Today is, of course, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F Kennedy, as well as that of the deaths of Aldous Huxley and CS Lewis. I note with interest that today’s Google doodle does not correspond to any of these three men, but to the 50th anniversary of Dr Who, which was first broadcast the evening following these events. But the advent of a popular science fiction tv series based upon the wanderings and adventures of a time traveller seems curiously appropriate to 1963, somehow.
Sometimes I feel myself to be out of time. Born in 1969, I can claim ownership to that decade not only because I was born in its fading months (I was round for the Apollo 11 landings, for Altamont Speedway, for the deaths by drowning of Brian Jones and Mary Jo Kopechne, for My Lai, for the first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus; hell, John and Yoko got married on the day of my birth), but because growing up, the Sixties were immediate history. My Dad told me about 60s tv before it was repeated (I watched with wonder when The Prisoner, or The Avengers, was shown on terrestrial tv); the music played in our house was from the decade; the first lp that I ever owned was a Beatles compilation (A Collection of Beatles Oldies... but Goldies, 1966, which I still have), proved by my childish handwriting scrawled on the back cover.
It’s not that I’m prey to nostalgia for the decade; I don’t remember it. But there’s something about it that speaks to me, I return to the music and the films and the literature of the decade again and again, I write about it a lot (I’m due to complete a book on science fiction of the 1960s next year, and have published a fair few articles about the decade, from Len Deighton and food to Brian Jones as Orpheus). The events of that decade, including the Kennedy assassination, have a power over my imagination that is hard to explain. Why does it matter to me? What is it about the Ballardian mantra of Dealey Plaza, the Lincoln convertible, Jackie Kennedy, the Mannlicher carbine and book depository, which pervades my imagination?
Last year I published an experimental article, in the vein of the New Wave sf writers like Ballard and Moorcock, directly negotiating the Kennedy assassination and the figure of Oswald (and the curious figure of Charles Whitman, the shooter at the University of Texas at Austin, who used the campus tower in the summer of ’66 to kill 17 people, and who knew he was becoming deranged). I’ve read Mailer’s Oswald’s Story, of course, and Delillo’s Libra; but I’m suspicious of reading the Kennedy assassination as the ‘end of innocence’, or a kind of origin point for contemporary disillusion and lack of faith in the future: in the States, Johnson’s Civil rights and Great Society programs necessarily followed Kennedy’s death; and in Britain, the hopes expressed in Wilson’s ‘White Heat’ speech, and the development of the then ‘new’ universities (my own, Lancaster, in 1964) or the Open University (founded in 1969), the promise of social democracy and changes in the economic fabric of Britain, progressive legislation in terms of the franchise and gay rights, were all current up to the later 1960s.
Although Tony and Doug went down the Time Tunnel in 1966, my preferred model for the 1960s time travel narrative is Michael Moorcock’s Cornelius stories, which use shifts in time to re-imagine, and critique, post-war London, the legacies of Empire, and the fabrics of popular and counter-culture in the mid- to late-60s. Cornelius, in the short stories published in New Worlds, was a parodic adventurer, a counter-culture assassin, an emblematic figure of the Dionysian 60s. By the time Moorcock ‘took back’ Cornelius (in the words of John Clute) in the quartet of novels published from 1965 to 1980, the ‘character’ of the ‘rock and roll messiah’ had itself been smashed and transmitted through time and space, leaving him, in The English Assassin, as a near-corpse in a coffin, dragged around for much of the novel. Jerry wants to go home, but there isn’t one, because his home was the 60s, rather than Ladbroke Grove, and there’s no going back there.
Stephen King’s 700-page 11.22.1963 sits forbiddingly next to my bed, daring me to take it on. (I’m trying to get through Doctor Sleep first.) King’s text, mixing up time travel narrative, with classic ‘what if?’ and paradox tropes, with the inaugural event of the ‘Sixties’, is a pregnant one for me. I’ve yet to take it on, though plan to soon. Travelling back to 1963, or 1964 (Mods and Rockers on Brighton beach), or 1966 (for so many reasons), is a tremendous fantasy, particularly for someone, like me, who is so invested, embedded even, in the images and narratives and ideas and texts of the Sixties. I suffer, and I think always have done, from a sense of belatedness, of being born too late (for the Sixties, for Punk); recently I have also suffered from a sense that wherever I go, physically or mentally, I’m always haunting someone else’s steps, that someone else has always got there before me. This is another symptom of a collapse of the future, and in a sense, this is what Simon Reynolds diagnoses in Retromania, in relation to the Ghost Box music artists like Belbury Poly who seem to inhabit a ‘nostalgia for the future’: to return to the Sixties is not a return to the past, but it is a return to the possibility of a future seemingly foreclosed by neo-liberal late capitalism in all its forms.
So, I do not lament that JFK has been supplanted by the multiple Doctors, from Hartnell to Capaldi, for this time-travelling exile, born in the 1960s but who cannot return home, seems to embody an absolute longing for but terrible anxiety about the future that is diagnostic of our times. It seems, in many ways, we are all time travellers now.