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31 December 2015

I’m happy in my imaginary place because it is devoid of that hellish thing: other people

Come with me to my magical memory island. On second thoughts . . . just leave me alone

By Will Self

The method of loci was a mnemonic system developed in the classical period as an aid to displays of rhetoric. By imagining a series of discrete loci and conceptualising the facts needed to be recalled as a number of objects placed within these locations, the orator could gain access to his memories by visualising himself walking from place to place and retrieving the tropes, figures and other information that he needs.

Repurposed as the “memory palace”, the method of loci makes an appearance in Thomas Harris’s paean to successful psychopathy, the 1999 thriller Hannibal:

Like scholars before him, Dr Lecter stores an enormous amount of information keyed to objects in his thousand rooms, but unlike the ancients, Dr Lecter has a second purpose for his palace; sometimes he lives there. He has passed years among its exquisite collections, while his body lay bound on a violent ward with screams buzzing the steel bars like hell’s own harp. Hannibal Lecter’s palace is vast, even by medieval standards. Translated to the tangible world it would rival the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul for size and complexity.

Well, my body isn’t bound on a violent ward, and nor do I employ this mnemonic technique to cut a dash on the podium, but I am intrigued by the connections between spatial awareness and memory. When I’ve taken one of my long solo walks, I lull myself to sleep at night by running the “film” of that day’s trek back; and I’m almost always struck by how much more I recall than I can remember of, say, what I did during a static period.

Recent research in neuroscience highlights the interdependency of our spatial awareness and our capacity to build long-term memory – which in turn suggests what our evolutionary history would imply: our capacity for any recall at all derives from the need to be able to tell other members of our group where the food resources are. It follows that MPs’ use of satnav to drive to McDonald’s is almost certainly connected to the decline in parliamentary debate.

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However, it is the second purpose of Dr Lecter’s memory palace I cleave to most; I, too, have an imaginary location I often go to in moments of stress, such as when I’m trying to get to sleep but unfortunately have forgotten to take a long walk. Some evolutionary psychologists believe our aesthetic sense – including our delight in certain landscapes – is a function of survival pressures. They point to the great fondness that people from diverse cultures evince for lightly wooded, gently hilly scenes (preferably with a rill and a hint of the lacustrine in the mid-ground) as evidence of how our African savannah origins have stayed with us. If this is at all true, it’s a rather bizarre thought that our own lowland British landscape, with its melange of woodland and meadowland, may be a recapitulation in temperate terms of our semi-tropical origins.

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My special place isn’t a bosky glade, though – rather, when I’ve had a bad day in the big shitty city, I find my balm by stealing away to my own private island. It’s off the coast of Scotland in an unspecified location that’s reachable in a small boat (given reasonable seas) in an hour or so from the nearest populated landfall. My island is about a mile by two miles and is shaped like a drop of water, its southern end curling to form a small natural harbour. The high point of the island is roughly 600 feet, and steep slopes decline from this peak to form low cliffs at the north end. The flora and fauna are much as you would expect: heather, grass and bracken; wild sheep and goats; plenty of seafowl, and seals basking on the rocks. There are the remains of a Pictish brough on the west coast and those of a small chapel on the east. My own croft stands above the southerly bay, and is simple in the extreme, with thick, whitewashed stone walls and a tile roof. Inside there’s a small kitchen equipped with a solid-fuel-burning stove, and a single main room, with a sleeping platform up above in the rafters. Lying on my spartan mattress, I can gaze through a dormer window at the whitecaps out to sea, and the calmer inshore waters.

Being psychologically acute readers, you will have already analysed my method of loci and understood that this isn’t simply a phantasmal away day, but a profound search for security on my part: my island is too small and remote to be of interest to anyone much; moreover, I’ve organised things so that I am entirely self-sufficient. Not being remotely handy, I haven’t equipped the house and its environs with any tricky technology. Water comes from an outside pump, heat from the stove and an open fireplace, lighting from oil lamps and candles. It’s taken years of sleepy rumination, but I’m now quite adept at husbanding the goats and sheep I’ve redomesticated. I have a small boat for lobster fishing. I forage for samphire and other edibles on the foreshore, and grow my tatties, neeps and kale in a strategically sheltered greenhouse.

I’m happy in my imaginary place because it is devoid of that hellish thing: other people. Of course, were I more like that superior mnemonist, Dr Lecter, I would simply murder them – then I could remain happily home alone.

Next issue: Madness of Crowds

This article appears in the 14 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special