There was a time when you didn’t know even the things you’ve always just known…
I remember the first time I saw the Beatles on television. It was a studio performance of “We Can Work It Out”, which the Wikipedia tells me was filmed on 23 November 1965, so presumably I saw it shortly after that date. The Wikipedia piece also tells me that in the film John Lennon was seated at a harmonium, but I don’t need to be reminded. I recall that clearly, because part and parcel of the memory, for me, is my father announcing that the Beatles had “gone a bit weird”. No doubt he was thinking, not just of one of the fab four swapping his guitar for a harmonium, but of their increasing hair length and the stirrings of that transition from loveable moptops to drug-dabbling counterculture icons. Soon enough it would become apparent that, as Bernard Levin said, and as I can imagine my father echoing, and as I never tire of quoting, “there is nothing wrong with [John Lennon] that could not be cured by standing him upside down and shaking him gently until whatever is inside his head falls out”.
Though that is my earliest Beatle memory, aged six, the point I wish to explore here is that I was already aware of them at this time. My father’s observation made sense, I recall, in a way it would not had they been completely new to me. That is, I understood that they had indeed “gone a bit weird”. With two older sisters who were teenagers in 1965, and who were in possession of a Dansette record player and a batch of Beatles 45s (among other happening grooves), I would have learned about John, Paul, George and
Rudyard Ringo at some point before that remembered television show. But when?
Everything we learn, everything we encounter, happens on a particular day. The day before, its existence, whatever it is, is completely unknown to us. And then, one day, we hear about it, see it, read about it. Even those things which seem so much part of the fabric of our world – the Beatles. Shakespeare, cornflakes, cats, tractors, Lembit Opik, lobsters, Ranters, the Great Dismal Swamp, Googie Withers, the First World War, the Second World War, Evelyn Waugh, Auberon Waugh, Springheeled Jack, marzipan, Austria, Orson Welles, fugues, fogous, geometry, spinal fluid, Agamemnon, Potters Bar, Tony Blair, the Munich Air Disaster, haversacks, rucksacks, knapsacks, Dirk Bogarde, the eurozone, synchronised swimming, raspberry jam, “And is there honey still for tea?”, Blodwyn Pig, “per ardua ad astra”, Molesworth 2, Peason, Homburg hats, vinegar, junk bonds, crinkle-cut oven chips, the Titanic, Kierkegaard, Savonarola, Henry Cow, Werner Herzog, lavender shovels, egg nog, Ozymandias, jugged hare, Tinie Tempah, filbert nuts, ectoplasm, squeegee merchants, suicide bombers, mad cow disease, Desperate Dan, Little Plum, Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge, Brancusi, the Bible, blasphemy, Buggins’ turn, Botany Bay, Bellerophon, the Bosphorus, Papa Doc Duvalier, creosote, Dagmar Krause, invisible ink, Old Holborn, semolina, toffee, pictures of Jap girls in synthesis, and so on, and on, forever and ever… there was, for all of us, one day, we could pinpoint on the calendar if only we knew, or remembered, when we learned of these people and places and events and things and breakfast cereals for the very first time. There was a day when you had never, ever come across jugged hare before. Then, one day, you read about it, or heard about it, or otherwise learned of it. But how often do we ever remember those first encounters?
I do remember – though I cannot say what the exact date was – when I first heard the word “internet”, in conversation with a geeky computer person. I did not quite understand what it was, nor that it would ever have much relevance to me, certainly not that it was something that would change the world I lived in. I suppose that is the reason we rarely remember, that we rarely if ever recognise that the new information we have just learned will have any significance.
The miraculous thing, in a sense, is that today there is a distinct possibility I have encountered something, learned of something, that will in future seem to me commonplace, obvious, everyday, something I cannot imagine the world without. But I have no idea what it is, so I cannot record it.