The Hurdy Gurdy Man

The Hurdy Gurdy Man by Chris Green

It is after midnight. Lois and I are watching a nail-biting episode of Bad Break on Horizon when the old man in the threadbare purple duffle coat calls round. He is selling violins. In these uncertain times, traders are likely to call round at any time of day or night but it is unusual for a violin seller to call so late. You expect people selling camping gear and kitchen utensils to knock on your door up until three a.m. And of course, carpet sellers. But we are usually in bed by then. As a rule, we go to bed at two, after Cricketers’ Wives on Bygone finishes, unless it’s a Thursday and we happen to be watching Black Lens on Extra. This does not finish until two-thirty.

Lately, there is a non-stop procession of hawkers, selling anything and everything. Fishing tackle, jet skis, garden gnomes, overspill from car boots, sometimes things that even charity shops won’t take. Having been encouraged to buy all manner of merchandise at every opportunity, people are constantly clearing out. Add to this the swathes of people who have been hit by the dramatic downturn, desperate to sell a few bits and pieces to be able to put food on the table and you begin to understand why you get so many callers. We now recognise some of the regulars. The late-night transient selling boxes of knock-off DVDs, the Frankie Dettori lookalike selling fake signed photographs of sports celebrities, the down-at-heel vagrant selling Lambretta badges and Gilbert O’Sullivan CDs. Sometimes we have to put the light out and pretend we have already gone up the wooden hill.

We don’t normally buy violins on the doorstep. Neither of us plays. Yet this does not stop me from purchasing a Cremona Premier. I have not seen a green violin before. And he is only asking ninety-nine pounds for it. I recognise a bargain when I see one and a green violin for ninety-nine pounds is a bargain in anyone’s book. The man in the purple duffle coat knocks off a catchy Fritz Kreisler tune and says that he will accept an IOU if necessary. Although money is tight, I don’t like the thought of being in debt so I pay him in cash. He says his name is Quinn and if we are interested, he may have some trumpets next week.

Buying from door-to-door sellers is all very well but you have to be on your guard. Life was easier when you could buy goods over the internet. You had eBay and Amazon and Gumtree where practically everything you could ever want was available. I knew someone who bought a bottlenose dolphin and Ravi next door used to buy all his drugs this way. In addition, most businesses had an online purchasing facility. Admittedly, you were deluged with adverts but with practice, it was easy to ignore these. And for specialised markets, there was the so-called darknet.

But all of this is gone now. It might only be six months or so but it is as if the internet never existed. It just goes to show how quickly you get used to things. It is surprising how easily a new common sense develops. Lois and I used to work for Google and now and again, we hear a rumour from an ex-colleague that the internet will soon be back. But then, we hear nothing further. This leads us to believe that whoever or whatever is blocking it is determined to keep it that way. While it is difficult to say for certain, it appears cyber-networks are down worldwide. It seems you would need the internet to find out why there is no internet. Without the internet, news media has struggled. The stories we get have become more localised, the re-routing of the bypass, the search for the missing teenager or the closure of The Goat and Bicycle.

People are throwing out their iPhones. With their functionality reduced to that of making calls, they are of little use. Even making calls is hit and miss due to the breakdown of communication links. Someone from the discount store in town called round last week in the middle of the final episode of Killing Steve offering a job lot. £50 for ten, he said.

When the internet was still up and running, you could stream your favourite TV programmes on your portable devices or on sixty-inch screens in the comfort of your living room. Lois and I used to watch our shows in the middle of the afternoon after we had finished our shifts at Google. We became accustomed to binge-watching box sets. We frequently used to watch three or four episodes of Twin Peaks or Black Widow on the trot. And we could get Alexa to put the kettle on or turn the central heating up while we looked through reviews of hundreds of new series that were available to stream. We took it all for granted. Without the internet, there is no catch-up television. You have to view everything in real-time and there are strict rules about what can be shown on TV before the nine pm watershed. Tame sitcoms and vapid soaps. Auctions of tat and tired quiz shows. Channels are required to put any programmes with adult content on after nine. So, Lois and I no longer enjoy our cosy early nights. Although today’s serial dramas are only poor imitations of those of yesteryear, each night we find ourselves in front of the TV until the early hours.

For some unexplainable reason, recording devices no longer work so we cannot time-shift programmes. Even the techies I know cannot understand why this is. But I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky. We still have television although from time to time there is talk of this too disappearing completely, in the same way that the internet did. You never know what to believe. In this post-truth age, it is nearly impossible to find out what is really going on.

Now there are no longer any internet-related services, Lois and I are unable to find work. We now grow much of our own produce in the garden and door-to-door grocers come around each morning to supplement this so we do not need to go into town often. When we do, we come across groups of noisy protestors, no doubt angry about what is going on. It means I have plenty of time on my hands to learn to play my new violin. The first few days are probably agonising for the neighbours. If you’ve ever had a son or daughter learning the instrument, you will understand. The violin in the hands of a novice does not immediately produce sweet music. I suspect Ravi is able to find a way to shut it out but once or twice, I hear the Domingos the other side of us banging on the wall.

In the middle of an episode of Found, Quinn calls round as promised with his trumpets. He plays a pretty little Chet Baker number on a shiny Selmer. Lois is transfixed and decides she wants it.

You can have it for ninety-nine pounds,’ he says. ‘And I’ll even throw in an interesting little primer.’

That’ll be a great help,’ Lois says. ‘No YouTube instruction videos these days, are there? I’ll take it.’

And next week I’ll be round again with a surprise,’ he says. ‘Something a little different.’

I make slow but steady progress on the violin but with her somewhat unusual primer, Lois’s trumpet playing comes on in leaps and bounds. In no time at all, she masters, Should I Stay or Should I Go and Rock the Casbah. The Domingos appear to be enjoying these Clash numbers as we hear no further knocking on the wall.

Without warning, television goes off the air. All the channels show static. None of our friends or neighbours has any information about what has happened. Who is behind it? What is their aim? At first, the hope is that the blackout is temporary but it continues day after day. There is no way of knowing but it gradually becomes apparent that it is a worldwide phenomenon. It looks like TV will not be back anytime soon.

Lois and I start going to bed at nine o’clock. It is often difficult to sleep though as more and more people knock at the door with goods for sale. Without the internet or television, perhaps there is nothing left for folks to do with their spare time but life-launder. We debate whether we ought to do the same. Should we have a big clear out? Should we get a handcart and go door-to-door, selling some of the teapots Lois has collected over the years and my model aeroplanes?

Where have you been?’ Quinn says. ‘I’ve called round several times.’

We don’t answer the door after three in the afternoon,’ I say. ‘Too many people selling things and we don’t need anything else. We don’t have room.’

You’ll want this,’ Quinn says. ‘I’ve been saving it for you.’

He opens his bag and pulls out the most curious musical instrument I’ve ever seen. It is shaped a little like a violin but has a silver crank at the butt end. Its strings appear to be covered by an ornate wooden board and it has a small but prominent keyboard on the underside of this. It is a work of art.

What is it?’ I say.

It’s a hurdy gurdy,’ Quinn says.

With this, he deftly knocks out an old English folk tune. So far as I can gather, the crank works like a bow and the keyboard blocks the strings to produce notes.

Ninety-nine pounds and it’s yours,’ he says. ‘You might find it a little tricky at first but I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it. No primer for this one, I’m afraid.’

It still seems remarkably cheap so once again I go to see what cash we have left under the mattress. There is just enough. I tell him I will have plenty of time to learn to play now that there’s no television to interrupt me. ‘

Of course,’ Quinn says. ‘The old goggle box has finally gone. Never watched it myself. Constant stream of babble. Frank Lloyd Wright called it chewing gum for the eyes. Anyway, you probably won’t believe me but I have a theory about what has happened to the internet and TV.’

Everyone, it seems, has a theory but no one is able to back up their thoughts. The Earth’s magnetism gone haywire. Mass malfunction of satellites. Divine retribution for our sins. The Illuminati perhaps. Religious zealots, Muslims, Jews, Seventh Day Adventists. Tech companies holding everyone to ransom to raise their prices. The Chinese or the Russians using it as a tool for world domination. The precursor to an alien invasion. Is Quinn’s theory going to be any different?

We hear him out. His idea is absurd. Surely he cannot be serious. How could it be down to a small bunch of anarchists to highlight climate change? Granted Google’s servers used the same amount of power as whole continents and televisions were getting larger and larger. Certainly, taking out the main channels of advertising would hit capitalism where it hurts. But how would they have had the funding or the means to take down secure well-established global communications networks? And how would the ensuing chaos benefit the Extinction Rebellion cause? Surely they would need a voice and a means to transmit their anti-capitalist, save the planet, peacenik, no nukes message. To to do so by word of mouth on a day-to-day basis worldwide would be a big ask for a small disorganised unit.

Nice try,’ I say. ‘But I really don’t think that’s likely.’

I did say you may not believe me,’ Quinn says. ‘After all, it does seem a bit fanciful. But, we shall see. Enjoy your hurdy gurdy and don’t forget to look out for me. I may be round again with another surprise.’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Advertisements

Nevermind

nevermind

Nevermind by Chris Green

Growing up was never going to be easy for me. I could see from an early age that my parents were simply too distracted to put effort into raising a family. In the circles in which they moved, parenting was not fashionable. They immersed themselves in a series of leisure interests, none of which involved having a youngster in tow. Perhaps it was a generational thing. In the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties, attitudes to family life in society were changing. As a result, I missed out on Santa’s Grottos, pantomimes, seaside outings, board games and skateboarding.

Busy pursuing a series of unsuccessful band projects, Dad was absent a lot of the time but Mum was hardly there at all. After years of talking about movie stardom, she finally left for Hollywood when I was nine, destined to become a film extra in a series of low budget B-Movies. Dad called it a day on performing with bands. It was obviously not going to make him a fortune. From this point on, he began to focus on building his vast record collection and growing a long beard. He looked like some kind of shaman or Eastern mystic. Does he have hidden powers, Phil Dark asked me one time, is he a soothsayer? Eddie Whitlock, who I used to play football with, referred to him as Mephistopheles. It slowly dawned on me that Dad was a bit weird.

I was never sure exactly what he did for a living but it was not a nine to five at the office. As far as I could tell, it involved a lot of sitting around in our smoke-filled front room with groups of dazed-looking people listening to loud music. Whatever it was, he put in very long hours. Clearly, this paid off. He always seemed to have large wads of tens and twentys in rubber bands. From time to time, he would peel off a couple of notes and tell me to go down the arcade or something. I quickly became adept at losing money on the machines. School was never of much interest to me and Dad didn’t even insist that I attended. I’m not sure I missed a lot.

By the time I was fourteen, Dad’s collection of albums extended around all four walls of the front room and beyond. It must have run into thousands. This was before the digital age. In Dad’s world, even the then-new medium of CDs was frowned upon. As for cassettes, he said, you might as well be listening through polythene. It had to be vinyl. He insisted the sound vinyl gave was richer. He was eclectic in his tastes and enjoyed everything from reggae to Nepalese gong music, heavy metal to acid jazz, The New York Dolls to The Third Ear Band. He had everything. The Velvet Underground, The Dead Kennedys. The Psychedelic Furs. He had to my reckoning no less than nineteen Captain Beefheart albums. And probably the only Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs album in existence

While it would be wrong to say I liked all the music he played. Frank Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy and Throbbing Gristle’s The Second Annual Report, for instance, were hard to get into. But Dad’s collection provided me with a musical education way beyond that which I would have got from my peers or by listening to the radio. In the normal run of things I would never have heard be-bop jazz, roots reggae or Creole. And I would have probably only heard the punk they played on Radio 1 and not the gritty New York stuff. Dad was keen for me to show an interest. He actively encouraged my appreciation of music. When he wasn’t too busy, he would take time out and like a history teacher, take me through his collection.

This is Chuck Berry,’ he might say. ‘This is where rock music began. The intro of Johnny B. Goode changed everything. And this is Dick Dale who pioneered the surf guitar sound.’

Or another time, ‘This is Nirvana, son. It’s called Nevermind. You won’t come across this for another ten years. But then you will hear it a lot. There are others too.’

I didn’t take much notice of the ten years bit at the time but I wish I had. If had I taken it in, it may have helped me later on.

Given there was little else happening around the house, I developed a keen interest in music. I discovered a lot of it sounded brilliant, especially on the kit that Dad had set up, the Lin deck, the powerful Quad amp and the massive Kef speakers. Music from all genres. It was also not too shabby on the Sony music centre he bought me for my bedroom. I was becoming hooked. Sometimes we both had our systems on full blast. It must have been hell for the neighbours.

I don’t mind you playing my albums,’ he said. ‘So long as you are careful. But whatever you do, don’t be tempted to play this one.’

With this, he drew out an album with a plain matt black sleeve with no writing or artwork.

Naturally, I asked him why. Was it dangerous? Was it illegal? He did not answer my questions.

Seriously,’ he said, to emphasise the point. ‘Don’t be tempted to play it. It would not be a good idea.’

He ignored further protestations and gave me the look that I knew from experience meant business. I put the matter to the back of my mind. No doubt one day I would find out what the record was but for now it didn’t matter. There were plenty of others to get my teeth into.

Inspired by Dad’s collection, and through the twentys, he continued to slip me every couple of days, I began a collection of my own. Marvin Gaye, Miles Davis, The Ramones, Def Leppard, Was Not Was, Nick Drake, Jacob Miller. I liked a lot of different types of music. I felt I was ahead of my peers at school, who were still listening to the likes of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet.

Although he had given up gigging, Dad still had some of his guitars hanging around and with my new-found interest in music, it seemed only natural that I should learn to play. The Gibson I plugged in didn’t make sweet sounds right away but after a few days practice, I began to get the hang of it. With a view to perhaps forming a group, I began to write songs with my friend, Charlie. Charlie had been playing longer than me and knew more than just a few chords. He could even play keyboards and read music.

By this time, Dad had met Debbie. At last, there was someone who seemed to like his Karl Marx beard. I had felt for a long time the beard had held him back in the romance stakes since Mum left. There was so much beard and it was so unkempt. Not every woman would want to wake up to that. But Debbie clearly didn’t mind. With a new spring in his step, he started to go out more often taking Debbie to exhibitions and concerts. This meant I often had the house to myself. Charlie took to coming around and we began to put together new songs. Charlie was impressed by Dad’s huge collection and we would go through it and play our favourites on the new Bang and Olufsen hi-fi Dad had bought to impress Debbie.

On one of Charlie’s visits, I went out to get refreshments and when I returned, I found him collapsed on the floor. I tried to bring him round by slapping him and shaking him but he did not respond. Had he taken something, he shouldn’t, I wondered? Had he suffered an attack of a mysterious life-threatening condition he had not told me about? I checked his pulse. It seemed to be pulsing and so far as I could tell, he was still breathing which was lucky. I sure as hell wasn’t going to give him the kiss of life. I would never live it down. I called an ambulance. They asked me who he was. They asked me what had happened. I said I didn’t know. The paramedics tried to bring him round. They seemed to become more and more flustered. One of them talked urgently to a colleague over the radio. Evidently, Charlie’s condition was serious. I went with the crew in the ambulance as it rushed him to hospital, alarms sounding.

While I was waiting in Littleton General for news, I got an angry call from Dad.

I told you to leave that album alone,’ he shouted down the phone.

Which album?’ I said.

The one I told you about,’ he said. ‘The black album. I found it in its dust jacket on the floor. …… At least, you didn’t play it. ……. You didn’t play it, did you? No, of course not. You couldn’t have. Otherwise …..’

I suddenly realised he was talking about the black album. As it happened, I hadn’t even thought about it for years.

Without saying where I was or what had happened to Charlie, I told Dad I had more important things to think about and hung up. But, might Charlie have played the album while I was out? Could there be a connection between this and his collapse? Dad had been very definite that I should not play it. There had to be a reason. But this was absurd. It was a ridiculous idea. What was I thinking? It couldn’t realistically have had anything to do with it.

I kept out of Dad’s way for a few days and he was pre-occupied with Debbie’s birthday preparations and he appeared to forget all about the episode. Charlie meanwhile recovered, but he did not come around much after this. I don’t know if this was down to Charlie or whether it was down to me but we never got around to discussing what had actually happened that day. Meanwhile, I found a new writing partner, Jilli who I discovered I could quite happily give the kiss of life to if needed. Things moved forward rapidly as they tend to do for teenagers.

You may not have heard of The Lenticular Clouds but in 1987, for one week in July, our single, Out of Time was in the charts at number 39. Also we recorded an album that we felt might have cemented us in the annals of rock history had it sadly not been shelved by the record company after an alleged wrangle with our manager, Larry Funk. The master tapes of Up in the Clouds mysteriously disappeared. We re-recorded the songs from the album but with poor facilities and wholesale changes in our line-up, they didn’t come out the same. Given the poor quality of the recording, this too was shelved. By the end of 1988, I found I was the only surviving member of the original band. Charlie, Vince, Hank and Freddie had all left, along with Jilli.

Out of the blue one day, I remembered the Nirvana disc that Dad had shown me back in 1981. The one he told me I would not come across for another decade. Why the anomaly had not troubled me before, I cannot say. Perhaps I had never been big on mindfulness. Like Mum and Dad, I was too easily distracted, unable to concentrate on one thing long enough to get to the bottom of it. But surely this was a biggie. How had I let this one go? It occurred to me now that there might be others like Nevermind, other items in Dad’s collection that denied temporal logic. Albums that Dad owned that rightly belonged to a future time. Hadn’t he suggested this was the case when he first mentioned it? How or why this might be, of course, was a different matter. Perhaps Phil Dark and Eddie Whitlock had been right and Dad did have special powers. Might the curious black album that he had made all the fuss about be part of the weirdness as well? It was time for me to investigate.

I did not confront Dad with it immediately but when he and Debbie had gone to see an art-house film at the cinema, I looked through the shelves for the black album. He had moved it but I eventually found it. I slowly took it out of its sleeve. There was nothing written on the plain black label. I placed it carefully on Dad’s new Linn Axis turntable and lowered the arm. I think I knew what I expected to hear but at the same time, I refused to believe it. Sure enough, it was Make Believe, the opening track from The Lenticular Clouds’ original album. The fist song Charlie and I wrote. I tried to get my head around how this could have happened. We had not even recorded it at the time that Dad first showed me the disc. But in a way it made sense because this was on the same occasion that he showed me Nevermind, which would not be available for another ten years. There was no rational explanation for this either. Perhaps there never would be. Dad refused point-blank to explain. What was the point, he said? I never listened to him and anyway, I would not understand. While I was not an expert in these matters, I had worked out that the passing of time was in a sense illusory. There was no tomorrow. Every time I had woken up it was today. But you could play around with concepts for evermore. This was abstract thinking. It did not help towards understanding. Why are life’s mysteries so tantalising?

It was anything but straightforward but I managed to track down Mum in California. I wished I hadn’t bothered. It was distressing. She didn’t seem to know who I was let alone what the score was with Dad’s music collection. Nor did she seem interested in talking. It sounded as if she wanted to get back to her bottle. Why are family units so dysfunctional?

Coda

I left home shortly after this. I left the music business behind and moved away from Littleton to sort my life out. I travelled for a year or two and ended up in New Zealand where I joined a sheep worshipping cult. This did not work out. Sheep worshipping is not for everyone. It is not all it is cracked up to be. I had a breakdown. On my recovery, I struck up a relationship with my psychotherapist’s daughter, Naida. We got married and now have two teenage children who are hopefully better adjusted than I was when I was growing up.

These days, I find it is far easier to stream music. You no longer need to build up a collection. It’s all out there. Apart from The Lenticular Clouds album that is. You may have some difficulty finding this. Nevermind, should you want to, you can stream all of Nirvana’s stuff. And as Johnny B. Goode was sent into interstellar space on the Voyager mission a while back, it is quite likely that aliens from some distant place are heading this way to see what else we have to offer. They are probably ready for Dick Dale’s surf guitar classics and Captain Beefheart’s nineteen albums. They are probably even ready for Impaled Northern Moonforest and Compressorhead. And who knows what they might bring to the table?

So far as I can make out, Dad’s record collection gradually got replaced by CDs and later, digital. I think Debbie was keen to free up the space. I never asked how much he got for it but it must have been thousands. The beard has gone too, I gather. Now and again, I try to recall how strange life was back then. But, it all seems so long ago, I sometimes question whether it happened at all. Memory is not always a reliable servant. I don’t know if I can say for certain that temporal order has been restored or whether it was ever breached. Perhaps its best to be mindful and be on the look out for more surprises, just in case.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Concerto

concerto2

Concerto by Chris Green

1: Allegretto con moto

There are not many famous Spanish concert pianists, fewer still from Cantabria, that rainy green strip in the north of the country. Nia Buendía might have joined this small elite, if only she had had larger hands. She mastered Mozart’s Piano Sonatas before she was ten and won regional competitions playing Beethoven Concertos when she was in her early teens. Catalan composer, Isaac Albéniz’s piano works are considered by many to be challenging, but Nia breezed through them. She took on Chopin and Schumann, winning acclaim for her lyrical interpretations of both composers. Even the difficult Carnaval caused her no problems. She was at the top of her game. Fame beckoned.

Sadly for Nia, classical pianists are eventually expected to have a go at Rachmaninov. Rachmaninov raises the bar a little. Even the greats have trouble. Rachmaninov, of course, had very big hands. He could comfortably straddle a thirteenth, whereas Nia could just manage an eighth. Nia could have exercised caution and elected to play his Piano Concerto No 2, which is less challenging, but she chose to perform the famously difficult Rach 3. Somehow she managed to get through the first two movements, but the Third Movement proved to be her downfall. Her hands were simply too small to span and reach the extra notes of the giant chords. This was the Iberian National Young Musician of the Year event and her performance was televised. It was a disaster and afterwards, Nia broke down. She did not perform in public again. She was just nineteen.

For months afterwards, Nia experienced a recurring nightmare about her performance. In the nightmare, instead of shrinking off from the stage meekly at the end of the concerto, she took a blacksmith’s hammer and set about breaking the Steinway into pieces. Her therapist, Juan Loco, suggested that this was a positive sign. He said that by smashing the piano, she was taking control of the situation. It did not feel this way to Nia. Her spirit crushed, she withdrew further inside herself.

She tried to hide her despair under a cloak of normality. She had one or two lovers and eventually got married to Pablo Rodrigues, a provincial town planner in Santander with whom she raised two normal if unexceptional children, Javier and Josefina. But something was missing from her life. Her sparkle had gone. She was just going through the motions of living. Days passed and years passed with nothing to distinguish them from one another. Nia worked part-time at the library then came home to cook dinner for the family. She pretended to like the television shows that Pablo liked and to understand golf. He, in turn, pretended to forget her birthday and not notice when she had her hair done. Twice a year they would have Pablo’s friends from the planning office and their wives round to dinner and she would cook paella and twice a year Pablo’s friends would return the compliment. Every year they went on holiday for the last week of August to Gijón, one hundred and forty kilometres along the coast.

Many of us pass our sad little lives never rocking the boat or troubling the pens of history’s copywriters. Perhaps we have nothing to say. The ennui of Nia’s early adult years may indeed be typical. What happens when in the middle of life we discover that time has begun to speed up? The expression mid-life crisis is perhaps apt. Sometimes it takes an unexpected event or a major health scare to jolt us out of our complacency. To show us that life is actually something that is finite.

To paraphrase Shel Silverstein, there came a point in her late thirties when Nia realised that Paris, sports cars and warm winds blowing her hair were not going to feature much in her life. She decided that a stable town planner might be better equipped to deal with the heteroclitic needs of teenage children than a soul in torment. Also, there was the terrible secret that she was not ready to share. She felt it was for the best all round that she made a clean break. In short, one day when Pablo was at work and Javier and Josefina were at school, she packed a bag, cleared out the joint bank account and left. Had she thought a little more about it she might have left a note to explain her reasons, but then Pablo might have pursued her and taken her prisoner again.

2: Largo misterioso

Let’s join Nia Buendía in New Orleans, Louisiana, the centre of voodoo, blues and jazz. Nia has taken an out of season riverboat down the Mississippi from Memphis to New Orleans. The blame for this strange pilgrimage must rest with young Javier’s copy of Las Aventuras de Huckleberry Finn which she found lying around. Reading it made her realise that human beings were nothing without an adventure. She also read Simone de Beauvoir’s El Segundo Sexo, which her friend, Flavia lent her. Why shouldn’t women as well as men have adventures? You had to take your chances in life. This was not a dress rehearsal for something else.

It has been a year or two since Hurricane Katrina brought New Orleans to its knees. Nia is at Po’ Boy’s Bar on the famous Bourbon Street and has had her bag stolen, with her passport and credit cards. This does not come as a surprise to Red Sayles, the jazz musician who has come over to comfort her. ‘Since Katrina, there’s no point in going to the police,’ he tells her. ‘They ain’t that big on crime solving.’

Unable to pay for the hotel and with nowhere else to go, Nia takes up Red’s offer to put her up until she gets sorted. He has an apartment just off of Basin Street, which he shares with some other musicians, but as luck would have it they are out of town. Red takes the opportunity to tell her what life in The Big Easy is like.

For the first few weeks after Katrina there was violence, looting, murder and rape,’ he says. ‘Then they sent in The National Guard. But that did not seem to help that much. There was more violence, looting, rape and murder. People was afraid. Except for journos looking for a story they just stopped coming. Everything was closed. There was no work. There was nothing in the shops.’

But I thought it was alright now,’ Nia says. ‘Well, until I had my bag stolen.’

It is alright. You was just unlucky, ma’am, that’s all. I guess it all takes time for things to settle. The city is slowly recovering. Places are re-opening, but for many, it is a hand to mouth existence.’

I did see a few beggars.’

Yeah, but only a few, because people here have got pride. New Orleans is made up of Cajun and Creole. Cajun is French-speaking white American and Creole is French-speaking black American. Now, I’m half Cajun and half Creole and I don’t speak French. Work that one out.’

I see.’

But I get by. If you know the right people, though, you can still get by. I love New Orleans. New Orleans is probably the only city in the modern world that is not homogenised. It has its own character. Most cities have become theme parks, but New Orleans, ma’am, New Orleans is real. I don’t think I will ever leave. The moonlight on the bayou, a creole tune that fills the air.’

That’s nice,’ Nia says. ‘Where is that from?’

Satchmo,’ Red says.

That’s Louis Armstrong, isn’t it,’ Nia says.

Yeah, the one and only. New Orleans got soul, you know. Music is its soul. You don’t play for the money here, you do it for the music.’

Nia is guarded about what she shares. She talks about how her trip down the Mississippi was an attempt to satisfy her vagabond spirit. She says little about her life with Pablo and drops it casually into the conversation that she has two children as if it is something that happened in a past life. Red does not pursue the enquiry.

Nia does not even mention that she once played the piano. But, through a comment she makes here and there, Red begins to realise that she has an understanding of music. One night when he comes home from playing in a club, he catches her tinkling around on his practice keyboard. This is the first time in years that she has played. Red can’t help but notice that she is not a beginner. He listens quietly from the next room. He feels that there is a great sadness about her playing. It is not just the minor key that describes her melancholy but the way she puts that extra space between the descending notes.

It might not sound like it, but that’s the blues you’re playing,’ Red says. ‘That there tune your playing is coming from a place deep inside.’

Oh sorry, I didn’t see you there.’

It’s a pretty tune,’ he says. ‘Where did you learn to play like that?’

Nia explains a little about her classical training and about her downfall.

Rachmaninov,’ he says. ‘You’re jivin me, right? He sounds like he’s hitting the dang piano with a blacksmith’s hammer.’

You mean …… the big chords?’ Nia says, taken aback by the image.

Yeah, them big chords, if that’s what you can call them. ……. But I do like some classical music. Satie is cool, you can do something with his tunes, and Debussy. …….. But Rachmaninov and all those Russian cats are a no-no. All artists and musicians should be looking for stillness in their art. You get disconnected when you lose your stillness and this Rachmaninov sure is disconnected.’

Red persuades Nia to sit in on a session at lunchtime the following day and it goes down well with the punters. In his evening set, he gives her a solo spot. She finds that Chopin lends himself to jazz. She puts in a bit of Bach too.

That was great,’ Nia says. ‘I enjoyed that more than turning over pages of music over and over to get to the end of a piece. I wanted it to just go on and on.’

That’s cool then,’ Red says. ‘You’re hired.’

But it can’t last,’ Nia says, her face dropping. ‘You see. There’s something I haven’t told you.’

She tells Red the secret that she has shared with no-one. She tells him that she has a rare incurable degenerative blood disease and according to the doctors back home has just a few months to live.

Nothing’s incurable,’ Red says, composing himself. ‘You wouldn’t believe what I’ve witnessed here in New Orleans. I know a Creole traiteur called Faucon Noir who can make the lame walk and make the blind see. He can probably even bring the dead back to life. They say Faucon Noir is 114 years old but you take a look at him, he doesn’t look a day older than you or me. Have you heard about Haitian voodoo?’

Isn’t it all dolls and pins?’

That’s the common myth, isn’t it? But gris-gris, as we call it, is not just mojo bags of rabbits’ feet and dragon’s blood. It ain’t ginseng or tai chi or acupuncture, this is the real deal. It’s a spiritual force which can be used to heal the body, mind and spirit.’

How does this ….. gris-gris work?’

I don’t know how it works. All I know is that it does work. Anyone who has lived in New Orleans will tell you that it works. You just wait and see. Faucon Noir will cure you of your rare blood disease or my name’s not Red Sayles.’

3: Allegro con sentimento

Let’s move on. Having herself been spared, Nia Buendía feels she must do something worthwhile to acknowledge her good fortune. The Advance Africa initiative provides her with the perfect opportunity, teaching in a special school in Dakar, Senegal. Senegal has suffered a catalogue of famines and disasters. It is near the bottom of the table in terms of life expectancy, literacy, access to knowledge and living standards. It badly needs people like Nia. She joins a team of committed overseas voluntary workers of various nationalities.

Nia’s role is to teach disturbed children through music. She believes where children have suffered trauma in their lives, that music can help them to develop individual, creative, and social skills in a way that language alone cannot. This is fortunate because although Nia’s French is good and French is the official language in Senegal, it is spoken only by an educated minority. With a population of over two million, Dakar is one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in Africa. Many languages are spoken here, but on the streets, the one that you hear the most is Dakar-Wolof, a mixture of Wolof, French and Arabic.

Dakar is all streetlife and primary colours. Everywhere there are vibrant markets selling fruit and fish, weaving medinas with makeshift stalls selling vivid textiles, tribal masks, mosaic tiles and brightly coloured beads. Citroen cars of every vintage criss-cross one another in bouts of traffic chaos. Children play football on swathes of urban scrubland and spin car tyres like hoops between streams of buzzing mopeds. Men carry accordions, bongo drums and curiously shaped koras down to the beach. You can hear the rhythms of mbalax music pounding day and night. It’s a musical culture. Senegal has a rich musical history and has spawned a wealth of talent. There are some brilliant musical role models for Nia to call upon, musicians like Youssou N’Dour, Ali Farka Touré, Amadou et Mariam, and Mory Kanté.

Loup Gaultier is a teacher at Nia’s school. He is French-Senegalese. He has long grey locks tied back. He smiles a lot, revealing a mouthful of gold-capped teeth. He wears a tribal necklace of tusks and shells, and snake rings on each finger of his left hand. He is softly spoken and is the sort of person that people feel they can open up to, sure of a sympathetic ear. He has worked in West Africa for many years. There is not a lot he doesn’t know about this part of the world.

What brings you to Senegal?’ he asks Nia. ‘We do not get many people from Spain.’

Nia explains about the miracle in New Orleans. How she was given a new lease of life by a venerable Creole mystic using ancient African spells. Loup understands the power of juju, djinn, hoodoo or voodoo or whatever you want to call it. He is not surprised by Nia’s tale. He has heard many like it.

She goes on to tell him about her previous life in Spain and how she does not feel she can return to her family there.

I can’t change what has happened, only what has yet to come,’ she says. Maybe I will be able to return one day, but I have work to do here first.’

Loup nods his agreement. It is always best to be non-judgemental when listening to others’ explanations of their actions. You can’t tell others what to do; they have to reach their own conclusions.

Why did I choose Senegal?’ Nia continues. ‘Simple. I found an advert for the voluntary service on the internet, was able to speak French and picked a place where speaking French might be useful. …….. And I’m loving Senegal. It’s so full of life.’

You might like what you see today with all the laughter and gaiety in the streets,’ Loup says. ‘But you have to realise that Senegal is putting on a brave face for the world. There is a lot that is hidden. Did you know there are three refugee camps within twenty miles of here? And, Senegal has a shameful past in collusion with the French. Saint Louis just down the coast was once one of Africa’s busiest slave ports.’

Perhaps they had touched on the slave trade at school back home in Cantabria, but Nia had not taken in the grim details.

Loup tells her how slavery was part of a triangular trade. The first side of the triangle was the export of goods from Europe to Africa. A number of African kings and merchants took part in the trading of enslaved people. For each captive, the African rulers would receive guns, ammunition and other manufactured goods. The second leg of the triangle exported enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas and the Caribbean. The third and final part of the triangle was the return of goods from slave plantations included cotton, sugar, tobacco, and molasses across the Atlantic to Europe.

In the twenty years from 1720, French ships enslaved two hundred thousand Africans to plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean,’ Loup says.

I seem to remember hearing that a quarter of them died on the ships going over,’ Nia says. ‘In a sense, I suppose they were the lucky ones.’

It’s impossible to even imagine the conditions today. Ships were packed, it was dark and hot and airless and they lived in shit, piss, and vomit. They had little to eat but even worse they had little fresh water to drink.’

And, of course, no better when they got there, I imagine.’

Many of those leaving from here were taken to sugar plantations in Haiti. During the eight-month sugar harvest, slaves worked continuously around the clock. The accidents caused by long hours and primitive machinery were horrific.’

And it went on for years before anyone did anything about it. And, it’s not that long ago.’

France continued the trade legally until 1830, long after the rest of Europe had abolished it. Even after this five hundred French ships continued trading illegally. Altogether, a million and a half enslaved Africans were taken by French ships.’

So the French were the worst,’ Nia says.

No-one comes out of it well. But, if it’s any comfort Spain abolished slavery twenty years earlier.’

Not a lot of comfort, really.’

Anyway, that’s enough of the history lesson, don’t you think?’ Loup says. ‘Except, of course, to say that the Haitian slaves became the Creoles in New Orleans.’

I know,’ Nia says. ‘Creole comes from the Portuguese crioulo, which means a slave born in the master’s household.’

Why I really came over is that I have something to ask,’ says Loup.

Fire away,’ Nia says.

I’ve been given this boy called Jimi,’ Loup says. ‘He can’t read or write but he’s a genius on the guitar and the piano.’

With a name like Jimi, perhaps he should stick to the guitar,’ Nia says.

I don’t think that Jimi is his real name, but anyway, I thought you might be able to teach him some classical music.’

I could take him through some Etudes to get him started, I suppose.’

I believe he was thinking more in terms of Rachmaninov. He saw a young pianist playing Rachmaninov on television recently.’

Does he have big hands?’

Yes, he does have big hands as it happens,’ Loup says. ‘We think that his father might have been a ..’

Blacksmith.’ Nia finishes his sentence.

How did you know?’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Now You See It, Now You Don’t

nowyouseeitnowyoudont2019

Now You See It, Now You Don’t by Chris Green

The arbiters of taste are notoriously fickle. While The Moody Blues were cool in 1968, if you listened to their music a few years later, you would be considered a bit sad. But if anything their musical powers had grown. Their tunes became even better. Perhaps this was the problem. They became too musical. They no longer fitted in. As in other fields, fashions in music are fleeting. A case of now you see it, now you don’t.

I didn’t pick up on The Moody Blues again for years. In fact, it was the week before last. I came across a couple of their albums on CD in the CLIC Sargent charity shop. In Search Of The Lost Chord and On The Threshold Of A Dream. Not casual purchases, you would have thought. Perhaps the owner had died and their CD collection was part of a house clearance.

Mike Pinder is not a household name, but perhaps he ought to be. He was a pioneer, introducing the mellotron, the pre-runner of the keyboard synthesiser, to the musical world. Before he formed the Moody Blues, Mike worked as a tester for the company that invented the mellotron, so he knew the difficult instrument well. He subsequently introduced the instrument to The Beatles, a popular combo of the time, who used it to great effect on Strawberry Fields Forever and then on virtually every recording they made until their breakup. Despite the instrument’s ethereal sound being such an emblem for the times, The Moody Blues were the only band to regularly use it on stage.

But …… What I am doing back in ………. 1968? Somehow I’m back in 1968, listening to In Search Of The Lost Chord. …… I am used to the year being 20 something. ….. 2019, wasn’t it? Isn’t it? How can 1968 be happening now, as if it is present time? In sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch actuality. …… I haven’t seen Yvette for over forty years. She is exactly how I remember her. Mia Farrow hair, flared jeans and cheesecloth smock. What is Yvette doing back in 1968? How did we come to be here? ……… We are in a large murky room lit only by a single red light bulb suspended from the ceiling. There are something like twenty people crowded in here, sitting around on beanbags and cushions. Incense and patchouli compete with the acrid hash smoke, that hangs in the air like captured stratocumulus. Someone has just passed me a joint and I am smoking it. I do not know him, or is it her. In the haze, it is difficult to tell the gender beneath the crusty hair and the Afghan coat. House Of Four Doors is playing, with the volume on the Super Dansette record player turned up. As I look around, I think I recognise one or two of the others in the room, but I can’t put names to the faces. Things were like that back then. People came and went. We were eighteen. ……… In this scenario, we are still eighteen.

The expression, the Lost Chord refers to a song by Arthur Sullivan,’ Yvette says.

Who?’ I say, passing her the joint.

Arthur Sullivan. You know. From Gilbert and Sullivan.’

Ah,’ I say. I find it difficult to imagine that The Moody Blues would have listened a lot to Gilbert and Sullivan.

Sullivan wrote the music at the bedside of his brother Fred when he was dying. The words come from a verse by Victorian poet, Adelaide Procter,’ Yvette says. She was always the clever one. Straight ‘A’s for Yvette. I always struggled with my grades.

Ah,’ I say.

It is about a divine chord that she hears when playing the organ that she cannot find again and imagines she will only rediscover when she reaches Heaven.’

Now you see it, now you don’t,’ I say.

The song about Timothy Leary flying his astral plane is now playing. I want to remark that people don’t write songs about Timothy Leary and astral planes anymore, but the place I want to make this comment from is fading fast. The idea about what I should regard as now is retuning like a random radio scan.

Across the room, or perhaps it is from across the universe, it is difficult to focus in on scale, they are talking about a story by the writer Jorge Luis Borges called The Garden Of Forking Paths.

The story is about the construction of a labyrinth that folds back upon itself in infinite regression,’ an adenoidal voice says. ‘All possible futures happen simultaneously, man’

Man says that this can be explained by quantum mechanics, man.

Yeah, like Einstein said it, man,’ says someone else. ‘Or was it the other guy? Dirac. Paul Dirac.’

No-one seems to know, but the conversation rolls around like thunder in the hills.

I continue to have difficulty working out who is who. It does not help that everyone in the room, male or female seems to be called man. No, wait, one of them is called Buzz and another is called Doggo.

Doggo begins to talk about Schrödinger’s Cat. It is both dead and alive apparently. I lose the drift as other conversations begin to drift in and out, just as my consciousness is doing. Someone has turned the LP over. Voices In The Sky begins. The mellotron sounds like a symphony orchestra.

Am I really here?’ I ask Yvette.

She thinks this is a strange question. She puts her hand on my forehead as if feeling my temperature. She laughs and tells me I shouldn’t get so stoned. Perhaps Yvette is still living in this time as her present time. Perhaps she has not grown up yet. I cannot remember if we saw each other much after 1968, or even at all. Perhaps she has not left the room yet. …….. Perhaps I have not left ……. I want to be able to feel that I have lived long enough to understand reality. But now I’m not sure that I have lived long enough. What if I’m only eighteen? ……. I might be imagining the irregular shift patterns of the job at the kaleidoscope repair shop. I might be imagining those years of living with Fabula and the twins in the Stroud valleys. I might be imagining Dr Alkerdahji’s diagnosis. Or, all this might still be in the future. …… Or, what if everything is happening simultaneously as in man’s story? Perhaps John Lennon was right and nothing is real. Might all of our experiences be an illusion? The universe could be a mental construction, a great thought rather than a great machine. After all, if matter is energy condensed to a slow vibration, then we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. Life is a dream, and we’re the imagination of ourselves.

I remember something about quantum theory that I saw, or am one day going to see, on television, or perhaps I am watching it now. It is known as the double-slit experiment. In the experiment, when scientists watch a particle pass through two slits in a barrier, the particle behaves like a bullet and goes through one slit or the other. Yet if a person doesn’t watch the particle, it acts like a wave. This means it can go through both slits at the same time.

Now you see it, now you don’t.

Dr Alkerdahji tells me I am improving. It is a good sign, he says, that the hallucinations are becoming less frequent. So long as I keep taking the medication, I might even be able to return to work at the kaleidoscope repair shop in a week or two. I am in CLIC Sargent again, looking through the CDs. £1 for A Saucerful Of Secrets and £1 for Dark Side Of The Moon. Another house clearance probably. Fashions in music are fleeting but somehow Pink Floyd always managed to circumvent the arbiters of taste. Roger Waters is not a household name but ………

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

The Food of Love

thefoodoflove

The Food of Love by Chris Green

1:

I’m Clinton Stroud. Some of you will have heard of me but for those of you who have not, I am composer, multi-instrumentalist and musical coach. A long-standing one to boot. I will be one hundred and twenty three next birthday. This is a little longer than I expected to live, I can tell you. I have now had twenty two telegrams from the Queen, and I still think of her as the little girl stroking the corgi on the Newsreels that accompanied the double features in the nineteen thirties. It is said you can tell you are getting old when policemen start to look younger. Even Chief Superintendents have seemed like schoolchildren to me for as long as I can remember. But there are benefits to being old. As Mark Twain once said, ‘Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.’ It is best perhaps to think of youth as a malady from which we all recover. Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.

In my lifetime, I have seen the birth of the motor car, the aeroplane, radio and television, antibiotics and sliced bread. Let us not forget the ballpoint pen, the electric guitar, the microwave oven and the atomic bomb. I have witnessed the collapse of Empire, the rise of secularism and the provision and destruction of the welfare state. Oil and petrochemicals have become crucial resources to human civilisation and transformed the balance of power the world over. Oil, of course, is running out. Oil production per year has been greater than oil discoveries every year since 1980. One day soon there will be a lot of disappointed people.

When I was born, Queen Victoria was on the throne, most families had no bathroom and there was horse-muck on the streets. In cities, gas street-lights cut through the ubiquitous smog. Yet you could walk for miles in the countryside in the cool clean air in awe of the bucolic splendour. I have seen the landscape change out of all recognition. Our green and pleasant land has lost out to electricity pylons, motorways, and suburban sprawl. Communication in all forms has been revolutionised. When I was born, we had the penny post and the Daily Mail. Now twenty-four-hour television, mobile phones and superfast broadband are all things we take for granted. The population of the UK back then was twenty nine million. Today it is sixty seven million. People are living longer. I feel I am not helping.

Things change gradually. Except in the case of monumental events, you are not aware that it is happening. The changes are so subtle that you do not notice from moment to moment, day to day. Age creeps up on you with clandestine stealth, as months, years and decades slide inexorably by. You can perhaps only measure change through a succession of befores and afters. Even then, time acts as an unreliable witness, leaving you unsure of precise chronology. But the uncertainty could be exaggerated by my circumstances. I have lived rather a long time. I have been married four times, to Emma, Natalie, Lucy and Sakura. I have, to my knowledge, twenty two great-great-grandchildren and twenty eight great-great-great-grandchildren, and, no, I cannot remember all of their names.

2:

Music goes back a long way. It means literally the art of the muses. Ancient Greek philosophers understood the healing effects music has on the body and soul. Rhythm and harmony represent a universal language: rhythm the heartbeat, the voice the song. Music has been my inspiration. Through my musical calling, I have had the good fortune to meet some of the people who have overseen the historic changes.

Few people realise that David Lloyd George was a keen saxophonist. This does not appear in any of the numerous biographies. The biographers concentrate disproportionately on his political career, with a nod here and there to his Welshness. Not a mention of his musical interests. It was I who taught the Welsh Wizard the saxophone, at the time a marginal instrument even in jazz orchestras. Lloyd George possessed a natural ability and could have easily mastered the clarinet. But he preferred the saxophone. He saw himself as a trailblazer. He bought one of the first Selmer Modele 22, saxophones to come to the UK, and guested in jazz ensembles which, although there are no records of this, played at dance halls in the Manchester area.

Why did we have to fight the war?’ I asked Lloyd one day. I had spent a majority of World War One in Italy with a military band, fortunately well south of the front.

I will tell you why, boyo,’ he said. ‘National pride. Germany expected to find a lamb and found a lion.’

No question of sitting around the table and discussing things first then?’ I said.

Diplomats were invented simply to waste time,’ was his response.

This did not seem like a Liberal view, but I let it go. I was more interested in his progress on the saxophone.

Mohandas Gandhi never really mastered the blues harmonica. But on a visit to London in 1931, he came to me for tuition. Harp players at the time had started experimenting with new techniques such as tongue-blocking, hand effects and the most important innovation of all, the second position, or cross-harp. Mohandas felt the harmonica was an instrument associated with the poor and being able to play it to the starving masses back home would lend support to his great mission.

History would turn out for the better if our leaders learned that most disputes can be resolved by a willingness to understand the issues of our opponents and by using diplomacy and compassion,’ he said.

It is a shame that history has the habit of repeating itself,’ I said.

Mohandas thought this a negative view to take. He was optimistic that a new common sense would eventually emerge if you kept plugging away.

We must become the change we want to see, Clinton,’ he said.

Mahatma’s teachings stayed with me through the years of conflict that lay ahead. He was only four foot nine but he was a huge and inspirational man. I can still picture him, sitting in the lotus position, his bony fingers clenching his Hohner, blowing for all he was worth. I would have loved him to have been able to play Hoochie Coochie Man properly on the harp, but sadly he had to leave to catch his boat back to India for an important fast.

The nineteen thirties are usually associated with the Depression, but I look back on the decade as a happy time. I married my first wife, Emma, and my first two children, Darius and Diana, were growing up. I enjoyed a modicum of success with my work, completing an octet and a jazz concerto. We moved to Pimlico, which then was up-and-coming. It was a great shame to see the clouds of war gathering at such a positive time, but politicians the world over are a stubborn breed.

World War Two may never have happened if Churchill has been better at playing the piano. He showed initial promise when he came to me. I took him through a few easy pieces, early Mozart sonatas and the like. But when we moved on to Chopin, his interpretations were clumsy and heavy-handed. Winston had what we sometimes refer to as butcher’s fingers, not suited to deliver the delicate passages of the Preludes and Nocturnes. He seemed to display a disdain for the instrument in the fortissimo passages. On the occasions I tried to explain this to him he usually stormed off in a huff. He did not take criticism well. His famous Hush over Europe speech in August 1938 came right after I told him that he played Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations with all the subtlety of a tank commander. He growled something unintelligible at me, finished his Remy Martin and went straight off to the House of Commons. Had he been able to control these rages, he may have backed off a little on his warmongering. While we may now all be speaking German, Winston may have gracefully embraced retirement with his Steinway and his watercolours.

3:

How did you come into music, Clint?’ Orson Welles asked me once when he was driving me home after his zither lesson in his big Buick. ‘Do your family have a musical tradition?’

It was 1948. Alfred Hitchcock had introduced us. I had taught Hitchcock to play a weird instrument called the theremin. To be honest, Hitchcock did not really want to learn but thought he might use the sound effects it made in one of his films. Orson, on the other hand, became a bit of a virtuoso on the zither. I heard a rumour it may even have been Orson and not Anton Karas who played the soundtrack music for The Third Man, which went on to be one of the most successful films of all time.

I did not often talk about my background. Not that I was ashamed of my humble beginnings, but somehow I felt it destroyed the mystique. I tried to dodge the question by talking instead about my early musical influences, but Orson had a persuasive way about him.

Are you going to answer my question, god-dammit?’ he said.

I come from a railway family,’ I told him. ‘Both my father and my grandfather worked on the railways. I came into music entirely by accident. I started playing when I was three on a penny whistle that was left in a railway carriage. It had probably belonged to a travelling navvy. I’m entirely self-taught.’

I explained that I quickly found out I was able to play any musical instrument I picked up. It was like opening a box of chocolates and finding all soft centres. I had what my music teacher at primary school, Miss Schnabel, called a precocious talent. I learned to read music before I could read my Jolly Animal ABC.

I got to know Orson quite well. In fact, it was through Orson that I met my second wife, Natalie. Natalie was a nutritionist treating Orson for his recurring obesity. Orson was a large man in every sense and, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me saying, obsessed with his weight. He had flown Natalie in from America to keep an eye on his constitution while he was looking for film locations in the UK.

Natalie introduced me to the benefits of wholegrain cereal, bee pollen, goji berries and noni juice, all of which I have retained in my diet ever since, and are among the things to which I can attribute my longevity. These along with a positive attitude to life, regular exercise and an active sex life. I subscribed to my friend Pablo Picasso’s philosophy that a young partner helped to keep you young. Natalie made me feel like a teenager again. She was nearly thirty years my junior. I was fifty one and she was twenty four. Our extended honeymoon took advantage of the opportunities opening up in air travel and took in all six continents. We were stunned by many unforgettable sights, the multicoloured reefs and cays of The Great Barrier Reef, Machu Picchu in the middle of a mountain rainforest, the boat ride through The Blue Grotto Cave in Capri, the summer sun setting on The Grand Canyon, and the great migration of gazelles and wildebeests sweeping across the Serengeti plain in the early morning, to name but a few. But some less obvious sights were equally pleasing. The colourful paddle steamer chugging down the Orinoco, the silhouette of a camel train crossing the Arabian desert, the reflection of the houseboats on the Dal Lake in Kashmir on a Spring evening. Yes, the air miles were clocking up a little, but young love knew no bounds.

Although always modest about her talent, Natalie was an accomplished pianist. With a youthful ear, she was an inspiration to my music. She helped to take it in new directions. The nineteen fifties were productive. I was on a roll. My compositions began to incorporate dissonance and atonality. In a few short years, I wrote a concerto for orchestra using a small orchestra as a solo instrument against a larger orchestra, a quintet (four cellos and a flute), a jazz ballet, and a tone poem based on The Seventh Seal. I may not have become a household name, but these unusual pieces were well received. Miranda Miercoles, Melody Maker’s classical music critic, not one that one associates with praise of any sort, referred to my work at the time as groundbreaking. I framed the notice.

Natalie persuaded me that we should spend time in America. She was from New York ans suggested we buy somewhere in the city. Money was coming in steadily and we were able to buy a comfortable apartment in Manhattan on The Upper East Side close to Central Park. We were within strolling distance of the museums and galleries that were beginning to prosper and the jazz clubs on 52nd Street. One day, while I was in the apartment tinkling away on the ivories, I had a call from a magazine illustrator. Orson had given him my name, he said. He told me he drew whimsical sketches of shoes. He wanted to learn how to orchestrate. I explained there weren’t any rules as such. You learned mainly through experience and spontaneous discoveries.

It’s very much a hands-on art,’ I said. ‘You have to be aware of point and counterpoint and of the families of instruments, timbres of each instrument in the family, and of course, tonality, but beyond that, it is up to the individual.’

Good!’ he said. ‘That’s uh what I wanted to hear. It should be easy then.’

You mean like major for happy and minor for sad,’ I quipped.

Uh yes,’ he said. ‘Exactly.’ He seemed perfectly serious about this being the case.

I’m not sure orchestration’s something I can teach you,’ I said. ‘What was it you had in mind to orchestrate?’

I have a big plan,’ he said. ‘They say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself. That’s uh, what I’m going to do.’

Well, we can’t do it over the phone, can we?’ I said. ‘You’d better come on over.’

The figure across the threshold had a ghost-like quality. he seemed to be there and not there at the same time. He wore a white suit and a blue and white hooped Breton sweater. His tortoiseshell dark glasses and platinum blond hair made him look a little effeminate. My first impression, as he limply shook my hand, was that he was incredibly shy, but despite this shyness, he had astounding charisma.

Hi, I’m Andy,’ he said. ‘Andy Warhol.’

I invited him in and sat him down.

I’m going to be famous one day,’ he said, deadpan.

How do you know?’ I asked.

In the future, everyone will be famous,’ he laughed.

What? For fifteen minutes?’ I joked.

That’s good,’ he said. ‘I might use that.’

I found Andy’s philosophy interesting and some of the things he said had yet more resonance in retrospect.

We moved on to the subject of orchestration. I told him in terms of musical composition Mozart and Beethoven were a good place to start. Mozart for his precision and flow and Beethoven for his bold innovations.

Andy felt it might be better to start with Debussy and Ravel because they were more contemporary and therefore it would not take so long to learn.

You need to be able to put an idea on one side of Letter paper,’ he explained.

I asked if he had met the minimalist composer, John Cage. 4’33 consists of the pianist going to the piano, and not hitting any keys for four minutes and thirty-three seconds,’ I told him.

Cool!’ he said.

We spent the next session putting together a bullet point list and the one after that at Boosey and Hawkes music store where Andy bought a selection of instruments. He showed no interest at all in playing them; I think they were peripheral to his mission. What he wanted to orchestrate was an Art Movement.

6:

The times, they were a-changing. At least, Bob Dylan thought so. He wanted me to teach him how to play electric guitar to fit in to the changes he felt were taking place. The real reason Bob wanted to learn may have been that he was not very good on the acoustic guitar. Going electric seemed to be a good move. It suited his casual approach to the instrument. And the rest is history. He became the stuff of legend.

It was time too for me to move on. It had been over with Natalie for a while and it was with great sadness, I returned to England leaving her and our son, Adam, and daughter, Charlotte, in New York. I took a flat in fashionable Cheyne Walk, overlooking the Thames.

Hearing I was now in London, Julie Christie called me up. Darling had been a big hit for her and she wanted to stay in the limelight. She was reading the script for Doctor Zhivago. She was wondering whether to take the part of Lara that the great David Lean had offered her. She thought learning to play the balalaika might help her get into the role. Julie was sensual and intelligent. She possessed a luminous beauty the cameras loved. The thing was, she was even more stunning in the flesh. Julie was also a terrible flirt. Most days, it seemed, the balalaika I borrowed from the Russian embassy lay untouched.

What is it that inspires you?’ she asked.

I hear music in the flow of the river, the rain on the window, the clinking of glasses, the hum of late night traffic.’ I said. ‘I hear music in everything, in the everyday and that is what sustains me. I have a tune in my head the whole day long.’

Play me your favourite piece of music,’ Julie said.

I had lots of favourite pieces of music. I had turned down Desert Island Discs as I felt unable to decide on just eight tunes. I wondered what I could play for Julie. The great violin concertos of the nineteenth century were out of the question, as clearly they needed an orchestra. I could have picked Bach or Mozart, but I thought that Julie was hoping for something more contemporary. Despite an age difference of forty years, there was definitely a mutual attraction. Bill Evans My Foolish Heart seemed appropriate. I wondered if we might be going to have a full-blown affair. But we didn’t.

Popular music upped its game in the nineteen sixties. Record producers like Phil Spector, George Martin and Brian Wilson pushed back the boundaries of the art. Pop music spearheaded a huge social change. What had once seemed throwaway now seemed important and vital. London was the new capital of the cultural world. Pop stars, models and photographers were the new elite. Ray Davies was a friend of Julie’s and Julie invited me along to a show The Kinks were filming at Twickenham Film Studios. It was here I met Lucy, who would be my partner for the next fifteen years.

Lucy was on the fringes of the music business. The closest I could come to describing her role would be, musical muse. She hung around gatherings of musicians and had a mystical presence. She was someone you noticed; someone who stood out in a room. She was beautiful; with her deep and lustrous eyes and long dark flowing hair, she looked like a Greek siren, without of course the wings. She was twenty one. My paramours seemed to be getting younger. What was it Shakespeare said about music being the food of love? It was time to play on.

Lucy moved in with me right away. For the next year or two, we played host to the pop world at Cheyne Walk, as young musicians dropped by to learn exotic new instruments. Brian Jones and George Harrison were regular visitors, as were four young lads up from Cambridge who called themselves Pink Floyd. I like to think that in a modest way we changed the direction of rock music. It moved away from the established format of two guitars, bass and drums to utilise a more colourful palette. I appeared, uncredited, on many of the classic albums from this period including Aftermath, Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Sergeant Pepper, playing dulcimer, tsabouna, musical saw and serpent. I also composed my Trio for Violin, Saxophone and Mandolin and my famous Wind Chimes Concerto over the so-called Summer of Love.

In 1968, in a nod perhaps to the hippy ideal, Lucy and I moved to Lanzarote. The ten years we spent living there were among the happiest of my life. Undeveloped at the time and minimalist in its colour palette, Lanzarote offered a perfect spiritual retreat. It was a place for the mind to focus. Our traditional whitewashed casa rural was in an isolated setting on the south-western coast. The artist and architect, Cesar Manrique, lived nearby and was a frequent visitor. His project was to transform the desert landscape, harmonising his vibrant modern design with the traditional architecture and colours of the island. A huge interest in alternative power was developing in the Canaries and through Manrique’s civil engineering team we had both solar panels and a wind turbine to deliver power to our house and the surrounding community. We were pioneers. Why not? Lanzarote is both windy and sunny. The rest of the world seems to still be resisting this somewhat obvious solution to our power needs.

Occasionally our mutual friend, Picasso came over to see us. Although he would not return to Spain, he was happy to visit us in Lanzarote. Other than this, we had few visitors. Darius and Diana and their respective families came over now and again (grandchildren growing in number and it seemed quickly growing up), and once or twice Natalie brought Adam and Charlotte. Mostly though it was just the two of us and a handful of alternative free-thinkers. It was possible to concentrate on the moment, enjoying each minute of every day without rushing towards the next. I gradually found a profound stillness take over my being. I felt young and invigorated. Lucy became a gifted painter of abstract landscapes. As for me, my music began to develop a profound simplicity.

How many Zen masters does it take to change a lightbulb? The cypress tree in the courtyard.

I have always been a great admirer of Erik Satie. He called his Dadaist-inspired musical explorations Furniture music. He saw it as the sort of music that could be played during a dinner to create a background atmosphere, rather than serving as the focus of attention. Satie is the link between early twentieth century Art movements and the work of Brian Eno. Recognising me as a fellow innovator, Brian sought me out and came over. Together we composed music that synthesised melody and texture. Although the expression, ambient music is often attributed to Brian Eno, I like to think I coined the phrase. Ambient comes from the Latin verb ambire, to surround. Our collaboration produced sonic landscapes, atmospheres and treatments. Film directors came knocking. We had inadvertently created the template for movie soundtracks and background to television drama and documentaries for many years to come. You will have heard my music from this period many times without realising it.

4:

The nineteen eighties can be summed up in one word: greed. Why was everyone so blind to the dangers of uncontrolled consumerism? It could only lead to disaster. A new set of guidelines regarding conglomerates, power generation, air travel, transport, and waste management was needed to rein in the excesses. Sadly, those brave enough to challenge Thatcherism and its free market sensibility were picked off and crushed. Lucy and I moved to the New Forest. At least here, we could show our respect for trees.

The politics of the day were reflected in its music. The decade was a singularly poor one. Popular music reduced itself once more to a succession of bland, artless nursery rhymes. Cheap Yamaha synthesisers and drum machines programmed by greedy, tone-deaf computer programmers produced monotonous, predictable, exhaustible and hackneyed three-minute jingles. Flamboyant, androgynous models with streaky makeup and spiked hair pranced around in fancy dress to unrelated storylines in fast-cut short films produced by yuppie film directors. It was a case of nice video, shame about the song. And those awful drum machines at the front of the mix. Even established rock acts became mainstream and mediocre issuing insipid power ballads. And jazz began to sound like elevator music. How could you have smooth jazz? This is an oxymoron. Classical music fared no better during the period. With its fetish for dissonance, it became all but inaccessible.

Zeitgeist means the spirit of the times, but can also be related to the concept of collective consciousness, which describes how an entire community comes together to share similar values. Was this the explanation for the decline in musical quality perhaps? Subliminally, people had agreed that music was no longer important. It was better to get rich, and quickly.

When Tariq Ali came around for his violin lesson. I put this idea to him. ‘What do you think, Tariq?’ I asked.

In times of peace, the arts gravitate towards mediocrity,’ he said.

There was no war in the sixties,’ I said. ‘But there was lots of great music.’

No war in the sixties?’ he laughed. ‘There was the Vietnam War. We may not have been on the front line but as a culture, we were involved. Didn’t you go on any demonstrations?’

I was living in Lanzarote at the time,’ I told him. ‘We had just moved out. But I do remember the Battle of Grosvenor Square. You and Vanessa Redgrave were leading the march weren’t you?’

Indeed. And Mick Jagger wrote Streetfighting Man,’ he said.But to get back to my point. Do you not recall the famous line in The Third Man about the Swiss?’

Not word for word,’ I said.

In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’

Ah yes, I remember now. That was my old friend, Orson Welles,’ I said. ‘Perhaps we will have another war soon. There are some mad people in charge.’

It won’t a war with The Eastern Bloc,’ Tariq said. ‘Russia is not a country you can invade and occupy. War is about occupation and colonisation. The next war will be against Islamic states, where they can send in an occupying force. And, of course, there’s the oil. Iraq’s my guess.’

In retrospect, it seems he was right.

5:

The days get longer and the days get shorter. As you get older, the heat of summer makes you uncomfortable, so you look forward to the winter, but you can’t cope with the long dark nights and the cold, so you look forward to the spring, and your life passes by, with this contradiction. You are getting older but you are willing the time to pass. Seasons replace one another in a relentless procession as the northern hemisphere tilts towards or away from the sun.

According to Luigi, my barber in Ringwood at the time, the planet Mercury has no tilt and therefore no seasons. Luigi was a prototype Google. He knew everything. He had been a contender on Mastermind, his specialist subject, String Theory.

No seasons,’ I said. ‘That’s good then, isn’t it? Why couldn’t we live on Mercury?’

There is a little problem my friend. It has no atmosphere,’ he said.

Not so good for the old breathing then.’

And its four hundred degrees during the day and minus two hundred at night.’

Bit hard to get used to.’

You’ll like this, though,’ Luigi said. ‘Mercury has a crater called Beethoven which is the largest in the solar system. They have also named craters after Puccini, Verdi, Vivaldi, Schubert, Sibelius and Wagner. It is riddled with craters. You name me a composer and they have probably named a crater on Mercury after him. I’ll find out if they have named one after you, my friend.’

He never did find out. Sadly Luigi died when the steering on his Fiat gave out as he was overtaking an articulated truck near Basingstoke on the M3. He was only sixty two. No age at all.

When you reach your eighties, you understandably find those you have known or admired are dying with increased regularity. When you get a call from a friend you have not heard from in a while, you know it will be to inform you that someone you both know has died. The receptionist at the funeral directors gets to recognise your voice, as you order wreaths for lost friends and colleagues with increasing frequency, and you start getting Christmas cards from the undertaker. You find you know all the words to The Old Rugged Cross and Abide With Me, and your copy of The Times falls open at the obituaries. Death is all around. When you visit the doctors with a routine chest infection, you imagine the grim reaper is sitting next to you.

Following Lucy’s death from a rare blood disease, I became acutely aware of my own mortality. It became obvious that one day I would die and although I seemed to be in remarkable health, I began to speculate on how I would die and when. None of the ways seemed especially pleasant and most involved a protracted period of pain. Cardiovascular disease was statistically the most likely cause for someone of my age, although hot on its heels were cancer and strokes. Then there were lower respiratory infections, tuberculosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. And worse. How bad could old age be? Constantly worrying about when the door would open and whether you would know when it was going to open. Nostalgia too, I found, was something that could fuel later-life depression. Don’t look back!

Irving Berlin helped to lift my gloom. Irving was a legend. Throughout the twentieth century, Irving had had a greater influence upon American music than any other one man. If anyone could deliver a pearl of wisdom, it was Irving. I was fortunate to gain an audience with the great man on a stopover trip to New York to see my grandchildren, as he was by then famously uncooperative. I asked Irving his secret.

Music is the key,’ he said. ‘Music has been used in medicine for thousands of years. It enhances memory and helps with concentration. It boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure, relaxes muscle tension, regulates stress hormones, elevates mood, and increases endurance. That’s what my doctor tells me. And he’s older than I am.’

I knew Irving to be in his late nineties, so this made his doctor very old indeed.

I’d better start writing some music soon then,’ I said.

Another thing,’ Irving said. ‘I presume you suffer from earworm, where the last tune you hear stays in your head.’

Indeed,’ I said. ‘I don’t even have to hear a tune. Just reading the title of a song I know can set it off.’

The secret is to make the tune in your head a joyful one with happy words.’

What about the old blue musicians?’ I queried. ‘They seem to all live to be a ripe old age despite all the baby left me lyrics.’

What! you mean lived to be twenty seven, like Robert Johnson and Jimi Hendrix.’

He had a point. I was probably being selective. For every John Lee Hooker or Muddy Waters, there was a Blind Boy Fuller or Freddie King.

Look at me as a living example of someone who keeps a happy song going round in his head,’ said Irving. ‘It has worked for me.’

OK, I will try it.’ I said.

At the same time, don’t avoid thoughts of death,’ Irving continued. ‘Remind yourself your death is guaranteed. Facing death should be something that empowers you and heightens your senses. Feel the inevitability of it. Feel the horror of it. And then open your eyes and realise you are now alive. But try not to do this every day.’

It took a little application, but after a while, I arrived at a view whereby death offered an increased opportunity to see what was important. But, as Irving had suggested, music was the way to make my mark. This realisation provided me with motivation. I kept a happy tune in my head and entered a new creative phase. My Tenor Saxophone Concerto was popular, as was my Sextet for Four Pianos, Oboe and Harp. But the piece that gained the most recognition was my opera, Gatto di Schrödinger (Schrödinger’s Cat), which played at opera houses around the world. Who could forget the rousing fortissimo chorus for one hundred voices, ‘Il gatto è tanto vivi e morti.’

7:

Tim Berners-Lee may have been considerably richer had he not come to me for lessons on the cor anglais. Having invented the model for the internet, he was faced with a dilemma. Should he patent the idea and become rich, or should he put it in the public domain for the benefit of all? In between run-throughs of Schumann’s Reverie for Cor Anglais and Piano, we discussed the pros and cons of both viewpoints. It may have been my suggestion that the World Wide Web be royalty-free so that networks could adopt universal standards without having to pay their inventors. He argued that others would make billions out of the idea.

How would you best like to be remembered?’ I asked him. ‘As a universally reviled figure or as a benefactor to humankind?’

Tim must have taken my point. The next day, after we had been over Respighi’s Pini di Roma, He seemed to have come off the fence. He used the very arguments I had used.

The World Wide Web must have an open standard,’ he said. ‘Otherwise, there will be incompatible forms of media, backed by Microsoft and Apple and the like.’

I met Sakura at The Saatchi Gallery in St. John’s Wood at an exhibition called Young British Artists. The show featured work by the little-known Damien Hirst, Mark Wallinger and Rachel Whiteread, all of who would go on to win the Turner Prize. I had not particularly wanted to see the exhibition, having read the press write-up about tiger sharks immersed in formaldehyde. But a friend whose view I respected told me I had to go.

Something important is happening here,’ my friend had said. ‘Damien Hirst’s work is an examination of the fragile boundaries between life and death.’

Sakura caught my look of puzzlement as I took in The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (the fourteen-foot tiger shark in the tank). What was Art, I wondered? Where were the boundaries? Paul Gauguin had once said ‘Art is either plagiarism or revolution.’ I could accept that Art constantly needed to re-define itself. But in my cynicism, I wondered if was just a question of a dealer or curator saying something was important art, a prominent critic supporting him, and collectors with their megabucks being persuaded. It was becoming like an investment bank.

The shark is a metaphor for mortality,’ Sakura said.

I found myself no longer looking at the unsettling spectacle in the tank. Sakura was a much more attractive prospect for my gaze. She possessed an exquisite beauty. She had long raven black hair, obsidian eyes and rich nut-brown skin with a flourish of red across her cheekbones. Her body pushed in all the right places against the fabric of the tight floral print dress. I was transfixed. I felt a profound surge of well-being. Another bout of rejuvenation was on the way.

I must have come up with a clever riposte, because the next thing I recall, we were eating dinner at Claridge’s. Before I knew it, we were living together. I wondered later if our meeting had not been set up as a blind date. Sakura wondered the same. It appeared she had had a phonecall from the same mutual friend recommending the exhibition. Sakura worked in television. I did not watch a lot of television, so I was not aware of any of the programmes she had been involved with. In no time at all, she suggested writing my biography.

I don’t think I’m famous enough,’ I said. In fact, I had many times thought of writing my autobiography, but I was too lazy to start. With so many years to cover, such a project seemed daunting.

Everyone knows who you are,’ Sakura said. ‘But no one knows very much about you. The world is crying out for some insight into your life.’

Sakura had formidable powers of persuasion. The chapters charting my childhood in the Cotswolds were in the bag in a few days. However, after the move to North London, sister Susanna joining the Suffragettes, Walter and I going off to war, and Emma and I marrying, we reached the point where retrieval of memories was becoming more of a challenge. Looking back was becoming vertiginous. It was a long way down.

You should have kept a diary,’ said Sakura.

I started to keep one,’ I said. ‘A long time ago. After the First World War……. I think that they may be up in the attic somewhere in an old leather bag.’

Sakura dug them out, four gnarled Evening Standard Diaries from 1918 to 1921, and eagerly began to devour them.

Why did you stop writing the diary after June 1921?’

It was a fair question. Had my pen run out of ink? Had I had an unexpected illness? Had I sold my soul to the devil? I couldn’t remember.

The biography progressed more slowly documenting the years after 1921. I had some recollection as to when I had met celebrity figures. I had dates for my recordings. But with regards to my personal life, there were no records. All of my contemporaries were dead. Even my children had difficulty remembering with any precision. Either that or they had not wanted to cooperate. To my great sadness, none of them had taken well to Sakura. I could recall the big events like the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley (I had been introduced to one of my early heroes, Sir Edward Elgar) and the General Strike (I was stuck in Dover with Aleister Crowley for twelve days). But the devil was in the detail. You wait until you are my age and Alzheimer’s starts gently kicking in.

Looking back made me question whether the quality of life had changed for the better over the years. We were now able to travel fast over large distances and get information at the click of a mouse. Every year technological gadgets were becoming, smaller, faster, cheaper, and more convenient. But hadn’t we lost our sense of wonder? We seemed to have sacrificed a fundamental simplicity. The time and effort spent learning how to use our time and effort saving technology raised the question, at what point would the cost-benefit ratio no longer be in support of our technology? When I was a child, listening to someone reading the story of Alice in Wonderland aloud, without the benefit of even pictures to look at, would have filled me with awe. Nowadays, if a six-dimensional, four-headed Kraken suddenly materialised in a ring of fire in the room in front of a young child, it would engender no surprise, they would probably just see it as a continuation of a computer game.

Around the time of the millennium, Sakura and I took a walk in the Cotswold Hills. I was showing her some of my childhood haunts. It was a clear day and you could see for miles. We came across a family having a picnic. They were tucking into plastic-wrapped supermarket lunches. The two youngsters played games on hand-held devices, while the parents thumbed through an Argos catalogue looking at domestic appliances, oblivious to the beauty around them. Nowadays they would be able to dispense with the family outing, the countryside and the picnic and buy the Dyson online.

Do you ever regret parts of your life?’ Sakura asked. She was still trying to keep the idea of the biography going.

Of course!’ I said, not going down the Edith Piaf or Frank Sinatra routes. ‘Many things.’

If you could live your life over again, what would you change?’ she asked.

I would get up earlier and I would take more time to smell the roses,’ I told her enigmatically.

8:

One morning I pulled back the curtains and saw a ball of bright light blazing brilliantly in the Southern sky. I was mesmerised. I began to understand how the expression, bright as the morning star came about. The man in Jessops told me that what I was seeing was Jupiter and, what I needed was a Celestron 8 inch Schmidt-Cassegrain computer-controlled telescope. He just happened to have one in stock. It was simple to operate, he said. I would be able to use it right away to discover the delights of star-watching. Once I got it home, I did not find it easy and it sat in the conservatory unused for several months. I had an arts background. I had never learned even the basics about the universe. Finally, with the help of The Beginners’ Guide to the Cosmos, I began very slowly to pick things up.

Each of the billions of stars that I now had access to through the telescope was another sun. The problem was I had no idea where to look. There were so many of them. After a crash course in constellation spotting on the Internet, I could pick out the Plough and use this as a reference point. I was able to distinguish an endless array of spectacular celestial sights. I could now see Jupiter up close, with its four largest moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, strung out alongside it, Saturn and its unmistakable rings, the forever changing crescent of Venus and the fiery red of Mars. I was also able to see distant nebulae, star clusters and the Great Andromeda galaxy that lies about two million light years beyond our own galaxy, The Milky Way.

I learned that our sun is four million times as big as Earth and produces so much energy, that every second the core releases the equivalent of one hundred billion nuclear bombs. Also that a supernova is a luminous stellar explosion that occurs when a massive star dies, releasing a huge amount of gamma rays, which can outshine an entire galaxy. After the supernova, the once massive star becomes a neutron star, white dwarf, or if it is large enough, a black hole. Black holes are so dense and produce such intense gravity that even light cannot escape. We are talking really big numbers when it comes to space. The Universe is at least one hundred and fifty billion light-years in diameter. I had to reconsider my definitions for large. The word that came to mind was astronomical.

The relationship between music and the cosmos probably began with Holst’s The Planets. The work was composed around 1914, just ten years after The Wright Brothers’ first powered flight, and Holst had no idea what was going on out there in space. Little more than fifty years later, we had landed a spacecraft on the moon. The piece of music I always associate with this momentous event is Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, from Stanley Kubrick’s visionary film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Voyager spacecrafts launched in 1977 contained sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form finding them. The music included Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky and Chuck Berry. These have left the Solar System and are now in empty space. In around forty thousand years if things go to plan some unsuspecting alien will be playing air guitar to Johnny B. Goode. In 2008, NASA beamed The Beatles, Across the Universe at the speed of 186,000 miles per second towards The North Star, just four hundred and thirty one light years away. Lately we have been pinging stars all over the cosmos in the hope that there is someone out there. Time is not on my side, so I am having my entire back catalogue beamed to Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, which Stephen Hawking (who incidentally was hopeless on the accordion) once me was the most likely place to find life in the Solar system. I am told this will take a mere seventy six minutes.

There are signs that our four hundred thousand year tenure of Planet Earth could be coming to an end. Earth may not be able to support the violations of our stewardship. The forest fires that raged for months in Australia this year were the worst in history, finally doused by storms of biblical proportions, bringing, in turn, the worst floods in history. Bangla Desh was reclaimed by the ocean, after all the rivers that drained the Himalayas cascaded into one. Fourteen million people died in the famine in the African country no one knew was there. I see on the news this morning that an iceberg the size of France has just detached itself from Antarctica. It’s all happening. As the writer, Kurt Vonnegut once said, ‘Dear future generations: Please accept our apologies. We were rolling drunk on petroleum.’

What will tomorrow bring? The answer is up to you. It doesn’t matter much to me. I will be one hundred and twenty three next birthday.

Copyright: Chris Green, 2019: All rights reserved

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents herein are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

 

Schrödinger’s Cat

schrodingerscat

Schrödinger’s Cat by Chris Green
(no cats were harmed in the writing of this story)

The train doesn’t stop. There are no stations, no visible settlements. No landmarks, no buildings, no farms, nothing. I don’t know where the train is heading. The terrain comprises miles upon miles of wilderness, woodland and barren scrub. I can’t remember anything else. When did I start out? It feels as if I’ve been on the train for days now, weeks, months maybe. It as if I’ve always been on the train. Each day, the same as the last. Day in day out. All down the line, the diesel drumming. The monotonous rhythm of the wheels. The train pulling purposefully along the tracks. The alien landscape passing by, camouflaged by grimy carriage windows. Bewilderment and foreboding. A growing sense of hopelessness.

How did I come to be aboard? Why is there no-one else on the train? Why do I have such a long train all to myself? It must be sixteen coaches long. What happened to the others? Where is my partner, Julie? Jennie? Jackie? Was she with me? Or did I have other companions? I have no recollection now of the chain of events. But surely someone must know what is going on. Someone, for instance, must be driving the train. The driver will know where we are headed. But I’ve no way of communicating with the him. I’ve tried pulling the safety cord to stop the train but this doesn’t work. Meanwhile, the train travels ever onward towards an unknown destination.

I don’t think we’ve passed any other trains. Or have we? Perhaps there was another train back in the dim and distant past. Going through the mountains in the opposite direction. Mountains? Where were the mountains? I have a nagging feeling we passed through mountains earlier but I can’t be certain. The mind plays its tricks. Davos would know. Davos? …… David perhaps? Davy? No, wait! Davy is dead, isn’t he?. …… Am I dead too? If I’m not, I don’t even understand how I have managed to stay alive. I have had no food or water.

A tune keeps coming into my head. It seems familiar but I can’t make out what it is or where I might have heard it. It flits in and out, sounding a little different each time. Variations perhaps on a theme. The same tune but with different instruments. Piano and violins. Now guitars and saxophone. It probably has words too but these are not coming through yet.

Posso vedere il tuo biglietto per favore,’ a man’s voice says, from out of nowhere.

A ticket collector but I can see no-one. Where is the voice coming from and why is he talking to me in Italian?

Can I see your ticket please?’ he says, this time in English.

I don’t have a ticket,’ I say. ‘Who are you and why am I on the train?’

You have to have a valid ticket to travel on this line,’ he says. ‘The penalty for not having one is imprisonment. You would not like prison. It is a very inhospitable place.’

Still I see no-one. The strange thought occurs to me that it could be me that is speaking. Perhaps I am the ticket collector.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to keep a grip on reality. Here I am now in the deserted environs of an old town. It might be because I am fatigued from the long journey but I can’t put a geographical location to this place. There are no features that might offer a clue. Unless the train took a circuitous route, this will be a long way from ……. Where will it be a long way from? Home? Work? The place where they design skeuomorphs for digital devices? No, that can’t be right. Where did that idea come from? I must be thinking of someone else. Perhaps Janie designs skeuomorphs. What are skeuomorphs anyway?

From the weak wintry light, I sense this place has a northerly aspect. This in itself is not much help. North is big. It could be anywhere, Cumbria, Wroclaw, Novosibirsk. There is nothing that might offer a clue. There are no signs of life. No people, no animals, no birds. There are no vehicles, no roadsigns, no advertising displays. Not even any graffiti. Nothing at all that might point the way. The town has been completely abandoned. Rows of ramshackle buildings stand empty. Houses are in an advanced state of collapse, overtaken by forbidding brambles. Forests of weeds have colonised the dirt-track roads. The place is more rundown than the Tokers End council estate back home? Tokers End? Now, where is Tokers End? …….. It’s near ….. down the road from …… I drive through it sometimes. On my way to …… The supermarket? The studio? The Mondegreen Research Centre? No, it’s not coming. What are mondegreens, I wonder?

How did I come to be here? Did the train to nowhere finally stop? Is this where it brought me? There are huge gaps in my cognition. Might it even be something to do with what the ticket collector told me? Might this be the penalty for not having a ticket? I suppose there’s nothing to do but explore this wasteland and see where I end up. The wind blows dust along the silent empty streets. The colour has drained out of the sky. It’s as if someone has found a way to release despair into the atmosphere. Something terrible must have happened here to drive the people away. And by the looks of it, not recently. No-one has been here for a long time.

Here’s that tune again. Bouncing around in my head. It is up-tempo. It has an infectious piano riff and a backbeat. I still can’t make out the words but it has a sing-along chorus. La-de-da-de-da-de-la. La-de-da-de-la-la. It’s as if others are singing it with me. In harmony. It offers a welcome distraction from my dire predicament.

I’m back on the mystery train. I do not understand how this has come about. Just now I was sheltering in a derelict house in the deserted old town. Having trekked for miles and searched in vain for signs of life in the badlands, I was exhausted. It was a rough night. A storm whipped up. The wind howled in the eaves. I was trying to get some sleep. Or could it be I was dreaming I was in a derelict old house? It was certainly the stuff of nightmares. Whichever, here I am now back on the never-ending track. I sense I may not be alone on the train. I can hear movement in the next carriage. It sounds as if they are moving furniture around, beds or something. Can I hear muted voices or is this wishful thinking? The connecting door between the carriages is locked. I call out but it appears they cannot hear me. I shout louder. I try each of the languages I know, Italian, French, German. But to no avail. Through the grill, I can see shadows moving but the distance is somehow so great, they might as well be in another world.

As the train goes around a bend, I see a station up ahead. A long single platform with random structures along it. It looks like there are one or two figures standing in the shadows of what might be a waiting room. For a moment I imagine they have come to meet me. Perhaps they will take me for a tasty meal in a fast-food restaurant nearby. Prezzo or Nandos. I’m certain now that I must be hungry. What about that place where they do the spicy chicken wings? While I am salivating, the people on the platform vanish. Perhaps they were never there. The train doesn’t even slow down, let alone stop. It is going too fast for me to even make out the name of the station. Would it help if I could? I get the feeling it wouldn’t shed any light on where I was or where the train was heading. For the time being, it looks as if the food will have to wait.

Night comes around again and the stars come out. There is a full Moon and I can make out the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades, the seven daughters of Atlas, who holds up the sky and Pleione, the protectress of sailing. That’s a lot of information coming through all of a sudden. Where has this come from? Gradually, it occurs to me. My daughter, Lucy used to tell me about the night sky. I feel remembering I have a daughter is something of a breakthrough. It connects me somehow to the normal, everyday world, the world outside of the train. I haven’t seen Lucy for a while though, have I? Perhaps she is with her mum, Jilly? Judy? Jody? Or perhaps she moved in with Kurt. Kurt, Kurt? Who is Kurt? Wasn’t he the one who shot himself? That must be a different Kurt. No matter. I recollect I used to visit Lucy in Scotland. She studied Physics at St Andrews. It always seemed to be snowing when I went up. I remember her telling me one time about a thought experiment known as Schrödinger’s Cat. If you place a cat and something that could kill the cat, let’s say a radioactive atom, in a box and seal it, you don’t know if the cat is dead or alive until you open the box, so until you open the box, the cat is, in a sense, both dead and alive. I’m not sure they actually did this experiment at the university but who knows? Perhaps I am nothing more than a thought experiment. Perhaps the train is my sealed box and paradoxically, like Schrödinger’s Cat, I am both dead and alive.

By and by, the train slows down. I wonder if, at last, it is going to stop. I can see faint lights shimmering in the distance. Might these be coming from a town? Might we be arriving somewhere at last? Somewhere that I might possibly recognise? I can see one or two roads and think I can make out the headlights of vehicles. But to my disappointment, we do not stop. The train picks up speed again and we head off once more into the night.

My phone rings, which is odd because didn’t realise I had a phone with me on the train. I search in my pockets but this merely confirms that I don’t have a phone. The phone I don’t have keeps ringing so I answer it.

We’ll be with you soon,’ says a voice. The line is a bit crackly but I think I recognise the voice. It sounds like Jeannie.

Will you bring Lucy?’ I say. I haven’t seen her for such a long time.’

We’ll be with you soon,’ the voice repeats and the call ends.

I find I still don’t have a phone.

Just before daylight, I sense a change in the situation. I can no longer feel the rocking motion of the train. I can no longer hear the pulsing sound of the wheels on the tracks. Instead, I hear ambient background noise, the hum of air conditioning, the clinking of cutlery, the hubbub of voices. It feels as if a numbness is lifting. Like I am waking up from a long sleep. And the tune is back. It has a reggae beat now. I’ll need to get Robbie and Bob to work on this. Rhythm sections understands reggae rhythms better, the downstrokes on the offbeat and the 2/4 or 4/4 time. Wait! ……. That’s it! The tune I keep hearing is one of mine. I’m a songwriter, a musician. I’m in a band. We have had hits. We are called …… No, the name’s not coming to me yet. But I believe we are quite famous. I can visualise us playing at large stadiums.

It’s coming back to me now. We were on a European tour. We were in between gigs. I remember that Davy, our keyboard player and I were keen to take in The Alps. The Eiger. The Matterhorn. The Jungfrau. All those spectacular snow-capped wonders we had heard about. We took a train from Davos. The Glacier Express. I think we may have taken something else too, something psychoactive to enhance the experience. Something specially made up for us by a Swiss chemist who came to one of our concerts. A freak storm broke out. There was an accident. There was mass panic. On account of my injuries, along with a number of others, I was airlifted to safety. Then nothing. That’s it. A complete blank. I must have passed out in the helicopter. I have been unconscious for …. How long have I been out for? A long time, it seems. Possibly days. It certainly feels like days. And here I am holed up in ……. Hôpitaux Universitaires de Genève, it says on my chart. At least I’m alive. No radioactive atom in the metaphorical box then.

Ah, there’s a lady in a white coat. She’s coming over. She will be able to tell me how long I’ve been here and what is going on. She will be able to let me know when Josie and Lucy are arriving. I’d better ask her about Davy too. Find out what happened to Davy? Is he here in the hospital as well? Or didn’t he make it? She’s bound to have information. Perhaps she will know what my band is called too. She has probably been listening to us on those headphones she has around her neck.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

When I Was Older

wheniwasolder

When I Was Older by Chris Green

When I was older, I was a saxophonist. I was one of the last living saxophonists before the instrument was banned and all saxophones were melted down to help the war effort. The trumpet suffered a similar fate. Brass instrument detection squads with sophisticated detection equipment were deployed with harsh penalties introduced for possession. But that was then. April 2047, if you want the precise date it became illegal to blow your horn.

I’m Charlie Tooting. You may not have heard of me as I am, at the present time, that is your present time, the time you are reading this, still a journeyman, working out tunes on the blues harmonica. Little Walter and Junior Wells are my inspiration. But at some stage, in what you think of as your future, you will hear my name. You will hear my music. Mark my words! You may even be moved to buy some. Make a note now! Charlie Tooting. Saxophone.

It is difficult, isn’t it, to get your head around the fact that time isn’t linear? This is not what you are led to expect. But, when you look more closely, there is no conceptual distinction between past and future, let alone an objective line of now. You need to drop the idea that time is something that flows. Time, like space, is just there. All of it. More helpful perhaps to view space-time as a four-dimensional structure. The fundamental laws of physics work the same both forward and backwards.

Saxophones were not melted down to help the war effort, of course. Nor were trumpets. By 2047, wars were not fought this way. All conflicts were conducted in cyberspace. The real reason for the ban is a puzzler. It may never be disclosed.

A group of us, a dozen in all perhaps, are sitting in Eve’s garden in the early Autumn sunshine. It is a Saturday morning. It is the time you refer to as now. Eve has put on a spread of cakes and pastries including my favourite, tiramisu. In the background, Chet Baker is singing about a lost love. It is not clear when his love went missing.

Vincent asks Eve if there is any wine.

Eve laughs and says something about 1969.

What on Earth is she on about?

A reference to a lyric from a 1976 tune by The Eagles,’ Holly Wood explains.

Mainstream rock is not really my thing. It lacks subtlety. Little use of counterpoint. Sparing use of minor keys. I prefer jazz and blues.

Is there anything going on today?’ Pascal asks. ‘Something we could all go to.’

I mention the possibility of going to the match. Our local team are playing one of the bigger teams. This doesn’t seem to interest anyone.

The stranger in the harlequin-patterned shirt stroking the Maine Coon cat tells us there is a Street Fair on Monday. With fairground rides, magicians, circus acts, music and dancing. He mentions the names of some bands. They sound like tropical diseases.

Is Monday a Bank Holiday?’ I ask. It seems strange to have one in October. If it is a public holiday, it will probably mean that my harmonica class will have been cancelled. Lou said nothing about this last week. He just told me I needed to learn a new breathing technique and practice my blocking.

Monday is a Bank Holiday,’ Eve says. ‘It’s a new one to celebrate Prince Barry’s birthday.’

Who is Prince Barry, I wonder? Have I missed something? It’s hard to keep tabs on everything. There are so many unanswered questions. Why are red buttons always the most important? Who let the dogs out? And what is that low-pitched hum we’ve all been hearing for the last three months? No-one knows.

I don’t think I’ll be able to go to the Street Fair,’ I say. ‘My war wound is playing up.’

Shrapnel. Operation Olive. The Battle of Rimini. 1944. This was a proper war. A war with tanks and guns. That’s where I came across the harmonica. It must have belonged to a dead soldier. 1944.

Time can be a trickster,’ I say.

Time keeps on slipping, slipping into the future,’ Eve says.

Another tune from the 1970s, apparently. Eve is fond of quoting song lyrics. But does it? Does time keep slipping, slipping into the future? It seems to me this is not always the case. The big white Zephyr with the tail fins has been following me for weeks and I have been following the big white Zephyr with the tail fins for weeks. You may have seen it too. Big white Zephyr. Blacked out windows.

You’ve probably noticed how the night moves. Without warning, you are shifted from one narrative to another. It is said that when we leave somewhere, we leave something of ourselves behind. Even though we go away, part of us remains. We might thus inhabit many places at the same time. I was unable to understand the mechanics of the mystical crossroads until I was older but this is the way it is with time. One day, you will wake to find that the information has silently seeped into your consciousness. You will find yourself zipping about the space-time continuum. It will become so commonplace you will not even notice when it happens. And happen, it will.

I am on stage. The Charlie Tooting Quintet. We are playing at the Rimini Bar. In a small town in the west of England. Maybe you are in the audience. I can see there are quite a few in tonight. If you are not, you can catch up with us elsewhere. You will find details of our touring schedule on our website. Be sure to check the dates carefully otherwise you may find you have missed us. We have a request to play How Long Has This Been Going On. This is strictly speaking a tenor tune but I like to surprise people by playing it on soprano sax. I look around the stage for my instrument. I don’t appear to have brought the soprano. In fact, I have no saxophone at all. All I have here is a harmonica. And there is no band.

These things happen. When I was older, I discovered temporal precision, like many other things, is not something you can rely on. Best to throw out your timetables. They will do you no good. What then can you rely on? Can you rely on what you see? What you hear? What you read? Of course not! Can you rely on Divine intervention? Can you rely on intuition? Chance? Who can say?

Backgammon is considered a game that has the perfect balance between skill and luck. You need to make similar calculations to those you might make in a game of chess but at the same time, throughout the game, you have to rely on chance. The odds of throwing a double six are thirty five to one. The odds of rolling two double sixes in a row, when this is what you require to bear off, I believe, are one thousand, two hundred and ninety five to one. How then is Clancy Edo able to defy these odds? And this, of course, from a losing position and after I have upped the stakes with the doubling dice. Clancy has managed this on several occasions now. Littlewood’s Law suggests a person can expect to experience miracles, which he defines as events with odds of one in a million, at the rate of about one per month. But even so.

It was not until I was older that I realised many things in life are quite probably, unexplainable. The low-pitched hum we’ve all been hearing is unexplainable. The way the big white Zephyr with the tail fins keeps appearing is unexplainable. The way an original tune appears in your head from out of nowhere is unexplainable. Perhaps any revolutionary new idea is. Where can it have come from? Consciousness itself is unexplainable. If you are looking for answers to life’s mysteries, rationality will get you nowhere. There are black holes and it is said by one of our great thinkers that black holes are where God divided by zero.

I think I can hear someone calling me. It could be that my new medication is ready.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved