Lord Northcliffe’s Memory Compartments

One book I was reading today was H. Simonis’ The Street of Ink: An Intimate History of Journalism. Simonis was an English journalist in the late nineteenth century. He proclaims that nobody knows the history of The Times better than he, with the exception of Lord Northcliffe, who was still alive at the time of writing. The State Library’s copy is from 1917, and is correspondingly charismatic, as old books tend to be. I enjoyed this observation on Lord Northcliffe’s personality;

(Simonis has just described Lord Northcliffe’s ability to succinctly summarise a person’s character in a few words)… This gift of diagnosing character, so to speak, is allied to an extraordinary memory. I have rarely met a man who remembers facts and faces so well. Lord Northcliffe has, indeed, a remarkable equipment of strength of mind and manner which gives to his personality a wonderful charm. As he uses his memory for facts and figures in his daily work, so he uses his memory for faces and conversation in the exercise of a supreme tact that conveys to one whom he has met before a gratifying sensation of having left an agreeable impression. This is heightened by the way in which he devotes his whole attention to the subject he discusses, whether it is personal or otherwise. For the moment he locks every compartment of his brain save one which he uses for the time being. When you have gone, he will lock this, too, and open another. If, in the course of conversation, you ask him a question, there is another mental pigeon-hole fully stored with all the information you want. Never, apparently, could there be a mind better equipped for its special needs and more methodically ordered than his.


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