It was in the exhibition Conflict, Time, Photography at Tate Modern that I first saw the following quote, presented as if enlarged from a page in a book, although no credit was given.
The degree and extent of the retrograde amnesia has been determined in many cases through the administration of electroshock convulsions. In thousands of instances it is found that the patient has amnesia for the preparations. He may merely forget the application of the electrodes or he may even forget the entrance of the therapist with his entourage which occurs five minutes before the shock is given.
When he recovers consciousness it is by degrees. He first looks about stupidly, he makes faulty observations, perhaps grasps the bed or the pillow, perception is weak and he is later shown to have no recollection of events immediately following the seizure.
The cumulative effects of repeated seizures given every other day consist of gradual loss of alertness, paucity of interest in the environment and regression. As treatments continue, amnesia becomes marked. The patient first forgets his telephone number, then his address, then affairs outside his family and finally such intimate information as whether he is married. Anybody who talks about the future is a bastard, it’s the present that counts. Invoking posterity is like making speeches to worms.
On another wall in the same exhibition was a collection of images documenting the remains of a Soviet nuclear weapons testing site in Kazakhstan. These desolate scenes reminded me of a passage in Sebald describing a visit to Orford Ness, an abandoned military installation in Norfolk, which in turn took me back to my own military service in the desert near De Aar in 1980s South Africa. A few years ago I made a kind of pilgrimage to the army base where I was stationed — a once-secret ammunition depot, itself rumoured to have held a nuclear weapon — and found the place forlorn and neglected. The stringent Apartheid security paranoia had crumbled entirely, and the few remaining guards (one of whom had been there, he said, since the time I served my term twenty-two years previously) had no hesitation in taking me on a tour of my old barracks, the mess hall, the parade grounds. Standing in the dust, looking across the plains at the encroaching thorn trees, I had to think of Shelley’s Ozymandias.
Who makes these connections? Me, and, in reading this, hopefully, you. But when we are gone there will be no connections. These words and images will be no more than legs of stone in a desert.
This journal is part fact, part fiction.