In which The Author comes unstuck in time again
(Concentrate, girls, here comes the Science part…)
CHRONON: A chronon is a proposed quantum of time, that is, a discrete and indivisible “unit” of time as part of a theory which proposes that time is not continuous.
GLUON: Gluons are elementary particles that act as the exchange particles (or gauge bosons) for the strong force between quarks, analogous to the exchange of photons in the electromagnetic force between two charged particles.
(Definitions from Wikipedia)
Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s best-known novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, opens with arguably one of the finest sentences in Twentieth-Century fiction: ‘Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.’
That unique Vonnegut hybrid of urgency and absurdity warns the reader that what follows is not going to form a conventional narrative. The novel’s protagonist is a cowardly conscript soldier who is abducted by creatures from the planet Tralfamadore. The reader is dragged jerkily on Billy’s journey through space and time, zigzagging across history and speculation all the while. Only the Tralfamadorians themselves have a comprehensive view of time. To them, Past, Present and Future are indistinguishable.
Even the death of a friend is dismissed with the casual phrase, ‘So it goes’ – because the Tralfamadorians see death as just a change of state, and nothing more. In the Past (which is, of course, indistinguishable from the Present and the Future), their friend is/was/will be still alive. Billy comes to understand this world view eventually, and accepts his role as a mere pawn in the global (galactic?) chess game we all participate in. His Past/Present/Future deeds are predetermined. There is not/was not/will not be anything he can do to change things. All he can do/did/will do is sit back and let Time wash over him. Tense? You were/are/will be…
[A digression: Here’s a useful hint for wannabe ESOL teachers – the Timeline Model of grammar only really works if you take the Second Law of Thermodynamics as a given. From a linguistic point of view, the Arrow of Time is the equivalent of the Parallel Postulate in Geometry. You just take it for granted. However, once you decide to discard it and start thinking outside the box (which, naturally, exists in three-dimensional orthogonal space, where the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, parallel lines never meet, and the interior angles of a triangle add up to 180º) all bets are off.]
You can come out again now, girls, it’s gone.
Anyway, during the unexpected intervals from his new career as an zoo specimen alongside a well-built former porn model, Billy Pilgrim finds himself plunging in and out of his own subjective present. He is one of a small group of Allied POWs in Germany in 1945. The Germans who capture them are equally unwilling participants in events way beyond their control. However, like soldiers the world over throughout human history, they play what chess players refer to as the Eichmann-Calley Defence – ‘I was just following orders.’ Billy and his comrades are taken to Dresden, a couple of days before the air raid which destroyed the city. (Note for younger readers: I don’t mean just ‘destroyed’ – I mean ‘totally fucking obliterated, leaving only the ashes of one of Northern Europe’s unparalleled architectural gems.’)
Billy (and Kurt Vonnegut himself, who was also there, but who plays only a minor role in the novel) survive the firestorm because they are involuntarily sheltering in the eponymous slaughterhouse, below ground and out of harm’s way. Above their heads, the real slaughter is going on, and they’re completely unaware of it.
Billy and his pals emerge in the morning to survey a post-holocaust landscape. The novel has the subtitle ‘The Children’s Crusade.’ It’s Mr Vonnegut’s sideswipe at a system which sends young men to their deaths on an industrial scale. It’s little wonder that he tackled this most difficult of topics while he was grappling with his own traumatic memories. Billy Pilgrim enabled him to step outside History and see with dispassionate eyes the war crime perpetrated at the behest of Britain’s great hero, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Travers Harris, 1st Bt, GCB, OBE, AFC. It doesn’t make Mr Vonnegut’s vision any easier to digest – especially now that the military-industrial complex is capable of devastating an entire city by remote control from thousands of miles away, and probably will do in a couple of weeks (if that.)
Anyway, this idea of coming ‘unstuck in time’ is one which has intrigued me for years – long before I even read Mr Vonnegut’s masterpiece, in fact. As I’ve mentioned several times, I’ve been a huge science fiction fan all my life. I grew up watching Doctor Who, remember, so I was hardly a stranger to the concept of time travel. Now, with recent discoveries revealing that the universe works in extremely mysterious ways, some researchers are seriously debating the possibility of time travel, at least on a theoretical basis.
I’m not going to explore the scientific implications of the quantum multiverse here. Far greater minds than mine are devoting themselves to that. I’m going to stick to the point (for once) and analyze a phenomenon which is much more amenable to observation. Once again, it’s the subject of a weird coincidence.
I started writing this entry on Friday, but abandoned it as the wifi in the Library was playing silly buggers again. Before I returned to it on Saturday morning, I had a quick scan through Facebook. To my amazement, Anna J. had shared a fantastic cartoon, which meshed perfectly with the outline I’d already sketched in my mind:
My friend Fleur indirectly inspired this blog a few weeks ago, when she decided to chuck a couple of quid into the jukebox in the pub. We grew up in that strange post-punk era when youth subcultures started to really proliferate (see Pick’n'(Re)Mix
.) Fleur must have been a dedicated New Romantic, I think, to judge from her selections: Culture Club, Visage, Wham!, Soft Cell, Spandau Ballet and Depeche Mode, to name but a handful.
Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with those bands (although, needless to say, I’d never have confessed to liking their music when I was in school!) In fact, British pop music went through its last great flowering of home-grown talent at around that time. After that, the likes of Stock, Aitken and Waterman took over with their mechanized dance shit. After that, just about everything was either a cover version (I’m coming to that!) or it sounded like something from years before.
Don’t get me wrong. I liked some of the New Romantics, like Ultravox, The Human League and Heaven 17, but I was also on the fringe of the subculture which evolved into Goth. At the time, Gothic Punk was something entirely different from the subculture it evolved into. It was based around the Batcave Club in London, with bands such as The Specimen and Alien Sex Fiend at its heart. It wasn’t until a few years later that Bauhaus, The Cure, Siouxsie and The Banshees – the bands name-checked in the cartoon, in fact – became part of the Goth scene.
My point, though, is that Fleur seems to have got stuck in the early 1980s. Her taste in music hasn’t moved on by even a Planck Length in the three decades since Boy George first exploded onto our TV screens, outraging parents the length and breadth of the land.
She’s not the only person to demonstrate this odd characteristic. Ross W. (not Ross the film-maker) piles cash into the jukebox every night so that he can listen to Steely Dan, The Doobie Brothers, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, and a host of early-70s stoner soft rock. In his head he’s still 17, drinking in the Iron Bridge and getting stoned to the jukebox in there.
For my part, I wouldn’t dream of listening to Bauhaus now. With the benefit of hindsight, they were pretentious wankers at best. The Cure stopped making decent records after Pornography (although there are a couple of okay songs on their 1984 LP The Top.) It may have been an unfortunate lapse of timing, but I saw them on their Spring 1984 tour. They were already past their best. In October 1984 I ‘saw’ The Sisters of Mercy at the Lyceum in London. I’ve put the word in inverted commas, because all that we actually saw was an indoor pea-souper of dry ice smoke, the occasional flash of Wayne Hussey’s guitar, and a couple of pairs of Ray-Bans. I’d love to have been the lighting guy at this gig. I could have just gone to the fucking pub and left them to it.
In between those two gigs, Crass came to Trecynon Coliseum for a Miners’ Benefit (see entries passim) and I was there. I’d never heard any of their music before that night. How could I have? They weren’t exactly radio-friendly…
Anyway, I was there. Olly wasn’t. He made me laugh a few months ago when we were chatting over a pint, and he told me the background story. He ‘became’ a punk about two weeks after Aberdare notched up its first brief entry in the history of popular music. I don’t know how he underwent his Damascene conversion. I didn’t like to ask, to be honest. I doubt if it was like joining the Freemasons, where someone invites you to a meeting, you roll up a trouser leg, and shenanigans ensue. I rather suspect it may have involved several pints of cider and a solemn oath to renounce The Beatles And All Their Works, after which Olly became A Punk. It doesn’t matter. I was at Crass’s last ever gig and he wasn’t. He was A Punk and I wasn’t. But that’s still not the point.
The point is that, several years after the event, I found myself on the platform at Pontypridd Station, in the snow, on a Saturday evening late in December. (It wasn’t even a Saturday night – the train ‘service’ in those days was piss-poor to say the least.) The last train to Aberdare had departed unexpectedly from the other platform, so I was stranded. I wasn’t alone. A chap named Mike, a few years older than me, had also been caught out by the inaudible platform announcement. We could easily have defaulted to Emergency Program One (‘Fuck it!’) and walked home separately. It would have only taken me three hours or so. Instead, we got talking. Mike was aiming for Mountain Ash, a few stops short of Aberdare. He’d been at the Crass gig as well. It was one of those strange meetings which feature very regularly in my life.
About twenty minutes later the Merthyr train pulled in. I persuaded Mike to jump aboard. I’d wielded my scientific credentials and persuaded him that taking any step, however small, towards solving the problem was better than taking none at all. The train took us to Abercynon, where we repaired to the Junction Hotel and formulated a plan. Mike phoned a couple of taxi numbers, but it was Saturday and nobody wanted to drive to Aberdare.
[A digression: Q. How many Valleys taxi drivers does it take to change a lightbulb?
A. ‘I’m not going all the way up there, butt!]
We were halfway through our pints when it dawned on me that James T. had been looking after his kids that afternoon, and therefore wouldn’t have been to the pub. I rang him, explained our predicament, and to our relief he agreed to pick us up. It wasn’t as dramatic as Mr Wolf’s rescue mission in Pulp Fiction, and he took a bit longer than 9 minutes 28 seconds to get to us, but who was counting? He dropped Mike off outside the Aberdare Hotel in Mount before taking me home. Job done!
The point is that this happened well over a decade ago, but every time I see Mike he comes unstuck in time. His own personal body clock resets itself to July 11 1984 – the exact date when Crass played at the Coliseum. In his mind, nothing at all has happened since. Even if I do manage to drag him out of his weird Time Loop and pull him towards the Twenty-First Century, his conversation always returns to Crass: what the former members are doing these days; what a great thing it would be if they reformed (NOT!); am I still in touch with any of the people who were there that evening? and so forth.
[A digression: For the record, former Crass vocalist Steve Ignorant popped up on the BBC regional news last week. After a spell as a Punch and Judy man (I’m not making this up!), he’s now a volunteer lifeboat man in Norfolk. (I’m not making this up either!) Here’s the video.
Anyway, to get back to the point: Mike is stuck in 1984; Fleur seems to be stuck slightly earlier; Ross is stuck somewhere before Peter Green went nuts and Jeremy Spencer got religion.
Of course, I still listen to the music I listened to when I was seventeen or eighteen. Why wouldn’t I? There was some great music around in those days. But I’ve also learned to be selective. I bought Torment and Toreros by Marc and The Mambas on CD when I wasn’t going out with Jenny. My old cassette copy had been eaten by the machine years before; I’d bought it when I was a student the first time round. I thought Jenny, with her Goth tastes, would appreciate hearing it. I was amazed to find that it had been issued on CD only a few weeks earlier. I ordered it that evening. Jenny never got to listen to it in my company, of course. During our zephyr romance (on the Beaufort Scale, a zephyr is at the bottom end of the scale that ends with a whirlwind), we somehow didn’t manage to fit it in during our frenetic courtship of four dates in nine months.
Similarly, I still listen to The Land of Cockayne, which is the last LP which Soft Machine released under that name, in 1982. By then, there wasn’t a single original member in the line-up. Karl Jenkins, John Marshall and Allan Holdsworth had served their time in the band, but the rest of the guys – Jack Bruce, John Taylor (not the guy from Duran Duran), Alan Parker (not the film director), Ray Warleigh and Dick Morrissey – were called in for a one-off job. I bought it when I was seventeen, in Cardiff with Lisa. It was the only Soft Machine LP in the old Virgin store in Cardiff (where Forbidden Planet is now) so I spent a few quid on spec. Thirty years on, I’m really glad I did. This is the penultimate track of the set, showcasing Mr Holdsworth at his quicksilver finest:
Many years later, Big Beat reissued the first two Soft Machine LPs as a double package. I bought it in MVC in Cardiff. Try this for size:
I’m not sure whether I’d have played it a second time if I’d bought their first LP, instead of the last. My head hadn’t been expanded enough. Now, I love it.
But I also love The Land of Cockayne. Some Soft Machine fans think it’s crap; an unnecessary postscript to a story which had been told in its entirety. Vicki F. and I were involved in a vigorous debate on one of the Internet forums a few years ago. She made a very good point, when she pointed out that the Pink Floyd who recorded The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn was a very different animal from the Pink Floyd who recorded The Wall. Pink Floyd fans argue endlessly over the respective merits of the LPs, of course, but there’s no reason why they should have sounded the same. They were recorded twelve years apart. The line-up had changed substantially. The world had changed as well.
I refer you to Snap, Crackle and Pop
, where I quote Bryan Ferry’s sardonic interview before the release of Roxy Music’s second LP For Your Pleasure
. Times change, we move on, and music has to change as well. After all, you don’t hear many season ticket holders at Old Trafford complaining, ‘It’s not the same as when we were Newton Heath, is it?’
Time moves on. Life moves on. Football teams and band line-ups change. It’s evolution. The Temptations and The Four Tops still sell out huge venues, even though there’s barely an original member between them. Fleur would probably love to go to one of those 80s nostalgia weekends they have at Butlin’s in Minehead, where Five Star and Clare Grogan and some bloke who used to be in Kajagoogoo perform to hen parties and 50th birthday party crowds. I’d rather chew off my own arm, personally.
On the other hand (in other words, the one I haven’t chewed off), you could go to one of the pubs which host live bands in and around the Valleys (see The Great Valleys Songbook
.) That’s where the Stuck in Time really like to congregate. Cheer as the band play a song by U2, which isn’t even one of their good songs, dating from the time before Bono became the Son of God. Scream as they play every bloody Stereophonics hit, just in case Kelly happens to pop his head in. Gasp as they launch into Hotel
, just in case there’s anybody left on Planet Earth who hasn’t heard it a thousand times already.
Even better, go to a ‘disco’ in a backstreet pub on a weekend night and you can hear the entire Meat Loaf back catalogue end to end while the DJ has a smoke, a pint, a piss, another smoke, another pint…
I’ve said it several times and I’ll say it again: Meat Loaf is rock music for people who don’t actually like rock music. It’s the Chicken Tikka Masala of music – just exotic enough for the faint-hearted to say that they’ve expanded their horizons, but laughably mild in the eyes of real aficionados.
Gareth E. posted a Facebook status earlier on, which I’ll quote without his permisson:
One of the finest guitarists I’ve ever seen or heard…..playing to 20 people. That’s Aberdare folks!
The man in question is called Graham Williams. I know his name, but I’m not familiar with his career. I didn’t know about the gig. It would have been a change of scene, if nothing else. It’s another triumph of non-publicity. Maybe if Mr Williams had scored a minor hit in the 1970s, he’d have pulled a decent crowd. Then again, once he’d played the one song which everyone knew, they’d probably have fucked off to the Con Club to listen to Bat Out Of Hell (the LP) in its entirety. Again.
For the people I’ve described tonight, Chronons and Gluons seem to have interacted in a massive way on a macroscopic scale. Unlike Billy Pilgrim, they’ve got stuck in Time. I’m talking about people like Fleur, and Mike, and the pub bands, and the circuit DJs, and the terminal bores who inhabit the Internet forums of Soft Machine and Pink Floyd fans. (I’m sure there are many other Internet forums where similar debates are rehearsed endlessly.)
I’m not immune to this time-lag effect. Far from it. As I’ve said on many occasions, Fleetwood Mac were only a worthwhile band when they were five guys who’d learned their chops working with John’s Mayall Bluesbreakers, and it was, ‘Heads down, see you in five minutes’ rock. Once the bloody women got on board and it all became airy-fairy hippy-dippy nonsense, they were a spent force. The fact that the said spent force went on to record one of the biggest-selling LPs of all time (Rumours) simply proves that popularity is no guarantee of quality.
Don’t believe me? The evidence is undeniable. Look at The Guinness Book of Hit Singles (which isn’t published any more, sadly) and you’ll see a long list of the No 1 singles from November 1952 onwards: Meat Loaf; Oasis; The Stereophonics; One Direction; Mr fucking Blobby…
It would be interesting – from a purely scientific point of view, of course – to go to a gig by Fleetwood Mac, and see how many people cheer when they play the opening riff to this:
Would the crowd go wild? Or would the band get booed offstage until they played Rhiannon or some other zillion-selling piece of crap? Come to think of it, we both know the answer, don’t we…?