Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Not Even Past

Taken from Google Street View, this image of one of the boundary walls of Keble College, Oxford, shows the faint trace of part of an old graffito. It's just where the new section of wall meets the old; just above the piece of street furniture. Six letters. Three a complete word, three a fragment. OVE YOU. It might seem meaningless now, but I knew the graffito when it was still whole, back in the 1980s, when I was working in a laboratory nearby. And I knew that it was a line from David Bowie's 'Rock 'n' Roll Suicide':


'Rock 'n' Roll Suicide' is the final track on Bowie's science fictional concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. An odd, fractured song about failure and redemption, in which an aged rock and roll star wandering the uncaring streets of a doomed city on a doomed planet is swept up and saved (or torn apart in Dionysian frenzy, according to Bowie's exegesis of the stage show) by his fans. The quote, wrenched out of context, painted in bold white letters on red brick, seemed like a cry from the heart, part desperation, part caritas, in what can sometimes be a cold and lonely city, where the wealth and storied traditions of the university's colleges are often intimidating and alienating to students who haven't transitioned smoothly from the same kind of wealth and tradition of public schools. An offer of connection. A reminder of our common humanity.

It always caught my attention when I walked past it, I've thought about it now and again, in the thirty plus years since I first saw it, and it's strange to see now that this ephemeral fragment of my past has survived time's abuses. A reminder that even something as transitory and fugitive as street art might not be completely overwritten by the future.

And there's a personal resonance, because a good number of my novels have been about how the future can be shaped by the intransigent past. In Something Coming Through and Into Everywhere, human destiny is warped by the gifts of kindly aliens and remnants of the technologies of their long-lost former clients. The narrator of Austral is trying to escape the consequences of her family history in a world altered by the kind of climate change we're going to hand down to our children's children. And the dogged hero of War of the Maps sets out on a long journey across a world abandoned by its creators because he has discovered that his past isn't yet past. The future is palimpsest and bricolage, shaped by our present as surely as our present had been shaped by the past. What will survive of us?
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