PARALLEL LINES

For those in the know, there are a couple of memorable stories from the original ‘Star Trek’ series and the Jon Pertwee era of ‘Doctor Who’ in which Captain Kirk and the Doctor follow the same path by slipping sideways into parallel universes – ‘Mirror, Mirror’ and ‘Inferno’. What is now an over-familiar sci-fi trope still seems fresh and novel in these interesting twists on the respective formulas both programmes tended to rely on; the unnerving encounters with darker incarnations of regular cast members are one intriguing element – and the usual good guys are invariably evil when this freak occurrence takes place; just in case the viewer doesn’t twig quick enough, Spock is gifted with a sinister beard and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart has an eye-patch and a scar. However, it is the world these characters inhabit that provides the most fascinating aspect of the adventures.

The Enterprise looks roughly the same, but in this dimension it is a warship belonging to a brutal intergalactic empire, whereas the version of Britain Pertwee’s Doctor finds himself in is a militaristic fascist republic. Both stories play upon the ‘what if?’ factor, pondering on possibilities had global events taken a different turn; and, of course, these events were still fresh at the time ‘Mirror, Mirror’ and ‘Inferno’ were produced (1967 and 1970), when the world was less than 30 years away from the collapse of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy – warnings from recent history transplanted to an alternative present.

I only thought of these two classic examples of two classic series at their best because I keep noticing those movie posters you see pasted on the sides of double-decker buses. Normally I tend to roll my eyes when greeted by any sign of the latest multimillion-dollar dump Hollywood has decided to take on the world’s cinemagoers; but the current ones are catching my eye on account of them not being quite right. Whereas they usually change with such rapid regularity that one rarely sees the same poster on a bus for more than two weeks running, I recently realised the movies being promoted via public transport at the moment were either released way back in February – and have therefore already been forgotten and wouldn’t normally still be there – or give a release date in April/May that never actually happened due the lockdown.

It’s an extremely minor equivalent of suddenly slipping into a parallel universe, but seeing posters for movies still unseen that declare they were premiered at the nation’s picture houses on dates when they weren’t is a weird one, akin to the disorientating differences a character in a genuine parallel universe experiences. Well, it’s as close as I’ve come, anyway. That’s what happens when you queue outside supermarkets situated on a main road and aren’t distracted by a Smartphone screen. I can quite easily pass the minutes by simply pretending I am indeed in a parallel universe where buses don’t lie and those movies did indeed premiere as planned, showing now at a cinema near you; and then I contemplate the queue and the two-metre separation between each person in it and realise this universe is probably far stranger than a parallel one as it is.

Actually, the movies being plugged on those buses may end up representing an even greater financial disaster than they ordinarily would if they had been released and failed to break even at the box-office. Yes, many will be swallowed up by a costly black-hole courtesy of the pandemic, though lockdown aside, the fate that awaits the majority of the over-hyped bilge vomited out by Tinsel Town is generally down to the clueless halfwits behind them gambling everything on what the public will take to. It happens across all creative industries, of course – movies, TV, publishing, music; a hit suddenly appears from nowhere that the people running these industries didn’t predict and then there’s a rush to repeat it in order to capitalise on the success, a rush that swiftly tests the patience of the public with the new craze. There may be an entire army of experts employed by movie studios, TV companies, publishing houses and record labels who reckon they can both anticipate and manipulate what the public will or won’t buy, but the truth is that few ever accurately do. Even if I take my own humble example when it comes to this here blog, it’s near-impossible to guess what will provoke a response and what won’t.

Access to Winegum stats is a behind-the-scenes privilege of ‘Petunia’; they not only inform me in which countries on the planet I’m receiving the most views – India and Cambodia make regular surprise appearances alongside the more expected nations – but they also let me know which posts are pulling the punters in; and there are some vintage ones that keep appearing in the list with such regularity that I’m often baffled by their appeal. Yes, I’m well aware there are certain topics I might choose to write about that I pretty much know in advance will appeal to a particular Twitter audience because they happen to be a pet subject with a passionate crowd who Tweet a lot; equally, when Twitter isn’t especially interested, I may receive an above-average flurry of comments on the post itself without attracting a single retweet.

But for me, the subject matter is more or less secondary to whether or not I personally consider the post a well-written one that makes its intended point as perfectly as I can manage it. There have been times when I’ve put one out and I look at it again and reckon I was too tired when I wrote it or I rushed it when I should’ve taken a bit more time and improved the prose. And then I find it keeps surfacing in the list of most-viewed posts, perhaps two or three years after it was published; just because I might not rate or care for a post doesn’t mean I’m necessarily in the right; if somebody out there likes it, in a way that’s all that matters. Indeed, there are many posts I rate extremely highly and think read just as well today as when they were written; and yet nobody else took to those ones. It’s completely random sometimes.

There’s quite an early one about corporal punishment called ‘The Back of My Hand’ that simply won’t go away, and one I wrote about the trans issue – specifically in relation to children – called ‘Goodbye Sam, Hello Samantha’ has been achieving as many views over the past couple of months as anything new I’ve written. I’ll concede that I think the latter is perhaps as good a piece as anything I’ve written on that subject, but I still can’t quite understand why it continues to reel ‘em in. But that highlights my point, I suppose; you really can’t guess what’ll impact and what won’t. I’ve written books I (and others) thought would make my name and they never did – ‘Looking for Alison’ being the prime example.

I seemed on the cusp of recognition with that when I was interviewed for Radio 4’s ‘iPM’ show at the time of the book’s publication, and I recall after the interview I had a free cab-ride home laid on for me by the BBC. I exited said taxi without paying a penny and had a brief sense of what it must be like to be Alan Yentob. It’s easy and understandable to decry ‘how the other half live’ and, let’s face it, we all do it; but even the tiniest glimpse into that world makes one realise how easy it is to fall into its luxurious embrace. I know why there were cries of outrage over author Neil Gaiman travelling all the way from New Zealand to Scotland, but I equally know if I were in his position I’d have probably done the same. Why not, if you can afford it? Maybe there’s a parallel universe where we all can…

© The Editor

7 thoughts on “PARALLEL LINES

  1. The Yantob/Taxi scenario struck a chord. I was quite fortunate in my corporate career to enjoy the 80s and into the 90s with many such benefits, the company credit card and almost unquestioned expense account were just part of the normal scene in that sometimes profligate environment – those were the ‘Loadsamoney’ years as per Harry Enfield.

    After that, I had a period of self-employment which, whilst even more personally lucrative, very quickly demonstrated a parallel universe. Gone in an instant were all the established corporate support services previously taken for granted, I now had to provide and support my own home IT set-up, a mobile phone, a decent car, I had to organise my own travel and hotel accommodation, I even had to create a stationery cupboard at home for all those ever-so-useful but trivial requisites for everyday business activities, I learned to question what I was spending in pursuit of my business, I had to learn about VAT and employ an accountant to do the necessary background admin. Suddenly I was alone, no safety nets, no apron-strings, no security blankets – in some ways it’s scary, but in others it’s quite liberating.

    But that’s just an effect of change, when any major change occurs, the human animal has an inbuilt facility to adapt, the scale of which sets us apart from most other creatures. We suddenly find ourselves ‘shipwrecked’ in an alien landscape and we just get on with making the most of the situation, using our latent skills and ingenuity to the best effect we can. It’s not a bad thing to happen now and again, it helps you to appreciate what you’ve had and then challenges you to replicate or improve on it.

    Of course, now having long retired from both, I’m in a third universe: many things remain the same, only the hunger is different. With no pressure to seek new challenges or enhanced positions, this third universe is certainly the most comforted but, if it ever changed again to Universe 4, I’m sure I’d accommodate it, it’s what we humans do.

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    1. Yes, I guess there’s an element of the corporate embrace that can infantilise its employees, acting as surrogate parent, in a way – clearly a canny psychological technique intended to generate loyalty to the company, whether the BBC or whichever organisation you yourself worked for. By the sounds of it, you then ‘left home’ and made your own way in the world and were probably all the better for it in the long run. Just a very brief and minor taste of that surrogate parenting via the free taxi ride did make me momentarily think how seductive it could easily be were that the daily routine, for sure.

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      1. It probably looks seductive from the outside but, in practice, you move very gradually into those positions as you ascend the corporate ladder, accumulating each supporting ‘perk’ one at a time, so you never acknowledge the totality of it until they’re all suddenly gone.

        Being able to jet off to interesting places, well fed, watered and entertained at someone else’s expense easily becomes your normal everyday routine but, as with all routines, can also become wearying, which sounds a tad ungrateful. My reality-check was always to recall where I’d started and treated that lifestyle as an accidentally privileged one while it lasted. Those peers who considered it a ‘right’ found it far more challenging when it ended.

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  2. “tis I in Cambodia. Stranded because either / both Phnom Penh closed its airport and / or because BA cancelled my All Fools’ Day flight to LHR. Kampot’s a pleasant place in which to stretch a modest fixed income, lots of Brits here – retirees and ESL teachers, mostly. And I send this from an open pub, with both pool and music playing (Oasis right now).

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    1. Aha – mystery solved. To be honest, I wondered if some of the more exotic climes tuning in were via ‘ex-pats’, as it were. From your description, it certainly sounds as if there are worse places to be stranded, anyway. Have a champagne supernova on me!

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