One of the most annoying things about Radio Art is that you have to download it before you can fast-forward through it. In ‘The Transmission’, I’ve very kindly done all the work for you and it comes ‘pre-fast-forwarded’, so to speak. This, in turn, lends the piece a delightfully impenitent narrative structure – but we’ll come back to that in a moment.
Hopefully, as you listen to The Transmission, the question of location will spring to mind. Where are we, in both a geographical and cultural sense? A clue can be gathered from the presence of the two ‘Cockneys’ who appear in the story. Cockneys, for those not in the know, are a lower class London social grouping somewhat irrationally defined by a geophysical attribute – that of having been born within hearing range of a particular set of church bells. The idea that a social group can be branded for life by the mere fact of, at their moment of birth, being with earshot of a distinctive clanging noise is almost as ridiculous as the church in question. St Mary-le-Bow is an ersatz baroque monstrosity sandwiched off The City of London’s Cheapside between the pomposity of St Paul’s cathedral and the shadowy mammon of the Bank of England. Still, I must admit that the bells sound quite pleasant.
Cockney is also defined by a dialect. The best example I can think of is the chimney-hugging ‘Bert’ character in Mary Poppins, meticulously voiced by Dick Van Dyke. I’d be interested to know what dialect is used in the dubbed versions of non-English speaking countries. As for Dick Van Dyke – wow – what a fucking great name!!! Dick is better known to daytime TV victims as the sleuthing doctor in the cross-generic medical/crime drama Diagnosis:Murder. Incidentally, Victoria Rowell who portrayed the glamorous pathologist in that show, uses one of the best strap lines ever to market her kiss and tell confessional ‘Secrets of a Soap Opera Diva’.
‘You gotta get dirty before you can come clean’.
Should you ever find yourself in the drab and dirty City of London, the best way to seek out and unmask a Cockney is to ask them to say two words – ‘Town’ and ‘Water’. Listen carefully to their replies. In the mouth of a Cockney, ‘town’ will lose its distinctive ‘OW’ diphthong to be replaced by a drawling nasal ‘Aaaaaaaaa’, reminiscent of the braying of a sad donkey.
Thus – ‘Taaaaaaaaaaan’ instead of ‘Town’.
‘Water’ will be stripped of it’s sharp ‘ER’ ending and emerge with the definingly dozy non-rhotic ‘ah’ sound.
Thus – ‘Watah’ instead of ‘Water’. Somehow, the pronunciation makes it sound as though all the ‘Watah’ has dried up or leaked away through a hole at the bottom of the swimming pool.
‘The Transmission’ is based on a soft and simple alternative timeline sci fi premise – that it was Muhammid XII who defeated the combined Catholic armies of Ferdinand and Isabella in the Battle of Granada, 1492, rather than the other way round. No wonder things appear culturally amiss. This is a Europe where women are forbidden to speak to other men but their husbands. They even then have to wait for the husband to deliver a complex series of signs before being granted permission to speak. This gives hint of a brutally misogynistic discourse more likely found in Saudi Arabia than in the heart of contemporary London.
In our particular timeline, the 1492 battle (more correctly, a siege) was the endgame in the gradual removal of the Muslim presence from Iberian soil. This had begun in earnest with the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in the early 13th Century. The final victory, pompously titled ‘La Reconquista’, was sealed by the fall of Granada and the surrender of the Moorish ruler Muhammid XII. Soon afterwards, Ferdinand and Isabella – two raving religious loonies to put it mildly – founded the Spanish Inquisition and set about forcibly converting both Muslims and Jews to Christianity. Indeed, it was a converted jew who organised the financing of Columbus’ expedition to the New World.
In the timeline underpinning The Transmission, history snakes in another direction and it is Muhammid XII who smash the armies of Catholic king and queen and drive the idolatrous ones out of Spain. This victory leads us onto the eventual conquest and Islamicisation of the rest of Europe and the concommitamt institution of an alternative set of cultural norms. Now, our Cockneys are those born within hearing distance of the muezzin’s call – a muezzin perched atop minaret of the Aisha-al-Bow Mosque (named after one of the prophet’s most beloved wives). Incidentally, here’s one for all you Jerry Lee Lewis fans. Aisha, the Prophet’s third wife, was six maybe seven when she was betrothed to Muhammad and all of nine when the marriage was consummated. He was fifty two.
The language and mores of ‘The Transmission’ are loosely informed by Sir Richard Burton’s translation of The Perfumed garden, a book of Arabic pornography written in the 15th Century by Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Nafzawi. The language used is beautifully poetic and strikingly archaic, presumably influenced by the fact that Burton was working from an earlier French translation of the Arabic original. This ties in sweetly with one of ‘The Transmission’s’ themes, the manner in which information is codified and recodified and ultimately distorted into unrecognisable and sometimes delightful forms by the process of cross-cultural transmission.
The French translation of The Perfumed Garden has gathered an amount notoriety in that it excised the last part of al-Nafzawi’s manuscript – the explicitly gay stuff. In later life, Burton set to work on his own version from the Arabic, a translation that was to include all the original material be called ‘The Scented Garden’. We don’t know how Burton got on because his staunchly Catholic wife, opting for a proto-nazi position, flung the manuscript into the flames.
Credit where credit’s due – the ‘Why do you call me “O Man”’ idea that takes the form of a running joke in ‘The Transmission’ is a straight lift from al-Nafzawi’s (and Burton’s) book.
At what point can a technology be considered dead and buried? How redundant does it have to become it vanishes completely. The other day I saw a blank C90 cassette for sale in Central London for the price of about nine Euros. ‘Ah’, I mused, ‘The cassette is at last becoming an object of rarity, an exoticism, hence this ludicrous price for something you could pick up for a few pence ten years ago.’ Ask yourself this: Who stocks minidisks these days and does anyone remember how wide a five inch floppy disk is?
In ‘The Transmission’, the two main characters are collectors of the priceless and the extinct, prepared to travel the world and undergo many trials and hardships in pursuit of exotica. The humble compact cassette tape (that space age invention that sealed the fortunes of Dutch multinational electronic company Phillips) has joined the list of desirables having become an object of extreme scarcity. And even though a few tapes still exist, there is nothing to play them back on.
Kristine Brunovska Karnick has written that ‘Humour complicates and frustrates the spectator’s inferences about the narrative’. While humour is employed for this very effect, comedy is not itself the primary goal of ‘The Transmission’. My objective is to array elements of comedy (the running joke, unpredictability, incongruity-resolution) alongside stock b-movie themes of acquisition and impending disaster to create a delightfully disruptive text. When the Soviet system crumbled, the only regrettable result was that it took away the sole state-scaled opposing reality to the technologically astonishing, economically brutal, environmentally lethal Western society we have allowed nationalistic and globally corporate greed to conjure into existence.
We live in a mono-reality into which we are supposed to slot our strivings, ambitions, japes, joys, loves, lies and permeable madnesses. Personally, I find it a bleak and inadequate container.
My conception of a disruptive narrative is one that exposes or at least provides an index for a vast subset of practical realities. Not fancies, feathers, ideals and fantasies but empirically sparkling incarnations of ontology. This attempt at an exposition of sorts is the actual transmission that takes place in the course of the piece.
r.t. bhoustard may 2010