Glimpsed: The Irresistible Lure of the Ephemeral

This is ‘book’ 11 in the series The Impossible Books of Keith Kahn-Harris. The cover was created by Gus Condeixa. For more on this series, read the introduction here.

What sort of book is it?

A cross between an extended meditative essay and a full-on stunt book. Whether that can work is anyone’s guess.

How likely is it that I will write the book?

Some of the themes and ‘quests’ in the book might be explored at some point. But I’m unlikely to write the whole thing (and I doubt anyone would publish it anyway)

Am I happy for anyone else to write the book?

I wouldn’t be happy. Good job it’s not going to happen.

Synopsis

Right up until my late 30s, I was occasionally troubled by an odd memory from childhood. I’m watching TV somewhere between the ages of about 4–8 during the 1970s. The programme is about a kind of school sports day. Kids are competing in a number of challenges on and besides a railway line. A number of children are killed by trains in each event, but the sports day continues while the growing numbers of bloody dead bodies are laid by the side of the tracks. I half-remember one line of dialogue: ‘The tunnel is a very cold place’, a boy says in the voiceover as kids in shorts and t-shirts run into it.

Could this possibly have happened? Could there have been a TV documentary about a deadly sports day on a railway? Or was it a drama? And why did no one stop the sports day once kids were getting killed? Surely this was a dream! Why were my memories so vivid though? And if it was a dream, what does it say about my childhood imagination?

Well it wasn’t a dream.

A few years ago, I stumbled onto the programme somewhere on the internet. It’s called The Finishing Line, and was produced as a public safety film for children by British Transport Films in 1977. Subsequently banned, it apparently achieved a certain underground notoriety (read the full story here). It’s still incredibly disturbing, even to my 40-something self. As with everything else, it’s on youtube. Take a look if you have a strong stomach:

Many of us who grew up in the pre-internet era have had experiences such as this — when half-remembered, half-understood memories are retrospectively clarified online. Sometimes this is a joyful process, sometimes a disturbing one. While to some extent the subsequent explanation of past experiences is a process common to all historical eras and all ages, in our online world there is ever more potential for memories to be revisited and misunderstandings cleared up.

Perhaps the internet has awakened a previously-unrealisable desire to investigate the ephemera that clutters up our past memories — it certainly has awakened that desire in me. But is something lost when the past becomes retrievable? Conversely, what happens then when the quest to put flesh on memory’s bones comes up against the limitations of online memory? What happens when the ephemeral has to stay fleeting for eternity?

Glimpsed is a book about the inability to let memories go. It’s about the lure of research. And it’s about the limitations and possibilities of the brave new online world.

Through a series of ‘quests’ to investigate some of my stray encounters and memories, Glimpsed seeks to come to terms with the fragility and resilience of memory in a world where nothing seems to be forgotten. The quests are deliberately inconsequential — none of them involve quasi-traumatic memories such as The Finishing Line — but the issues that they raise are profound.

Quests will include online and offline journeys to find:

- Rush Johnson: A drunk Texan businessman whom I met at Heathrow airport when I was 6 and who gave me his card — which I still have.

- Keith Herman: Singer whose radically mediocre album ‘Good News Day’ I won at a funfair in Denmark when I was 9.

- [first name forgotten] Oxley: A kid who joined our class for one week when I was 12 and then left, as mysteriously as he had arrived.

- The Wolfman in the Cambridge University Library: A guy in plus fours and voluminous whiskers who wandered the corridors of the building in the early 1990s.

- The Nobbers From Hell: An okayish goth act with a ridiculous name whom I saw at a sparsely-attended pub gig in 1990 after failing to get in to see a secret show by REM.

There’s a little bit of online evidence for the existence of some of these, but none at all for the others. Even those for whom traces remain haven’t left much information to go on. So there is much to do if I want their full stories. And when I do find out what it was that I glimpsed in youth, what happens then? Will my world be permanently disenchanted or permanently enriched?

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this Impossible Book, why not browse through the rest of the series here?

Also, please recommend and share it on Medium or elsewhere. I would love to read your comments too.

Many thanks!

Finally, here’s an alternative cover: