Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Only a fool

Procrastinating with Perry Iles, author of A Dictionary of Linguistic Absurdities 

A world become one, salads and sun, only a fool would say that.

With those lyrics, Steely Dan closed the door on the hippie dream in the very early seventies. It was probably a retort to Altamont and the Manson Family. But at the same time, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were opening another door and politely ushering us into the future of rock and roll. None of this California nonsense, just slick music. Rock and roll put its suit on, ate its recto-crunchies like a good boy and went to work on time. Fagen and Becker themselves looked and often sounded like a pair of Jewish accountants badly disguised as freaks, but the point was that the first Steely Dan album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, represented a paradigm shift in music, just like the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks and Nirvana’s Bleach. Back then of course it was just a band making an album and hoping for the best.

The future is odd; you can never predict where it’s going to go, because like most human and earthly laws it’s governed by pure chance and luck. But the trouble with the future is that it very rapidly becomes the past, and because of the random nature of chaos a lot of predictions wind up sounding really stupid. I once read an article from about 20 years ago which said with all confidence that these new-fangled DVD things would be soon be called “Davids”. It’s obvious why, but somehow the collective human consciousness didn’t make that linguistic shortcut and it would sound ridiculous to suddenly start watching pornographic davids, unless you were Victoria Beckham perhaps. Or Elton John. Another thing predicted with great confidence was nuclear powered cars. School buses made of glass and powered by sparks and hydrogen would probably have been safer, but the Ford Motor Company in 1958 invested money, time and effort and came up with the Ford Nucleon, a concept car with its own onboard nuclear reactor in which you could drive your children to school extremely carefully. Now I’m no fan of the Toyota Prius or the Nissan Insipid or whatever those cars are that run on the breath of fluffy bunnies and fairy-dust, because their construction factories and shipping costs have taken up vast swathes of rain forest, giving them a carbon footprint the size of Wales that everyone conveniently ignores and resulting in a very ugly car which only Sting or Bono would drive. Buying a second-hand diesel Range Rover is a much greener option, but if humans are arrogant enough to think they can permanently change the environment of an entire planet they should stand in the middle of Siberia for a week to gain a proper perspective on how important they are before trying to predict how hot it will be in 2050 because of Jeremy Clarkson. But given the choice between a Ford Nucleon and a Toyota Prius I’d probably opt for the latter, because I like my daughter and I don’t want to see her grow another head or have her face rot off.

Many people write about the future. Often they do so to showcase their own views on the present and offer up a dystopia that will of course happen if nobody listens to their thinly disguised metaphors. One thing that we can be sure of is that the past will repeat itself because humans are stupid creatures who refuse to learn very much, so you’re on pretty safe ground if you want to write a science fiction novel based on concentration camps in the Cillit Bang Nebula or ethnic cleansing on the moon or the subjugation of women in the fifth dimension, but if you want to write a futuristic novel based on your own ideas of what the future might hold, you have to be a pretty imaginative fantasist.

Which brings me in a circumambulatory fashion to David Mitchell and Cloud Atlas, for two reasons. First because it’s a very good book indeed, which describes the future in a way that doesn’t grab the reader by the scruff of the neck and say “See! Look what will happen if you don’t listen to my genius-level idealistic bollocks!”, and secondly because it features a place called Great Chesterford, where I used to live. Better still, it features the village station, in which I had some fairly uproarious times involving alcohol, barmaids and occasional narcotics in the 1980s. You don’t often expect to go to a station in order to get drunk and/or stoned, and it was of course also possible to catch trains there, but in the late seventies British Rail, or whoever ran our railway system in those nationalized days, sold the building at a knockdown price and it was bought by some people who turned it into a bar and restaurant and became friends of mine over the course of a few years of incipient alcoholism. I was married at the time and frankly I wasn’t a very nice fellow in those days, so let’s just say that it all ended badly, there were tears before bedtime and some people got hurt and leave it at that because that isn’t what I’m going to write about. But the thing was that the station building actually straddled the county line between Essex and Cambridgeshire, and neither county’s police force wanted jurisdiction over it, so they just left it alone. The result was that it knew no such thing as closing time and often stayed open until everyone either passed out or went home. The restaurant was good one, based on Spanish dishes and the Spanish sense of time which meant that people would call in for something to eat at midnight and stay until they were too drunk to stand up. 

A friend of mine once popped down there for a lunchtime drink on Sunday and didn’t get home until Wednesday evening. His wife wouldn’t let him in so he went and bought a bunch of flowers and fed them through the letterbox one at a time until she forgave him. It took quite a lot of flowers. We were younger then, and didn’t care about the future and what it might bring. I used to go to racecourses with Doug, the owner. We’d take his dog so the police wouldn’t breathalyse us. It was Doug’s contention that the police never breathalysed anyone with a dog in the car, because they’d not only have to arrest the driver, they’d have to wake up the dog handlers and get them to open the pound to house the dog until the driver was sober enough to go home. That was evidently too much hassle. So when Doug rather predictably got banned for a year he employed me as his driver and we would zip around the country in his Mercedes dressed in suits and car-coats pretending to act like George Cole and Dennis Waterman off of Minder. In reality I cashed the family allowance and lost it on the horses and came home uproariously pissed and the person I was married to at the time was not pleased with me.

But of course, while I was being a middle-class rebel there were other things going on in the world beyond. The reason the restaurant specialized in Spanish food was that the cook and part owner was Spanish. She was fiery, tempestuous and highly strung. Let’s call her Manuela. She was married to a publisher in the nearest town who was fluent in Spanish and they had three beautiful daughters who were fluent in both languages and in Catalan too. The publisher had as his main client the Argentinean education system, part of the Argentine government, and he and Manuela would often wine and dine their British representatives in the restaurant. He published atlases for the Argentineans, and it was obviously a lucrative business. Their standard of living was high and their beautiful daughters were all in private education, and he’d bought Manuela half of the business to run with Doug, whose Mercedes I was driving from one racecourse to another by then.

So, it was the early 1980s and everything was going along quite nicely until that Thatcher woman decided to shore up her popularity by killing some South Americans. Doug and I, thundering between Cheltenham and Chepstow racecourses wearing our carcoats, listening to Dire Straits on the 8-track and drinking from the bottle, thought this a splendid idea. Manuela, Spanish and married to a Cambridge man with enough intelligence and empathy to see beyond the jingoism, came to a very different conclusion, especially after we sank the Belgrano. I was back from the racing by them, sitting at the bar with Doug and drinking, for some reason, Pernod, when she came running through the crowded restaurant from the kitchen brandishing a large meat cleaver and shouting “Bastardes! Ingl├Ęs dogs! You sink my sheep. My-a sheep! You all fuckeen bastardes!” The drinkers at the bar yelled back at her and a couple of days later we sellotaped the Sun’s Gotcha headline to the swing-door that led through to the kitchen. Whether the Belgrano was in or out of the exclusion zone was not discussed, nor was whose exclusion zone it was anyway and whether it was legal or not. David Mitchell again, this time in Black Swan Green, quoted an Argentinean minister as saying “Britannia once rules the waves. Now she just waives the rules.”

It made little difference to us in our quiet, drunken Essex/Cambridgeshire backwater. The troop ships arrived in Argentina, everyone thought that Robert Wyatt’s Shipbuilding was hippie bollocks and we carried on listening to Dire Straits. Manuela’s husband kept on talking with his Argentinean counterparts in Buenos Aires. He kept on publishing their atlases, in which the Falkland Islands were referred to as Las Islas Malvinas, and he kept getting paid by the Argentineans. Then of course, the Argies started to fight back. On the day HMS Sheffield was blown to bits by exocets and some bombs we’d sold them once, Manuela came running through from the kitchen again with her cleaver, laughing and yelling “We keel you! We seenk your fuckeen sheep! We weening now!” She did a little dance and ran back into the kitchen, and that night the food was especially tender and the portions larger than normal. Over the next few days the Argentineans did lots more damage and Manuela did a lot more shouting and dancing and it looked as if we might have to retreat. Margaret Thatcher single-handedly held the nation’s resolve through the crisis and sent in the SAS to fight some teenage conscripts, with predictable results.

And of course the intelligence services and the press got to work stirring things up and perpetuating a little more hatred – an easy task, because we’re people, it’s what we do best. The Sun or the News of the World or some such scurrilous little amoral redtop got hold of the fact that Manuela’s husband had a lucrative contract with the Argentine school system and was therefore of course supporting their ideological struggle to retain las Islas Malvinas. Communications were supposed to be cut. “I just phone them up,” he said, “I publish books for them, they give me money; that’s how capitalism works, go ask the Prime Minister. Her son probably sold them the weapons they blew our soldiers up with anyway.” That explanation didn’t work for the paper’s readership. He was a traitor in our midst and his wife was suddenly Argentinean, and not from Barcelona at all.

I wandered down to the bar for a drink one day shortly after all this. There were three black Rovers with tinted windows parked outside. I went to go in and was stopped by someone in a suit. “They’re shut” he said. I went home again. They were shut all day, but reopened the following evening. Doug and Manuela and Manuela’s husband had been thoroughly questioned by MI5 officials. The school atlas contract was no more, the restaurant was very quiet over the next few weeks. I phoned the bar one day, I can’t remember why, and heard double-clicks when Doug answered and a funny burring noise after I’d hung up. They were tapping the phone. So, of course, being almost permanently drunk I told some other people and we started phoning the bar when we knew there was no one there so we could leave obscure messages on the answerphone:

This is the Station Restaurant and Bar, please leave your message after the tone:
“Grandmother says the butterflies have landed. I repeat, Grandmother says the butterflies have landed…”
“…the moon will be blue on the fourteenth. I repeat, blue on the fourteenth…”

…and so on. We stopped in the end. It was only funny for a short while. Manuela’s husband’s business suffered, the restaurant’s popularity diminished, Britain won the war, Thatcher got re-elected, a couple more years ticked by and I began to hallucinate occasionally and do stuff I couldn’t remember doing. The person I was married to decided she didn’t want to be married to me any more and I can’t blame her. I stopped wearing carcoats, going racing or listening to Dire Straits. I started a diet that consisted mainly of lager and amphetamines and marijuana and began to think that horse-racing was not really that enjoyable and that Sonic Youth and the Ramones were much more fun to listen to than Dire Straits. The drink took Doug. Before the restaurant closed he slept through the winter in one of the upstairs rooms, woke with frost on his covers from his own breath and started his days with whisky-and-milk and Marlboro while his Mercedes rusted outside in the rain. Then the bailiffs called and he went to Suffolk and died. I don’t know what happened to Manuela or her husband. Cancer took the man who posted flowers through his wife’s letterbox. A stroke took Thatcher a long time later and the nation danced for a bit like it was the 1980s again, all shoulderpads and tight perms. And me? I’m still here. Not many would have predicted that, but hey ho, let’s go, can you give me a gabba-gabba-hey? Still putting pen to paper and lucky enough to be of reasonably sound mind.

What of the future? The events I’ve described here took place thirty years ago. I expect that in thirty years’ time I’ll be dead too, but only fools or geniuses should predict. I’m glad I have no window to the future, because I’m scared shitless of the questions I might ask it about my daughter or my wife and the answers I might want to erase from my mind afterwards but would instead be forced to live with. Or questions about the world, which continues to be run by charlatans, thieves and crooks – or at best those gifted with the powers of self-delusion. I’ll leave such suppositions to the professional tale-spinners, because the real world has enough power to frighten without predicting worse things. We try to buttress ourselves against the future, in the same way we buttress ourselves against death by clinging to ancient fairytales. But there is no God and we are his prophets, as Cormac McCarthy once said, and I’ll sign off with another of his quotes…

People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I didn't believe in that. Tomorrow wasn't getting ready for them. It didn't even know they were there.

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