Sandwiched between adverts for Aubrey Allen Butchers, Alan’s Taxis and JW Superbuys I heard a lush wash of layered voices, a poem read over the top.
The world’s great age begins anew,
The golden years return
The earth doth like a snake renew
Her winter weeds outworn:
Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam
Like wrecks of a dissolving dream.
An advert for a forthcoming Claire Hamill concert at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, billed as ‘an evening of New Age music with Claire Hamill and the Voices’, the music and words combined with a sunny afternoon in May 1988 and impacted me deeply.
Especially vibrant was the line ‘Faiths and empires gleam, like wrecks of a dissolving dream’, I was still religious all those years ago and imagined the future Kingdom of God on Earth, all breathtaking white towers and lush rolling countryside. The images were powerful, a mixture of the Apocalyptic faith I’d been brought up in, the golden era of Gondor in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and the sci-fi optimism of ‘Galactic Tours’, a picture book published (somewhat bizarrely) by Thomas Cook.
The lines of the poem made me think of a future built over the wreckage of the past, of people coming together and living harmoniously. It hit me at exactly the right moment and wrote itself so completely into my heart that I could recite the words for many years. I yearned for that evoked Utopia, I ached for a time when no-one would go hungry, where no-one would be afraid, a place where all would be welcome and treated equally. I had no idea that the poem, ‘Hellas’ by Shelley, celebrated the breaking free from Turkish rule by the Greeks.
I searched for fiction that matched my imaginings; Star Wars was too sandy, Star Trek too silly, other sci-fi on TV had too much drama and peril. There was a children’s show seemingly set in the future, on an island looking like Santorini, maybe that had some hints of what I wanted? Then there were the novels of Iain M Banks, the Culture was so very near to what I was looking for, especially sections set on Orbitals. Did I read the train section of ‘The Player of Games’ around that time? Maybe I did. I caught glimpses of the gleaming future I sought, but never found it.
The search for Utopia fills me with hope and I see flashes of it out of the corner of my eye sometimes: ‘Too Like the Lightning’ by Ada Palmer, the ancient Earth of Tom Toner’s ‘The Promise of the Child’, moments and texts where someone else seems to have plugged into the same dream.
But I have also changed my understanding of what I’ve been looking for. No longer do I seek it exclusively in science fiction, now it creeps in at the edges of people’s lives, in described moments of peace and happiness. It is there when Knausgaard describes his childhood in Tromoya, it is there when Per Petterson writes of a moment of peace with a neighbour during ‘In the Wake’, it is there in Elena Ferrante, and it is there when I write my own past down.
Perhaps that is what Utopia is, an idealised remembering of that which is gone? When I was 15 I didn’t have enough past to look back on, to be nostalgic for, so I looked to an imagined future. Now, with the future a grim nightmare straight out of a news report you’d see on a screen in the background in a dystopian Hollywood movie, the past is that ideal.
In the late Eighties, I ached for the future, now the future is here I ache for the past. But I also hope for those glittering towers and a future where dreams come true.