Too Much 20th Century – A Jerry Cornelius Story

With thanks to Michael Moorcock for creating some of my favorite characters and letting people like me play with them.

Jerry had been chilling in between sessions at the coal-face, passing the time by reacquainting himself with variations on G on his Stratocaster when the call came in. He put his axe to one side and trotted off to the Time Centre to find out what the deal was. Alvarez looked tense. He spun up an image on a graphical chronograph. It looked like a Mandelbrot that had picked up too much green along the way.

“I’ve got a job for you Jerry.”

“Fill me in.”

“You need to go and run an errand in 200-. Someone is pissing something nasty into the time stream just up from there and it’s been making the fish swim in circles. See what you can do to get things flowing smoothly again.”

200-. Jerry wasn’t convinced he liked the sound of it. Jerry hadn’t personally noticed the millennium (and he had been reliably informed that it hadn’t mattered very much) but it still didn’t feel like home. However far separated he was from what he still liked to consider his home time and place and however much closer that might be to it, it was still alien territory and hostile to boot. He still thought of himself as a child of the 20th century.

“What exactly are you wanting me to do?”

“Who. Here’s the list.”

Jerry took the paper. It was folded and sealed. He went to open it.

“Crack it when you’re on the ground.”

“Any other tips?”

“I’m sure you’ll figure it out as you go along.”

“Roger wilco. Wind me up and watch me go…”

“Take it easy, Jerry, you’ve got details to absorb.”

The swirling lights of the temporal chromatograph were apparently meant to be significant to him, but as his briefing got more detailed Jerry let his mind wander and relied on his unconsciousness to catch the important details.

Join us in our continuing retrospective

Jerry got himself suited and booted, armed up and ready to go. His needles were prepped with neuro-toxins that could drop anything with a pulse pretty much immediately and he had arranged for his Duesenberg to be on the ground. He slipped comfortably into the garb of his familiar role. Even with plenty of options available, Cuban heels, car coat, ruffled shirt and flares was still the most comfortable get-up. Shades weren’t vital but they fitted the mood of an assassin on the prowl. Feeling synched to the groove, he headed downstairs to the waiting podule and got on the road.

As soon as he hit the ground, Jerry cracked the seal and unfolded the paper Alvarez had given him. He gave his eyes and brain time to ingest and digest the text. What was the link? There would be a link, even if it was purely through the association to him. What did it all mean? He checked the charge on his needler. Fully stocked and his darts were loaded to administer the deepest of fixes. He would have to be careful if there were going to be enough to go round. With a list like this he wouldn’t want to miss anyone out.

Relive our golden ages

The elderly woman in the blue dress tweaked the throttle on her bike, letting it ease its way over forty. She didn’t want to push it much harder than that. The A23 was one of the better roads left but it wasn’t all that great. Word had reached her that a local election had been called in Brighton and she was heading there to make her presence felt.

She had passed Gandhi on the way. He was heading in the opposite direction, to London. Doubtless up to something. The two had met a few times and had never exactly seen eye to eye. While she was in favour of some freedom of thought and expression, his perpetual insistence in wearing nothing but a dirty loin-cloth wasn’t something that she could approve of. Whatever else had changed, the English climate still called for more substantial clothing. Fortunately their paths didn’t tend to cross that often. He tended more towards the mod hangouts, she the rocker. Even if he resisted the flared sharpness of the suits of his compatriots, he rode his scooter with élan. She hadn’t disagreed with him over the things that everyone had expected her to. As far as she was concerned India could have independence if it wanted it. It would obviously be far cheaper to let them be free and work for a living than to try to subjugate them. The East India Company had already trousered most of the wedge long before she had come along anyway. Fortunately it had all been set in irrevocable motion before her time, so all she had to do was smile politely and let it happen. It seemed pretty irrelevant now anyway. India was as liberated as it wanted to be, knocked back down to an earlier state, the remnants of the Raj so decayed as to seem a natural part of the firmament.

Devolution had been mostly involuntary. As the provinces reverted to earlier states, embracing the level of anti-Anglo savagery that they were most comfortable with it became initially impractical and gradually irrelevant to try and impose any kind of order on them. With the collapse of industry there was nothing left to gain tax revenues from, and with dwindling natural resources remaining there wasn’t a good reason to expend the vast amount of effort it would have required to get anything out of them. Let the ingrates sort out their own problems. If all they cared about was progressively degenerate tribal feudalism and subsistence economics then they were welcome to wallow in their respective mires. HRH’s representatives were better off retiring to safe distances and let them. Hadrian’s Wall had been considerably beefed up but the work was mostly for cosmetic effect.  Any major areas of value in England were far enough south of it to dissuade any Scots from bothering to mount raiding parties. There simply wasn’t enough to gain, especially when they had so much to occupy their collective minds and claymores with dealing with long remembered and now passionately cared about grievances with those who were much closer to home. HRH’s dominion may have diminished but the present climate made it hard to regret. It was hard enough to keep a semblances of control over what remained officially loyal.

The roads were pretty quiet and she had covered thirty miles before anyone tried to shoot at her. The locals that subsisted on the hardened dirty grey soil of the area still harboured grudges it seemed, and well they might. It didn’t matter really. She kept on riding. Even if they were too foolish to have regard for the scarcity of ammunition, she didn’t. Bullets had always been overpriced in the UK, however readily available they might be in the former colonies.

The action had already started on the beach when she arrived. A group of self-proclaimed gangsters were holed up in the ruins of the pier, passing the time by whooping and letting fly occasional staccato bursts of gunfire. They began a raucous rendition of God Save The Queen as she rode by, but it petered out after half a dozen lines. Fascist regime indeed. She could see Pinky leading the group, and gave him the usual two-fingers in salute. She revved the bike to get the extra burst of speed she needed to avoid the spray of bullets from his Tommy gun that were his response. They dug small holes in the road surface and ricocheted off to find their own destiny but missed her entirely.

She rode passed a lone Hell’s Angel, unmistakeable in his soiled leathers and denim colours. His bike was braced against the kerb and he was standing by a lamp-post, pissing.  She could se the puddle spreading across the pavement around his boots. He saw her and raised a fist, half in greeting, half in salute, without interrupting his flow. Normally they made the gesture with their right hand, but his was already full so he had used his left. She didn’t take offence. He had an old “One crown, one vote” badge on his lapel. She felt reassured by his sympathy; even if she knew their support was unreliable.

The beach itself was occupied by a diverse selection of gangs. She could see a group of second generation mods, gathered within the protective circle of their scooters. They were all singing along with the Kinks as the music trickled through heavy distortion out of the underpowered speakers of a portable stereo. Their Lola was heartfelt and without irony. That alone was enough to compel her to throw one of her last Mills bombs at them.  The grenade flew through the air and exploded above them, sending a flare of shrapnel down over them. She didn’t wait to see what damage it caused.

She left the bike propped up against the railings that ran along the edge of the promenade. She wasn’t particularly worried about it being stolen. It had no sentimental value and she could probably get hold of a new set of wheels without too much trouble if she needed.


She turned, instinctively about to rebuke the speaker for addressing her with such over-familiarity. It was a tall, slender, lugubrious individual. He was leaning against a lamp-post, dressed in flared trousers, a short jacket and an open-necked shirt with frills. He had longer hair than she approved of, but that was nothing unusual these days, and wore mirror lensed aviators. There was a shiny long-barrelled pistol of an unfamiliar type dangling loosely from his right hand.

“What year do you think it is, your Maj?”

“196-.” She replied simply, suppressing the urge to criticize his continuing impertinence.

“How long’s that been going on for?”

The question didn’t make sense. It had always been 196-.

“It’s meant to be 200- by now, your Maj and I think we both know that its time for a paradigm shift.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I think we both know where change has got to start.”

She started to reach for her weapon, a 1930s Purdey over-and-under with a walnut stock, it was a fine weapon and in excellent condition. Her finger tightened on the trigger. After decades of shooting birds and clays dropping this insolent pup would be no challenge.

“Sorry, your Maj, but this is just getting too fucked up.” Jerry raised his gun, squeezed the trigger and pumped a load of tiny needles into her. A warm glow spread through her and she felt a great burden lifted from her shoulders as the curtain fell on a reign that had started well enough, but had really overstayed its welcome. Her shotgun hit the ground. The jolt jerked the action and discharged a load of birdshot into the already crumbling façade of a nearby building. Jerry didn’t mind. The whole Victoriana hangover thing made him feel queasy. He checked the list. He was making good progress. His attention was caught by the dissonant tinkling of an ice-cream van that was working its way up and down the front, doing a good trade. Jerry patted his pockets for currency but came out a little light. Some delicate frisking of the former monarch later and he had scored a substantial pile of change from a satisfyingly heavy purse that he emptied into his own pocket. When did she have to start carrying cash? He bought himself a 99 (with flake) and leaned on the railing, looking out over the beach. He checked his watches and felt confused but satisfied. Jerry finished his 99, crunching on the last of the slightly stale cone. He lit a cheroot extracted from the crest-emblazoned gold case that he had lifted along with the cash and proceeded to pass a banal interval aimlessly dumping the rest of the coins into the different machines in the arcades.

He had already taken care of Gandhi on the way down. It had been easy enough. A well placed stinger across the road had sent the little bastard flying into a tree at bone-shattering speed. However much the sheep might mourn, he had already done everything worthwhile that he ever could and had just been living off his reputation for years.

Una Persson shifted slightly in her position, lying prone on a rooftop overlooking the esplanade. She had her Steyr out and ready, the barrel supported on a bipod and the stock tucked tight into her shoulder. She had Jerry in her crosshairs and her finger on the trigger. The time-streams were all getting tangled up in this continuum. Something was doing a good job of fucking it up royally. Jerry had been given a thorough briefing on what was going on here but she doubted that much of it had stuck. He had to realise that he was part of the journey, not its destination. He was too close to being part of the problem to be its solution, but then that was true for most of them. Hopefully he would be able to get it together enough to finish the job, otherwise…

When was Britain greatest?

Jerry was mooching about and doing his thing when another relic caught his eye. What the Hell was Maggie doing here anyway? he wondered. She wasn’t on his list but he wasn’t one to waste an opportunity so he needled her on principle. The first volley was deflected by the iron-work in her corsetry but the second took her full in the face and dropped her like approval ratings on Black Wednesday. Despite and because of her usually deserved unpopularity she was surrounded by a pretty mean knot of guards but they weren’t fast enough to stop him from getting in the couple of shots he needed. He made himself scarce as fast as possible to avoid having to explain his radical statement to her minders.

Vera was a pretty easy hit. A big bunch of flowers and a smile had been enough to get her attention after one of her interminable shows. The old crone was clearly still randy and one of her boys had checked him out and left him alone with her in her opulent dressing room.

Before he had the chance to improvise compliments about her work she was out of her dress and down to her stockings and a slip that had enough bristle in its edging to make his approach seem like climbing a barbed wire fence. He didn’t have to fuck her to complete the plan and it hadn’t been something that he had originally intended, but curiosity had got the better of him. He had seen the frisking by her boys coming and left his metal in the car. He had plenty of options anyway; a garrotte of florist wire, ramming the flowers so far down her throat she choked, strangling her with one of her heavy-duty stockings. When he had done his bit for his country, he grabbed one of the velvet cushions from the bed and finished the job. He dressed quickly afterwards and left her cooling in a puddle on the top-sheet.

“Sorry Vera, it’s nothing personal. You’ve had your day and it’s time to clear the decks.”

Most of her generation had the sense to be dead already. Some of them just needed a less tactful encouragement to get out of the way. He left her to rot in peace and got back to work. Three down so far and there was no point in slowing down. He had to conserve momentum if he was going to get this job done. With no immediate end to his mission in sight Jerry would have precious little time to relax, not properly anyway. He just hoped he had enough needles to go around. It wasn’t so much that the list was long; it was the breadth of it that was giving him grief.

The 60s are so 1997

Two weeks later and fifty-eight needles in and he was starting to feel run-down by it all. It wasn’t guilt that was bothering him, just fatigue. Jerry couldn’t exactly find it in himself to feel guilty about most of the hits he was having to do on this trip. Most of them had had it coming for a very long time. The trouble was that England was like a hydra. He could cut off as many heads as he liked, but for each one, two more would grow to replace them and each was more gruesome than the last.

He was doing a job in the East End and had taken a break to recompose himself, scavenging through the remnants of a pub he had been compelled to fire-bomb in the hope of finding anything worth drinking when Una Persson found him. She stood, silhouetted in the doorway. Una had a short bob held in place by lots of product, calf boots, jeans and a boho-chic mini-dress. The ensemble was topped off by a cord beret that spoke of Twiggy and accessorised with a .203 Steyr Elite mounted with a 10X scope that was slung off one shoulder.

“How much do you think this is achieving?” She was holding a charred fragment of the pub’s sign in one hand. The paint was scorched and blistered, defacing the image of the former monarch.

“It’s a start, isn’t it?”

“Brute force isn’t the answer here, surely you can see that.”

Jerry didn’t want to. Despite feeling weary he had been enjoying bringing his plans to fruition.

“They enjoy this kind of thing too much for it to possibly have any kind of useful effect.”

She had been watching him from a distance for some time now. Until now she hadn’t felt the need to interfere in his efforts but the time for it was now here. “Get to the point Jerry. You’re here for a reason.”

“A reason?” Jerry’s question was indistinct. He found a bottle that had managed to survive the blast intact. The front of the cigarette machine had taken it pretty hard but the contents hadn’t been burned for too long, just hot enough to flash-fry without overdoing it. She did have a point though, he was just wasting time. He needed to get to the point, figure out what was at the heart of the matter and do something about it.

“The age needs to find its own identity; it can’t just be a parasite on those that have come before.”

“Out with the old and in with the new?”

“You’ve got to move with the times, Jerry.”

“But most of this stuff is absolute bollocks.”

“That’s not the point, it’s modern. The continuum has to exist in a state of flux if it is to persist. Stasis will corrupt it to the point of complete collapse, you know that.” Una chucked away the chunk of sign and headed for the door. “You can’t just hang onto your perceived halcyon era and keep it anymore than they can. If time isn’t going forwards, it’s spiralling downwards.”

A man for all times

He got back on the road. Two miles later and his Duesenberg had started pumping the Beatles out through its speakers. It hadn’t even needed him to press any buttons to make it happen. Habit had been enough. Shit. He had to stop living in the past too. Change or die. He shouldn’t have even gone for the Duesenberg. It had too many memories attached to it. He couldn’t afford to be nostalgic. He had wedged the accelerator with a conveniently placed brick and watched it drive off the bank to land, belly up, in the murky waters of the Thames. It was time to move on. Time to move on. Nostalgia could be deadly. He lit a smoke and hoofed it towards his next target.

Jerry caught a glimpse of his reflection in the sun-light bouncing off a shop window. Cuban heels, flares, ruffled shirt, black car coat. So far, so good. It was an outfit that had served him well so far, but then it had always been dated, hadn’t it? He needed to ditch his threads. They weren’t helping to dispel the last century kind of vibe. Maybe retro was now modern. Maybe it was post-modern. He wasn’t sure that he knew what the difference was or even if there was one. Maybe it didn’t matter. He couldn’t try to change the world if he couldn’t change himself, could he? It all had to go. What was the chance of finding something a bit more up to date in this neck of the woods? Probably not great.  Fuck it, if anyone asked, he could always just say that he was being ironic…

“Timeless fashions” the sign said. It was worth a look. Nothing dated more easily than the modern. A non-descript black suit, white shirt, black loafers. It wasn’t an outfit that leapt out and grabbed him, but then it didn’t scream of a time at him, and that’s what he needed right now. Aviators didn’t date, did they? He wasn’t sure but outside it was bright enough to make him risk it.

There wasn’t a huge amount of the 21st century to latch onto here. Endless revivals and retro-chic had done a brutal number on most 21st centuries with the 60s, 70s and 80s bouncing back at people in endless distortions, but this was something especially brutal.

Having ditched his traditional wheels into the drink Jerry needed to find an alternative. He was able to liberate an aging chopped hog from a colours-clad biker who should have had the presence of mind to not let Jerry get the drop on him so easily. It didn’t exactly represent something fundamentally British, but it had wheels and would get him where he wanted faster than walking so it was worth a go. Jerry fished his headphones out from an inside pocket of his jacket and put them in his ears. He tapped play on his iPod, and let random guide him. The opening bars of Bob Dylan singing “The Times They Are A-Changin’” started to reverberate in his head. His recently ingrained aversion to the 20th century flared up and his finger moved for the skip but he resisted. Some things were surely timeless but right now that didn’t matter, he needed to force contemporary into his skull even if it killed him. An iPod load of Lily Allen, the Ting-Tings and Kings of Leon wasn’t really the scene that he aspired to, but it was contemporary and at least it was disposable. Five minutes from now and he could forget it had ever happened. Longevity was a thing of the past. He kicked the stand clear and got the hog rolling. The sky-line wasn’t familiar but the A-roads still made enough sense for him to go on.

Where did he need to go? Uptown made as much sense as anywhere right now. He had to get to the centre if he was going to kill this hydra. He had already crossed off all the major anomalies on his list but it didn’t feel like he was getting closer to finishing the job. The trouble was, his briefing had only been able to single out the indigenous trouble-makers. Interlopers wouldn’t have been picked up by it. He’d have to sniff them out for himself. He fiddled with his watches and started to see a familiar pattern in their movements. This was more like it.

A crowd gathering in a park caught his attention. He propped the hog against a kerb and got off to investigate. Cliff was standing in the back of a jeep, singing into a megaphone. He was surrounded by a tight circle of guards with their guns pointing out from him to dissuade any passer-by from objecting to his performance. Jerry couldn’t remember him being mentioned at all in the briefing but that didn’t mean that he hadn’t been, so better safe than sorry, he reasoned. The trouble lay in getting an angle. Plugging away at him from a rooftop with his needle gun probably wasn’t gonna achieve much. He’d be able to find a way to get the bastard if he tried, but what was the point? What had Una told him? Cliff was just another distraction. Fuck him, history would get him soon enough. He got clear of the crowd and got back on his hog.

What is the spirit of the age?

Arch-bishop Beesley was holding court on Speakers’ Corner. The established church had got more militant as its position had become more precarious. In some ways that wasn’t a bad thing. Luke-warm faith got more heated as the barbarians started to beat more vigorously at the gate. Beesley wielded his Winchester pump as happily as his crook these days, though the strength and number of his minders was enough to make sure he didn’t have to.

“Why let ourselves slip forward into languorous decrepitude when we can push back, wilfully, and strive to reclaim our greatest glories? The twenty-first century will see the decline and collapse of everything the British Empire brought about and stood for. But we do not have to sit back and let this happen.”

It was the kind of poisonous bullshit he thrived on. The British Empire was as gone as ever. Nobody gave a fuck about anything that wasn’t happening in their country any more. Isolationism was the new way.

The one positive about that was the lack of American piss in the British pond here. Apparently the reductionism to earlier modes had pretty much wiped the USA off the map. The cultural depth and integrity of its collective psyche just hadn’t been able to take the pressure. A couple of relapses into prohibition and McCarthyism and a quick civil war had been enough to implode the Union. The country itself was probably happier now. The buffalo population was on the rise and progressive cultural reversion had left the remaining Native Americans feeling a lot happier.

It wasn’t much of a leap to blame Beesley for all this, but then, wasn’t he more likely to just be playing a hand that someone else had dealt him? That made more sense. Somebody else was playing croupier. Jerry took a quick tour of the area and took stock of the opposition. Beesley had a good few large gentleman in dull suits standing around him, making sure nobody in the crowd could get too close to him. They were nothing special. There was also someone else, someone who was making an effort to keep inconspicuous and avoid being noticed. It was his brother, Frank. That was more like it. He would love a setup like this. Jerry found a convenient statue to lurk behind that had a good angle on the pair and got ready to do his thing.

Jerry had scored a Martini Henry that had seen better days and a handful of short-case .450 ammunition from one of the Kentish tribes folk that had wanted to object to his travelling through their fiefdom and ended up with needles in his face. He hadn’t had an immediate need for the carbine but had hung onto it just in case. Now he just had to find his shot with it. He would have been nervous about firing the antique if it hadn’t been in such obviously working order when its previous owner had tried to shoot him with it.

Jerry went for Frank first, knowing his ability to disappear as soon as things turned violent. The shot took Frank’s trilby off and a fair chunk of brain and skull went with it. Beesley turned and started panicking when he heard the shot. Jerry got another round chambered and fired. It burst a hole in Beesley’s capacious ecumenical attire but it wasn’t enough. Jerry took a breath and gave himself as long as he could to line the next shot up right. The suited heavies were pulling their Stens from out of hiding places and starting to blat them in his direction. Hopefully they wouldn’t have the range to reach him. The next shot lodged itself in the middle of Beesley’s large face. With the bishop down and pooling blood out onto the cracked tarmac of Hyde Park Jerry felt the beginnings of hope about this job. He turned at a click. Una was behind him, revolver in hand. She had the drop on him and he knew it.

“Well done, Jerry, we’re almost done here.”

“Thanks, what’s next?”

“I’d say it’s back to hanging on in quiet desperation. That’s still the English way, isn’t it?” Jerry didn’t seem particularly surprised when Una emptied two chambers from her 686 model Smith and Wesson .38 into his skull. His brain continued to leak as she dragged him through the park. There was a singularity nearby waiting for his corpse and she placed him in it gently, trusting in circumstance to take him where it needed him and he needed it.

He was dropped off at the Time Centre where Alvarez had the chance to ask him a couple of quick questions about the situation before Jerry became too disorientated to be useful, and he was sent off in the direction of his bed and a bottle of Bells to pull himself together for the next trip.

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