Late in the evening of 5th of December 2013 Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa, died at his home in Houghton, Johannesburg.
Shortly thereafter, condolences began to pour in from around the world. Barack Obama declared himself “one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela’s life”, Oprah Winfrey put out a statement saying that he was “everything you’ve ever heard and more”, while in London, Prime Minister David Cameron called him “a hero of our time.”
Mandela was 95 years old and his health had been ailing for years. While the news was met with some sorrow, it was hardly surprising – for most people – but not all. Because it turned out that an awful lot of people thought that he had died already – over thirty years before.
Trawling back through 2013 Twitter, it’s jaw-dropping to see just how wide-spread this belief was. Hundreds, if not thousands of users took to the platform to express their disbelief. Somehow, large numbers of people around the world had missed out on Mandela leaving prison in 1990 and becoming President of his country – twice.
A term already existed to explain the phenomenon. In 2009 Fiona Broome, an ‘author, innovator and paranormal investigator’ had coined the ‘Mandela Effect’, to define “powerful memories that don’t match our recorded history” after herself mistakenly believing that the former President had died. Broome went on to launch a website where people could share other similar fake and distorted memories of the past.
Subsequently, she has distanced herself from some of the more outlandish theories behind the Mandela Effect and especially the one that holds that the only rational explanation is that we are all living in a Matrix and that this is evidence of a glitch.
Whatever its origins, the term is useful short-hand for ‘people who misremember the past’ and you don’t have to look far to spot the Mandela Effect in action.
Take the on-going brouhaha over Walkers crisp packets. Everyone knows that back in the day the salt and vinegar ones were blue and the cheese and onion ones were green and that in recent years the manufacturer seems to have switched them around – for no good reason right? Wrong. Because they haven’t.
The colours have always been that way and despite Walkers putting a statement on their website stating:
“Our Salt & Vinegar and Cheese & Onion flavour crisps packs have always been the colours they are today. Contrary to popular belief, we’ve never swapped the colours around, not even temporarily. We’ve no plans to change these designs, as they’re signature to our brand.”
People still refuse to believe it.
The confusion may arise from ‘Squares crisps’ another Walkers brand that has green for cheese and onion and blue for salt and vinegar but that’s not stopping very many Britons feeling affronted about something that never happened.
Most of the more celebrated examples of the Mandela effect revolve around similar glitches in remembrance of popular culture.
Ask most people what colour legendary Star Wars droid C3PO was and they’ll tell you with some certainty, that he was gold from top to bottom – despite that silver leg.
Similarly, everyone remembers that Snow White’’s wicked step-mother, in the Disney classic, says:
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”
Even though she actually says: “Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?”
Some of these misremembered cultural tropes might be down to conflation. It is possible in the case of Mandela, for example, that people have (depressingly) confused him with the activist Steve Biko who was murdered in 1977 and whose story was made into a celebrated film in the 1980s.
The more trivial examples might be down to wider culture simply repeating the mistake until it becomes reality and sometimes, anyway, we simply prefer the alternative truth.
Take the commonly held belief that 1960s British children’s TV show, Captain Pugwash, had characters called ‘Seaman Staines’, ‘Master Bates’ and ‘Roger the Cabin boy’. Despite this being an urban myth, easily disprovable in the internet age, the notion persists – because it’s funny and because many people like believing it for the lolz.
Misremembering characters names in Pugwash, the colour of C3PO’s legs or well-known lines in famous films are not issues likely to threaten the fabric of our society – but the ‘Mandela Effect’ is equally common in our collective recall of recent history. And that is potentially a very significant problem indeed.
I stumbled on the term during an online discussion around the siege of the Iranian Embassy in 1980.
I have a very clear childhood memory of the event because I was watching a John Wayne cowboy film that was interrupted as the cameras went live to Princes Gate in Kensington and it ruined my Saturday afternoon.
Sharing this moment on twitter, I was delighted to find that others remembered it too. Several correspondents even offered the title of the film. It was Chisum (1970) and a Google search threw up blogs and articles that confirmed it was so. A couple of people even suggested that the live cut-away to the Embassy happened during a climactic scene in which Wayne and his friends took on some bandits and as I searched up the clips on Youtube it all started to come back to me.
Only I wasn’t remembering that Saturday afternoon in May 1980 as it happened, because the climax of the siege came on a Bank Holiday Monday evening and the film was not Chisum, but another John Wayne film called Rio Lobo.
Of course this was not evidence of a parallel Matrix-type universe but instead a very clear reminder that what we ‘remember’ – is not necessarily what happened and that our memories are suspect at the best of times.
My mother used to tell me the story of how she crept downstairs in June 1940 and sat on the bottom step as her parents listened to the famous broadcast in which Churchill declared that we would ‘fight on the beaches’. If you can find a 90 plus year old who recalls the war you might manage to coax a similar tale out of them – because many people of that era clearly and collectively remember it.
Only they cannot possibly do so, because Churchill delivered the original speech in the House of Commons and did not record it for another nine years.
The audio version with which we are all so familiar was made in 1949.
So, what had my mother heard? Well perhaps it was the radio announcer reading excerpts from the speech (which happened), or perhaps she had heard nothing at all and later confabulated the memory of the event into her reminiscences of war. The speech is fundamental to the Churchill legend and our nation’s experience of the ‘darkest hour’ but like so much reminiscence of that sacred set of events, it did not happen as it is widely and popularly remembered.
To misquote Eric Morecambe, ‘this is all the right history, but not necessarily in the right order.’
It’s not unusual. Much of what most of us think we know about the past is jumbled, or only half true – or wrong. Indeed, while writing my book, Fake History I was taken aback to find quite how many times the ‘things we take for granted’ were more than simply bad takes – they were myth.
Now you might rightly consider that someone who has been asked to write a book called Fake History in the first place would already have made that calculation, but as I hammered out the text, my loud exclamations of “Fuck me that’s not true either!” could probably be heard half way down the streets of Glasgow – and I live, in South East London.
Fake History persists in part because, like the Mandela Effect – people prefer the fake version. Human beings after all love ‘a good story’ even if they are a menace to the truth. Depressingly it also suits the narratives of those in power. It enables the likes of Boris Johnson to perpetuate myths of exceptionalism and wage his silly statue wars.
Of course, people are entitled to believe in the myths of Dunkirk or Culloden or even Alfred burning his cakes – but to do so is no different to believing in Seaman Staines or that curious parallel Matrix where Nelson Mandela died in 1983. One would hope we could do better in the internet age.
My Book is out on June 10th – and I hope to be blogging more about it and the themes around it in the weeks ahead.