Skip to content ↓

Recollections May Vary

[Photo: Marina Tsvetaeva, Russian poet]

As soon as I saw those three splendid words splashed across the front pages of several of the tabloid newspapers this week, I knew I had to use them as the title for this week’s blog.  Frustratingly, I wrote something at the weekend that would have sufficed nicely today, but it is not time-sensitive so it will keep for another day, and I will be grateful later that I have some additional material up my sleeve. 

There were actually a few more words in the sentence in the statement from Buckingham Palace that was intended to bring the whole sorry chapter to an end – as if!  But I am as sure as I can be that ‘Recollections May Vary’ has now entered the lexicon of political debate and will become one of the phrases of the year for 2021. 

I don’t have a particularly strong view either way about whether the Royal Family or the Sussexes are more at fault.  It staggers me that no one has learned anything from what happened to Diana – do these people not watch ‘The Crown’?!  And I care even less what Piers Morgan thinks about anything.  I have never watched ‘Good Morning Britain’ and my only question about the programme would be to ask if anyone ever thinks to insert the vocative comma in the title, because it really ought to be ‘Good Morning, Britain.’  But that is a debate for another day. 

What amused me most was the idea of trying to work out which member of  ‘The Firm’ may have been the one to comment on the potential colour of Archie’s skin.  It would surely be like a game of Cluedo where it turns out the envelope contains all six characters as the murderers.  With a cast of suspects that includes Andrew, Camilla, Anne and Princess Michael of Kent, it would be harder to find someone who might not have made such a comment than someone who did.  

The ability to express oneself succinctly is a true gift, and certainly not one that I possess.  If I were ever to entertain the idea of becoming a writer on a more serious basis, or to a wider audience, I know for sure that anyone editing my work would start by asking me to get to the point more quickly.  For reasons that are not always easy to explain, the more often I have to write something, the more verbose I seem to become. 

For example, my first blog was not much more than 400 words back in the day, where now they tend to be nearer 1,200.  I think it probably just means that I am rather too fond of the sound of my own voice, but maybe something else is at work.  If your child’s surname comes at the start of the alphabet, the chances are that any report I write for them will be shorter than those who come later – not by much, but by a few words for sure.  Intuitively, you might think I would write less as I go on, because there are only so many ways to make points that are largely similar, but for some reason I do the opposite. 

I have almost certainly said this before, but it is one of my favourite stories so I think it is worth repeating.  Someone – no doubt in a bar and for a bottle of whisky – bet Ernest Hemmingway that he could not write a story in just six words.  His response was exquisite: For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.  Genius – it makes me pause for breath every time I read it. (Damn Wikipedia!  It turns out that is probably wasn’t Hemmingway, but I’m sticking to this version.)   

We also hear this week that the test and trace system has cost £37 billion to achieve nothing significant to reduce the spread of the virus.  Still, at least it was in the safe hands of a close friend of the health secretary – any bets that ‘cronyism’ also becomes one of the words of the year?  I struggle to comprehend how our political masters sleep at night when they can waste so much money on so little, and at the same time have the gall to hold the line that 1% is all they can afford for the pay increase for nurses. 

Which leads me nicely to another pithy phrase that no one seems to have the guts to use nowadays:  ‘mistakes were made’.  If I were in a pub quiz team and we were asked who said it first, my best guess would be Henry Kissinger, about whom my favourite quotation comes from Tom Lehrer when he said, ‘Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.’ 

Being so fickle, I am already back on board with Wikipedia, which has a separate section for ‘mistakes were made’, though not yet I notice for ‘recollections may vary’ – time to get editing, methinks!  Anyway, ‘mistakes were made’ is described as an expression that is commonly used as a rhetorical device, whereby a speaker acknowledges that a situation was handled poorly or inappropriately, but seeks to evade any direct admission or accusation of responsibility by not specifying the person who made the mistakes.  Not that anyone in our government is even prepared to admit any errors, let alone attribute them to an individual. 

Apparently, this phrase was called ‘a classic Washington linguistic construct’ by the New York Times, with the lovely suggestion from political scientist William Schneider that this usage should be referred to as the past exonerative tense.  It looks like it came to the fore at the same time as Kissinger, so I was not far away, with its use by Ron Ziegler, the press secretary to a certain Richard Milhous Nixon – and, yes, that may well also explain the character’s name in ‘The Simpsons’.  

Among all the excitement of Oprah, the return to school and everything else, it may have slipped your notice that Monday was International Women’s Day.  At first glance, it might seem extraordinary that there should need to be such a day in the modern era, but there is international recognition every day of the year for something, including men and toilets, so beware of jumping to conclusions. 

Recollections may indeed vary, but it usually requires time and space to try to see the bigger picture.  For example, here is another gem from Sandi Toksvig’s Almanac, which a real heart-breaker, but which also makes the point about the importance of keeping everything in proper perspective.  Marina Tsvetaeva was a Russian poet, born in 1892, whose life was touched by genuine tragedy, including the death of one of her children from starvation during the civil war that followed the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1918 and the execution of her husband on espionage charges by the same regime in 1941.  She took her own life the same year.   

This is one of her poems: 

Amidst the dust of bookshops, wide dispersed 
And never purchased there by anyone, 
Yet similar to precious wines, my verse 
Can wait – its time will come.

Paste in video URL and save page via the "Edit" tab at the top of the page