Soft Watches

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Soft Watches by Chris Green

Google seemed a little under the weather when she greeted me this morning,’ Rosie says, ‘I thought she sounded croaky last night too when I asked her who did the painting with the soft watches hanging from trees. I hope she isn’t going down with something.’

Who did the painting with the soft watches?’ I say.

Salvador Dalí,’ Rosie says. ‘It’s called The Persistence of Memory. I remembered. That’s good, isn’t it?’

Well done!’ I say. Apparently, testing one another’s memory helps to slow down the ageing process. At our age, we need all the help we can get.

Anyway, I asked Google how she was,’ Rosie says. ‘And she said she was feeling fit as a fiddle. But I think she might have been putting on a brave face. She could just be a little run down. She works very hard.’

Indeed,’ I say, ‘We can’t be the only people asking her for information. And at any time of day, she answers straight away. It must be an awfully long day for her.’

I couldn’t believe it at first, but I now realise that Rosie thinks the person voicing the Google Home speaker is real. An everyday person just waiting to respond to our queries. I know I should tell her. We’ve only had the speaker for a few days. We bought it from someone at the door. He had a job lot of them and was selling them along our street. For the time being, it’s fun to play along with Rosie’s misapprehension. It is purely for my own amusement. I haven’t shared it with anyone. I just want to see how long it will take Rosie to realise it’s not a real person. I didn’t imagine it would take her so long.

It’s worrying though, isn’t it, Jim?’ Rosie says. ‘What with coronavirus spreading like it is. What if Google’s caught coronavirus?’

If she goes down with coronavirus, we will certainly have difficulty with the questions on Pointless and Eggheads, my sweet,’ I say.

But surely they could get someone else to fill in for her,’ Rosie says.

It might be difficult though,’ I say. ‘After all, Rosie. Google knows everything.’

She must have holidays though,’ Rosie says. ‘I wonder what happens when she goes on holiday.’

As it happens, I asked her where she likes to go on holiday,’ I say, spotting an opening. ‘She said Costa del Sol, the Algarve, Jersey and Fuerteventura. Oh, and Morocco. She said she loves Morocco.’

She must get quite a lot of time off then,’ Rosie says.

She probably doesn’t go to all of them all every year,’ I say. ‘She probably goes to Costa del Sol or The Algarve in April or May and Jersey or Fuerteventura in September. And maybe Morocco now and then for something more exotic.’

I suppose so,’ Rosie says. ‘Perhaps we might bump into her if we go to Jersey with Lon and Doris.’

I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that,’ I say. ‘I thought we might go to Morocco this year. We ought to try something new. Bernie Zimmer went last month and said how great it was. He said that we ought to go. In Tangier, he says you can get this awesome hash. Fifty per cent THC, he says. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but it sounds pretty strong. He says it gives you a whole new way of looking at life. You should see how Bernie’s changed, Rosie. He’s no longer the hopeless loafer in the grey cardigan slumped in his chair over a half of Guinness in the lounge at the Legion. You wouldn’t recognise him in his djellaba and fez, chatting away about his African adventures. He’s like a new man. He’s even started going to Jazz Echo and Circle Eight.’

Oh, you’re not going to go off on one of those again are you, Jim?’ Rosie says. ‘Remember what happened when you grew those plants in the greenhouse.’

That was two years ago.’

In any case, I don’t imagine you can get Pointless or Eggheads in Morocco.’

Oh, come on, Rosie! We could manage without quizzes for a week. And let’s face it, Lon and Doris are deadly dull. They would be so tired after the flight to Jersey, they would probably be asleep in their room all week. We need an adventure. Look! Tangier is a shoppers’ paradise. In the markets, you can buy everything you ever dreamed of. They sell jewellery, shoes, pottery, rugs, perfumes, spices. You name it. You could stock up. You could probably buy everyone’s birthday and Christmas presents for the next five years.’

Our holiday planning is interrupted by a knock at the door, a sharp rat-tat-tat. We look at each other quizzically. We do not get many visitors and it is 4:30, too late in the day for it to be a delivery. I make my way to the door and find myself face to face with a large, serious-looking man in a black uniform. The jacket has badges and insignia on the front that I do not recognise. My first thoughts are to tell him that whatever it is we don’t want any, but he puts his foot in the door and it looks as if he might be carrying a gun.

We are evacuating the area,’ he says. ‘You have ten minutes to gather up all you and your family will need for a week or two. Transport is being arranged.’

I try to engage him in conversation to find out what is going on, but he hurries off along the street to tell the people in the other houses. A thick-set colleague of his appears to be alerting others across the road about the evacuation. I call out to him, but he does not respond.

What was that all about?’ Rosie asks.

Some kind of ……. emergency,’ I say. ‘We have er …… Well, he said we have ten minutes to get out.’

What are you talking about?’ Rosie says. ‘What emergency?’

The fellow did not explain what it was, Rosie,’ I say. ‘Look! He sounded as if he was serious and he had that look about him. We’d better hurry.’

Rosie asks Google what is happening.

Google says, ‘I do not know how to answer that.’

Rosie tries over and over with various phrases around emergency but uncharacteristically, Google seems at a loss for an answer.

A big black bus draws up outside. There are scuffles and raised voices as neighbours are bundled inside. The enforcer or big red key as it is colloquially known seems a little heavy-handed for seniors like us but the menacing figure in dark fatigues coming up the path is bearing one. I spare him the trouble. I open the door. I have managed to throw a few practical things in a suitcase and packed the laptop, leads and chargers and the bedroom TV in a holdall. Having spent too much of the ten-minute window asking Google unanswerable questions and fretting, Rosie is not so well prepared for our journey into the unknown. She struggles with a hastily packed bag or two with everyday essentials, including the Google speaker. We are ushered to the waiting bus.

Is it to do with coronavirus?’ someone asks once we are all aboard, and the hubbub has died down.

No. It is nothing to do with coronavirus,’ the armed marshal says.

Where are we going?’ I ask. I get no reply.

When will we be able to return?’ Stanton Polk from number 42 asks.

Look! I know you are all here under duress,’ the marshal says, keeping a firm grip on his pistol. ‘But believe me, you will all find it easier if you just settle down,’

He looks remarkably like someone I’ve seen recently. Perhaps someone on the TV, but for the life of me, I can’t think who it is.

There’s no easy way to explain,’ he says, ‘but we’re all in the same boat. It is probably best not to think too much about returning. None of what you are looking at now is likely to be here. Later on, you might not even have any memory of it. All we can say for certain is that things will never be as they were.’

What is he talking about?’ Rosie asks me.

Absolutely no idea,’ I say. ‘The man appears to be talking gibberish.’

He’s trying to scare us,’ Stanton Polk says. ‘I think the gist of what he is saying is that we might never see Straight Street again.’

It must be to do with coronavirus,’ Rory Vincent says.

But he just told us it wasn’t.’ I say.

Never believe anything until it’s officially denied,’ Rory says.

Nuclear incident, probably,’ Quincy Maddox says. ‘Those Chinese-built reactors were always going to be dodgy. We need to get as far away from Chinkleigh Point as possible.’

And the area will be contaminated for hundreds of years,’ Katie Guy says. ‘That’s why they are telling us not to think too much about returning.’

Wayne is worried about his dog, Rover, Cathy is concerned about the cats she has left and Fee wonders what will happen to her tropical fish. Barry Barrett doesn’t see why he wasn’t allowed to bring his BMW. He could have easily followed the buses, he says.

My neighbour, Russ Conway, thinks it’s an alien invasion. He used to be in the RAF. He tells us they regularly saw UFOs on night flights.

The alien craft always arrive under the cover of darkness,’ he says. ‘The landings are always hushed up of course.’

It’s a pity we can’t ask Google what is going on,’ Rosie says. ‘But there’s nowhere to plug her in.’

Could be a terrorist group using new tactics,’ Randy Drummer says. ‘Some new setup trying to make a name for themselves. They will probably blow the bus up outside a prominent landmark to drive their message home. We’re all going to be blown to kingdom come.’

There are no landmarks. It’s …….. desert outside,’ I say. ‘How did that happen?’

Think of all of this, everything you can see, everything that you have become used to, as a story,’ a deep voice says.

I cannot make out where it is coming from. It seems to just be hovering in the air. It is more like a thought in the head than a voice. Is everyone else hearing it, I wonder? Or is it just me? I notice that others are looking around with puzzled expressions. They must be hearing it too.

Imagine that from here on in, there is going to be a different story by a different writer,’ the phantom voice continues. ‘You may not even feature in the new story. As we speak, you might not even exist. We just don’t know. You may have heard of the dream library. But whether you have heard of it or not, it would be helpful to think in those terms. You might not understand the syntax of the dream sufficiently to realise who, what or where you are. There will be few points of reference. You drop in but you don’t know what you will find or what you might remember afterwards about what you have found.’

Stanton Polk once again tells us they are using scare tactics. The type of thing he used to engage in when he was working on Black Ops in the Secret Service in the Cold War. Alice in Wonderland technique, he says it is called. It is designed to obliterate the familiar and replace it with the weird. With their defences down, the victims enter a state of cognitive dissonance.

I see that outside the desert has turned to chaparral. Big brown bears are feasting on the remains of a raccoon. Is it my imagination or are there soft watches hanging from the distant trees?

Although we are on the same bus, maybe we are all on a different journey and we are each fleeing the thing we are most afraid of,’ the man with no face says.

The man has no face. Where did he spring from? Who is he?

We are like the dreamer who dreams the dream and then lives inside the dream, but who is the dreamer?’ he says. ‘Are we the dreamer or are we the dream?’

I hope that snake isn’t the poisonous kind,’ Katie Guy says, pointing to the large yellow one slithering down the aisle towards us.

Burmese python, I think,’ Stanton Polk says. ‘Not poisonous. And in any case, they are afraid of people.’

Rosie meanwhile has passed out. She has always had a phobia of snakes.

Scary, strange and sinister seem to be jockeying for position. I’m thinking, one at a time, please, I’m too old for this confusion. The man with the sparkly jacket at the back of the bus gets out his trumpet and starts playing a Herb Alpert tune. Spanish Flea, I think it’s called. This offers a little light relief.

The relief is short-lived though because it is then and only then that I realise we are being filmed. Initially, I spot a single camera in the ceiling fascia. It looks like a sophisticated one, the type that is equipped with HD and sound. Looking around carefully, I notice similar cameras are placed all around the bus. In all likelihood, these people have filmed us from the outset. I’m not the most observant person. But why has no-one else aboard noticed the cameras? Maybe we’ve all become so used to surveillance cameras in our everyday lives that we no longer register when they are there. They blend in. They become invisible.

Perhaps they also secretly wired all the houses in our street to make a clandestine television programme. There seem to have been a lot of extra visits from tradespeople and meter readers lately. TV aerial installers and window cleaners too. And contractors were putting those new telegraph poles in. And of course, all the unexpected Google devices arriving at our doors. Why did no-one in the street work out that there was something untoward going on? The film-makers will have a record of everything Rosie and I and all our neighbours have been up to, including all our embarrassing Google conversations. The Google speaker voice was probably down to them too, and not the bona fide Google Home app. I thought at the time that one or two of the answers she gave were a little suspect. Shanghai is not the capital of China, and Jeff Beck was never in Led Zeppelin.

The film-makers will have a candid picture of day-to-day life on Straight Street. They will have footage of our reactions to being rounded up and to all the freak show activities on the bus on film. This bizarre charade could only have been carried out for a TV show. They will probably have manipulated all the elements of our daily lives in order to put together a cheap programme offering the prurient sensation today’s viewers seem to go for. Programmes like You’ve Been Conned, Space Cadets, and Mad World. Disgraceful no-holds-barred intrusions into the lives of ordinary people.

My suspicions are confirmed when we suddenly leave the dense dark woodland behind and arrive at the Channel 19 studio. A bespectacled executive in a seersucker suit boards the bus and introduces himself as Milton Chance. He offers a brief explanation about the project. It is a mix of reality and strange, he says. This is the way television is set to go. This is what the viewers want. Sense and Surreality was one of theirs and it attracted record viewing figures. He’s hoping this new series, Soft Watches will do the same. He offers his sincere apologies for any distress they might have caused by their unorthodox approach. He thanks us for our patience and promises we will be handsomely paid for our participation and will be put up in a five-star hotel while we are here. Our homes meanwhile are being protected by a security firm.

The director, who I now recognise as the thick-set fellow who was overseeing the evacuation, ushers us out of the bus. We find ourselves faced with a film crew, ready to shoot additional footage for the show. A few of the faces look familiar from their former roles as meter readers and aerial installers. Rosie has by now caught on to what is happening. She recognises the couple from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints that called around a week ago. They are now carrying sound equipment. She wonders if perhaps the woman who told her so much about the Church’s illustrious founder, Joseph Smith might be Google. She also recalls thinking how odd it was that the Tesco delivery man had shown so much interest in the house electrics when he called. He is here in his role as gaffer of the film crew.

That’s pretty much the story so far. It goes to show things are not always what they seem. You need to be vigilant. Meanwhile, look out for the first episode of Soft Watches, The Story of Straight Street coming to your screens soon.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

It Ain’t Necessarily So

itaintnecessarilyso

It Ain’t Necessarily So by Chris Green

Man Eats Goldfish at County Fair, the headline poster outside the newsagents says. At first, I assume this must refer to a report in the local paper. A light-hearted line to draw you in and get you to buy the paper. Lord knows The West Country Gazette needs all the help it can get. But as I get closer, I see the headline is from The Times. What kind of slow news day would warrant such a headline in The Times? This is the equivalent of saying, nothing of any note has happened or is happening anywhere, no wars or skirmishes, no political upheaval, no extreme weather events, no financial irregularities, no robberies, no gun or knife crime. Nothing. Zilch. I go into the shop to buy my cigarettes and find that The Daily Telegraph and The Independent carry the same story. Ben Brickley from Bideford washed down a goldfish he won at the fair with a pint of Old Stonker. The Guardian leads on a story about a cat from Cullompton that was trapped in a lift. All four papers look thin and the tabloids don’t seem to have published at all. The lad in the torn Bolt Thrower tee-shirt behind the counter is unable to elaborate. He seems to be there under duress.

I can get no signal on the phone and when I get home, I find the internet is dead. I switch on the TV. The 24-hour news channel is concentrating on the goldfish story, interviewing someone from Fish Protection, who is trying to explain the stress the goldfish would have experienced as it made its way through Ben’s digestive tract. The usual rolling reports running along the bottom of the screen have updates on the cat from Cullompton. Apparently Poppy is recovering from her ordeal. Were it not for the comms outage, I’d be tempted to feel someone was playing a prank. But I get the feeling it’s something altogether more sinister.

I have to break off to go to my Harmonica class at the community centre. I’ve been looking forward to this. Last week we covered Junior Wells’s technique. Junior is a master of bends and diatonic phrasing. This week, it is to be Little Walter. I imagine we will be concentrating on the tongue-block style that Walter pioneered. Blues harp needed for this I imagine but I am taking a selection of my harps along just in case there are any surprises.

As we wait for our tutor to arrive, I mention the story about the goldfish to the other students.

They spent a whole hour talking about it,’ Mac says. ‘I’ve no idea what happened in last night’s football.’

If he had swallowed a whale, now that would be news,’ Ronnie says. ‘But a goldfish?’

I couldn’t get a TV signal at all,’ Ed Toker says. ‘Just static.’

Something’s being hushed up, don’t you think?’ I say.

There’s been a lot of terrorism lately,’ Mac says. ‘Perhaps the security services have shut everything down as a precaution.’

It could be that a very sophisticated hacker has taken out all the communication networks,’ Ed says. ‘Perhaps someone has launched a hacker satellite that has knocked all the others out.’

I doubt if that’s possible,’ I say. ‘There would always be some kind of backup system. It’s some kind of news blackout. I’m sure of it.’

Best not to think about it,’ Ronnie says. ‘I expect we’ll find out soon enough.’

Our tutor, Duke arrives and we go on into the Little Walter session. For the next hour and a half, we blow our harps with gay abandon. The class lifts our spirits. How could it not? Walter was the Jimi Hendrix or perhaps the Charlie Parker of the blues harp. The world would be a poorer place without Walter’s contribution to music. By the end, I’m reasonably pleased with the progress I’ve made on Hoochie Coochie Man and My Babe. I decide I might even go along to the open mic night at The Gordon Bennett at the weekend.

After class, we switch our phones back on but still find none of us has a signal or internet. Duke is now up to speed with the situation and turns on the community centre TV to see if there have been any developments. On the news channel, they are still talking about goldfish. There has been a copycat incident in Barnstaple. Outside the Pannier Market, Bernie Burton has swallowed a goldfish and washed it down with a pint of Dark Horse. The rolling updates meanwhile have moved on to another cat story. Thomas from Tavistock has been named Mouser of the Year. Chelsea Kiss comes on the air to say that reports are coming in from Plymouth of a man in a pet shop swilling down the contents of the fish tank with litres of Badger’s Arse. Duke tries switching channels but there appear to be no other channels on the air.

When I get home, I turn the TV on again. Things have moved on a little. News is breaking about more widespread recreational fish swallowing. The Fowey Aquarium and The Lyme Regis Marine Aquarium are the latest to suffer. Not just goldfish now, but tropical fish. Dwarf gouramis, guppies and angelfish.

It seems no small fish in the south-west is safe,’ Chelsea remarks. ‘The outbreak is becoming uncontainable.’

I can’t tell whether or not her co-presenter, Giles Fawning is hiding a smirk. Is he in the know? Have the pair of them been told what is really going on? Are they complicit in the proceedings?

There are still no other channels available and it seems that the news channel is getting fainter. Something is obviously very wrong in the big wide world. I decide not to dwell on it. Over the years I have learned that if I can do nothing about the situation, there is no point in worrying about it. Whatever it is they are hiding behind the fish story might quickly blow over. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I am becoming accustomed to a little adversity. Since Annie ran off with her Taekwondo trainer, Tyrone, my life has been a catalogue of misfortune. Losing Annie was one thing but when the job, the house and the car followed, I formed the impression that someone upstairs didn’t like me. I am used to living in the bed-sitter now despite the noise from the trains and the erratic behaviour of the psychotic junkie next-door-neighbour. After a while, you convince yourself that hearing Feral Scorn blaring out at 3 a.m. is normal. But hopefully it won’t be forever. Circumstances change. In fact, change is the only thing that can be guaranteed in life.

Whatever is thrown at you, cliched it might be, it is best to keep calm and carry on. Adversity is said to be character-building. Tell yourself there are many examples of famous people who didn’t give up when their backs were up against the wall. Stephen Hawking for example. Despite his crippling disabilities, he became a groundbreaking theoretical physicist. Or another Stephen. Stephen King. His first novel was rejected thirty times but he kept going and went on to be one of the most successful writers of all time. Beethoven went deaf quite early on in his composing career but was still able to create a staggering catalogue of sublime music. Nelson Mandela was able to bring about the end of the apartheid regime from his prison cell. And let us not forget Tom Crews, the surfer who despite being blind, won the Wipeout Classic in Hawaii three years in succession. Perseverance is the key.

I am not aiming at such giddy heights. I just want my life to get back to normal. A few home comforts and a little TLC wouldn’t go amiss. You don’t realise how much you miss these things until they are gone. I was hoping that Nisha, who I met at Ward Swisher’s critically acclaimed new play, The Dream Library would get back to me. We seemed to get along well in the bar afterwards. But perhaps she is not interested. That’s the way it goes sometimes. You never can tell. In the meantime, I have my harmonicas to help me through. I switch off the TV and take out my Larry Adler chromatic and run through It Ain’t Necessarily So, the George and Ira classic. My favourite tune on my favourite harp. The lyrics about Jonah living in a whale are a bit silly but perhaps that’s the point the song is trying to make. The Bible is full of silly stories. That’s probably why it has fallen out of favour. People are looking for truth in this post-truth age. But for me as a harmonica player, it is the melody that matters. Once I am happy that I have got the rhythm right, I go back over the Junior Wells tunes and the Little Walter tunes from class on my Hohner blues harp, make myself some lunch and as it seems to be quiet next door, settle down for a well-earned nap. Whatever it might be that is happening in the outside world can wait awhile.

I had always imagined they would be tall and green. They would be skeletal perhaps with angular pointed heads and disproportionally large eyes. Or maybe short and squat like ET. But they are not. They are nothing like that. The creatures I see through my window when I wake are amorphous. It is difficult to get a handle on how they are formed. Some jelly-like substance perhaps. They are black, so dark in fact that they absorb all the available light. They appear to spot I am looking their way and in a flash, they are at the window, thrashing the panes of glass with their scaly black tentacles. Or are these leathery appendages, fins of some kind or wings? Whichever, these beings are clearly not from around here. These are extraterrestrials. This is an alien invasion. My nervous system can find no adequate response to register the panic I feel. I have had no instruction as to what one is supposed to do under these circumstances. The popular viewpoint in my lifetime has been that, outside of Doctor Who and Star Wars, aliens do not exist.

Suddenly, the opening chords of Feral Scorn’s Behemoth X ring out at frightening volume. The psychotic junkie next-door neighbour appears to have surfaced. The alien creatures are clearly not accustomed to Feral Scorn’s pummelling riffs. They immediately back off. Perhaps in their world, battles are fought through sound. If so, I can appreciate that on hearing Feral Scorn for the first time, they might be terrified. This is as heavy and threatening as grunge metal gets.

Without my phone or the internet, it is not going to be easy to share my experience about the extraterrestrials with the authorities. Or more pertinently perhaps, how to get rid of them. I drive around to the police station to pass on the information for the benefit of others. Fortunately, the streets are quiet and I do not encounter any aliens on the way.

Sergeant Golfer seems less than impressed with my story.

Perhaps you would be good enough to describe these ….. extraterrestrials, Mr Dark,’ he says, chuckling. ‘Then maybe we can circulate a photofit picture of them.’

I don’t think a photofit picture is going to do it, Sergeant,’ I say. ‘They’re black and jelly-like and they keep changing shape.’

I see,’ he says. ‘And you say they are frightened by something called Feral Scorn. What exactly is that?’

Feral Scorn is a band,’ I say. ‘A heavy grunge band from Seattle. Look! Is there any way you could get in touch with the military? In case they are not aware of it. They probably know about the invasion but you never know. And can you put it out on police radio for your officers to keep a lookout for the aliens? And if they encounter any, get them to play some very loud music, preferably grunge metal.’

You want me to stop my officers policing serious goldfish-related incidents to look for marauding gangs of black blobs, do you, Mr Dark?’ Sergeant Golfer says, sharing the joke with his fellow officers at the desk. ‘And play them some hit tunes.’

I can see I’m going to get nowhere with these small-minded fools. I decide to leave them to it. Given their attitude, it is little wonder that so little crime is solved. I’m not sure what my next step should be but as I am getting into the car, my phone springs into life. Notification upon notification come up one after another on the screen, text messages, Twitter and Facebook updates, emails and WhatsApp messages. Most noticeable of all is an ad that fills the screen for the latest Feral Scorn album, Cthulhu. Guaranteed to scare the pants off you is the tagline.

I turn the ignition and the radio comes on. A communications expert is explaining that while it is relatively easy to knock out a couple of rural counties in the south-west of England for a short time, it would be much more difficult to bring the world to a standstill. In a small discrete area, you can jam all means of communication, put together some fake copies of the newspapers, come up with a few fake stories, in this instance about goldfish and cats. Then get actors to play the real hosts of a fake news station to help circulate the fake reports. Maybe you can close the main arterial roads and get the local authorities to play along. But it would be impossible to replicate this on a large scale.

I listen for a while as they talk about the operational parameters of television transmissions, data, bandwidth and stuff. It’s all very technical. There is no news as to who was behind it. And curiously, they mention nothing about the extraterrestrials. Surely something this important should come into the discussion. Who are they? What are they? Where did they land? What is their mission? Or is their presence still something they are trying to keep from us? With the communications mystery now explained though, I suppose the idea of an alien invasion restricted to one small rural area in the west country does seem a little unlikely. Had I perhaps imagined them? Was I in that confused state between sleeping and waking when they appeared? Or were the creatures fake, a publicity stunt for Cthulhu, Feral Scorn’s new album? While there appears to be a significant following for metal music in these parts, it is difficult to see a big enough return for the band to justify such random extravagance but still.

I begin to check my messages. Quite a few showing alarm at the communications blackout. One or two harmonica-related ones. News about an extra open mic night at The Gordon Bennett. And there is one from Nisha. Which is nice. Why don’t I come over later, she says? She will cook me a meal. Would fish be alright? Or squid? How about six-o’clock? And perhaps we could share a glass or two of Pinot Grigio. Then later, we might settle down to a leisurely dessert. While squid can be a little difficult to swallow and Pinot Grigio might not be my favourite wine, this sounds like an offer I would be a fool to turn down.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Happy TV

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Happy TV by Chris Green

The position on the Programme Development team at Happy TV, had not been widely advertised so I felt fortunate that I subscribed to Occult magazine, as it had been one of a very few that had carried the ad. What an opportunity, I thought, better by far than writing dull copy for a free paper.

The ad had specified that the ideal candidate would have some previous experience. Although I had no experience of television scheduling, I had had plenty of experience of reading Radio Times, and thinking at any given time that ‘there’s nothing on but sport, game shows, programmes about people buying antiques or having talent.’ I was an old hand at timeshifting through a DVR in order to give myself something palatable to watch of a Tuesday or Wednesday, or even Saturday evening. With such a sad life, I for one felt I needed Happy TV.

According to the ad, Happy TV was going to provide a revolutionary viewing experience. With no news broadcasts, no sport, no soaps, no violent films, no survival or voting off shows, and quite categorically no lifestyle programmes that would promote avarice or revulsion, the accent of Happy TV was to be on promoting well-being. Anyone watching Happy TV at any time of the day would feel lifted.

Despite my lack of a background in TV, I was short-listed and asked to prepare a short presentation, not more than forty five minutes, of a sample week’s TV listings for the interview. I began to compile a list of the type of programmes that I enjoyed watching, feeling that it might provide a close match for a typical projected day’s viewing on the new station. The match was slight. I had to revise this several times to take out news broadcasts, no sport, no soaps, no violent films, no survival or voting off shows, and lifestyle programmes that would promote avarice or revulsion. It seemed that despite my timeshifting efforts I myself had a broad-brush approach to viewing.

Even a genre like travel programmes presented complications as to what might be appropriate for the new channel. For example, it could be argued that most travel programmes promoted avarice. Perhaps it was the manner in which they were presented but many travel programmes and foreign lifestyle programmes were aimed at selling expensive holidays. However a certain type of travelogue, like Simon Reeve’s journeys, seemed to transcend this. There was indeed a fine line. An examination of TV archives on sadbastard.co.uk showed that there were relatively few transcendent travelogues but many that seemed designed to provoke envy.

The difficulty was echoed in other genres. Nature programmes were frequently about species threatened with extinction. Sitcoms concentrated on their characters as victims. Historical documentaries focused on upheaval or the exposure of heroes. Very little televisual output was intended to promote happiness or contentment. My early attempts at a list were therefore short. There were only so many art, music or gardening programmes you could fit into a day’s schedule. And a cautious approach to art might be needed bearing in mind much of the subject matter. Even allowing for series on Yoga, Feng Shui and Aromatherapy and a revived and extended Heaven and Earth Show, large gaps might remain. My forty five minute presentation I realised was, like Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, something that could not be ready in forty five minutes.

After the retrieval of a large pile of Radio Times from the loft, several visits to couchpotato.com, a cover to cover reading of Everything You Wanted to Know about, Tao, Zen and Alternative Therapies, and considerable refining of my ideas over a 48-hour period I finally arrived at a week’s schedule that I felt would uplift the spirit and cause no offence. I transferred it on to PowerPoint and I had brought the CD with me to the interview.

At Happy House I was offered camomile tea by a receptionist called Gaia, and asked to wait in a blue room with a New Age CD of whale-song playing in the background. Marginal aquatic plants behind glass panels were much in evidence. An installation of clouds scudding across the sky was suspended (presumably) from the ceiling. After a while, just as the whales seemed to be joining in a chorus, I was greeted by an ageing hippy in an oversized sweatshirt that read NO-ONE I THINK IS IN MY TREE. He had a lazy gait, made more casual by his long white shorts and loafers. He was wearing multicoloured glasses, a cluster of gold earrings and had a receding hairline. He introduced himself as River.

Interesting creatures, dolphins,’ said River by way of an ice breaker. ‘They have a universal appeal, that symbolises freedom, joy, grace and serenity, uplifting the spirits of many people all around the world.’

And I had thought they were fish. I did not draw attention to my mammalian misapprehension. We were by now in a green room where River introduced me to the other two on the interview panel, Anais and Marcel. Anais’s glasses were more subdued than River’s but Marcel’s less so. Marcel’s glasses screamed and shouted and jumped up and down. Whereas everything about Anais suggested poise, proportion and balance, nothing about Marcel hinted at of any such qualities. He seemed awkward, edgy and fidgety, a bundle of nervous energy.

We sat down, Gaia came in with some echinacea and ginseng tea, and River began to explain how Happy TV had come about. Although only a pilot project, with it had to be said a fairly limited budget for a TV company, Happy TV was based upon research by Dr. Ylang Ylang, the eminent psychiatrist. Dr. Ylang’s research had shown that there was a direct correlation between violence on television and aggression and violence in society. Other studies over the years had hinted that this might be so, but Dr. Ylang’s was more emphatic in its conclusions. The research had involved taking twenty random individuals off the street, confining them in a secure environment in a secret location and subjecting them to commercial television sixteen hours a day for six weeks, then releasing them. Within three months sixteen of them were in custody having committed violent offences. Another had committed suicide during an episode of Celebrity Russian Roulette. Another had joined the army. Dr. Ylang had not concluded categorically that actual violent acts on the screen had been the only causal factor, (high exposure to adverts or historical documentaries may have played a part), but the result was statistically significant. I did not mention my concerns that there might have been human rights violations in the experiment, or air the reservations that were building up inside me that the research method may have been flawed, as I did want to work for the station. Anais added at this stage that further research was in progress, in which twenty random individuals taken off the street were being subjected to TV adverts sixteen hours a day in a secret location, to see if there might be a causal link between this and dishonesty. She expected that the findings would show high incidences of fraud and shoplifting by the participants.

After Gaia had brought in a tray of jasmine tea, River asked me to start my PowerPoint presentation.

On Monday morning, in fact every morning at 7am, I had scheduled Sunrise which would feature spectacular sunrises from round the world, with appropriate ambient music. This would be followed by Tai Chi at 7.20. I had set up the presentation to leave each slide on the screen for a few seconds to allow me to talk over them. Tai Chi would be followed by Healthy Breakfast, a programme to show that muesli need not be dull. The traditional 8 o’clock news slot I had filled with Morning Concert, which could feature a different style of music each day throughout the week. My two-hour special on Bees at 9.30 met with approval, both River and Marcel removing their glasses and nodding appreciatively. The Japanese Garden Explained in the 11.30 slot also went down well.

Perhaps it could be expanded week by into an overall Japanese theme,’ suggested Anais. ‘We could have The Japanese Tea Ceremony Explained

We would need to avoid Japanese Environmental Policy Explained,’ sniggered Marcel.

And The Japanese Game Show Explained,’ I added, wittily I thought, although the deadpan expressions around me suggested that I was not expected to make the jokes.

The World of Crystals in the traditional lunchtime news slot was a hit among the team and interest was registered for A Study of the Colour Yellow for early afternoon viewing. River suggested excitedly and in great detail the soundtrack of New Age music that could be used to accompany this. The afternoon continued with Great Paintings and The Cottage Garden, safe subjects, before Laughter and the Smile at 6.30, this followed by Tree of the Day at 8.15, Sunset to compliment Sunrise at 8.30 and feature spectacular sunsets from around the world, and after a concert at 9, The Orgasm at 10.

We took a short break and Gaia refreshed us with some peppermint tea. There was no doubt about it. Monday’s schedule had gone down well, Marcel describing it as ‘sheer genius’ It appeared I had got the job.

Happy TV was an overnight success. Viewers, tired with the formats of more conventional television turned to in their droves. Within a year, Sunrise was attracting audiences of 4 million, more that any other breakfast programme, and Sunset 6 million, and a series on Buddha going head to head with Coronation Street and Eastenders was the number one programme two weeks running. BBC, Sky and the ITV networks were all beginning to feature new age shows and other programmes designed to promote happiness or well-being to try to steal viewers back from Happy. New research showed that society was becoming a happier place. An experiment taking twenty random inmates from a top security prison and exposing them to Happy TV sixteen hours a day for six weeks and then releasing them back into society had proved a resounding success. None had re-offended. Four had become Buddhists, and two more Druids. Others had volunteered for community projects.

Happy itself was also expanding. Happy 2 had just started broadcasting, this aiming to provide a more specialist diet of life affirming programmes. Rapid promotion based on my considerable achievements at Happy had put me in charge of Programme Development for the second channel. I relished the opportunity. I had ideas.

I commissioned series on Butterflies, Daffodils, Fig Trees, Mandalas, The History of the Smiley Face, Smallholdings, Transcendental Meditation, Photographs of Pigs, Folksong, Heaths and Meadows, and through the night Live Moonwatch.

One of the early successes in the early months of Happy 2 was a series on Minimalism. Every week at 7pm on a Saturday evening over 12 million people tuned in. Even Happy 1 had not achieved these figures. Using the premise that less is the new more I made the schedules even more radical. Sunday’s viewing now consisted of the sun – all day. The sun rose on the left hand side of the screen in the morning, reached the top of the screen at lunchtime and set on the right hand side of the screen in the evening, accompanied by a suitably minimal soundtrack. And incredibly millions watched. Sales of 72 inch wide-screen plasma TVs rocketed. Sunday football matches were cancelled and garden centres and DIY superstores reported a huge dip in sales, roads became less congested and families reunited round the hearth.

Given the success of earlier experimental research the government passed legislation whereby all prisoners were subjected to Happy TV (Happy 1 for less violent offenders and Happy 2 for murderers and rapists) for sixteen hours a day for six weeks. This produced remarkable results in rehabilitation. In addition through the positive influence of Happy TV on peoples lives, crime rates dropped dramatically. Prisons began to empty and the police were freed up to help old ladies across the road and teach young children how to ride their bicycles. Dr. Ylang’s reputation was in the stratosphere. His ground-breaking social engineering saw him nominated for Nobel Prizes in two categories, Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, and The Nobel Prize for Peace.

Where did it all go wrong? Why did people stop tuning in to Happy? I don’t necessarily think that using the Rothko painting as a test card all day on Wednesdays and Thursdays was the turning point, although Marcel argues that the drop in viewers of Happy 1 who used a Matisse testcard was smaller. Scheduling The Stars at Night on a Saturday afternoon may have been a mistake, but there again, The Sun on Sunday had been so popular.

It would be too easy to blame the product life cycle. Briefly the product life cycle posits that after a period of development the product is introduced or launched into the market; it gains more and more customers as it grows; eventually the market stabilises and the product becomes mature; then after a period of time the product is overtaken by development, it goes into decline and is eventually withdrawn. While this did describe what had happened, it seemed altogether too simplistic an explanation.

But go wrong it did. One month Happy TV was watched by almost everyone in the country at some time of the week or other, and three months later the viewers for both channels numbered several thousand.

One moment I was picking up a string of awards for The Sun on Sunday, and here I was the next having sleepless nights about my future in television, or perhaps my future, period. If there were one explanation for the dramatic decline of Happy TV, it seemed it was that the public just decided they didn’t want to be happy any longer. As The Guardian psychological correspondent, Ramdutt Jorawar, put it, following the Watford Riots, ‘people needed tension in their lives.’ Where is Dr. Ylang Now? asked the Daily Mail in its leader. Hang Ylang, screamed the Daily Star headline.

An extraordinary meeting of the creative directors of Happy was called to try to salvage the situation. Complacency had been a characteristic at Happy recently so this was the first time that we had met in months.

Because of the need for energetic thinking, The Red Room was chosen. It was blessed by a pagan priest and feng shuied ahead of the meeting, as had become standard practice at Happy. What made this different was that it was make or break. The very essence of Happy needed to be redefined. Although one tries to hang on to certainty in the end, change is the only certainty.

We took our places at the round table for what was to be a brainstorming session. Doreen brought in a tray of tequila slammers. (Gaia had left to work for the BBC.)

Ideas came thick and fast. River wrote these down on a yellow whiteboard.

‘Bullfighting’

‘Celebrity Bullfighting’

‘Celebrity Sex’

‘Live Celebrity Body Piercing’

‘Sex Olympics’

‘Paraplegic Sex Olympics’

‘Top 50 Formula One Accidents’

‘Royal Kidnapping’

‘Live Mayhem in London’

‘Live War from wherever it is happening’

I began having difficulty with the degree of the turnaround.

I was unsure that I wanted to be a part of this any more.

‘How to Hijack a Jet’

‘Nude Mud Wrestling’

‘Celebrity Nude Mud Wrestling’

‘Celebrity Russian Roulette, of course’

‘A season of snuff movies’

This was too big a departure to me. This wasn’t The National Enquirer. ‘You’re a bunch of sickos,’ I yelled.

‘Not much of a title,’ said River.

‘What about our principles?’ I added.

‘What about our jobs?’ said Marcel, hitting the nail on the head, exactly.

The position on the Refuse Disposal team of Hackney Borough Council had not been widely advertised, so I felt unfortunate that I was in the Job centre having my six-monthly Benefits Review, when an over-zealous administrator sent me for it.

© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved