A Saucerful of Secrets by Chris Green
Having missed the campus coach to the free concert in Hyde Park, Mojo, Lenny and I were in Spike’s flat listening to the new Pink Floyd album, A Saucerful of Secrets. Spike had gone off to buy hash. Supplies had been getting low. Afghani Black, he said he was getting. Glassy-Eyed George had some. Demon stuff by all accounts. A single toke and you were surfing with Jesus. It had been brought over in the tyres of a military Land Rover, he said, although I didn’t know how he knew this or if it was true. You heard all kinds of tales about the origins of a particular batch of dope. I suppose it added to the mystique. Along with the exotic names. Manali Cream, Durban Poison, Thai Sticks, Kashmir Charas, Lebanese Gold. The Nepalese Temple Balls we had been smoking had allegedly been brought through in the diplomatic bag.
It was always likely we would not make the coach. None of us had even been into college since the sit-ins in May. Even then, we were there under duress. We were not interested in politics. There were finer things in life than protesting about capitalism or wars in far-off countries. With all the extra-curricular recreational opportunities lately, we had been finding it difficult to get up in the mornings. Lenny probably hadn’t been into college since Registration the previous September. He was fondly known as Lenny the Loafer.
A Saucerful of Secrets was always going to be an experimental album. Syd Barrett, the band’s singer, lead guitarist and songwriter had recently quit. Although rumours about his fragile state of mind and apocryphal tales of his unpredictable behaviour were beginning to circulate, the affair had so far been smoothed over by the band’s management. They were trying to make out that Syd was resting. At this stage, none of us knew that he was a serious acid casualty. Or even that there was such a thing. As we saw it, acid blew away the cobwebs, took you on a roller coaster ride, gave you kaleidoscopic visuals and made you laugh a lot. It was a good idea to plan where you were going to be but it was always a fun experience.
As time passed, Syd would be viewed as a visionary. He would become a legend, a martyr to the cause, whatever this turned out to be. Pink Floyd would become the biggest band in the world by writing songs about Syd. They would make a fortune out of his craziness, centring entire albums around his breakdown. But this was all in the future. For the time being, the three of us were sitting around stoned in Spike’s flat trying to appreciate the new album.
‘They’re missing Syd, aren’t they?’ I said. ‘They no longer have those quirky little songs about scarecrows and bikes.’
‘They still sound pretty far out,’ Lenny said. ‘The long instrumental breaks are spacey. This one’s nice. What’s it called, Scott? You’ve got the album cover.’
‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,’ I said. ‘I like Jugband Blues. Syd’s still on that one and I think he’s trying to make a point. And I’m wondering who could be writing this song, he sings. He knows he’s the writer and he’s saying you ain’t going to be able to do without me, fellas.’
‘Do you realise, guys, that in the not too distant future, there will be an invisible global jukebox,’ Mojo said. ‘And you will be able to listen to every track ever recorded by everybody through your wristwatch. There will be a vast universal library of music you can access. You will be able to see any concert ever filmed just by typing the information into your TV. Including the one we are missing today probably.’
‘You’re going off on one again,’ Lenny said. ‘You know, you’ve been acting weird lately. Ever since purple ones last week.’
‘Not so. In any case, we’ve had the orange ones since then, man,’ Mojo said. ‘They were even better. They were wild. Look! What it is! I was talking to this taxi driver dude a day or two back. He said he’d had a fare who told him he’s going to make all of that happen. A worldwide web, he called it. A Japanese guy. The cabbie took him to the airport and on the way, he told him all about it. There would be instantaneous communication between everyone in milliseconds all over the world. The science is all there, apparently. All the tech is in place. Well near as dammit, just a few things to iron out, he said. The idea just needs financial backing.’
‘You’re sure this was a taxi driver you were talking to and not Captain Kirk?’ Lenny said.
‘I was in his cab going to the bank to cash my allowance cheque,’ Mojo said. ‘He was pretty excited about the idea.’
‘You took a cab to get to the bank?’ I said. ‘The bank’s only a couple of streets away.’
‘My bank isn’t two streets away,’ Mojo said. My bank is ……. well, nowhere near here.’
The rest of us exchanged glances. Granted, higher education colleges tended to attract people from diverse backgrounds and put people from different parts of the country, even the world together. But at that moment, we realised that although we had known Mojo for two years, we did not know the first thing about him. We knew nothing about his family background or where he came from. We did not even know his real name, not his Christian name or his surname. Everything about Mojo was a mystery.
I don’t know when any of you bought your first personal computer, but they weren’t very sophisticated, were they? Allowing for crashes, it took the whole length of the Combat Rock album to load the operating system on my ZX Spectrum. As it chugged away, and The Clash pondered whether they should stay or go, I couldn’t help thinking back to the idea of a world wide web that Mojo had mentioned all those years ago. How impossible a dream this presently seemed. Tech was hardly moving forward at all. Digital watches were considered smart. I wondered what had happened to Mojo. We never did find out who he was. I had lost touch with him and, for that matter, all the others shortly after our conversation. We had been thrown out of college for non-attendance and had gone our separate ways.
I was working as a freelance reporter in the nineteen-eighties and accepted a commission from a popular culture magazine to get an interview with the reclusive Syd Barrett who now lived a quiet life in his home town of Cambridge. I discovered Syd lived with his mother in a leafy cul-de-sac and was rarely seen in public. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to get the interview. Syd had closed down. He no longer acknowledged his former fame. It made me sad to think of the waste of talent.
During my time in Cambridge, I perused the many bookshops. My attention was randomly drawn to a Science Focus magazine on the shelves of one of the mainstream outlets. It had a photo on the cover of a naggingly familiar face. Despite the familiarity, it was so out of context, it took me a few moments to realise who it was. Shorter hair and clean-shaven, but this was unmistakably Mojo. His name was Milton Chance. It seemed he had become a leading light in network communication research. He was going to get us all connected.
I had developed a casual interest in computer technology and had picked up the occasional tech magazine so I could follow a little of the article. I discovered that the main research into network communication was taking place in Japan. Several Japanese consultants were mentioned but the focus of the piece was how Milton Chance was pioneering European research into TCP/IP, the conceptual model and set of communications protocols which would be used in the Internet. The conversation about the Japanese cab fare and Mojo’s interest in the world wide web came rushing back to me. He had perhaps exaggerated the stage of development it was at back then but this must have been what he was referring to. So, Mojo’s name was Milton Chance.
I began to come across his name everywhere. It started slowly with mentions in each of the computer science magazines I picked up. Then there was an Open University broadcast for a technology module on BBC2 in which he featured. Soon, I was seeing the name, Milton Chance further afield, in The Times, in The Independent, even in The Sun. I was not a regular reader of the daily newspapers nor did I watch a lot of television so the odds against such my coming across his name so frequently ought to have been great. I wasn’t certain, but I thought I spotted him on the cover of Viz. I discovered that this frequency illusion is known as the Baader Meinhof phenomenon. But the thing is, you simply don’t know why it is happening.
I was at a Cocteau Twins concert in London with my NUJ card, hoping to revive my flagging journalistic career with a stirring report on this fine band and perhaps distract myself from my failed marriage to Kate. 1992, it would have been. There up ahead of me, making his way towards his seat, was Spike. He had changed very little in appearance. Nor, I discovered, in habits. In a word, he was still dealing drugs, only the numbers had changed. The numbers were bigger. He was now dealing a lot of drugs. Seeing that I was at a loose end, he wanted to take me under his wing and like a fool I was taken. I drifted into becoming a dealer.
The market had changed considerably. Gone were the exotic labels of the past. Now there were just three types of hash, Soap Bar, Slate and Black. The origins of the product seemed to be no longer of concern. As a supplier, you were just required to keep stocks of each type at a level to meet demand. Oh, and you needed to keep a little Skunk on hand for those oblivion seekers wanted to go AWOL in the badlands. And perhaps have a few Es for personal use with the right company, should the situation arise.
My career in the drugs trade was staggeringly short. Within a month my flat was raided, and the police made off with nearly half a kilo of assorted goodies. There is nothing quite as sobering as looking ahead to a long stretch behind bars.
‘I’m afraid that as things stand, we are looking at twelve to eighteen months,’ my solicitor, Guy Bloke of Chesterton, Pringle and Bloke said on our first meeting.
‘What, even though I have no previous?’ I said.
‘Yes. It doesn’t help your case that you had all those figures written down with the amounts your customers owed you,’ he said. ‘This is the most common mistake that drug dealers make. It makes a defence against intent to supply almost impossible.’
‘But it was just a few letters and numbers on a scrap of paper,’ I protested. ‘It could have referred to anything. It could be computer coding.’
‘The courts will have come across this practice so often that this will count for nothing,’ Guy said. ‘Besides, the list was apparently next to the chemical balance which presumably will have had traces on. That’s not good.’
‘Is there anything I might before the case that might help keep me out of prison?’ I asked.
‘Off the top of my head, I can think of two things,’ Guy said. ‘Become very, very rich or leave the country.’
Thanks to a modicum of good fortune, I was able to do both. For this, I have to thank dear old, Mojo, aka Milton Chance.
Most people see Tim Berners Lee as the inventor of the Internet. Largely speaking, this is true. But among those that gave it its commercial legacy was Milton Chance. He was one of the visionaries who, some cynics might say, mercilessly exploited the world wide web’s huge commercial potential. The first web site went up in 1991. Thereafter Milton Chance began to sell the idea to the world at large. He made the Internet more accessible through the Netscape browser. He didn’t see the internet as a research toll, he saw it as a means for growing a business. He planted the idea in peoples minds that they could join in the bonanza.
Milton Chance was well equipped to track me down. But naturally I was surprised to hear from him after all these years. Having bought a state-of-the-art 386DX PC with a modem just before the police visit, I had signed up to email, Somehow Mojo knew that this new Netscape email address, email@example.com related to his old buddy. It was my first email.
It said, I’m in Palo Alto, California, Scottie. Get on a plane and come on over. I will make you rich. Mojo.
Although the conditions of my bail stipulated that I could not leave the country, I managed to make it out west and caught up with my old friend in Silicon Valley. My first impression was that Mojo appeared to have completely changed but gradually it occurred to me that perhaps he hadn’t. Perhaps he had always had the entrepreneurial spirit. Perhaps he had always been focussed, but we had not noticed it. At nineteen years old, you are not necessarily looking for character traits. You are just trying to find people to get along with. And, under the college system, you are thrown together with a random group of fellow students. At that age, you assume that if someone likes the same bands and you sit around the same smoky rooms sharing spliffs, you have everything else in common. That you hold the same views, are thinking the same thoughts, and that your lives will run in parallel. When in reality, we could all be said to conceal a saucerful of secrets.
Clearly, I needed to become focussed. This was my great opportunity. Visas and other official documentation were a problem at first but with connections like Milton Chance, I discovered that these matters could easily be overcome. More to the point, I had the great fortune to be in Silicon Valley right at the beginning of the dot com bubble. Within months I was a millionaire. But at this stage, I still had the impending court case to consider. I had skipped bail and there was the threat of extradition hanging over me. But money talks. Very loudly I discovered in the case of the United States. Through a discrete but very expensive identity change, I was able to stay under the radar. I was able to eventually return to the UK as Simon Franklin, a believable name which was neither too common nor too rare. My aim was simply to blend in.
Who would have thought that an idler like Lenny Turner would have joined the police, let alone risen to the rank of Superintendent? Who would have thought that after thirty odd years, the two of us would find ourselves at the same Pink Floyd concert? Who would have thought that an old friend like Lenny, on the verge of a comfortable retirement, would have me taken into custody? It’s all to easy to be complacent.
As the great fictional pessimist, Wet Blanket Ron might say, if things appear to be going well, you’ve probably overlooked something. There again, given the long interval, there was always the possibility that Exhibit A, 2.3 kilos of cannabis resin may have gone missing.
© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved