Monday, 1 August 2011


On Saturday a charity that I chair, responsible for raising funds to restore the oldest building in Brighton held its AGM. Professor Bruce Brown, pro Vice Chancellor of the University of Brighton spoke engagingly about the things that made Brighton special and its being a Super City of the future, according to an HSBC study, owing to its independence of spirit, an  ideal qualification for a thriving SME community.

But I was riveted by what Bruce said about the distant past, when few read and books were unusual, when buildings themselves were like “textbooks” – where pictures, sculptures and decorations all held great meaning and how old buildings, well restored and archived were “memory palaces”.  Google has its own value, of course. The internet allows us to find out how to make a bomb or deworm a cat but a memory palace it is not.

I am not nostalgic but the practical value of having people in a business who know where the bodies are buried and who know how to deal effectively with a crisis be it pandemic, flood or earthquake is immense. I’m not talking about spectators who, seeing a building collapse, are fondly reminded of Fred Dibnah – the TV steeplejack star and demolition expert of the 1990s. Practical memory means having an intuition so finely honed that it and not your brain instinctively helps you do the right thing when there’s no time to stop and think.

And we are placing perhaps too little value on memories and instincts seemingly wired  into an organisation which often determine how it behaves. It’s the expression “it’s in the woodwork” that determines how a Google, News International, BA or even political party behaves. Better to delve into the collective memory to understand it rather than try and brainwash it and hope it will change. Cultures don’t change that easily because of the collective memories that permeate them.

Having recently had a birthday and gloomily counting them forgive me if I reflect on the value of grey hairs. In Japan they give the wise, older executives “a seat by the window” so they can read their newspapers more easily but also because they are a constant resource of memories for others to use.

The current propensity to say in an age of change that the past is like an unwelcome anchor is wrong. We all need access to the past to avoid making the same mistakes and reinventing that same old wheel  which may be diverting to watch but is wasteful.

Memories matter. They inform the future. Ask someone older next time.

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