(A touch of Futurism: Umberto Boccioni, Elasticity (1912): Palazzo Brera, Milan, Italy)
‘What interest have all men in common?’ Ezra Pound asked in January 1912. ‘What forces play upon them all? Money and sex and tomorrow.’ Of the last, he remarked further: ‘And tomorrow? We none of us agree about.’ We can at least agree about that non-agreement: even the meaning of ‘tomorrow’ is uncertain in a lot of contexts – literally ‘ tomorrow’, the very next day (though tomorrow, they say, never comes)? Or more along the lines of Macbeth’s ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’?
The first version of tomorrow is the seventieth anniversary of the death of George Orwell and I notice I don’t have a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four in the house; nor am I sure how or when that disappearance happened. I remember bits of it quite well (as do most of its readers, I suspect), including the cheery suggestion that a feasible image of the future is of a face being stamped on forever; and the Party slogan, ‘Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’
I noticed too that Steven Poole’s ‘Word of the Week’ was ‘xenobot’—that prefix from the Greek, xenos: strange foreign—from the recent announcement that scientists had ‘created the first living robots by building machines using stem cells taken from African frogs’:
In Jeanette Winterson’s novel, Frankissstein: A Love Story, Dr Stein ‘goes to the window, watches the buses up and down Oxford Road, carrying their cargo of people who aren’t thinking about the future beyond teatime or tomorrow or their next holiday or whatever fear is the fear that waits for them in the dark. It’s raining. That’s what most people are thinking about. The size of our lives hems us in but protects us too. Our little lives, small enough to make it through the gap under the door as it closes.’
(Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell © National Portrait Gallery, London)
Thinking about the future—and thinking about the past’s thinking about the future—is the mainspring of Winterson’s novel (though it contains much else): looking back to Mary Shelley’s conception and writing of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818), looking at the present’s—and the likely future’s—relationship with artificial intelligence, robotics and cryonics. But for most of those not actively engaged in futures—more than I first thought: financial, political, medical, urban planning, electronics, writers of science fiction and how many more?—Dr Stein is probably not far off. Not always the fear that waits for us in the dark but mainly pretty small, and likely short-term too. Longer term, death and taxes are said to be the only certainties. In latter years, unless you have a pretty hefty pension package, you may not pay much tax at all. Death you can’t outwit, outlast or buy off—although, needless to say, this is not a truth universally acknowledged.
It’s hard enough to think about the present just now, and increasingly difficult to remember parts of the past; it must surely take a particular sort of mind to open itself to possible future trends and developments and make constructive guesses or predictions. The doyen of Ford Madox Ford scholarship, Professor Max Saunders, has just published a new book called Imagined Futures: Writing, Science, and Modernity in the To-Day and To-Morrow Book Series, 1923-31 (Oxford University Press). That series ran to more than one and fifty titles and the list of its authors boasted some very celebrated names, J. B. S. Haldane, Robert Graves, André Maurois, Vera Brittain among them. Saunders has written informative pieces about the series on the Oxford University Press blog and The Conversation website:
Now the crowdfunding publisher Unbound plans to produce a new series, the first five of which will be: The Future of Serious Art by Bidisha, The Future of British Politics by Frankie Boyle, The Future of Men by Grace Campbell, The Future of Stuff by Vinay Gupta and The Future of Antiquity by Sir Richard Lambert. If you want to pledge your support, there are various options, from £40 (plus shipping) for all five paperbacks to more expensive signed or limited editions.
Where might one begin to define, predict or even locate the future? ‘Home is where one starts from’, T. S. Eliot remarks, reasonably enough in East Coker—but earlier, at the very outset of Burnt Norton, plunges straight in: ‘Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future/ And time future contained in time past.’ Julia Blackburn writes, of the small party held to celebrate the completion of her book: ‘I say that I hope everyone will like the book if it is eventually translated into Italian and that being here in the valley has made me think that time past and time present and time future is like a vast landscape and we are walking through it on a tracery of thin paths.’ The scholar Roger Lewis wrote in an introduction to Rudyard Kipling’s Rewards and Fairies that Kipling ‘has seen the future, and it is the past in masquerade.’ Joseph Conrad, in Heart of Darkness, has his master mariner Marlow observe that: ‘The mind of man is capable of anything – because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.’
Does our understanding of the past or our grasp of the present better equip us for a stab at the future? ‘Strange how, when you are young, you owe no duty to the future; but when you are old, you owe a duty to the past. To the one thing you can’t change.’ So the narrator in Julian Barnes’ The Only Story. But of course, in one sense, we change the past all the time, rewriting, revising, editing. We augment, elide, censor and, increasingly, bits fall out. And, if we sometimes mourn the past, the losses, disappearances, things never repeated which were meant to be—sometimes we also mourn the future, what we, as individuals, as a country, as a species, will not have or see or know again. ‘In our time’, Guy Davenport’s Adriaan van Hovendaal writes in his journal, ‘we long not for a lost past but for a lost future.’
I have a faint memory of reading, or reading about, a fiction concerned with precisely that: a sort of lost property office stacked not with packages, umbrellas and raincoats but with futures that became unmoored. But I may have imagined it.
 Ezra Pound, ‘I Gather the Limbs of Osiris. IX: On Technique’, Selected Prose 1909-1965, edited by William Cookson (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 32.
 Jeanette Winterson, Frankissstein: A Love Story (London: Jonathan Cape, 2019), 160.
 T. S. Eliot, ’Four Quartets’, in The Complete Poems and Plays (London: Faber and Faber, 1969), 182, 171.
 Julia Blackburn, Thin Paths: Journeys In and Around an Italian Mountain Village (London: Jonathan Cape, 2011), 248.
 Roger Lewis, ‘Introduction’, Rudyard Kipling, Rewards and Fairies (1910; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1987), 10.
 Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness with The Congo Diary, edited by Robert Hampson (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 63.
 Julian Barnes, The Only Story (London: Jonathan Cape, 2018), 168.
 Guy Davenport, Apples and Pears (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), 63.