The arrivals board at Beijing International Airport on 8 March lists Flight MH370 as cancelled. Photo: Getty
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The lost passengers of Flight MH370: why the modern world can’t cope with missing people

In a world where we expect everyone to be accounted for, missing people enter into the realm of fiction.

The passengers of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 exist. Somewhere on this earth, on an obscure stretch of land or deep under the sea, alive, or – as is now almost assured – dead, are 226 human beings and the vessel that carried them.

We live in an age of information that extends to the names, whereabouts, relationship statuses and latest culinary activities of anyone in the world we choose to check up on. Whether a “check-in” is logged or a “pin” is dropped, we take it as a given that, should we want to find out what a person is up to at any given time (spouse, child, rogue employee), that information would be readily and satisfyingly available. We rely on a warped yet comforting sense of community.

This assumption, I believe, informs a worldview that is particular to the digital age: when I picture a person, I picture their surroundings. I can contextualise any friend or colleague in a particular place and at a particular activity because I have access, often to my annoyance (stop with those Starbucks selfies, friend-from-home), to a minute-to-minute account of what they’re up to.

So the inability to account for a person, regardless of the fact that we would in all likelihood never have crossed time-zones with them let alone become internet friends, creates a state of unease that reads like a glitch in the matrix. Raised on algorithms, spreadsheets and screens – on systems that by their nature Do Not Make Mistakes – the absence of a planeload of people from the record creates a disturbance that extends beyond the human concern for the Malaysian Airlines passengers and their families. The rate of rolling coverage, and the pervasiveness of whispered back-and-forths on the streets of London at least, have far exceeded the meagre material from which they are extrapolating. We have been nudged to look again at the people around us and the millions more out of sight. Something of the safe “togetherness” we assume of technology has fractured, and we are irked.

To picture the passengers is to picture the abstract: a black hole of information into which pour a million possible geographical coordinates and a million possible fates. It is a wall of data, growing with every examination until we must accept it as an “unknown unknown”. We are inclined to resolve the contradictory, to unpick paradoxes, so that we feel safe in a predictable world that follows law and logic.

It is impossible to find a context for the passengers. Faced with both the unravelling of our networked world and with the paradox of the people who, like 226 Schrödinger’s cats, occupy some hazy territory between life and death, we have moved them unconsciously into the realm of fiction. No longer associated with a time or a place, they have been resolved into the iconic and the mystical. They join the ranks of Amelia Earhart and latterly, Madeleine McCann, likely to spawn column inches indefinitely.

It is a frustrating and impotent answer, a cognitive sticking-plaster that serves as much to tease as to satisfy. The missing are of such interest because they embody everything that contradicts our understanding of the world while not, apparently, existing at all. We cannot envisage something that ceases to be. Matter is conserved, we are told in school – things cannot be conjured and neither can they vanish. The world is of finite material.

So when all evidence points to the impossible, when Earhart’s and McCann’s and possibly flight MH370’s trails run cold, we are backed into a corner without reason or conclusion. And like morbid magicians who have pulled off the unimaginable, the missing move into legend. But while they are committed to memory and immortalised in print, the real events go unreported, and what is most likely the simple, agonising story of a premature end, is buried, like the individuals, in mystique.

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser