Pump up the 21st Century volume

THE WRITER’S LIFE

The greatest influences on lives are personal, and the deepest impacts upon the personality can live beyond the individual persona. The category winners (and nominees) in the BBC’s recent poll to find the greatest icon of the 20th Century, were all unarguably inspirational, monumental in their personal achievements, and with the power to change our fundamental understanding of what it is to be human.

Ginger Cat Humanity

The poll was completely subjective (none deserved a back seat), but it was refreshing to see so much diversity among the finalists, although women were conspicuous by their absence (iNews attempts to explain why). I owe something to each, as all have to varying extents influenced the way my life went and continues, whether consciously or not. What a wonderful world it would be, if I could gather these people around a table…

Pablo Picasso in the arts and literature seat, takes a break from painting and puts his clothes on;

Icons Picasso

Muhammad Ali in the sports corner, exchanges gloves for cutlery;

Icons Ali

Martin Luther King Jr. wrote down what everyone wanted, so he could be spokesperson to the server;

Icons King

Ernest Shackleton got back from work just in time;

Icons Shackleton

David Bowie poured a drink from a tin can;

Icons Bowie

Nelson Mandela paid for himself, and chipped in for those who couldn’t;

Icons Mandela

and Alan Turing was just Alan at the time, but he worked out who had what:

Icon TuringAll images: BBC Icons

Each had their place at the table, a Venn diagram of human thinking sketched out on napkins. All are icons in their respective worlds, but they settled the bill together. In the end, the vote went to Turing, not for paying for dinner, but for continuing the conversation around the human condition.

In Alan Turing, we have a human who paid the ultimate price for his sexuality, in a century of intolerance; and a scientist who gave us the internet (for free), saved millions of lives, and probably ended the Second World War two years early.

No one person can define the last century, but David Bowie – the closest to my heart, for all his creativity and diversity – has been recognised as the most iconic entertainer. The personification of androgyny with many peers, he was (and is) a deity, the Starman.

Still all male though, which is telling, that the 20th Century was only the beginning of sexual equality and recognition. If our species survives to repeat this poll in another century, then we might be considering people like Michelle Obama, or Greta Thunberg, Alice Roberts or Hannah Fry; or possibly our own children, their sisters and brothers. Maybe the saviours of our race haven’t even been born yet. The 21st Century is only just old enough to drink, after all.

What the Icons programme also did, was to serve as a damning indictment of Tory Britain, a nation with a history of minority oppression, now a regressive fascist regime, brought about by stealth and manipulation.

Maybe this will inspire a young mind, troubled by the state we find ourselves in, to step up and fight for our one race, on one planet, sharing one massive problem. All of the 20th Century’s icons live on, their influence forever changing our world. They’ll never see what a difference they ultimately made, but we owe it to them to continue their legacies.

Collectively and individually, the 20th Century’s icons (and the unsung supporting cast of each) have changed us, the way we think, and the way we behave. But the last century also saw an explosion in the technological evolution of our species, with the potential to create divisions so great that they tear us apart as a race.

I’m part of a rare group, born in the first half on 1970. Because when we turn 50 in 2020, we’ll enter our seventh decade: Conceived in the 60s, born in the 70s, grew up in the 80s, lived the 90s, not dead yet. I have children, and in those young people, I can see a rebellion and a reclamation, as they realise they could be the last generation. We can’t allow that.

We rarely have a chance to reflect on our past, when so much focus is on the future. Turing’s invention allows us to explore the past and plan the future, daily. It gives us human social democracy, to co-operate and to collectively make a difference.

Alan Turing could well be the (subjective) greatest human of all time, when he lives on in so many devices which can give us access to all of human knowledge, and each with the potential to influence change. Of all the (male) finalists, Turing is perhaps representative of the greatest inclusivity. It’s how we keep talking, where all genders and species find a common voice (the Cyrus Song).

Brothers and sisters, pump up the volume. The 21st Century has a greater collective voice, and the means to shout louder, because the internet helps us work together. Sons and daughters, us pan-generationals need you to shout for us and at us, so we don’t lose track (Thanks).

Cat asleep at desk

My latest anthology – The Unfinished Literary Agency – is available now.

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Courtney Manson by Warhol

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

Just lately, while I’ve been writing and growing a pile of work in progress, I’ve been mucking around with The Gimp: Not of the Pulp Fiction kind, but an open-source alternative to Photoshop (and better).

Marylin Manson

I’ve also been playing a lot of poker with my coaching project and kid sister, Courtney (a natural, very much the journeyman player nowadays, and soon to be staked online). We get talking over our games, and it gives me the opportunity to open some sometimes-blinkered eyes to other things in the world.

Although I value the sciences, I believe the arts and humanities are equally important for a greater understanding of the variables in life. Sometimes then, I’ll explain a near-future possibility in simple science terms, and I’ll open an eye.

Other times, I’ll talk about my thoughts on-moment, sometimes poker-related and others just completely surreal, abstract ponderations: The kind of thing to get two poker players who like to share a reefer really into a game.

And by now, the gimp’s probably sleeping. Well, I guess I’d better go wake him.

At the poker table the other night, I mentioned that my sister has quite an iconic look in some of her online profile pictures. I thought she’d look good colourised, to go with her mind. Like mine, it’s fractured, and I could perhaps separate the screaming colours and turn it into something like Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe.

Courtney Cyan     Courtney Green

Courtney Orange     Courtney Pink

The Courtney I know is more Manson than Monroe. I share a birthday with Duncan Jones and she shares a name with Kurt Cobain. We met on the streets and that’s family just as good as any by related blood. She’s pretty cool, and the story which follows was an attempt at any life in 1000 words, a few years ago.

In the final period before the execution of an inmate on death row, he is offered a special last meal.”

MECHANICAL MANACLE

How soon is now, Morrissey wondered. The Smiths asked, The Clash happened, The Angelic Upstarts cried for last night (another soldier), then came The Stranglers and The Damned: The History of the World, Part 1.

Courtney was lost. Kurt was lost. No more smells like teen spirit. No Hole, or Babes in Toyland. Faith no More, no more. Everyone and everything was gone. All that remained was her and the ticking clock on her wrist, telling a time which had ceased to exist. Everything can change, suddenly and forever. For Courtney, it had, and it was.

All she wanted to know was, when is now? She yearned to know when she was. This was her third and final wish but she dare not speak it, for as soon as a wish is broadcast, it is granted, by a star. Or a binary system: then you get two wishes come true, for the price of two.

The first wish was for an end to all conflict and hunger in the world: that was easy. The second was that her mum and dad hadn’t got married. That was simple too, but now Courtney didn’t exist.

The story of a life which no longer happened started just a short while from now. In the very near future, a war to end all wars is going to happen. It starts when a young girl makes a wish.

Every night, as she drifts off to sleep, Courtney tries to imagine a world with no conflict. A place where people don’t fight. In a dream, the answer came to her: warring factions can be united against a common foe.

And so, “They” came to be. They are all that is unknown to Courtney, but she sought them in dreams and they came to her. They explained things in very simple terms, but in a language which Courtney didn’t yet understand. At the time, she didn’t realise this. So when a voice which was alien to her asked if her first wish be granted, she answered that it should.

It came to be known as The War of Words. It was a conflict waged in a global theatre. It wasn’t a physical war but one based in dreams: a psychological war of intelligence. They won.

Neither of the opposing sides on earth survived. Where once east and west were in conflict, now there were no battles. There was no-one to fight them. They didn’t discriminate: the foe against which the previously warring factions of earth fought, defeated all other sides. People simply didn’t wake up. They bore no physical injuries and passed quietly.

Courtney’s parents perished in the war. Her second wish didn’t need to be vocalised because it was granted as a product of the first. Now she wished that she could take back what she had done. She wished that she could be transported back to a time before her parents had started to drift apart; perhaps to the birthday when they’d given her a fine, gold antique watch.

The watch was a solid weight on Courtney’s young wrist. At times, it was an encumbrance. On occasion, it was a reassuring tie or tug. The importance of the timepiece was impressed upon her young mind as soon as it was placed around her arm.

It was a family heirloom, fashioned in the past, but futuristic in appearance. The detail was exquisite: clearly the product of dextrous old hands. The strap was formed of alternate links made from gold and platinum, to produce a two-tone bling curfew tag. The outer body of the casing was also cast in gold. The watch face was ebony and the hour, minute and second hands were fine slivers of ivory.

Within the main face were four other dials: two chronometers measuring seconds in tenths and hundredths respectively; a completely separate 24-hour clock face, with its own hour, minute and second hands; and a dial displaying the date of the month, with a smaller still dial within it, displaying the month. All of the dials were analogue and their numerals were embossed into the black wood face with platinum leaf. The workings – the actual clockwork mechanisms – were visible on top of the watch face, rather than being obscured by it, with just the protection of the watch’s flawless glass screen. The skills of the creator were visible through a transparent yet impenetrable sky, as the mechanisms danced like a miniature fairground.

The watch dated from a time when trade in ivory was legal. The remnants of one of many extinct species, it now ticked not towards something, but away from the existential death of humankind and all other life on their planet. The craftsmanship of the watch might mean that it was the last relic of humanity, long after Courtney’s body had disappeared in time.

The watch had no visible means of winding, despite the fact that it was clearly clockwork. There was no obvious source of power, yet the watch generated warmth as Courtney wore it. It were as though she was wearing a miniature steam-powered structure in perpetual motion: an automaton, which must house mechanical components of microscopic proportions.

Would you like this wish to be granted?” said a voice, from somewhere. Somewhere else, someone said, “Yes”.

Courtney blinks as though waking from sleep, as her surroundings become clearer. She’s at a child’s birthday party. Is it hers? She looks down at her arms: there is no steam-powered fairground. She can hear her parents in the background. Through the noise of the party, it’s hard to tell if they’re screaming with laughter, rage, or both. Courtney decides simply to join in her own party.

It was after the last guests had left when Courtney’s parents gave her the watch. They explained in words which Courtney thought she understood, the importance of the timepiece which she now wore.

If Courtney had only one wish in her life, it would be for things to stay exactly like this.

© Steve Laker, 2017

My second collection of surreal, horror and science fiction short stories is available in paperback.

The example of the death row inmate can be viewed as a metaphor for the life of an average person, condensing the very essence of existence into a customary prison ritual. For an average person who is not incarcerated, the last meal can be equated to the trivialities of daily affairs and the substance of life in general. Despite the apparent acknowledgement of mortality, which is effectively a death sentence as much as that of the inmate’s, albeit a prolonged one and preceded by a rather elaborate performance, the person yet remains firmly invested in the last meal that is life.”

That’s what me and the kid sis had worked out, so we carried on playing poker.