Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Time and Identity

In an earlier blog entry, I wrote about the pleasure of discovering something you don't remember writing. It gives us the illusion of seeing ourselves uncritically, as if for the first time, as a stranger would. Because we feverishly cook up our identities in layers of second- and third-hand perceptions of impressions, it is by unwrapping the past and seeing things in the present that we can resolve our problems of identity.

Warning: this story opens with a slightly tedious preamble that a) doesn’t have much to do with the point I am trying to make and b) is bogged down with nerdy technical details that are in themselves of no interest to anyone. I recommend you skip them, and begin reading this blog entry at paragraph 8, which begins: ‘This is where the story really starts.’

The story starts with a pair of Sony earphones. They are iPhone compatible, which means that they have a little control panel on the left-hand wire (for a right-handed person), with which I can pause, fast-forward or rewind music on my iPhone without having to take it out of my pocket and get mugged. (I warned you about the pointless technical nonsense, didn't I?) The pause button also works on the radio, but not the fast-forward/rewind feature, of course. It is ideal for someone who likes listening to music, but who also goes in and out of shops.

Then, one day after the warranty expired, the earphones stopped working. That is to say, they became temperamental, and began stopping and starting my music of their own accord. They would skim through some songs, and refuse to play others. They would go haywire, normally finally alighting on 'Clamour For a Fudge' by The Marthas & Arthurs, the only song they were happy for me to listen to without interruption.

I spent a few days not listening to music on the way to and from work, putting off buying new earphones because I was grumpy about have to do so. Then last night, I decided that I really did need to have earphones that worked, and that to help me resolve to do this, I would put them in and listen to them going haywire. For a few moments, they did their mischief of flicking and fast-forwarding between songs. Then, abruptly, the music started playing continuously. The chaos had ended. The earphones had fixed themselves.

Back at home, I was typing on my laptop, when I suddenly realised that my laptop's 'O' key, which had been sticky recently, and getting stickier, was suddenly working perfectly well. My laptop keyboard had also fixed itself, saving me considerable time, trouble and money to get it repaired. It was therefore reasonable for me to assume that a third electrical problem would be resolved without any action on my part (according to the Rule of Three), so I plugged my Macbook into my TV. Since New Year, my Macbook Pro had failed to recognize my TV as an additional monitor. According to internet forums, this problem seems to be shared by dozens of angry Macbook Pro owners, and no definitive solution has yet been offered. 

Alas, the all-to-familiar 'No Signal' message appeared. But I was now irrevocably distracted from what I was writing. Returning to the forums, I carried out some of the suggested operations (resetting the PRAM and the SMC – whatever that means) and was about to boot my Mac from the CD to see if the problem could be fixed that way, and this led me to a pile of miscellaneous, mainly non-music CDs stacked up in a pile at one end of a bookshelf in my bedroom. Flicking through the cases, looking for the OSX install disc (Yes, I knew this had precious little chance of working, but by this stage I was simply amusing myself), I came across a blank disc in a case with the word 'EVERYTHING' written on it (the case, not the disc) in black magic marker.

This is where the story really starts. If you took my advice in paragraph 2, and started reading from this point, the only important thing you have missed is that I have just discovered, on a bookshelf in my bedroom, a blank CD in a case with the word 'EVERYTHING' written on it (the case, not the disc) in black magic marker. I stuck it in my Mac and was a little astonished to discover that it was a backup disc of stuff I wrote between 1997 and 2000. Hundreds of Word documents, some small, some tiny, were organized in a mess of folders, and contained letters to friends, translations from French and Latin, unperformable theatrical sketches, scraps of thoughts, job interview letters, etc. etc. The whole treasure trove, rescued from a long-defunct computer, I'd presumed I'd lost, or at least wasn't worth keeping. I never expected to come across it again.

There was a more dramatic discovery to be made. In the folder called 'Writing' there was a further folder called 'And more', with more scraps of text in, as well as a further 'Untitled' folder nested in that. Inside were copies of the files of the novel that I began writing back in c.1998. This was the last thing I expected to find, because as far as I was aware, I'd thrown the whole damned thing away at least ten years ago. I distinctly remember the sense of relief, of satisfaction, even joy, when I finally picked up the folder with the text files (totalling around 30,000 words), plans and unplaced scraps of dialogue, dragged them to the Trash and emptied it. I was revolted by its style, which vigorously plagiarized Boris Vian (I  was seriously into him back then), and its plot and characters, which reflected my unsophisticated, adolescent tastes. The affected manner highlighted, rather than disguised, the ghastly self-indulgence of the contents. I've never regretted throwing out all that work. Yet all this time, a copy had existed. 
Here's a titbit. Our three heroes go boating in Hyde Park:

With undisguised relief he clocks the weight of great wealth causing their boats to take in water and capsize. Simon’s got an idea.
'What’s that then?'
'Just a mo.” he says, and sprints off to have a word with a very particular old chum he knows he’ll find somewhere round here. Tommy and Laura follow at an andante. 
'Take plums, for eggzample…' Tommy’s saying. 
'…a favourite fruit…'
'…and a very secksyoual one. It’s been documented. In Zanzibar they’re an aphrodisiac.'
'And in Renaissance painting they represent women’s bits.'
'What about greengages?'
'The opposite - sterility and winter. They appeared on the national flag of Greenland when it gained independence from Denmark briefly in 1974. The Vikings worshipped the greengage as a god. It was called Grnøngjë.' 
By the time they’ve caught up with Simon and his very particular old chum, they’ve finished whatever it was they’d been talking about. The stranger’s a stubbled chilled-out geezer with a digeridoo look about him. He holds out a long long finger, which Tommy, Laura and Simon follow to a solitary rowing boat moored in the shade of a mellow yellow tree. The man studies them carefully. Unbeknownst, even to Simon, he is an angel, a real one, wearing (as a nifty disguise) a khaki Che Guevara T-shirt, cut-back brown canvas togs, a knotty hanky over his deadlocked hair, and bright yellow sports sandals. He smiles at the three young sailonauts, and the sparkling water is reflected in his rippling eyes. 
Tommy and Laura got into the boat and sat at one end then Simon got in and took up the oars then Laura and Simon stood up and swapped places so that Simon and Tommy sat at one end with Laura taking up the oars then Tommy stood up and said Laura I’ll row so Laura stood up and let Tommy sit down and take up the oars then Simon said we’re still tied up so Tommy got out of the boat and untied the ropes and while he was doing that Laura said watch we don't drift off so Simon got up and took up the oars and when the boat was untied Tommy jumped back into the boat and sat down next to Laura and Simon pushed the bank away and pushed the water out from under the boat and rowed the boat out into the middle of the lake quite fast while Tommy and Laura sang 'Simon Row The Boat Ashore (Halleluia)'. 
With arms like bacon, Simon skillfully guided the little leisureboat to the centre of the lake (where the big fish were loudly discussing theatre). Then, with a deft backwardflick derollockment of the paddles, he set the crew on the thin edge of a leeward tidal windwash that would carry them onwards without effort. Tommy, Laura and Simon lay back in sunbathed ecstacy. With their eyes shut, they gazed into the empty sky. And the wind carried every sound in London across their dozing earsockets and away, very distant, very distinct: first the hypnotic gravel-grinding of the circular wheelbladers, then the flapping wings of a tiny sparrow atop a tree overlooking the execution site at Speechless Corner, as it choked on a cigarillo butt it had mistaken for food, then the mechanical rumble of traffic, a million million angry people encased in metal, one of them telling another to get a fucking move on - excuse my language but I gotta tell it like it is - then a child of three shrieking with tearful laughter. All these sounds, stripped of significance, drifted softly, clearly, beautifully, across the surface of the Certaintime, before finally disappearing entirely, and giving way to the music of more difficult origin. The sun fought fiercely through the breaks in the breeze, and the ultramarine sky became dotted with firefairies, singing highlow notes in rapidslow lines of melody, infinite in number, growing like tendrils from the rapidslow lines of melody, infinite in number, growing like tendrils from the rapidslow lines of melody, infinite in number, growing like tendrils from the horizons of vision and meeting and crossing and giving birth to fresh harmonies and fresh unisons. 

OK, it's pretty horrific. The novel was going to be called Tell Laura I Love Her, based on the 1960 Ricky Valance song about a young man who dies in a car crash. What was surprising, for a story I don't remember writing, was the growing subplot (a draft chapter-breakdown reveals this was going to be quite important) about a woman who has lost her memory. The themes of recollection and identity crop up again and again. Laura herself goes missing halfway through the story, and from that point onwards, her surname keeps being misremembered or mistyped, making attempts to trace her increasingly difficult, just as Ricky Valance is often confused with Ritchie Valens, who died in a plane crash the previous year.

I've moved on now, so I'm obviously not going to finish the novel, but it makes for fascinating reading. It's always good not to remember writing, but to read about forgetting is even better. I’m pleased I no longer feel the need to destroy what I write. Time makes it (almost) bearable to read again.

As I was putting the CDs away back on the shelf, I spotted something else that I'd thought I'd lost, but had simply been hiding. Behind a framed photograph taken on my wedding day propped up on the bookshelf, I found my copy of The Krishnamurti Reader.* I'd been putting off buying a replacement copy of it, even though it appeared it'd been missing for months (just as I'd been putting off bringing my Mac in to having the 'O' key fixed). A good job I gave it time. Give things time, time and forgetfulness, is the message, and problems of all kind will resolve. This is what Krishnamurti has to say on the subject of time and memory:

Without comprehending the present, which is rooted in the past, you will have no understanding. The present misery of man [woman] [humanity] is understood when through the door of the present, he [she] is able to be aware of the causes that have produced it. You cannot brush aside the present in trying to understand the past, but only through awareness of the present does the past begin to unfold itself. …. The present is of the highest importance; the present, however tragic and painful, is the only door to reality…. The present is the only time for understanding, for it extends into yesterday and into tomorrow. The present is the whole of time; in the seed of the present are the past and the future; the past is the present and the future is the present. The present is the eternal, the timeless….. Look only to the present, neither to the past nor to the future, for love is the present, the timeless.

We should live our lives in the present, like live radio. We should not strive to rewind or fast-forward it, even with Sony earphones.

* Penguin Books, London, 1970. Edited by Mary Lutyens, who was the daughter of the architect Edwin Lutyens.

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