Helen Lane

There was a very popular book in the early 1970s called Supernature, by Lyall Watson. It documented uncanny natural phenomena and, among other things, told the story of Helen Lane, whose real name was Henrietta Lacks, an American woman who died in 1951 of cancer. Some of her cells were isolated and cultured in the laboratory after her death, and to everyone’s surprise proved far more vigorous than normal, surviving even to this day, and, according to Watson, blithely overriding most anticontamination procedures in order to take over other cultures and even turn up in laboratories in different continents.

In 1981 we wrote a song about all this and called it Helen Lane. Looking on wiki, I see that a couple of other songs have come along since, plus a lot more recognition of the HeLa cell line, as it’s called, and of course recognition of Henrietta herself for providing the cells that have gone on to be used in all sorts of medical research. I hope no-one thinks we’re jumping on a bandwagon, but at the same time, if anyone’s about to put together a compilation of great HeLa songs, perhaps they’ll give this one a listen.


Sacred Cow

You have lots of ideological arguments when you’re a student, but my main memory of them from the late 1970s was not the particular ideologies we argued about but the fact that you could express an idea, or refer to something, in one of two ways: either by avoiding buzzwords and clichés as much as possible (which usually meant finding a new way to talk about familiar and often contentious ideas so as to forestall a long and boring conditioned reflex) or…by not avoiding them, and sitting out the consequences.

I can’t actually remember any examples of buzzwords from that time, only their inflammatory effect on a discussion. But it had to be a discussion about something massively important to at least one party for the effect to happen. When it comes to sacred cows, it never pays to take the bull by the horns. Find some udder way…

A band in instalments

There’s a short story by the science-fiction writer James Tiptree Jr. (less well-known as Alice Bradley Sheldon) called The Man Who Walked Home. The man in the title, after a cataclysmic particle-accelerator mishap, was flung several million years into the future. It’s hard to say in what physical form he survived, but from his point of view he was alive and trying to make his way back home.

Several decades later, after Earth’s population had somewhat renewed itself, a few people finally happened to be in the neighbourhood where the figure of the man made his annual one-second-long apparition as a flailing giant accompanied by thunder.

Several more decades passed, during which a cult slowly grew up around the yearly event, and it dawned on the faithful that the man was actually speaking. A couple of centuries later, technology had recovered enough to provide a primitive sound-and-vision recorder and the long task of assembling the man’s message in agonisingly short bursts had begun. Scarcely a couple of decades more had elapsed when some of the elders realised that they were witnessing the man’s message backwards.

At long last, they could start to make some sense out of the strange sounds they’d been hearing.

The Boo-Hooray Theory are slightly more organised than that – their gigs are played forwards and last considerably more than a second.