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History moves behind you, like the wake of a boat. When you hear that something has happened, it has already happened and is over. Before I knew properly what was going on about me, George Best and Muhammad Ali had finished up, the Profumo affair was over, and the Beatles had parted ways. It was assumed that you knew all about The Third Man, JFK, Brendan Behan and the Arms Trial, but I didn’t really. I suppose I didn’t see history forming before my eyes.
I saw the rise of U2, the GUBU years, the fall of the Church, the Celtic Tiger boom and the bust. Now when I read biographies, in some cases I can remember being at the gig or watching the match, and when Gorbachev or Garret are discussed on the radio, I instantly know the circumstances.
This has made me think of my own legacy. Few enough people are remembered for long. Deeds and buildings persist, works of art last, but the artists and architects swiftly fade into the background.
I can see in my own children the odd trace of me. A flash of a dark eye, a tendency to laugh at solemn moments, mild obsessions with books and dogs
When I was in first year in College, I found myself in the student union office with blank paper and some markers and a mission to create a poster for Community Action Week. Which I did.
Then I put ‘CAW’ on a page, with a picture of a crow.
And made another poster out of that.
And I forgot all about it until about 25 years later, when I was back in UCG at a function and I saw a poster for Community Action Week, with the logo of a crow.
That is not actually earth-shattering, but I suppose somebody long-forgotten sketched the first circular smiley face, or designed the turn at the end of Grafton Street, or decided that Guinness is good for you. They have faded but their work has not.
This kind of musing can give you a right shock.
I gave a presentation on communications once to some fearsome academics. I decided I needed something to nail them at the start so I came up with ‘I don’t need to know about communications — I’m going to be a consultant surgeon’ on the second slide.
I attributed this to a fourth-year medical student. You will now see the same slide, or a variation of it, at just about every presentation on medical communications you ever go to. I last saw it at a conference in Geneva. Obviously, one or more of the fearsome academics appropriated it for his or her own use and it spread around conference land. I almost believe that one myself.
I don’t think all of those hundreds of articles I have written leave much of a legacy. They used to say that Flann O’Brien squandered his talent writing a newspaper column that was ultimately used to wrap fish and chips. I suppose that when I’m long gone, some descendent might dig mine out. ‘My God,’ he’ll say, ‘the old boy certainly knocked a lot of articles out of driving around Donegal with the dog.’
I don’t hold out much hope of living in the patients’ memories either. I suppose some future granny who is now a little girl will remember that Dr Harrold was very keen on kids getting plenty of exercise. Or I might have helped somebody get off the fags.
But these memories are fickle, and most of us will be quoted for things we never said at all but seem to fit the person they imagine you to be. We are judged by the standard of our peers, and in theory it does not matter which doctor the punter sees — they will get the same treatment from everybody.
This is all very well, but when you look back at your life’s work and it seems that all the other candidates at the interview would have done much the same thing, it is no consolation at all. As Padraig O’Maille says, people don’t remember what you do or say, but how you make them feel. (This is a great one to tell medical students.)
Maybe it is a mistake to look at your work; maybe the real legacy lies in the family.
John B Keane said that when you have a son, you are immortal. I can see in my own children the odd trace of me. A flash of a dark eye, a tendency to laugh at solemn moments, mild obsessions with books and dogs, and maybe I will live forever in that.
They would all argue the cross off an ass as well and they didn’t ‘pick that off the ground,’ as the saying goes. They may say in the future that while I was undoubtedly lacking in many respects, I knew my Harry Potter and read it to them every night when they were small.
And that will do me nicely.