Flashbulb memories


by Michael Grey
Piping Today #64, 2013.

It’s an uncomfortable truth that any sentence that starts with “One of my earliest memories…” will induce in any person — outside of maybe a Freudian psychoanalyst — a vacant stare, a droop of the eye lids and just enough open-mouthed breathing to appear to lower the listener’s IQ. Now, should we throw in bagpipes, a World’s Fair and a clown or two, well, I think there’s potential to make a connection; and, maybe, avoid the open-mouthed breathing.

So, here goes. 

One of my earliest memories is of the World’s Fair in Montreal, Canada or Expo67, as it was — and still is — known. Expo67 was a huge event at a time when World’s Fairs still had real international appeal and enough cachet to whip up global interest in the host city — and country. In fact, Montreal’s may’ve been the last of the truly great World’s Fairs. Lucky for me and my brother and sisters that my folks made the two hours’ drive north to allow us all to take it in.

What I remember isn’t so much “the fair” itself, though there are hazy recollections of monorail rides, lots of space travel stuff and — here we go — pipers. Not just any old group of ten-a-penny pipers — no, no. What I recall was a band of bagpipe-playing clowns. I loved the pipes — hated the clowns (pretty much the way it is today, by the way). With outfits just like the classic red-nosed, gaudy face-painted subjects of so many black velvet paintings of a certain time, this honking band of big-brogued noise-makers left an impression that still lingers today. 

Years later I found out this bunch were charity-minded Shriners.  The Shriners, a long-established branch of Freemasonry, have for many years been connected to pipe bands in North America — with a dedication to fund-raising, often with a novelty twist [send in the clowns]. Anyway, I surely do remember these clowns and their bagpipes.

I wonder if it was the exciting occasion that was the backdrop of the great world’s fair that lets me easily recall the clowns and their pipes — a sort of big event marker that tugged my memory, filed deep in my big-headed hard drive — tagged under “bagpipes”, “clowns”. Or was it just simply the scary clowns and their pipes?

I’ve written about memory before. It’s a fragile, sometimes capricious thing. I think, too, the idea of ‘memory’, in particular, weaves a strong thread in all things piping: our music is memorised; our traditions and many of its associated stories are passed along in recollection.  Maybe a little like a novice angler attempting to haul in a 15lb fish with a five pound test line, memory can be as reliable as that taut, frayed, sodden strand.

The idea that people can recall memories associated with big events is something psychologists have come to know as “flashbulb memories”. It’s that whole, I-remember-where-I-was-when (insert big public event here) thing. New York-based cognitive psychologist William Hirst is quoted as saying: “What makes these events so memorable is the unusual intersection of the personal and the public.”

I’m not so sure that in my example of a little kid remembering something that happened at a long-ago World’s Fair neatly fits the professor’s theory. But there’s a connection. 

We work and play in a tight-knit world of traditional music. What happens in that world is layered and often integrated with the bigger world around us. Big things happen while we toil away at making our little ‘big’ things happen. Competitions, parades, schools, tattoos, concerts and shows, all carry on while the world turns. And invariably flashbulb memories happen.

Monday, August 3, 1936: the 16th running of the Mallaig & District Games. For those unfamiliar with Scots geography, Mallaig is a fishing village on the west coast of Scotland — and currently a ferry terminus for the journey to the island of Skye. 

Have a look at this interesting piece of piping ephemera below. For two pence, or roughly 50p in today’s money, this programme would be yours, guiding games-goers through the events of the day. Prizes for the best in piping, dancing, road and sack races and everyone’s favourite, the pillow fight, were all up for grabs. I laughed out loud (quietly, to myself) when I saw the butcher’s advert alongside the mention of pipe band renderings.

In the open piping, only March and Strathspey and Reel events were available to competing pipers. 1936 was John Wilson’s (Edinburgh/Toronto) self-described “peak year” — this was the season he competed in 72 events and only missed the prize list twice. On this Monday, he won the March and was runner-up in the Strathspey and Reel. Said Wilson in his unusual autobiography: “I can’t remember a single thing about the [Mallaig/Morar] piping competitions [aside from the prizes he listed] so they must have been without an incident of note”. 

Trigger flashbulb. John Wilson may’ve been right in not recalling a “single thing” but at least one big public event happened that day — a ways east of Mallaig. On Monday, August 3, 1936, the great American track and field athlete, Jesse Owens, won the first of four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics. The context of the time: Hitler, the rise of fascism and European instability — and the fact Owens was black — amplified his victory and lifted the feat beyond extraordinary. By the close of the Olympics, Owens had become an international star.  

At the time, it’s unlikely Mallaig games enthusiasts, or Wilson, for that matter, would have been aware of Jesse Owens’ great day — at least not right away, on the day, as would be the case now. But I bet there would be something of a delayed flash, where attendees would read of Owens in the paper or maybe hear of it that evening on the radio; they’d then be able to say, “I was at Mallaig games when Owens put it to Hitler”.

Of course, we don’t need big flashbulb memories to happen in tandem with our piping adventures to trigger memories. It does strike me as at least a little interesting to reflect about the great events that happen with unrelenting frequency while the piping world ticks along. It reminds me how small and comparatively safe the piping world is.

It also reminds me of Expo67 and bagpipes and clowns. 

And that I hate clowns. •