When I was at school, one of my favourite fantasies was that of being a telepath. I loved being able to carry on secret conversations in my head during school lessons, while seeming to have my nose in a maths book. And, since nothing is lonelier than being the only telepath in the world, I created a group of people to be telepathic with – inspired no doubt by stories where this really happened, such as John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids and ITV’s The Tomorrow People.
Being able to speak with other people effortlessly across great distances was appealing in itself, but the fact that it was a secret and exclusive ability was just as important. This was brought home to me a few months ago, when I was watching a DVD of The Tomorrow People. In one scene, a Tomorrow Person was exploring the enemy hideout, but was simultaneously in telepathic contact with his friends back in TP headquarters. Watching this, it suddenly hit me that what had been a magical skill in the 1970s had now been rendered commonplace and dull – because, well, everyone has a mobile, don’t they? And what is telepathy but a swish hands-free mobile with unlimited credit? I could barely watch it after that.
But why? What led to my disenchantment? A few explanations occur to me.
Simple snobbery. As hinted above, it may be that magic keeps its allure only when it’s the preserve of the few – and when it’s a secret. It seems to be standard practice that children in books who discover they have supernatural powers will decide that it's necessary to keep it from the mugg– er, ordinary people. Sometimes the excuses they give for doing so are flimsy in the extreme. Do they really believe they would be a) experimented on by the government or b) put on display in a travelling circus, if people discovered their precious ability to turn into shrews, or make balsa wood taste of cheese? Not for a minute: they just want to be in a Sekrit Club.
Habituation. I still feel a thrill every time I take off in an aeroplane, and can’t understand people who profess themselves bored at the prospect of living out one of mankind's most ancient dreams. But apparently it does happen. Maybe I’m more vulnerable to this in the area of mobile technology?
The puncturing of the mystery. I'm no techie, but if I put my mind to it I could probably get quite close to understanding how mobile phones work. Does knowing that there’s a scientific explanation detract from the glamour? Shouldn’t it rather add to it – being evidence that even the most commonplace things, like gravity and electrons, can add up to something pretty darned marvellous?
I don’t know how far any of these explanations really hit the mark; but another of my regular daydreams is quite useful here. In this one I imagine what would happen should I be plonked down in, say, Restoration London. These daydreams usually start off quite well, with people being amazed and impressed by my tales of computers, televisions and the like, and Oohing at the luminous hands on my wristwatch. However, I soon find that I’m quite unable to explain how any of these inventions actually work. I usually end up testifying to a committee of the Royal Society and making a pretty poor fist of it: “Er, well, there’s this stuff called electricity, see, and it flows down the wire – no, Sir Christopher, not like water down a pipe, more like – well, anyway, it comes out as pictures...”
Robert Hooke in particular is not impressed.
It’s much more satisfactory to have someone from the past – Shakespeare, perhaps, or Isaac Newton – find themselves stuck in my present, and to act as a tour guide. That way I can bask in the reflected glory of several centuries of technological innovation. Not only that, by being seen through their eyes it even regains something of the lustre lost through familiarity. You should see Newton’s reaction (equal and opposite) to the sensation of taking off in a Ryanair flight to Dublin! Best of all, if he comes at me with one of those awkward questions about how exactly jet engines are put together, I have my answer ready and waiting.
“Google it, Sir Isaac,” I tell him loftily. “Just google it.”