.

The line that keeps coming back to me is ‘it is not poised on the tip of your tongue’. But, oh, the blissful relief when the name comes back to you: Maureen Lipman! Fontenay! Epoisse!

This is not a gathering of Oldies. We might not be in the first flush of youth, but everyone here still works for a living. And we are a gathering of readers. After lunch, we will scatter to shady seats with our books, an eclectic collection, ranging from Simon Sebag Montefiore’s fat life of Stalin to Michael Mayne’s Pray, Love, Remember. But this time next year, who will remember the title, the author, the plot?

My friend Katie used to blame fluoride. She wrote a short story about a Communist plot to convince Americans to put fluoride in their drinking water in order to get big strong teeth. What they end up with is big strong teeth and no memory. She never found a publisher, but now she’s rewriting it. Instead of Communists, this time it’s the ‘neocons’. Instead of fluoride, it’s statins. Go to Google and type in ‘statins and memory loss’ and you get a choice of 1,270,000 entries. The lead story is a review of a book called Lipitor: Thief of Memory, by a Dr Duane Graveline, ‘former astronaut, aerospace medical research scientist, flight surgeon and family doctor’. When he was given Lipitor to lower his cholesterol, he temporarily lost his short-term memory. Urged a year later to resume the drug at a lower dose, he lost both short-term and retrograde memory, a condition called ‘transient global amnesia’.

Dr Stuttaford will accuse me of malpractice and my own GP insists that statins are ‘clean’ drugs with very few side effects but I’m convinced that my brain fog has lifted (but not vanished) since I gave up statins. I decided to forego foie gras and ice cream instead. Just in case.

Over dinner, Nick and Susanna tell us the story of how they bought their house in Burgundy more than a decade ago. As the story unfolds, with a few marital corrections along the way, I realise that the best thing for your memory is a long marriage. Each partner is like a kind of Memory Stick for the other. Together you can usually recover the plot, the name of the fishing village that begins with ‘P’, the cheese that begins with ‘E’…