I’ve always loved the way that stories themselves have stories, changing and evolving over time, so I liked the the idea reported here that some of the traditional fairytales we all know may go back many thousands of years. The research which the article refers to uses similar techniques to those used by biologists and linguists to trace stories back to common ancestors, and concluded, for instance, that ‘the story known as ‘the Smith and the Devil was estimated to date back 6,000 years to the bronze age’. (A smith sells his soul to the devil, but then outsmarts him: I’d say that the song ‘The Devil went down to Georgia‘ is an example, albeit with a fiddler instead of a smith.)
But I reckon some stories must go back a lot further than that. There’s a Native American story from the Northwest coast of North America about a magical, shape-shifting Raven who stole fire, as well as the sun and stars, for humankind, who until then had lived in cold and darkness. This is surely strikingly similar to the story of Prometheus in Greek myth, who also stole fire for humankind*.
But how far back would you have to go back to find a cultural common ancestor of Greece and pre-Columbian America?
*Prometheus stole fire from the Gods, while Raven stole from an eagle. But it was eagles that were sent to punish Prometheus. There is also a Norse story, in which Loki, a subversive shape shifter like Raven, steals from the giant Thiassi and escapes in bird form. The giant pursues him in the form of an enormous eagle, and dies when fire sets light to his feathers. (Raven is scorched too: his feathers used to be pure white, but are turned black by the fire he stole.)
I was 15 when Hunky Dory came out, and it completely enchanted me. Lush, lavish, at times almost operatic, it was wonderfully different from the earthy bluesy music people around me were listening to at the time, and I couldn’t get enough of it.
So taken with David Bowie was I, in fact, that I actually risked expulsion from school to see him. Discovering that he would be playing at Oxford Town Hall one Saturday night, as part of his Ziggy Stardust tour, I bunked off from the boarding school I was at in Dorset, and hitchhiked 70-odd miles to Oxford. I was an odd, solitary kid at that time and had run off from school on a previous occasion to wander for four days round the Dorset countryside by myself, oddly indifferent to the worry I was causing. It had been made pretty clear to me that, if I went missing like that again, the school would ask me to leave.
Bowie still wasn’t famous enough then to fill a town hall, and I just bought a ticket at the door. I sat in one of those brown metal chairs with canvas seats that you get, or used to get, in village halls, with empty seats all around me. It was a fairly ragged performance as I remember (perhaps simply because I missed the lushness and artifice of Hunky Dory) but it was certainly a spectacle. Bowie was in full Ziggy Stardust regalia, kneeling to perform musical fellatio on the guitar strings of his beautiful blonde guitarist, Mick Ronson. (I wonder if his biggest achievement might turn out to be that he opened up the possibility that gay sexuality could be stylish and cool? But I think the pull for me was the way that he made loneliness and outsiderhood seem cool also.)
Although Oxford was actually my home town, I didn’t think my parents would appreciate the fact that I was playing hookey from school, so after the concert I spent the night on the streets. When it got too cold in the early hours of the morning, I huddled up in a cubicle in a public toilet. (A trick I’d learnt from the previous escapade was to sleep in the Ladies. The Gents had urinals that suddenly flushed every few minutes, jerking me out of whatever level of sleep I’d managed to reach.)
When dawn broke, I hitched back down to Dorset. I guess this was about 4 or 5 in the morning. I remember the first driver to pick me up was so tired that he nodded off and drove right over a roundabout rather than going round it. Luckily there was no other traffic on the road.
Back at school I’d got someone to ruffle up my dormitory bed to make it look like I’d slept in it, and no one had noticed my absence. This was probably a good thing, because my happiest time at that school was my final year, and I made some friends then who’ve remained friends to this day.
Though who knows? Perhaps if I’d been expelled, I would have been forced to have the showdown with my parents that I really should have had, but which boarding school – and perhaps this is one of the purposes of this peculiar English institution – had helped me and them to sidestep. In which case Bowie really would have changed my life. As it was, a previous Bowie album, The Man who Sold the World, darker and more druggy, was to become the soundtrack to my memories of a time when, in place of open rebellion, I and my new friends retreated into our own subterranean world.
Here’s a Bowie song (actually a cover by him of a song by Iggy Pop), from a much later period, which is associated in my mind with that feeling of freedom and breaking away that comes with a sudden impulsive journey.
I consume music in a spasmodic kind of way. I might go for months without deliberately listening to any music at all, and then will latch onto some song or fragment that fits my mood and play it to death. Right now it’s this, “The Wichita Lineman”, not as most famously recorded by Glen Campbell but by the man who wrote the song, Jimmy Webb.
I’ve had to do some driving these last couple of days and have been listening to it over and over in my car on the album “Ten Easy Pieces”. It’s a little fragment of a song – I gather that Webb hadn’t even finished writing it when Campbell first recorded it – and in one way it’s almost about nothing at all, just a tiny snatch of the random thoughts of the lineman as he wanders the roads by himself and climbs up the phone lines: about his job (“if it snows that stretch down south will never take the strain”), and how he could do with a vacation, and how he rather desperately loves someone.
What’s so clever is how the music fits so perfectly with the words. At the beginning and end, and in between the verses, it comes back to this morse code-like motif, like the signals going back and forth along the lines. It’s as if, up there on his pole, silhoutted against the sky, he stands apart from our busy human attempts to communicate, to keep in touch, to stave off aloneness.
There’s immense loneliness in the song, it seems to me, but it’s achingly beautiful too. I see in Wikipedia that someone or other described it as “the first existential pop song”. I’m not sure about that. It’s predated, for instance, by Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the dock of the bay” (another of my favourites, which surely could also claim that title), but it’s a truly great song.
I’ve always liked the lyrics of this song by Jimi Hendrix.
I used to live in a room full of mirrors
All I could see was me
Well I take my spirit and I crash my mirrors
Now the whole world is here for me to see
I said the whole world is here for me to see
Now I’m searching for my love to be…
It’s a hard and scary thing to give up the company of one’s own projections, and to step out into a real world which you can’t control, and in which will only ever be a small part. But unless you make that step, you will never grow up and you will be forever alone .
Roughly speaking, that’s the idea behind The Holy Machine, though the influence of this song is more obvious in Marcher, whose main protagonist actually does live in a room in a room full of mirrors.
My son Dom and I have a habit of sending each other interesting songs that we come across, and he recently sent me this one, ‘Planet Caravan‘ by Black Sabbath, about the singer wandering through the universe with his lover.
Listening to it reminded me of one very simple reason why I write science fiction rather than realist fiction. If you are going to make stuff up, why confine yourself to the narrow and parochial limits of our little patch of space and time?
There is already a British audio book version of Dark Eden (read by Oliver Hembrough and Jessica Martin), but I’m very much looking forward to hearing the new US audio book from Random House Audio which is still under development. This will involve 8 actors, so that the book’s various narrators can all have different voices, but what is particularly intriguing about it is that the producer Janet Stark and her cast of actors are attempting to develop a whole new Eden accent for the recording.
What will this sound like? Everyone in Eden is descended from just two people – a white man from Brooklyn, New York, and a black woman from Peckham in South London – so one thing that we can be sure of is that the accent will bear traces of both those different sources. During the early years too, the entire human population of Eden consisted of a single family – mum, dad, kids – and some of the characteristics of Eden English derive from that fact. Parents with little kids tend to simplify their speech, even when speaking to one another, and this effect would be even more pronounced in the absence of other adults (or the written word) to pull the speech of family members back in the direction of adult norms. This is the source of the use of double adjectives for emphasis – something that little children often do – and the tendency to drop direct articles, but it will have had an effect too on pronunciation and on the rhythms of Eden speech.
But all that is only part of the story. The accent of Eden would not just be a blend of its two sources. People play with language, change it like clothes. They get bored with saying things one way, and try another. New things appear and become cool, others fade out of use. Who could have predicted the trend towards a rising inflection at the end of a sentence in spoken English here on Earth, or the more recent fashion of beginning sentences with the word ‘So’? The people of Eden have lived in isolation for 160 years. Less than 160 years after white settlers first arrived in Australia, Australian English had developed its own distinct and instantly recognisable accent, and that was in spite of continuing contact with the mother country, and continuing large scale migration (even today more than 10% of Australians were born in the UK).
I think the spoken language of Eden would be slow. Both the source accents are fast, clipped and urban, but Eden folk are as rustic as it is possible to be, and rustic people tend to speak slowly (think Somerset, Queensland or Alabama). I think too that it would be more musical, more singsong. These are people with no TV, no books, no video games, no movies. The repetition of oral traditions is much more important to them than it is to us. I think they would savour language and linger over it in a way that we don’t.
As to those double adjectives which everyone notices (and some people hate!), I hear them with the first adjective emphasised and drawn out, with a slight fall at the end towards the lower, shorter repetition: B-I-I-I-G big.
But then again, sometimes Eden folk do it the other way round. They just feel like it. That’s what humans are like.
I was looking at writing a little thing about the Robert Heinlein novel, a favourite of my teens, when I came across a song with the same title: ‘The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress’ by Jimmy Webb, who also wrote the lovely ‘Wichita Lineman’.
It seems that Webb did consciously borrow the title from the book, and wrote to Heinlein for permission to use it, though I don’t believe you can actually copyright a title.
Apart from the title, the song has nothing to do with Heinlein’s book, but it’s a very beautiful song.
There actually is a song that uses one of my titles – The Holy Machine – and that pleased me very much. I would love to be a songwriter – there is something wonderfully perfect and self-contained about a good song which very little else can match – but I think this is about as near to it as I’m going to get.
When I did an interview recently for the Pakistani station CityFM89 I got to pick 15 songs to be played on the programme. A real treat, and an honour. But I wasn’t allowed to pick any classical music, which meant leaving out some of my favourite pieces.
Here is one of them, the opening chorus of Bach’s St John Passion: ‘Herr unser Herrscher.’ Insofar as it is possible to have a single favourite piece of music, this is probably it. There is so much going on here: immense energy (feel the tension, the exhilaration!), incredibly intricate architecture that is structurally perfect and yet fluid, working through time as well as space… But running through it all is that wonderful quality of serenity, assurance, optimism that (for me) epitomises the Baroque era, back in the Age of Enlightenment, when the world was brutal and cruel, but so many many possibilities were opening up. Will there ever be another time like it?
The words in German are:
Herr, unser Herrscher,
in allen Landen herrlich ist!
zeig uns durch deine Passion,
daß du, der wahre Gottessohn,
zu aller Zeit,
auch in der größten Niedrigkeit,
verherrlicht worden bist!
In English this is something like:
Lord, our ruler,
is glorious in all lands,
show us by your Passion
that You, the true Son of God,
at all times,
even in the lowest state,
have been glorified.
You don’t have to agree with the theology to recognise that the music embodies the idea expressed in those final words. Even in the lowest state, it glorifies.