Nigel Planer: Bourne To Run

(This article first published in Fortean Times No 416, dated March 2022)

BOURNE TO RUN

What has transported actor and writer Nigel Planer to the South-East London of 1910? Why, Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance, of course. Oh, and his forthcoming novel, Jeremiah Bourne in Time. Bob Fischer opens the doors of temporal perception and discusses a welter of Edwardian Forteana with the man himself

“I’ve always found the concept of morphic resonance fascinating,” says Nigel Planer, thoughtfully. “I read Rupert Sheldrake’s earliest books in the 1980s, and thought the idea would be a useful one to expand upon.”

Sheldrake’s theories still make for interesting reading. For the uninitiated, morphic resonance is the proposition that collective memory is inherited via “morphic fields” that dictate behaviour [1]. It’s the reason, suggests Sheldrake, that birds fly south for the winter and humans celebrate Thanksgiving and Passover every year: “The past becomes present through a kind of resonance with those who have performed the same rituals before” [2]. It’s a concept that provides the inspiration for Nigel’s forthcoming novel, Jeremiah Bourne in Time. By mentally attuning himself to the echoes of the past, the titular hero – a 21st century London teenager – is able to transport himself back to 1910, where he begins to unravel the family mystery surrounding his absent mother.

“I wanted to remain vague about the actual process of time travel,” continues Nigel. “So I picked on morphic resonance as the vaguest thing I could think of! I tend to lose interest when you’ve got a machine that time travels, because the science goes out of the window. But with a concept like morphic resonance, even though it’s derided as being pseudoscience, it’s something that’s still on the boundaries of scientific explanation. Which is great for fiction. It makes things just that little bit more believable. Whereas if you’re going to make a great big statement – ‘Oh yes! Every time I put on this magic sock, I find myself in medieval Italy!’ – that requires a different stretch of the imagination.

“Some scientists would say that morphic resonance isn’t empirically tested and peer-group reviewed. But, in writing a science fiction book, you don’t give a toss about that. What I wanted was that feeling of: ‘Oh… could this almost be real?’ That opens up a huge realm.”

I’m speaking with Nigel not through the power of morphic resonance, but via a fizzling Zoom connection on a damp Tuesday afternoon. I tell him he’s been an unlikely influence on my musical tastes. His 1984 cover of Traffic’s trippy classic ‘Hole In My Shoe’ – recorded in character as Neil, the hippie student from groundbreaking BBC sitcom The Young Ones – undoubtedly sparked my lifelong interest in all things psychedelic. He seems delighted about this, and confirms his own fascination with the decidedly far-out extends into Jeremiah Bourne In Time: in particular, the book’s theories about our collective perception of time.

“You know when you can’t see something that you’ve lost, but then suddenly you do?” he ponders. “It’s been on the table all along, but you just couldn’t see it? Well… which bit of your mind didn’t see it, and how did it then open up so you did? Maybe the past is like that. Maybe it’s like Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception [3]… you know, his theory that we’re only using a tiny portion of our minds, and psychedelic drugs will open up the rest. Is there also a portion of our minds that’s blanking out the possibility of time folding in half?”

Although Jeremiah travels in time, he remains in the same fixed point in space: the very real Blackfriars Road in South-East London. The resonance of the city’s rich history – and a battered photo Jeremiah finds of an Edwardian séance taking place in the basement of his own house – provides the impetus for the youngster’s inaugural journey to 1910. The echoes of the capital’s past are felt strongly by Nigel himself.

“I live in central London, and on every corner you’ll see a stone, a statue or a carving that reminds you the city has been here for thousands of years,” he explains. “Yesterday I was walking through an outdoor shopping mall, and there was a Roman carving in the floor. It’s been there for two thousand years, and they weren’t allowed to move it, so they built around it. And that sends me back. It’s an extraordinary feeling to have your imagination affected in that way. And the idea of that feeling becoming so powerful that time travel actually happens… I find that really exciting.  

“And I have some fun with it. So if you travel in time, but you’re on a ladder that didn’t exist back then… you fall! And if you’re on the Jubilee line, but then travel back to before it was built, you’ll bury yourself alive. Whereas on the Northern Line, you’ll be OK right back to 1890. It’s a very pedantic view of time travel, which is good for laughs.”

The book also takes an intriguing view of the intellectual schisms present in 1910, particularly those between hard-edged scientific opinion and rather more Fortean viewpoints. The Edwardian Londoners with a leaning towards the latter frequently mistake Jeremiah’s mobile phone for a example of the necromantic “black glass” – an Aztec “spirit mirror” kept by Elizabeth I’s court astronomer, Dr John Dee [4]. The free-thinking nature of middle class Edwardian society, for good and ill, is clearly one that interests Nigel.

“Before the First World War, there were people like Edward Carpenter, walking everywhere in his rope sandals,” he nods. “He was one of the Bloomsbury Set… he was gay and he lived in Derbyshire with the son of a Sheffield train driver [5]. And he held a set of beliefs that feel much more like today’s New Age or woke beliefs. So there were people like him, Madame Blavatsky, the Goncourt set in France [6], and then a lot of spiritualist thinkers. And out of that movement came some really sound things and some really bonkers things. Vegetarianism and New Soil science: people like Leonard Knight Elmhirst, who went to Santiniketan to do New Soil research with Rabindranath Tagore [7]. It’s a fascinating period”.

But not without its darker side. In 1910, Jeremiah Bourne encounters Henry Davenant Hythe, a scientist who believes the key to a better society lies in eugenics, and the selective breeding of human beings without what he views as the baser instincts.

“It’s not a part of our history that’s often puffed up, because some of the greatest minds were also eugenicists,” nods Nigel. “In the book, there’s a bit about George Bernard Shaw, the great socialist thinker… but see what he actually said. That we have to clear people out eugenically so we have the correct race of socialist beings. [8] And you think ‘Hang on a minute…’”

The book has already enjoyed an audio adaptation, released as a four-episode drama by Big Finish Productions in 2018. It’s a rollicking, high-tempo version with an all-star cast including Celia Imrie, Tim McInnerny, Sophie Thompson and Planer himself – alongside his fellow graduate of The Young Ones’ household, Christopher Ryan. The book, he explains, already existed at this point, and has a harder science fiction feel. It’s the first part of a trilogy, where Jeremiah’s family mysteries will be explored in greater detail. “Time travel is an ability his mum also has,” says Nigel. “So Jeremiah has indeed inherited a collective memory.”

All of this clearly suggests an abiding interest in the Fortean, and he confirms being an sporadic FT reader. Has he, I wonder, ever dabbled with the occult in earnest? Jeremiah’s 1910 accomplice, the indomitable Phyllis Stokes, is an enthusiastic spiritualist. Has Nigel occasionally taken his place around a ouija board, too?

“As a kid, yeah,” he smiles. “And I studied astrology a bit in my youth. And I once consulted a medium who was quite impressive. She said ‘I can see your spirit guide… he’s sitting beside you, right now’. She said she’d been able to do this since she was a kid, when she was found in graveyards talking to people. My reaction to that is still cynical. However, there were other things she said that made me think there was more to it than I was capable of understanding. She described my spirit guide to me… and it wasn’t irrefutable, but the being she described was a thing I’d had a recurrent nightmare about since I was a kid. And she explained to me that I was wrong to be frightened. He was there to help when needed. And I don’t know if it was bollocks or not, but it was dead cool…”

Blimey. What did he look like? He pauses.

“He looked remarkably like a cartoon wizard from a Terry Pratchett book!” he laughs. “And Terry Pratchett is a bit of a hero of mine. He’ll take an area like Egyptian religion, or ancient Greek philosophy, and he’s done his research. He knows what they said. He’s taking the piss, but he’s also showing you all the different sides of the arguments they made: what was at stake, and why.”

“So, by being in a fantasy world, he shows you much more about our world than at first seems apparent”.

Call it morphic resonance if you like, but it’s an approach that Nigel has clearly also taken to Jeremiah Bourne In Time. The first volume of the trilogy is crowdfunding now at unbound.com/books/jeremiah-bourne-in-time.


FOOTNOTES:

[1] The theory of morphic resonance is first posited by Sheldrake in A New Science of Life (Stone Hill Foundation Publishing, 1981) and expanded upon in The Presence of the Past (Harper Collins, 1988)

[2] https://www.sheldrake.org/research/morphic-resonance/introduction

[3] First published in 1954 by Chatton and Windus

[4] Dr John Dee’s spirit mirror is still held by the British Museum. Or is it actually the glass from Jeremiah’s mobile phone?

[5] The relationship between Edward Carpenter and George Merrill inspired E.M. Forster’s novel, Maurice (Hodder Arnold, 1971). Forster began writing the book in 1913, but it remained unpublished until after his death.

[6] Edmond De Goncourt (1822-1896): writer, critic and founder of the Académie Goncourt literay organisation. 

[7] In 1921, agronomist Elmhirst travelled to West Bengal to become the secretary of Indian poet, philosopher and social reformer Tagore. Together they set up the Institute of Rural Reconstructionm designed to encourage the autonomy and self-sufficiency of local villages. 

[8] “The only fundamental and possible Socialism is the socialization of the selective breeding of Man” – from The Revolutionist’s Handbook and Pocket Companion, an appendix to Shaw’s 1905 play Man and Superman, written in character as the play’s protagonist John Tanner. Writing from his own perspective, Shaw was even more forthright in the preface to his 1933 play On The Rocks: “What we are confronted with now is a growing perception that if we desire a certain type of civilization and culture we must exterminate the sort of people who do not fit into it”.

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