Changing The Past

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The week has passed, each day doggedly following the previous one, as if determined to thwart my dream of making a viable time machine.

Thoughts of time travel were prompted by the appearance of this tweet:

(It’s actually a couple of weeks old, but as this post is about time travel you’ll no doubt cut me some chronological slack…)

It’s a touching thing, that tweet, the kind of thing to restore one’s faith in human nature. But then John Finnemore’s writing generally does that anyway. It’s partly touching because he is so clearly in tune with his inner hero-worshipping little boy; partly, too, because the fulfilling of people’s wildest childhood dreams is always a heartwarming thing to see; it’s also touching because the piece of writing in question, and the acting of both men, would be a highlight of any week. It’s here, and I cannot recommend it (and its sister pieces) highly enough.

Notwithstanding the inconvenient likelihood that my own time machine would cause, at best, irreparable damage to the space-time continuum, and at worst the immediate non-existence of the known universe, I would set it to take me to December 1987.

What? No, I’m not going to use it to kill Hitler. Honestly, once you start going down the ‘I’m going to use my powers to rid the world of all evil’ route, you’re on a hiding to nothing. Everyone seems so intent on using their putative time machines to whack Hitler, it’s a wonder there wasn’t a sign at the Beer Hall Putsch saying ‘time-travelling assassins, please form an orderly queue’. But think about it for a second. Where would you stop? Might as well mop up Stalin and Mao Zedong while you’re at it. And Pol Pot. Ooh, Genghis Khan. And so on, until you’ve changed all the past there is to change, and the future you wanted to save doesn’t exist any more.

The sad truth is, despite the overwhelming moral imperative to use time travel to fight evil, it’s not actually going to make any difference. Get rid of any of the aforementioned unutterable arseholes, and you’d only watch, horrified and powerless, as another equally unutterable one slipped into his place. That’s the trouble with unutterable arseholes. They’re like moles – no sooner have you got rid of one than another pops up and ruins a different part of your lawn.

So as I say, I would take myself back to December 1987, and a meeting with one of my own childhood heroes. It took place in a small bookshop in Oxford, and it’s fair to say I completely ballsed it up.

My ballsing up of these occasional encounters with life idols is, I’m afraid, a recurring theme. The sole exception I can recall is an uneventful and enlightening fifteen-minute chat I once had with Bernard Haitink about Mahler. Despite his stature as a conductor of the highest order, he was approachable and unintimidating, and I was keen enough to glean whatever knowledge I could that I managed to avoid my customary opening salvo of ‘whaghruffnumgingleb’ and actually ask him some coherent questions.

To be fair, now I remember, I did manage to hold a post-concert conversation with David Attenborough without being arrested, but I’d had a couple of drinks, so Christ knows what actually happened. Oh, and I did manage to stand next to Barry Cryer for twenty seconds without falling over or accidentally insulting him. But that’s about it.

Take Alan Knott, for example. He was the greatest of all England wicketkeepers, and the only person I wanted to be when I was eight. So of course the only time I met him was while standing at a urinal in a pub opposite Canterbury Cathedral in 1992. On this occasion my ‘whaghruffnumgingleb’ came out as ‘bloody hell! Hello!’, but the effect was much the same. He muttered something and beat as hasty a retreat as was practical. I have often wondered, but don’t really want to know, what he thought.

Back to that 1987 bookshop. I say it was a small one. It might have been massive, but as I entered it seemed to be about 10% bookshop and 90% Douglas Adams. (He was, by all reports, that kind of person.) He was there to sign copies of his new book, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, and I was there to make a fool of myself. We each executed our duties flawlessly.

It wasn’t that I said anything stupid, more that I didn’t say anything at all. I had so many things to say that they seemed to cancel each other out, and instead I was left standing there in silence as a bemused Adams looked at me, not without sympathy, but nor with the kind of avuncular recognition I’d hoped for.

This is the moment for which I would set my time machine. Right then, with conversation lagging, me too shy and starstruck to offer anything more than the occasional ‘flurmnishgogglog’ under my breath. At the very least, the appearance of another me would elicit a response from Adams. No stranger to the concept of chronological flexibility himself, no doubt he would look at the second me and say ‘oh, there are two of you. Which one’s from the future and when are you from?’ It would at least give the conversation the kick in the pants it sorely needed.

In the event, the thought of standing there in silence with the great man was more than I could bear, and as silence was the only thing I could come up with, I decided that absence would be preferable.

I scuttled away, clutching my precious book, and caught the bus home, there to lick my wounds and listen to Bach. It was while doing just that, two days later, that I had my very-nearly-last conversation with my father.

There’s a short passage in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, an extended goosebump moment, the simplicity and perfection of which never fail to make me wonder. A series of descending scales in the bass, that’s all. Dry analysis fails to capture its heart; therein lies its genius.

Just before this passage, my father, erranding about the place, popped his head in.

‘There’s the most marvellous bit coming up, Lev.’

We stood together for a minute, listening. Words weren’t necessary. That’s the thing about music – it picks up where words leave off.

The moment passed, the movement ended, and he went about his business.

He died three days later, so there you go.

As it happens (and I really have only just remembered this), Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency contains not only a fully functioning time machine, the excessive and frankly irresponsible use of which gets all sorts of people (and in fact the known universe) into all sorts of trouble, but also an extended and moving tribute to the overwhelming wonder and impossible beauty of Bach’s music.

Proof, as Douglas Adams would say, of the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.

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