Tuesday, December 11, 2012


My friend Nick at Ghost Of A Flea posted this today. I'm not sure whether he put it up out of a strange nostalgia for his British roots or to illustrate something about culture - and especially children's culture - in the '70s that no one who didn't live through the era will understand. I'll just have to assume both.

First of all, I watch a lot of British television, new and old, and I never cease to be impressed by the evocative grimness of it all. I grew up with that pastoral image of England you get from Beatrix Potter and Sherlock Holmes, all country homes, sweeping Georgian streetscapes and rural hedgerows, fusty vicars and filling but unspectacular food, which had everything to do with Mrs. Miniver, probably, and nothing to do with my actual family's experience of working class life in Victorian Birkenhead and Lanarkshire. If I'd tried to describe my crumpets and Mrs. Tiggywinkle image of England to my grandfather, he probably would have shook his head and chuckled, before giving me a loving but sound clout about my ears to try and dislodge the stupid.

If only took a few years of Monty Python and On The Buses and Connections to replace it with a different image, of small dingy flats full of nasty furniture where families lived in each others' laps, in tightly-packed streets full of fusty little cars (more Cortina than MGB), where the TV and movies beamed exactly the same dreary picture back at you, and the cramped little kitchen had a rancid odour of boil-in-the-bag peas and omnipresent tea.

If granddad didn't have the wit to get out, it's probably the life I'd have lived. I might be hyperbolizing, but look at the clip above and tell me how you think an American remake might have reimagined that little nuclear family unit stewing in their technologically-induced enervation. If you're thinking a spacious suburban ranch house on sweeping crescents under a beaming sun, you were there too, weren't you? I didn't grow up in the Brady Bunch house, but even in a working class suburb laid out between the wars, the idea that middle class folks would live in such cramped surroundings always made the famous British phlegm seem like another way of describing a fetish for competitive dreariness. Also, phlegm - eww.

The stuff of nightmares.
More striking is the fact that this was a science fiction show aimed at children. To be sure, there's a testiness to British kids' shows that's impossible to ignore - I imagine that the Japanese translation for Thomas The Tank Engine is Island Of Mutant Machines In Bad Mood - but even in the long doldrums of the mid-period Cold War, this Luddite fantasy makes you wonder what sort of agenda the people behind it had in mind, besides creating a future audience for Peter Watkins' The War Game.

The series was based on a trilogy of novels by Peter Dickinson published under Penguin's respected Puffin imprint, which put it in the hands of young readers who, if I am following the logic closely, would have their comprehension of the world they would shortly enter as adults immeasurably enhanced by understanding it to be filled with sinister technology that tormented adults and children alike. "Of course, the children are the future," you imagine people saying, "which is why it's important that we make them literally paralyzed with fear at the sight of a Magimix."

It wasn't without its long-term effects, and a glowing fan page for The Changes online is part of bilderberg.org, an anti-globalization website rife with the usual sort of simmering paranoia that licenses grumbling losers to justify their inability to thrive as just another example of "how the whole fuckin' system is rigged, man. Let me tell you about the connection between Bohemian Grove and the IMF..." It's worth remembering things like The Changes, obscure as they might be now, as an example of how culture creates the conditions for the future, and resonates far beyond the scant days, weeks, or months when it's considered current.

I don't know if Peter Dickinson or the producers of the BBC TV series had any kind of agenda in mind beyond that magpie culture worker's attraction to trends and bright shards of the zeitgeist. I do know that Dickinson began writing his trilogy in 1968, when the counterculture's Aquarian dreams of agrarian utopias were at their most fashionable, and the TV series was filmed in 1973 and aired in 1975, by which point everyone knew what a commune was and even the healthiest inner cities looked dingy and worn-out, even if they weren't in Detroit-like terminal decline.

Adults like to scare themselves with doomsday scenarios, if only to imagine how they might overcome or avert them, but we pass them down to our children as fables. Children like to be scared, so they're always a ready market for our stories. I'm still not sure what kind of fables we're telling kids today, but down in the trenches of parenthood it seems to have something to do with superheroes and supernatural eruptions into teen sex lives. I don't know what effect that will have on our kids, but I do know that a diet of dystopia back in the '70s made my generation prone to despair and often supine in the face of threats to our livelihoods and lifestyles.

We love the technology that's transformed the dreary and dogeared world of our childhoods into a sci-fi novel, but we hold it anxiously and constantly fret about what we'd do if it all stopped working. Which is why Wired magazine devotes a page to doomsday prepping for every twenty it spends celebrating the latest phone or the potential of 3D printers. It's a strange fact of culture that the one we live in was in some part, large or small, created by people who couldn't have imagined what it would be like.

UPDATE: Nick links back, with some further thoughts that I find striking:
"Marx was a technological determinist. What most Marxists - and even the most far out of today's self-styled libertarians - have failed to notice is that socialism happened more or less on time and as predicted; it's just that it happened under FDR in the United States and not, first, in London as anticipated."

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