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

happytv2

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