Here is a letter written by John Betjeman (1906-84) on 6th August 1969. I was given it a couple of Chrismases ago. I don’t know much about Betjeman, although I do like his poem about his father, ‘On a Portrait of a Deaf Man’ (‘The kind old face, the egg-shaped head, / The tie, discreetly loud’); and I do like any text that anchors itself vividly to a moment in the past.
This is 51 years ago: Betjeman, newly knighted by the Queen in that New Year’s Honours List, writing to an unnamed rector, on a hot August day, hoping ‘you don’t think me too unhelpful’ as he returns a request he doesn’t have time to fulfil. Betjeman is in his home opposite St Bartholomew the Great Church, near St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Today, you can rent out the Georgian twin-bed from the Landmark Trust at ‘£96.25 per person, per night’: the house ‘still looks much as it did when Betjeman lived here including the wallpaper in the sitting room’.
What else is happening in the world as Betjeman writes? It doesn’t take long to accumulate a list: in fact, the problem is knowing when to stop.
German philosopher and musicologist Theodor W. Adorno, the author of works on Wagner, Mahler and Bethoven, and a key figure in critical theory, dies of a heart attack in Visp, Switzerland, at the foot of Matterhorn. In Omaha, Nebraska, a child named Steven Paul Smith is born, who, as Elliott Smith, will become a singer and songwriter. In the Canadian town of Kelowna, British Columbia, a U.S. Navy stunt jet aircraft exceeds Mach 1 at an altitude of just 91 metres, causing a sonic boom that shatters most of the downtown windows, injuring six people and causing $250,000 of damage. Between 2.30pm and 11pm in Studio Three of EMI Studios, Abbey Road, George Harrison adds guitar overdubs to ‘Here Comes The Sun’, while Paul McCartney, down the hall in room 43, records tracks for ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ on a Moog synthesizer. In Japan, ceremonies and anti-nuclear protests are held to commemorate the 25th anniversary of America dropping the H-bomb on Hiroshima. At the International Hotel Main Showroom, Las Vegas, Nevada, Elvis Presley performs ‘Runaway .’ BBC Radio 4’s ‘Movie-Go-Round’ offers a profile of actress Hayley Mills. The number one record on the Billboard Hot 100 is Zager and Evans’ ‘In the Year 2525.’
If we want to visually represent simultaneity for 6 August 1969, it might begin to look something like this:
Are these people connected? What does it mean that these events occurred on the same day? We can certainly find all kinds of links. Rick Evans, of Zager and Evans, was born, like Elliot Smith, in Nebraska. Elliott Smith cited the Beatles as a key musical influence, and covered several of their songs. Betjeman’s most famous line is ‘Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!’ Hayley Mills starred in the comedy The Family Way (1966), which featured a score by Paul McCartney. Adorno hated the Beatles and everything they represented. ‘What can be urged against the Beatles,’ he said in 1965, ‘is simply that what these people have to offer is something that is retarded in terms of its own objective content.’ ‘The King: A Musical Tribute to Elvis Presley’ was performed at Kelowna Community Theatre on Friday February 10th 2017.
These kinds of wormholes can go on forever, but their endlessness, initially beguiling, becomes a kind of dead-end: in fact, the opposite of a dead-end, a never-ending road made up of endless branching digressions. The desire to connect elements that occur synchronously, a sense that there must be some causal link, however submerged, and however palpably absurd, is answered by an opposite force, a sense that these figures, momentarily disciplined by time into alignment, push out powerfully on their own trajectories, uninterested or unaware of their fleeting neighbours. Elliott Smith is someone I grew up listening to; John Betjeman is a figure from a distant past; the Beatles hover in something like an eternal present; Hiroshima was a tragedy that has nothing to do with Radio 4’s ‘Move-Go-Round’.
Here is how a novelist might think about it. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), Thomas Hardy describes how Tess and her mother, even as they sit next to each other in the same tiny house in the village of Marlott in the 1870s, exist in different periods of time.
Between the mother, with her fast-perishing lumber of superstitions, folk-lore, dialect, and orally transmitted ballads, and the daughter, with her trained National teachings and Standard knowledge under an infinitely Revised Code, there was a gap of two hundred years as ordinarily understood. When they were together the Jacobean and the Victorian ages were juxtaposed.
I take Hardy at his maximal word: not just that Tess and Mrs. Joan Durbeyfield wear different clothes, or have different attitudes to the world, but that they actually occupy different historical periods. Tess and Joan are people who, existing at the same moment, are nonetheless temporally distinct. On a 1956 episode of CBS TV’s I've Got a Secret, 95-year-old Samuel J. Seymour described how, as a 5-year-old on April 14, 1865, he had seen John Wilkes Booth shoot Abraham Lincoln.
Betjeman put pen to paper as Elvis took the stage as the windows blew out in downtown Kelowna. Hardy published Tess when he was 51, and when Samuel J. Seymour, who saw Lincoln shot, and who appeared on CBS, was 31. ‘Really, universally,’ wrote Henry James in the preface to Roderick Hudson in 1875 – when James was 32, and Hardy was 35, and Samuel J. Seymour, who saw Lincoln shot, was 15, ‘relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.’
This is, of course, why so many "period" films and TV shows fail to convince: the costume and props people clothe everyone in synchronous fashions, and place them among settings from that year's Ideal Home magazine (or "Perfick Hovel", to which my own ancestors subscribed).
Love this piece. (Son of Sam takes me into the moodscape of Russian Doll.)