TAKE FIVE

‘Five years, that’s all we’ve got’ – so prophesised David Bowie on the apocalyptic opener to his breakthrough album, 1972’s ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’. Five years was also the length of the sentence handed down to ‘habitual criminal’ Norman Stanley Fletcher in Ronnie Barker’s classic sitcom ‘Porridge’ – as the judge reminded viewers in his speech to the condemned man in the opening titles of each episode; voiced by Barker himself in the requisite sonorous tones, the speech concluded with the unnerving last words, ‘you will go to prison for five years’ – cue the chilling slamming of cell doors. Not the most joyous beginning for a half-hour comedy, but at least ‘Fletch’ must have gained early release on parole, as the series ended two years short of his sentence. Five is an intriguing number, though – as most enigmatic odd ones are; Enid Blyton knew that, as did Motown and the Dave Brubeck Quartet; even a crap boy-band of the late 90s got it – as did a crap TV channel that appeared at the same time. Jazzy prog-rockers Soft Machine called their fifth album ‘5’ – and then there’s David Bowie…

Bowie’s version of a five year sentence sets the scene for the arrival of the singer’s exotic alter-ego as the impending end of the world looms large; the track is laced with deliciously black imagery, including such unforgettable lines as ‘A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest/and the queer threw up at the sight of that.’ The subject of much debate at the time – and lyrics printed on LP inner sleeves were regarded as poetic riddles back in the early 70s – the song’s ultimate meaning is essentially ambiguous and can be moulded to fit the listener’s own interpretation. Taking it literally is pointless, as we all know the world didn’t end in 1977; but the fact Bowie opted for five years – rather than, say, the more expansive ten – gives the song a sense of fearful urgency in which its various disparate characters react differently to the sudden expiry date on their lives. A full ten years contains a degree of breathing space; five years has little, so you have to squeeze in as much as you can.

A five-year period can contain a staggering amount of creative purple patches: between 1971 and 1976, David Bowie released six albums of new material – including Ziggy’s saga – as did his equally prolific contemporary Stevie Wonder; between 1964 and 1969, The Beatles released eight albums of new material, whereas their equally prolific contemporary Bob Dylan released seven in the same timeframe. Go back just over 100 years before that, to when the written word was the dominant artistic statement, and take five years from literature’s golden age: the half-decade from 1847 to 1852 saw the publication of ‘Agnes Grey’, ‘Jane Eyre’, ‘Wuthering Heights’, ‘Dombey and Son’, ‘Mary Barton’, ‘Vanity Fair’, ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, ‘David Copperfield’, ‘Moby Dick’, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and ‘The Communist Manifesto’. Enough landmark works there to fill a ‘proper’ decade.

Travel back a little further and we find one solitary wordsmith – as far as we know – embarking on a stellar career with an astonishing burst of creativity. In the five years between 1590 and 1595, William Shakespeare is credited with writing all three instalments of ‘Henry VI’ as well as ‘Richard III’, ‘The Comedy of Errors’, ‘Titus Andronicus’, ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’, ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’. ‘Richard II’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ are also believed to have been started – but not completed – in 1595. That’s a pretty impressive run by anybody’s standards, let alone within five years. Shakespeare scholars are not the type of people to pluck such estimates out of thin air, and one can confidently assume a chronology was assembled with fairly intensive research.

Even for those whose lives aren’t measured by artistic output, a five-year period can house enough events to define a life. If we look back on especially eventful periods we’ve lived through, ones marked by that catalogue of life-changing moments familiar to the many, such as embarking on a career, moving home, marrying, siring offspring etc., these tend to occur close together and within a relatively short space of time – like five years. For example, between 1996 and 2001, I myself moved home three times and the cast of characters constituting my world chopped and changed at a rapid rate, probably more than at any other time since I’d been at school. Looking back, a hell of a lot of living – and, in some sad cases, dying – was condensed into those five years, and if it had all been prophesised beforehand, I probably wouldn’t have believed it.

Gazing into a crystal ball has rarely been less attractive than at the moment, mind; quite frankly, given the opportunity I think I’d pass. If this non-year has taught us anything it’s that the future isn’t always worth waiting for. Perhaps if crystal balls could show what’s gone rather than what’s to come, maybe they’d be more intriguing; the past – even the recent past – has a habit of being as unfathomably unreal and unpredictable as the future. Anyone who has ever perused old diaries unread since they were written can often struggle to recall half of the events documented; I remember digging out some diaries from less than ten years before when researching my book, ‘Looking for Alison’, and I genuinely couldn’t remember so much of what I’d written about actually happening – as though some gremlin had spent many a mischievous night rewriting the daily entries as I slept just to f**k my head up.

It’s possible the absence of recall when revisiting journals of a recent vintage wasn’t so much a by-product of age, but an indication of the speed at which life had been lived in the five years since the last line I read had been penned. Blurs are hard to catch and preserve in amber-coated memory. Lest we forget, it’s an accepted phenomenon that time appears to pass faster as the years going by start to pile up, just as it does for the busy man occupied by an activity whilst simultaneously moving at a snail’s pace for the bored man twiddling his thumbs. Be that as it may, why take five? Why not? Let’s be honest, the number 5 makes a refreshing change from the number 19 at the moment, anyway. And guess what – this very blog turns five in December; those of you who were present at the birth may well be hard-pressed to believe we’ve been here that long, but that’s time for you – or five years.

Even if some of the subjects discussed in the earliest posts remain perennial bugbears or have simply become much worse, there are certain aspects of life in 2015 that seem so dim and distant from the perspective of 2020 that it’s difficult to discern they were that recent. My opinions may have altered on some subjects (and rightly so, for rigidly immovable opinions are rarely the sign of an inquiring mind); but I’ve not retrospectively altered anything said in any past post to fit a current point of view – unlike Dominic Cummings with his online jottings (allegedly). Sure, a lot of horrible things happened in 2015 – as they always do; but how can 2015 not seem like a great place to be when lined-up alongside 2020? In 2015, the rocket-ship on the launchpad was Apollo 11; today, it’s Apollo 13. Bowie’s ‘Ziggy’ prologue would have had an unsettling relevance had he written it in 2015 instead of 1972, so one doesn’t even have to fall into the trap of becoming misty-eyed over some faraway year from decades ago when confronted by the God-awful here and now; five years will do.

© The Editor

4 thoughts on “TAKE FIVE

  1. Never kept a diary, I figured it could be more incriminating than illuminating if ever perused by another, so I rely on selective memory to assess the passage of times.

    I tend to use decades, rather than 5-year periods, maybe I retain a higher attention-span, but that allows a more measured view of the age than the relative immediacy of a shorter term. Each period no doubt packed with individual events, some seismic, many irrelevant, some embarrassing, but few worthy of permanent record other than contributors to a wider whole.

    I view my first two decades as ‘curiosity’, exercising it not being one, the next two as ‘establishment’, the next two as ‘exploiting’ and, now being half way through the next pair of decades, class them as ‘enjoyment’, recognising that they may be the final ones, so I may as well make the most of them.

    When the biographers finally clamour to bring my post-mortem life-story to the bookshelves (!), I fear that they’ll find little to challenge the best-sellers list that year, so maybe they should pass me by as a life lived with little to commend it. I’ll live with that, or die with it.

    But Happy 5th Birthday anyway.

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    1. I’ve been through periodic phases of diary-keeping, even if my first (1978) basically lists what I watched on television each day and not a lot else bar the deaths of two unfortunate pet goldfish. The most prolonged bout was from 2004-2017, and it still amazes me I managed to pen an entry without fail on a daily basis for almost 14 years; fascinating reading in parts and painful in others, my sudden decision to cease the practice hasn’t been followed by any subsequent resumption. If anything, the work I’ve produced since has replaced it as a document of where my head’s at.

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