By The Landlord
“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.” – TS Eliot
"For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: 'It might have been!" – John Greenleaf Whittier
Two American poets with perspectives on time, but perhaps it is the two melancholy lines by the American 19th-century American poet and anti-slavery campaigner John Greenleaf Whittier that point to emotions that have fuelled so many songs, books, and film plots. What if Gwyneth Paltrow had or hadn't made it through those tube train Sliding Doors? Perhaps a less soppy rom-com would have been made of this interesting plot.
But in anybody's life, who hasn't wondered then, what might have occurred if they had spoken to the attractive person on the train instead of hesitating? Or if only you had caught the train instead of the bus? Or if only you’d got a different bus? But if you hadn’t got that bus you wouldn’t have met that person, would you? Or applied for a different job? But, then If only you had made this choice instead of that one, is there any point in wondering? In the end, does it all change or go round in circles leading towards an inevitable conclusion, as faced by Oedipus, though hopefully not ending in regicide and incest, but just a life that we must accept and enjoy?
And if so, where would we be now? Dwelling on such matters shifts us between past, present and future, what could have been and what could be, and at the that moment, all three are linked. We are living in one place, in one time, but in our minds we are constantly in many. So this week, whether they are songs of regret, in retrospect or about the 'if only' we're look at lyrics that imagine alternative pasts, presents or futures caused by different decisions, actions, circumstances and chains of events.
Who hasn’t then, at some point, think that if think that their life could have been better, or different, had different decisions been made? We were all contenders once, and can there be any more profound utterances than that by Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront (1954, Elia Kazan): “I could have had class, I could have been a contender, I could have been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it.”
But should alternative histories, personal or otherwise, always be a source of regret, or instead, gratitude? There are many books which turn on this topic, and alternative history is a rich source of plot. The visionary science fiction writer Phlilip K Dick, on whose books many famous films are based, from Bladerunner to Total Recall, wrote an alternative history The Man in the High Castle (1962) about what would have happened if Nazi Germany and Japan had won the Second World War. And 1992’s Fatherland by Robert Harris is one of several similar reinterpretations of a very different reality after this outcome.
But is different better or worse? The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling imagines what would have happened if Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace had succeeded in turning his analytical engine into a mass-produced computer product in Victorian times, creating a steampunk-type world that would have revolutionised our world far sooner with a different technology.
Messing around with time with technology or otherwise, however, can be a tricky business. In Terry Pratchett's book, Mort, as Death's apprentice, the main character fails to collect a beautiful woman who was supposed to die and instead saves her, causing the universe to divide into two alternatives and cause total chaos. And when Homer Simpson, in Treehouse of Horror V, attempts to mend his toaster and accidentally turns it in to a time machine (easily done of course), all kinds of crazy alternative present futures can happen if you change one thing in the past:
But can there not be a more profound change in history than that depicted in Planet of the Apes? A hairy, arrogant, war-like dominant race using up the world's resources? You maniacs! You really did it! If only there hadn’t been a certain referendum …
Time manipulation is a superb plot driver, from the Terminator films to Total Recall, to Inception, where there are a series of dream realties entered by Leonardo DiCaprio and co to attempt to change the course of history by influence a corporation’s CEO. One of the stars of this film, Joseph Gordon-Levitt also said, wryly: “We could have been the greatest love story ever told. If only you'd stayed in character.” He take the lead role in Looper, the story of a gangster-sponsored killer who goes back in time only to find he is in danger of assassinating himself, not to mention altering the course of history via other characters. And then of course there is the Matrix series, initially very innovative, eventually very flawed in my opinion, where the ever-bemused Keanu Reeves faces this choice by Morpheus:
"This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill - the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill - you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”
So which pill have we all taken? And have you ever gone to a long, boring meeting or been at a lecture and briefly fallen asleep? Perhaps there were alternative events as are perceived by the main character in the wonderful industrial espionage film Cypher. Now this really is frightening.
So could there be multiple realities, according to our own perceptions? Multiverse theory, first posited by in a lecture in Dublin in 1952 by Erwin Schrödinger, suggests that there are several parallel realities alongside the one we perceive. It’s a complex subject of course, but nevertheless an arresting one. Perhaps there are alternative versions of all of us where we wear a different colour, or swap roles, where you are simultaneously your boss’s boss, or vice versa, or you married someone else. Or you’re a cat or a penguin or a daffodil instead of a human. But perhaps it could also exist right now on this planet. It might explain why so many people see the world differently at once, politically or otherwise:
But there's just time for a quick song to get you more in the mood, and a brilliant one that has been picked for another topic, but plays with the idea of alternative reality. "That's not my beautiful wife …"
And finally, on the same surreal and absurd note, as I walked through local park this morning, I briefly wondered whether, in a minor reshuffle, things could have turned out like this:
So then, please liberally throw to us, to peck up, your “if only" songs, “what could have been or would be” songs and more that all imagine different to different outcomes. I’ve no doubt that one outcome will be certain. Lots of great nominations and two fabulous playlists, because this week’s tremendous TimeLord guru is the excellent EnglishOutlaw. Deadlines is 11pm UK time on Monday for playlists published on Wednesday. In this reality, and all the others.
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