Memory

Mike Davis is an old dog in San Diego. His most recent books are Buda's Wagon and Planet of Slums (both Verso).

Napoleon and the rebel girl

At a stage of life when it is sometimes difficult to recall the previous day's events, I still possess a vivid image of Napoleon and his army of 150,000 soldiers struggling across the Danube in the summer of 1809. My recollection, of course, is an heirloom: I once talked to a very old woman who as a little girl in Hungary had talked to an old man who had seen the French Emperor en route to the bloody fields of Wagram.

A third-hand geriatric memory may, of course, be sheer legend, but I tend to trust the accuracy of my friend Barbara Nestor's recollection. In 1976, Barbara (the mother of famed L.A. Communist leader Dorothy Healey) was 91 or 92 years old and sometimes had difficulty remembering which "plutocratic spit-licker" was currently president, William McKinley or Gerald Ford. But, as is so frequently the case with very old people, her confusing fog of memory was pierced by random shafts of seemingly total recall, or, more accurately, of brief but exquisitely relived experience.

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