The text below is extracted from a stab I made at an autobiography. The writing of this page-turner initially went well, right up to the point where I realised that merely describing the many fascinating things that had happened to one was not quite the same as producing a structured work that had a point and was going somewhere. I retired the project until I felt I could return to the partial draft with a more insistent shaping impulse.
The excerpt hereunder follows some material on my youthful visits to my father’s laboratory, where I was allowed to play with very sensitive scales that could weigh thousandths of a gram. My father was enchanted by the microscopic – he worked on antibiotics for much of his career – and my own daydreaming was sometimes taken up with fantasising about just how light something would be before it became unweighable and undetectable. When I got to my teens, entered the 60s and encountered the sudden onslaught of ‘spiritual ideas’ that characterised the period, I found that my thoughts about atoms, weights, traces and vapours fitted, perhaps eccentrically, into the whirl of ideas about spirit, essences, auras and rays. I also found amusement in imagining detection technologies that would operate at a miscroscopic level and tie atoms to their owners.
This piece isn’t strictly about rays but it does deal with traces that are so slight that they verge on the immateriality of rays.
When I was 18 and taking for granted the eccentric wisdoms I had distilled from my early encounters with science, my Uncle Geraint, from the Welsh side, an affable slacker and Bohemian, told me something that acted as a counterpoint to my preoccupation with weights, measures and contamination. He told me – it being the sixties by then – that the Buddha leaves no traces. I knew what he meant, or I thought I did. He meant that persons of a particular spiritual weight made no waves. That such a person did not invest his presence in one, he wished to make no impression, consequently, when the guy is gone, it’s like ‘Who?’
In 1963, after they had hoisted the mail bags, the Great Train Robbers repaired to Leatherslade Farm until the heat died down. The cops found the farm, but not until the robbers had fled. The robbers left their fingerprints behind, however, and eventually these would tie many of them to the crime. As soon as I read about the fingerprints I started ruminating and have been doing so ever since.
You see, if I had been chief robber Bruce Reynolds I would, first of all, have lined my fellow robbers up in the barn and delivered a lecture on the perils of the trace. I would have instructed them to exercise a degree of care unprecedented in their criminal lives. Men, I would have announced, let me not even bother my fucking head with comments on fingerprints. Any of you leaves his dab (I revert here to the argot of the 1950s British black and white caper) is frankly a cunt. What we need to get fucking straight is the rest of it: the body as snail, the body that leaves its mark, even when you’ve washed the fucker. A constant hail of dermal flakes, sometimes seen against the sun then mistaken for dancing motes that give substance to a pleasing aura-like effect. Sodden with telltale DNA [anachronistically I fold contemporary forensics into the scene here, much as I do in my private ruminations], they combine with the soft downpour of desiccated sebum routinely dislodged by the most straightforward movements of the most meticulously medicated head of groomed and glossy hair. You walk across the room, Ronnie, you’re an absolute shower! (While alerting Biggs to the whirling fallout of his own biodust I simultaneously evoke Terry-Thomas in the Boulting Brothers’ ‘Private’s Progress’ and ‘I’m Alright Jack’.) You are sitting, Buster, on a tractor, studying the horizon for telltale signs and smoking a Woodbine. Bits of your lip and spit are on the fucking end you prat! Next you bite a pippin to freshen your mouth well bugger me your teeth have carved out their negatives in the flesh of the core you toerag! These can be remodelled in plaster of paris you daft slag!
I continue to adduce examples that frankly astonish and unsettle the robbers. Satisfied that they are now both contrite and all ears I instruct them to wear silk or surgical gloves (whichever is the more practical) at all times, together with fitted plastic shower-hat-like caps and overshoes with elasticated anklets. If they wish to stretch their arms, ruffle their hair, change their clothes, expectorate or clean out their noses they must do so at night, in a field, downwind of the farmhouse so that their flakes don’t simply blow straight back in again.
What I do not tell them is that thirty years later, in the involuted scheme of my imagining, they’re bang to rights just by the act of passage. Thermal signatures, penetrative scans, digital noses – this stuff tracks so tight it has to get a smart-talking lawyer to reduce a charge of buggery to one of following too close.
Men, I could have said, frankly none of this obsessive shit is worth worrying about. There’s nothing you can do about it. We are all trash trailers. Start littering now.
The Buddha proposition left its grease on me. My uncle made his proclamation ten years after I had first pondered exudates but it served to bring symmetry to one of my abiding occultisms. Buddha’s example neatly capped my thoughts about leakage and enabled me to formulate a modest logical chain:
We all leave skidmarks. So you can’t get away with anything because you’ll always be traced. Furthermore, nobody likes a skidmark, that’s why they leave them behind. So your traces are tell-tale, they’re the worst thing about you. But if you are cool, you don’t leave skidmarks. And people can’t get you. And they like you.
But Buddha, and I’m guessing here, didn’t care if people liked him. On the other hand, with due respect where respect is due, we have to say that nobody likes a person who leaves no marks – what’s to like? Do you say “What a great guy – so very little there”? Of course not. So you do need to leave something, but something not too greasy.
We can see Buddha in a garden or something:
People – Hey, Gautama, how are you?
Buddha – It’s of no consequence.
People – But, you know, are you well?
Buddha – I don’t see it like that.
People – Oh.
Buddha – I must go.
People – Fascinating man.
Other People – He doesn’t care, does he?
People – I’m sorry?
William Burroughs wrote about this in ‘Naked Lunch’. Instead of Buddha it was junkies. Junkies, Bill said, could sit all day in a cafe, dunking pound cake (I never knew what pound cake was) and you would not see them. They repelled attention. When they left you would not notice they had gone. It could be inferred therefrom that young people wishing to savour Buddha consciousness might try heroin. As far as one can tell the reduction of affect can be relied upon and the concomitant ecstatic disconnection is guaranteed.
I found a book in a charity shop called ‘Invisibility – Mastering the Art of Vanishing’ by Steve Richards. Steve goes on about the Rosicrucians and the Qabalah and Madame Blavatsky and so forth. Basically what you do is conjure the cloud. It is summoned from the invisible and it obscures the vision of others. In some circles it is identified with ectoplasm and may be exuded by those who are ready, willing and able. The book is not entirely ponderous – Steve relates a story of Bulwer Lytton, whose Rosicrucian novel ‘Zanoni’ is apparently Harry Potter for the mature credulous. Convinced that he had mastered invisibility, Lord Lytton strode through a gathering of guests in his dressing-gown then returned later, splendidly attired, greeting his visitors as if for the first time. It was observed in the course of the test run that Lytton was observed.
I was pleased to come upon the book because it fitted neatly into the research I was doing for my novel. In this neglected work, Jack, a wide boy, discovers that he is able to rob houses by cultivating drastically reduced affect. So unremarkable does he make himself that he can saunter through his victim’s lounge while his victim is present and wholly conscious. Jack was inspired to this audacity by the spectacle of a homeless person pissing in the High Street while others studiously ignored him.
Elsewhere in my novel I described an apparatus that would unerringly find things. All you had to do was tune it to your requirement. Its prime application was in the locating of flesh, whose molecular templates were lodged within the device and served a calibrating function. Once the thing was activated it would sweep moors and beep when buried bodies were underfoot. The days of tracelessness were over, I think I wanted to say.
I wanted the best of both worlds, of course. To dwell in the invisible yet be admired for my prominence. I had no wish to disappear like the benighted creatures in Christopher Priest’s novel ‘The Glamour’, who spent their nights living wretchedly in the bedding sections of department stores, uncouth and unseen, their self esteem so thoroughly extinguished that they could hold the attention of no-one.