Tuesday 5 January 2016

In Search of the Miraculous #10: Neutrino Man

This is my favourite picture of Dad, the one on the right.
In the course of my research into the emotional archaeology that is the foundation of Chariot, I've been steadily uncovering a whole lot of my Dad's stuff. He will have been gone fifteen years in February. Much as I do, Dad had aspirations toward being a writer.

He mainly aimed for weekly women's magazines (which were very different things in the 1980s). Some of his stories were tragic Cathy Come Home style kitchen sink dramas, full of dying children, neglected old people and the everyday cruelties and sadnesses of loneliness and the working class poverty in which he spent his entire life. More were short and sharp, but strangely cosy crime fictions, very much in the mould of a working class Midsomer Murders.

(Note #1: My mother once unironically said to me that there was nothing more she liked on Sunday nights than "a nice cup of tea and a murder" which tells you more than you think it does about a) the way that British TV works on a Sunday night; b) the cosiness that British genre fiction and TV has always maintained; and c) the sort of person my Mum is.)

Dad wrote a good fifty flash fictions towards the end of his life, each one published in a little charity magazine for which he also composed the crossword. He kept one copy of every one of them, in a file, and every one is a crime tale of maybe two hundred words; every one has a sharp, often cruel twist at the end. 

His prose style isn't mine, by any stretch of the imagination but oh, he had a talent for the pot boiler, my Dad. 

Dad threw himself into everything he wrote. And a lot of the things he wrote (as well as every rejection letter he ever received) are contained in folders and envelopes in a big box in my attic, stories stretching from the early 70s up until he died.

I haven't for a long time now been able to bring myself to look properly through his things - the feelings that his things provoke in me are powerful and ambivalent. But the other night I decided that I wanted to look for a specific thing.

Aside from the kitchen sink tragedies and the twisty fiction of death, Dad, and this I've mentioned before, also had a strong interest in the paranormal. He spent lots of time charting biorhythms (and it's easy to forget what a thing biorhythms were in the early 80s), calculating numerological correspondences, and reading about Atlantis, earthlights, morphic life fields, and Soviet psychic discoveries. He was a regular reader of Prediction, which I've mentioned before but which I'll pass over for the moment, since it deserves a post of its own some time.

Of course this fed into his writing. Around the early nineties, Dad tried to write an occult scripture of his own, a magical ur-text. He called it The Book of Gu'ud.

I remember him talking about it. I don't remember a whole lot about it. The name, a couple of aphorisms he shared about good and evil that my teenage self didn't treat with the respect my dad deserved. That's all, really.

Dad had made the mistake of talking with the local curate about it. The curate's house had always been number 23 on our road, and Dad had maintained good relations for years with one of the man's predecessors, having regular, sparky conversations about faith and the supernatural over cups of tea.

When that guy, Alistair I think his name was, moved on to become a vicar somewhere else, because that's what curates do, he was replaced by Wing-On, who was a bit standoffish (this was probably not unrelated to my mother's matter-of-fact racism). Dad tried to strike up a friendship with Wing-On in the hopes he'd be like Alistair, but it never panned out.

And then Martin came. Martin, a hard-faced, wire-spectacled conservative evangelical with a steadily growing number of kids whose home nonetheless provided a safe space for several young people of a Thursday and Sunday night (I used to babysit for him. His house was warm. It smelled of firewood and lapsang souchong). He was, notwithstanding his work with young people, the sort of clergyman whose conservatism was weaponised, and while he was friendly enough with Dad, when Dad confided his ideas about his occult scripture, Martin ridiculed him. To his face, and also behind his back. To me, in fact, in a your-dad-is-hilariously-stupid-isn't-he sort of a way.

(Note #2: One thing my twenty or so years in churches has taught me: you should never fully trust a really fervent conservative. No matter how close you think they are to you, no matter how much of a friend you might think they are, doctrine trumps honour and loyalty, every time.)

So Dad, confidence broken, stopped writing his occult Bible.  

I had hoped to find The Book of Gu'ud in Dad's box, but it wasn't there. I think that in much the same way I destroyed my teenage Atlantis writings to avoid my mother's ridicule, he destroyed his scripture. It was sacred for him, see. It couldn't sit there unfinished.

But I found something else.

See, I found Neutrino Man.
Neutrino Man, the MS.
 It was another thing I remember Dad talking about. Neutrino Man. From some article or another he'd got it into his head that the new particle physics had proved the validity of psychic phenomena, that the discovery of the existence of the neutrino was proof positive that telekinesis, telepathy and clairvoyance were real things.

He was writing a book, he'd told teenage me, called Neutrino Man, about this. And then, as was often the case with his books, he wasn't.

I had always thought it was a philosophical piece. For some reason I imagined that it was about a new step in evolution, from homo sapiens to homo neutrinensis. It turns out that, reading it for the first time, I was wrong. It's a novel, an occult thriller. He finished four chapters (of which I have about three drafts), a bunch of fragments that sit somewhere later in the book, a list of characters and their fates, and a plan of where the book is going. In some of the drafts in the folder it's titled Harry, the Bear and the Bulldog.

What happens?

A Soviet agent tries to break into a top secret installation somewhere in the UK. It doesn't end well. He ends up dead in the middle of a country road.

The dead Soviet agent looks like he's about to cause an international incident. By being dead, you see. He's not supposed to be dead. He's a cultural attaché. 

Through some mechanism I don't quite get, in order to prevent this, the Soviets demand that a counterpart be handed over to them. A senior civil servant, Sir Hugh McKinley, and his henchman, Colonel Bent (love that name), pick Major Paul Devon, an otherwise promising young officer who keeps getting passed over when he volunteers for Special Duties. They hand Paul over, knowing full well that when the Soviets find he's no one, they'll just shoot him in the head.

Which they - and this next detail is of importance to Dad - gleefully do. While the circumstances of Paul's death don't ring terribly true, the idea that the British Establishment would cheerfully send one of their own loyal men to a brutal death for the sake of political expedience, well, that's about right.

Not going to lie, though, those callous establishment figures are painted in pretty broad strokes. Here's McKinley's introduction, from chapter one:
Major General Sir Hugh McKinley carefully placed the gold-plated pen he'd been using onto a wooden pen rack and lifted the hinged lid of a large cigar box. Sliding his hand under the lid he extracted a large hand-rolled Havana, clipped it, lit it, and drawing on it, leant back in his large leather upholstered chair with a sigh of satisfaction.

He remembered the thrill of excitement he'd felt when three months before, he'd first seen Sultan, an impressive grey stallion that belonged to one of his neighbours. The sheer power of the beast had taken his breath away and he had spent most of the last three months working out ways of owning the horse. Now he'd done it.
It's in chapter three when Paul's father comes in. The protagonist, Harry Devon.

The way Harry is described, well.
At sixty Harry Devon had retired early from the Civil Service, and although in his forty years of service he had only managed to reach the rank of stores officer he had neveer felt bitter as he'd watched countless men of lower intellect pass him on the promotion ladder...

...Although for most of his life he had been aware that he viewed things in a different way to most people, he had always suppressed the desire to show others that he knew he was different...

...(Colonel Bent) couldn't help but marvel at the straight back and firm steady tread of the man and he found himself making an expert's appraisal. "Obviously in his sixties, approximately five foort eight inches tall with no suggestion of the portliness that one expects to see with a man of that age group, the thick grey hair showing no sign of receding."
OK, listen. Dad was, until he was made redundant in the late 80s by desk jockeys like McKinley, technically a civil servant, although he was part of the technical department who dealt with radios and other equipment used by the police and fire brigade. He was the guy in the brown working coat that you always had in a room full of radio parts and gadgets that you had in the basement of any government building up until then, underpaid yet, or so he thought, indispensible. The guys who tinkered with your kit.

He was often bitter about having been overlooked for promotion in favour of people whom he considered to be not as smart as him. He never lost his hair. He was 5'8" tall. Harry Devon lives in a house called "Rosedown"; Dad lived, before he married Mum, on Rosedown Avenue.

Dad was also a bit overweight and carried every one of his years on his face. Harry lives in a house with a really nice garden. Dad slaved over his garden but never got it how he wanted.

Harry Devon is not my Dad. Harry Devon is the man my dad wished he was.

This is particularly important because Harry Devon is possessed of one unusual characteristic. Harry Devon has prodigious psychic powers. Telekinesis, clairvoyance, telepathy, astral projection, the lot.

A handwritten page from later in the book, in what I think is the voice of a Soviet psychic researcher, reads: 
"Some people have to ability to be aware of thoughts existing in the unknown section of the brain. If these thought waves are strong enough to form a certain pattern they can expel the neutrinos in the body. The majority of people this happens to have no conscious control over these thoughts so that, when the subatomic particles leave the vital organs, they die. You must have heard of these unexplained deaths, people who have 'just' died without any medical explanation. Very rarely, a person appears who is not only aware of his brain's ability to have what we call 'the trigger thought waves' but can consciously control them."

"To stop himself losing his neutrinos?"

"More than that, they can allow the neutrino form to leave the body and return there at will."

The Colonel shivered. "Are you saying what I think you're saying? That we've got one here, in this country?"

The Russian shook his head. "Not one. There's almost certain to be several here, Over the last twenty years, we've identified nineteen at Kiev University alone."
Harry is the Neutrino Man, see. 

Harry has used his psychic powers in the past to protect his son.
Although his son hadn't mentioned it, Harry had been aware of Paul's requests for 'special duties' that had gone in every year for the last seven years. By trained concentration Harry had been able to make sure that all the requests were overlooked.
The inference I draw here is that it's Harry's fault Paul is dead anyway. Because if he'd actually been allowed by his dad to do special duties, he wouldn't have been sacrificed. 

But the way it's written, I don't think Dad sees that Harry was doing anything wrong. This hits home for me, hard. Because this is my Dad. Dad who used to stop me going out for fear of my being hurt, and yet would lament I never had a girlfriend. Whose fear of my falling into the hole of poverty that he had once, years before, almost climbed out of, but which he had been dragged back into, caused him to prevent my doing... well, nearly anything. 

Anyway, Harry realises the truth about his son, using his powers to learn the whole truth. 
Picture after picture appeared until eventually, Harry knew the whole story and, knowing it, he decided that something had to be done about people, Governments or otherwise who treated human life with such contempt...  
And this is where the novel kicks off, and then, frustratingly, stops, aside for a few fragmentary handwritten scenes.

Dad's plan was to have Harry track down and take supernatural revenge, first by destroying the things they care about and scaring them, and then, presumably in a more final way (although not necessarily a lethal way). In one of the fragments, Harry causes Hugh McKinley's precious thoroughbred to throw him and fall, fatally; when McKinley comes back into his locked office he finds Paul Devon's photograph out on his desk. 

Dad's plan would finally have the thing reach the Prime Minister. When this was written, that could only mean the scorched-earth horror that was Margaret Thatcher, a byword for casual disregard for life and one whom my dad, not without reason, blamed solidly for his and his colleagues' unemployment and our fall into near-starvation. 

But it never got written.

He lost confidence again, as he would over and over. 

It strikes me that this book would have been strange and heartfelt, like all of his work, both very like the genre of fiction it placed itself within and entirely unique, with its aging protagonist and very specific and (yeah, OK) hokey explanation for its occult element. I am not sure there would have been anything quite like it. Maybe there is an alternative world where Harry Devon saw print and became a hit.

I always thought of my Dad as a dabbler, as a man overwhelmed by sadness and regret. But he was, it seems to me, also angry, angry about the tragedies that flooded his life, about the injustices and evils of power. Harry Devon never got to finish his occult revenge on the page. My father, too, never got his revenge on the callous wielders of power who throw lives away.

I can see no world existing where he could. But that doesn't stop me wishing it could happen.