Milteer’s Rooms

2002

He looked upon these mechanisms as others looked upon dinosaur bones and the Dead Sea Scrolls. In a similar sense, he could draw patterns of complex evolution from them. These were to him primordial seams in base rock, compressed forests which could be decoded into lives and days and embryo thoughts of mankind’s thoughts. He would talk of the return valve and the steam condenser as other talked of some vital stage in the development of mystical theology. Indeed, he saw them as such…

There are characters met in early life who are figures at that gateway of experience when even paving-stones and sorrows are full of fire and magic. These shapes of dawn stamp the lore of an Age upon the young brow, never to be removed. They are remembered through shortness of breath, the first pills on the bedside table, and the flattening curves of compromised inspirations.

Such a figure to me was one George Milteer, and everyone in the early 1970s knew 56 Regent Terrace, W11, as Milteer’s Rooms. Few in this ancient corner of Notting Hill called it a house. Fewer still called it Milteer’s home. The phrase was always pronounced as if it had a capital R, and the two words smacked of long ago: of small dance-halls, perhaps, or of hired halls above the Co-Op with sawdust floors for rural weddings and the permanent smell of fresh ale drawn from wood. Still deeper in time, certain layers and angles of Milteer’s home (leaning corners, uneven roof, sagging lintel-stones, twisted doorframes) might well have known the old Kensington racecourse, the gypsy market, and the place where the Irish once kept pigs by the Grand Union Canal. Perched on this ridge of cultural twilight, miraculously preserved from the bulldozers of the modern givers of soup in bowls, Milteer had developed his all-absorbing electromechanical interests for nearly fifty years. Since he never threw anything away, the broken promises of different layers of light-industrial time lay around his house and life like bumps on the graph of a lie detector.

To see Milteer’s Rooms was to see the early Product Age beginning to run out of steam with its broken promises, its tired mechanisms, half-dreams, and cultural disappointments. Like the nervous theories of the Age again, here and there amidst lathe-chucks, bicycle wheels, and welding sets disorderly piles of paper showed Milteer’s half-finished education. Scribbles showed constantly interrupted struggles with strands of electromechanical theories, attempts at interpretation and explanations that, like the theories of the Age again, burst apart on hitting brick-walls made of anomalies, inconsistencies, and contradictions.

Milteer and long-suffering wife, Doris, looked like some archetypal essence of many of the devices that surrounded them. The man himself had an axel-grease complexion shading from yellow to dun, and his chin was a cogwheel from a medieval water mill. His wife Doris had body-energies like old pistons and hot metal and when she spoke it was all fire in stone-age earth-ovens. If wind happened to penetrate the draughty Rooms in the right direction, both exuded an air of burnt straw, the tang of hot morning sunlight on caked river-mud. Smelling of centuries, they slept by dismantled carburettors, stripped gearboxes in oil-baths, and abandoned record-players and electrical devices piled to the ceiling; no doubt they made love by the big console valve-radio, whose dial still pointed to the BBC Light Programme; they ate by a radiator a foot in width, built for heating an aerodrome hangar, and they bathed (when they bathed) in a tin bath by a 1930s refrigerator framed in polished oak whose repaired motor sounded like seventy-eight  rpm records of the old Coronation Scot steaming into King’s Cross.

In the middle distance beyond lay several models of the first and last British attempt at a personal computer on which even letter-writing was a daunting adventure and whose quixotic tape-drives and primitive and faulty software had long ago disappeared into a new phase of the late Twentieth-Century British Mystery Cycle. In the far distance there were “personal” telephone answering machines as big as dog-kennels, and “mobile” phones as big as shoeboxes. Littering the stained floor were the remains of many forlorn CB radios which had once offered greater hopes of “community” communication than had the early computers. These offers of power and transcendence also joined the dismembered limbs of early sound-to-light disco systems, boxes of psychedelic oil-wheel filters, and the guts of several jukeboxes. Occasionally, Milteer would give a lantern-slide show to moody, resentful groups from youth-clubs and sullen troops of Scouts and Guides, slightly baffled at these, what Doris termed “videos”, of long ago.

I first came to the Rooms as a member of a Girl Guide troop. Amused and terrified both, we nudged, kicked and giggled as we ate Doris’s hamburgers, cooked on a “genuine 1935 hotplate,” and hoped we would not have to risk the blackened cracked porcelain of the ancient candle-lit cellar-lavatory which, said a proud Doris, had been “made” from genuine pieces of old railway conveniences “which had survived two wars.”

Often smirking and nudging one another and perched on two rows of old tram-seats, we risked Milteer’s mild annoyance and Doris’s pained eyes as we held back laughter at Milteer’s carefully inserting glass slides into something which looked like the cabin of a model steam locomotive. After interminable tinkering the wide base of a cone of light would tint a white-washed wall with jerky sepia and we would see Napoleon III in his carriage, followed in Hand-Insertion-Time by the coronation of Victoria, and scenes from canal, railway, and bridge-building of old Empire. It was baffling, bizarre; it contrasted with our clean homes and our perfect clips, and had all the terror of genuine imagination. This inexpensive nonsense was my first disturbing contact with the deep past. I didn’t know at the time that I was never to forget that the giving of knowledge did not necessarily depend upon resources, money, and qualifications.

As I grew and changed, the Rooms did not. As I took down the posters of long-haired pretty guitar-boys from my bedroom walls, the Rooms miraculously still persisted, the only item of interest remaining in acres of cleaned-up and corporate-rationalised boredom. As an eighteen-year-old doing my A-Levels I still visited the Rooms occasionally, though now as an enthusiastic science student. Of course I began to see it all with older eyes. To me Milteer became a kind of electromechanical Faust, akin to the first two multimedia heroes of my reading at that time: the techno-Pope in Baron Corvo’s Hadrian IV, and the very first seventy-eight rpm disc-jockey of 1914, Hans Castorp in Mann’s The Magic Mountain.  

Though he refused to sell anything genuine enquirers were allowed to wander the Rooms at will. I remember encountering dreams old and new stored in the Milteers’ kitchen, bathroom, cellar, garage. Here were the bones of many and various fallen idols which, it appeared, had promised anything in order to be born from some menagerie of unconscious forms. I always liked to suppose that within the forms of various era-gods a switch had been pressed, a wheel cranked, an influence activated, and thus the idols had spoken to Milteer and his devoted wife as they had spoken from the Age of the steam-engine, of Hero of Alexandria, to 19th century clockwork mouths, and with almost the same message. The gods muttered of the efficiency that could be achieved by this, the money which could be made by that, the entertainment, enlightenment, not to say education or improvement which could be obtained by structured thought based on scientific principles. Now dusty and yearning for spare parts on makeshift benches and shelves, still the structured half-forms of fabricated automata preached old industrial parables of what a purchaser could do with this, what a customer could do with that. I suppose that the same voices again produced the panoramic pantomime described in Balzac’s Le Père Goriot, Jacquet-Droz’s musical android, or de Vaucanson’s air-propelled singing duck of the Eighteenth Century, or the “six-transistor” radio “integrated” into an ironing-board-cum “creasing system” which was one of Milteer’s most precious possessions.

The old grease-devil tried to seduce me a couple of times but he was easily diverted to explaining the mysteries of military radio-equipment, gyroscopes, crude robotics, hot-valve biasing, relays, and push-pull amplifiers. In every sense Milteer was the last Solutionist. Thirty years and mountains of devices later, he still preached the great message of positive mechanical improvement, a mythological tale if ever there was one, long gone with the nuclear power stations and the cures for cancer; vanished with the Space Race, the cartridge-player, communism, and the democratic dream of positive improvement through the application of social-scientific principles. But still this great shaggy Mancunian bear preached on of wonders to come, devices to extend human years indefinitely, of starships, possible time machines, somewhat daunting passenger-carrying rockets to Australia, and the inevitable moon-colonies, full of scientific boy-scouts and their push-pull toys.

To myself then as a budding science student such technological and scientific inspirations always smacked of the marvellous if only because we, like all budding technologists, assumed that one thing would naturally follow from another. Many before us had also believed this and, surrounded by cursing wives, curious children, annoyed neighbours, envious friends, and mocking and suspicious relatives, men like Milteer had tinkered. They made improvements which were not improvements; they reasoned with facts which were not factual; they discovered truths which were a maze of often sneering deceptions. Inspired, still they soldered, cut, and drilled, and hammered, well on into the snows of the 20th Century until Laboratories and Corporations largely institutionalised their tinkering, and sheds and attics with their nests of wires and resistors soldered to cocoa and tobacco-tins were extremely hard to find and the lore of winding your own medium-wave aerial-coil became almost as one with the mystique of rigging Elizabethan Men O’ War.

As each system bled vital consumer heat, and lost ground on some high frontier of advertising, Milteer’s rooms were a perfect mirror to Nature as that catastrophe of the marvellous whose tragic beauty lured humans on to madness and death. Never was there a time like ours, so full of devices. They will be found eventually, I suppose, pressed into the Earth’s crust like an infinity of tree-fossils and molluscs, and probably burned for fuel. Twenty years on from the days of Milteer’s Rooms, I felt that the out-advertised half-shadows of generations of fallen consumer expectancies had fled to be received by Milteer and his devoted and silent wife like wounded animals seeking sanctuary. The pair presided over the dissolution of lost and fallen empires of past buying-frenzies, each intellectual geography of which represented some fallen attempt at imposing order, some outgrown experiment in establishing new levels of communication and transcendent delight. And somehow these wounded decorations of the first generations of mass-culture limped their way to Milteer and, with Doris handing him tools as if she were a nurse at an operating table, he amputated and operated. If all failed, they both became those dark figures who usher all and everything to the waters of oblivion.

But though this was an inspiring time for me, the Rooms also generated the first serious doubts of my youth. I remember that beside a wrapped loaf which poured its curling slices over open cans of pork and beans, a gas-ring, and festering bottles of milk, there stood a small letter-press platen just by a cannibalised 1920s DC-voltage vacuum-cleaner. The press proudly announced on a riveted brass plate that it could “run off a light bulb.” This was a phrase that summed up all the last consumer-promises of 1960s attics, squats, and demos. Many more such vacant promises lay around. A pile of pre-war copies of The Clock Maker and Amateur Engineer supported a de-gutted IBM golfball composer-typewriter whose 1-kilobyte magnetic cards extended and lifted attic-hopes for the generation of the Gestetner offset press.

I  began to realise that by the time a useful technology arrived for those (ever few) with thinking sap in their veins, the advertising horizons had burst like soap bubbles and all attic hopes had fled, hunted by monthly payments and bills for supplies, spare parts, maintenance, and repair. It was as if that enemy of all attic-hopes, the Corporation, was throwing out clouds of skunk-gas to blind, stifle, dazzle, and mislead all such inspirations. When a suitable technology finally arrived for the subversive trestle-table thoughts present in eternal youth, the Corporations were ahead. They left a wake of tumescent temptations for the scaled-down versions of the new liberating device, which of course would further enable an aspect of this to be realised, or open the possibilities of that to be created.

I could not help getting the impression that here, in Milteer’s Rooms, was a technological Day preparing itself neatly and tidily for Night. I saw this Day as a phase of knowledge itself, being the carefully prepared body of a dead-warrior for Death. Like a Pharaoh this Warrior, great in his time, was surrounding himself with items which he had known in life and which would accompany him through the transformations of soul which was not Western death, that Woolworth’s contraption of stained-mattress agony, but a passage through to a transfer of spirit. Through these dead and dying machines I was beginning to grasp something of what was meant by the progress of a soul as a body of knowledge moving to the next set of paradigms. This disturbed me if only that it suggested strongly that physical death was more complex than ever we thought. It meant that even in death the whole corpus of responsibilities and indeed destinies, although transformed utterly, were all still quite intact.

Throughout their life, the Milteers aroused great affection. People from all over the world sent them items worth small fortunes. These various odd bits of ancient technological apparatus were kept in a secure room and one day he gave me the key and, with a rare twinkle in his eye, told me to have a look around. I unlocked the door and entered a family tomb. There on a bench was a Hertz coil, a Lodge Coherer, and an early Crooks X-Ray tube. To examine these dusty items with Mozart playing in the off-stage distance was to look into the very heart of the early death and resurrection of my society, my coming profession, and indeed myself. Somehow I had helped to make these almost completely forgotten foundations of our culture. To touch them was to lovingly fondle offspring. To look at them, it was to dive deep and see the misty, dark, massive artificial pillars upon which the land above rested. All the attics of all lost innocence were here, and beyond. There were some early Marconi transformers and a single bright-emitter Forest triode valve but it all seemed to stop there—round about 1906. Beyond this was someone else’s country, some other gnome who was guarding the later and more complex developments. I often smiled to think that perhaps there might be an attic in Glasgow or New York full of stuff from a much later date, glimpsed by young enthusiasts such as myself, intertwining human and mechanical love with the promises of big summers yet to come.

There were some items in this room I could hardly look at. There was a priceless Faraday coil, a bobbin of unevenly wound rust which made my mind spin. I was told there were some even earlier Leyden jars and Leclanche cells in boxes under the benches, but they defeated me. I couldn’t look. Faraday was deep enough. Going deeper, I would be overcome with the remembering of such forgotten hosts as would completely devastate any person alive. I would be looking at myself in death. I never stayed long in that place, with its smells of ancient chemicals. The entire place was self-hypnosis, self-analysis—though exactly who or what exiled part of me was receiving this treatment I did not know.

I had made these experiments, I had burned my fingers with chemicals and, almost jumping with old shocks, I shut the door on hands that reached from graves and I didn’t go into that room again.

That night there was moonlight on my pillow, and I heard voices calling. Whole families of ideas, utterly lost without me, were crying out like dying tribes in deserts: save us, save, save us….

When last I saw the Rooms I watched an ageing Milteer make strong mugs of tea with slightly arthritic hands, and felt guilty. By then I was myself working on the latest leap-on-quick-or-miss-the-trick promise to that bunch of cast-out souls who try to guard something called the Imagination. I was a programmer working on that new ideological niche called cyberspace which subversives hoped to pull over them like a camouflaging virus and make invisible their journey to infinity. As if sensing such thoughts one day, Milteer placed his mug on an upturned engine block and looked upon me rather proudly, as one of his pupils who’d gone to university and completed a degree in electronics.

“What’re you working on, Sheila?”

“Internet software.”

“Oh. Trouble is I mug up digital, but when I wake in the morning it’s all gone.”

He glanced at my legs but he was too old to make a move and fell silent. I remembered I had mentioned a post-industrial thing. This was always nemesis to Milteer; the Internet had almost no physical existence, had infinite size, and universal accessibility. The supporting hardware was almost equally invisible. Anything that Milteer could not file, hammer, or cut belonged to another tribe way up-river whose distant drums, I suppose, always induced the kind of chastising dose of cultural fear I detected running across his features.

Getting up very slowly, he disappeared into the complex interior and, knowing that there was no telling if I’d see him again that day, I leafed through some pre-war radio magazines piled high by Milteer’s last acquisition, the last British tape-recorder, a 1960 Leevers-Rich MK V, long cast off by BBC World Service in 1975. It was as if this nuts-and-bolts machine was peering over my very shoulder as I read of past wonders on the consumer horizons of yesteryear. What hopes there were: the ability to cover all the Arctic radio regions from your fireside chair just by twiddling a knob! Listen to the world from Berlin to Vladivostok! Instant access to Music, Talks, News & Information, Add-0ns, Up-Dates, Up-Grades, all available in kit form with future possibilities up to thirty Megahertz! And don’t forget your pliers, drill-stand, soldering iron, and hole-punches, and of course! the Stanley one-pound hammer.

Milteer reappeared, his mid-sentence breaking my thoughts of the sheds, lofts, aerials, transformers, and chassis-cutters of long ago and far away.

“Gears on this cassette-mechanism. Look at them. Bloody plastic. We don’t like ourselves, do we?”

Like ourselves? My university had not conditioned me for these sudden jumps from mechanism to the metaphysics of the intangible. Little women and men with little lower-middle-class thoughts had almost convinced me that the world as hell was just as they were: predictable, mundane, and conformist. Milteer had a rare quality in an age of bland TV: he stank of sulphur. Somehow he was part of the ghost in the machines around him, almost an ethereal form that was a link between the elemental and realisation. Even then I was sure he would come to no good. God-contact for human beings traditionally meant disaster.

“Like ourselves?”

“That’s what I said. Metaphor: phoney.”

“’Phoney?’ Of course.”

“Why? Telephone, that’s what that word means. We use an image of one of our greatest inventions as an expression of something false, deceptive, and nasty. Others in history were proud of what they made. Oak, marble, steel—all good things. Look at the word plastic: it means false, cheap, throwaway.”

These were the moments that always made me imagine the devices, instruments, and machines as grouping themselves around Milteer like cats round a warlock. They were his familiars and woe betide anyone who might offend the figure within their charmed circle: certainly I suspected they would be plagued by electromechanical failures to the ends of the Earth. Perhaps in that all devices have faces of a kind, they all have a life of their own. Within this life products mutated, cell-divided; they wrote, produced, and acted out their own political dramas in that they cost money, labour and resources. Which, of course, usually meant War and Death. Not that the machines cared. Almost independent of human beings, they could be imagined as the cast-off toys thrown away from regions of elementals, merely for a higher form of fun to see what we super-chimpanzees made of them. Humans were welcome to lap at what was left of their last ounce of transcendent spirit (fallen to mere spasms of consumer ecstasy) from these playthings before their function, role, and purpose then collapsed like a pricked balloon and a new season of advertising games began.

The perfect stage-magician, Milteer now appeared yet once more to explain the wiring of an ancient squirrel-cage electric motor, adding between descriptions of mutual inductance and bad capacitive effects:

“You see, post-industrial things are not authentic.”

As he disappeared yet again I imagined Milteer might already have gone mad in some up-river station in his mind, like a desperate colonist trying to bring systems of civilised moral reference into some kind of order. But order, like the native shapes and forms in the surrounding bush, would not stay still. Order might work for a time, like the promise of a tantalising strand of code which quickly tailed off. This meant that occasionally, as in Science generally, Milteer would get something working; like a bit of partially correct theory, it might fit for a time to stem the terror of the primeval forest. But inevitably the thing, whatever it was, would break down again for apparently no reason other than that its time was past.

It was my first stirring of cultural fear. The cerebral is a special breed. Far more rare than is ever supposed. He or she is an experiment. And such folk live in the knowledge that at any moment nature may drop them for some new, almost inconceivable game. Other types, with their minds equally full of projects to be abandoned, will go on playing the game, not knowing that it’s really all over. Not things ruined by war or natural disasters but by the mental weathering of boredom. They have been abandoned not by economic forces, those favourite theories beloved by the intelligentsia, but left merely as a toy is left. Finally comes one minute of a lost afternoon when a scrap of once-wondrous bright paint and wood is no more—its magic has fled, its multi-coloured tail perched on some new bough, seen in some new distance, a new preening toy-space which was not there before.

And a new game begins.

Now he appeared before me yet again, almost as if he hadn’t gone away in the first place.

“You see, what you do is a simulation.”

Like jesting Pilate, he did not stay for an answer, disappearing into a middle distance that to me in those days was more like a painting than a formal conscious projection. I was always baffled by the space-time in Milteer’s Rooms: the whole place seemed to contain many more things than could rationally be placed within the Cartesian co-ordinates of measuring-rods. Each appearance of Milteer would herald a new theme or some further episode of a previous one.

Back again, and this time he related a little more of the never-ending saga of the recovered Churchill tank, which was a British tale in infinite episodes. Milteer was obsessed with authenticity; he elevated his search for this phantom into a Grail-quest through haunted mythological regions. He was a member of a society Valour Preserved which restored ancient military vehicles. For five years this society had been restoring an early Churchill MK 2, having dug it out of a marsh on a derelict range in Essex where it had been buried for nearly sixty years. Though the impoverished Milteer never contributed financially, he was an expert in military engines and electrics up to 1947—after that he had a kind of complete mental block and knew nothing, though he had updated knowledge in civilian areas of the same period. Since he was born in 1950, many were the debates that ranged in my mind about personality and history as he carried on about authenticity which, in the society of Valour Preserved, was as cut-throat a debate as fly fishing, golf or collecting bird’s eggs. Members were severely disciplined for using the words “cosmetic,” “rebuild,” “fabrication,” or “restoration,” even less “simulation.” Every single atom added to complete this Churchill had to be from other Churchills built at the time this one was built in 1942. Milteer told me that a nice man who volunteered to cast new tracks from the original moulds had been suspended, as was another who dared to suggest fibreglass replicas of unobtainable external fittings. Not even official post-war modifications of parts were allowed in this game. Milteer even told of claims that grease, petrol, oil of the proper period were found but he also muttered darkly of cheating, since no-one had invented a really foolproof method of differentiating wartime petrol from peacetime fuel. In any case, he added, almost despairingly, modern petrol made the engine sound different. He told of another blasphemer who pointed out that since late twentieth-century air was in the beast, the rates of corrosion and cooling and hence the wear of piston-seatings, etc., would also be entirely different. Yet another Satan said that therefore a compromise would have to be made in that a fee-paying spectator might, in all fairness, might be asked to accept some inevitable falsehoods with the world of appearances.

After he had related this Grail-hunt Milteer fell strangely silent again, as if disappointed by the constant and inevitable appearance of something like sympathetic magic to pollute the search for a clean and noiseless system. In Valour Preserved, as in all searches for authenticity, ritual theatre was never very far away.

After another glance at my legs, he disappeared.

That was the last time I saw him. A few months after this Doris was found quite stiff beside a flanking pile of ex-army Norton motorbike engines. Soon after that Milteer headed north for some reason only to be heard of again through dark rumours of fires, staring eyes, revving engines heard at midnight, and much television interference in a Manchester suburb.

Many years later I caught a broken and grey Milteer shuffling along Oxford Street towards Marble Arch. Even down to the few wires protruding from his pockets Milteer, to me, was young Science grown old at the doorway of a new century, with its burden of new promises as deceptive as any he had met. Here, slowly shuffling through hordes of gaga tourists, was my first living contact with the primal. Without Milteer I might have been ordinary and even disastrously real. I offered him a meal and a drink, little enough for having saved my soul if not my life. But he no longer recognised me, took some money, and shuffled on, the light gone from his eyes as the life had gone from his lost machines. My eyes followed him for a while. I wondered about the direction he was trying to take. Perhaps he thought he was on his way back to his Rooms near the old Ladbroke Grove Gasworks again with some new device in his pocket to show Doris, who would warm an oil-bath and plunge it in as she would bathe a lost child. He might as well have tried getting back to the Irish and their pigs, the gypsy caravans, or the Hippodrome Racecourse, for the Rooms were now long gone, their entire contents bulldozed into a huge pit. This hole was filled with concrete to provide foundations for a new housing project that consisted largely of desolate box-like cells with a window, a door, and a television terminal in each room. I like to think of Milteer’s out-advertised authenticities being thoroughly subversive beneath these terrible modern deserts, their shapes dreaming up through the concrete to enter the sleep of the dwellers in the new estate who, in the early morning light, would wonder where on Earth the images of dreams came from, and what was their history.

After I saw him on Oxford Street I returned to a warm home and was soon at work with that generation of pretty marks on glowing screens that Milteer neither liked nor understood. I shuddered to imagine him hunched in some windblown West End doorway and perhaps dying one cold night in his sleep, still soldering dream circuits for magic engines and re-inventing every hour of the entire nineteenth Century, whose hard-wired truths would no doubt comfort him as his last nights came on fast by Marble Arch. Shoals of late-feeding consumers, shoals of shapes and tricks Milteer did not like or understand would, I suppose, glimpse a quivering bundle in a doorway. They would not know or care that this pile of live rags was almost certainly consoling itself with visions of lost certainties of vanished engine empires.

A week later in a local paper I read that Milteer had indeed gone beyond the simulated suns and moons of a culture whose new forms had cast him aside as easily as it had put away the horned gramophone, Sputnik 1, and the Zeppelin. Most are terrified by what some call the ultimate fact of death, but I saw through Milteer’s passing that I myself lived in that same consumer time in which death was mere obsolescence and that in the consumer dream, reincarnation, too, was perhaps a matter of re-advertising.

I opened the window and looked towards Milteer’s grave beyond the canal in Kensal Rise. The centuries of analogues and paradigms on my screen were singing to me, pulling back into the warmth that was life. I stayed with the chill at the window. How would I die? Would I die of new search engines grown as old as those engines Milteer and his beloved Doris washed down and prepared for the waters of forgetfulness? Would I die of programs grown old, switches not fast enough, games become old-fashioned, images no-one would buy, corny simulations a child would laugh at?

A wind profound as memory rose up along Ladbroke Grove, passing over Milteer’s vast sleep, close by the pits where were buried the old forms of his old dreams. I closed the window, buried my head in the great World Wide Web, and quite forgot the treacherous promises of its new shapes.

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