Other people’s nostalgia

If I could visit any place and time in history, among my choices would be Paris around 1960. It was a time of great societal tension, with events in colonial Algeria at the forefront of events. But it was the time of the nouvelle vague, the nouveau roman and jazz music, and it was a golden era for cycle racing.

I have a copy of Pilote magazine from April 1961, and a copy of Look-In from June 1981. 20 years and La Manche separate these publications, and while there are similarities, the differences are interesting.

The two magazines are not, it becomes clear, doing exactly the same thing, so this cannot be a direct comparison. Look-In was marketed specifically as the “Junior TV Times“, and to that end its features, weekly TV listings and (often superb) comic strips are ITV-centric, though with strong features on pop music and topical sporting events it was more than just a listings magazine. But as the product of a commercial broadcaster, at root it’s selling things.

Pilote is a more educational publication, a mash-up of Look-In‘s strips and World of Knowledge or Look and Learn‘s historical and scientific features, and is therefore far more Reithian (or whatever the French equivalent is) in it’s outlook. It reflects the post-war optimism: many of the features are on expanding horizons (the space race1, futuristic car designs, the spread of the American railroad in the 1860s). There’s a two-page illustrated retelling of the death of Charles the Bold (Charles le Téméraire), and a colour spread across the centre pages detailing the Zeebrugge Raid in April 1918. Outside the femmes fatale or damsels in distress of the comic strips, I’m not sure there are any females, though.

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The adverts are by and large for edifying things such as Caran d’Ache pencils2; stamps; a map of Europe with stick-on flags; cameras and watches. There’s a puzzle page with chess problems and spot-the-difference. But to leaven this somewhat worthy mixture there are comics, as only continental Europe can do them.

For, if Pilote is known outwith the Francophone world, it’s as the birthplace of Asterix the Gaul. I love Asterix: I did when I was a kid, and now my son reads the books I enjoy them all over again, getting so many jokes and references that went over my 10-year-old head. They’re funny and clever and beautifully drawn.

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Not Asterix

Alas, the creative team of Goscinny and Uderzo were between adventures in my copy. Their other contribution – Jehan Soupolet (also known as Jehan Pistolet) a pirate story whose Uderzo artwork is far sparser and rougher than his lovingly detailed work for Asterix – is some consolation, but evidently behind the scenes they were working on Asterix and the Goths, serialisation of which would begin the following month. Goscinny also illustrates Tanguy et Laverdure, an (I assume) exciting air force pilot adventure series.

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Away from comic strips, Goscinny’s droll Petit Nicolas stories (with thumbnails by Sempé), whose translations into English I enjoyed as a child, is one of the serialised stories along with “Alamo”, a cowboy tale: cowboys were hugely popular in the 50s and 60s, in France no less than the Anglophone world. But that was before we realised that the Indians were not, perhaps, the baddies after all…

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Asterix wasn’t the reason I bought this issue, though: the cover star Rik Van Looy was.

Who? Why?

Another love of mine is the cycling culture of Belgium. Flanders (the northern, Dutch-speaking part) is obsessed with bikes and bike racing. The greatest cyclist ever is a Belgian, Eddy Merckx3. But before Merckx, one of the sport’s biggest stars was another Belgian, Van Looy: “The Emperor of Herentals”. I saw this copy on ebay and wanted to a taste of the contemporary coverage of Van Looy’s career; a period artefact.

Van Looy, a stocky sprinter who therefore lacked the physiology that would allow him to compete with the best in the high mountains, never won the Tour de France but, crucially, is still the only man to have won every major one-day “classic” race. He was world champion three times, and the Pilote cover shows him resplendent in the world champion’s rainbow jersey. It was the photo that attracted me: the faded colour and the texture of the image so evocative of the early 1960s.

The photo is slightly misleading, though: I expected a major interview with the Emperor, but instead there’s a report on his recent Paris-Roubaix victory and a quick recap of his career. With a reference which dates the magazine perfectly, Van Looy is described as “the H-bomb of cycling”. The sport was a big draw in France at the time4, and at least two other Pilote covers from 1961 show famous cyclists, so his appearance on the cover was clearly a big draw. Presciently, another Belgian is the other feature on the sports page, where a long international career is (correctly) predicted for the 17-year-old footballer Paul Van Himst, who would play for the Red Devils until 1974.

There are no doubt dozens of references that fly over my head because of cultural differences (and my limited French). I’m sure Pilote triggers all sorts of nostalgic memories in a certain demographic of French baby-boomers, in the way Look-In does for me, as I’ve mentioned before. Nostalgia is fed by the recovered memory of ephemera such as these magazines.

This particular copy of Look-In is from June 1981. Technological advances are no doubt partly responsible for the greater use of colour and higher production values than Pilote (though the paper Look-In is printed on is flimsier).

Despite this, the headline sounds a weary note – “James Bond is back – again!” – as if pitying poor old Roger Moore having to creak his eyebrow into gear once more in For Your Eyes Only. The promised “colour feature” amounts to an extended promo piece, with some photos and a list of all the previous Bond films to date. A cut-out-and-blu-tac-to-your-wall (and I did) “Collect-a-Page” later in the issue has Moore as its focus, and I remember being stunned at the time to learn that he was 52.

Elsewhere, there are plenty of comic strips. First up is The Elvis Story, mercifully only a page long and while beautifully illustrated, as I mentioned here, quite how much the King would resonate with a readership keen for Toyah, Adam and the Ants, and Spandau Ballet is unclear. Worzel Gummidge’s hapless adventures get a two-page b&w spread, as does the period drama Smuggler, in which buckles are swashed and swash is buckled.

CHiPS and (my favourite) Buck Rogers both get the colour treatment. Surely IPC or whoever owns the rights could release a compendium of these strips: the old Daily Express James Bond, Modesty Blaise, etc. have all been compiled, and The Beatles Story from Look-In was itself smartly repackaged recently (see link above). Some of the strips lasted only a few months and so probably don’t merit a stand-alone volume each, but a Look-In comic compilation would certainly sell to a certain demographic (me).

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There are competitions – conspicuous by their absence from Pilote, and no doubt reflecting the commercial background of Look-In – and reader celebrity photos, fan club information, factoids and quizzes. There’s even a recipe for scones. The feel is a snappier publication geared to shorter attention spans than Pilote. Pilote‘s age target was 10-15, and I suspect Look-In‘s was slightly younger (I was 7 in 1981 but I suspect it was aimed at 9-13 or so).

As for sport, Wimbledon gets the 4-page centre feature, with a hero/villain piece about John McEnroe and a brief history of the tournament. I remember a copy which previewed the Milk Race, which would have been my first exposure to cycle racing. It would have appeared as a one-off, as neither editors nor readers would likely have had the knowledge of the sport that a continental reader would have possessed.

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The closest to Europe Look-In comes is in a feature about – and two-page strip featuring – those little blue Belgians, the Smurfs, though any hint of their Euro-ness is absent. And I think that’s the interesting thing about the difference between these publications. Look-In, for all the fond recollections I have of it, is a strikingly parochial magazine; entirely anglocentric, yes, and as an ITV publication it doesn’t even mention TV coverage of Wimbledon (which would, of course, have been on BBC). Look-In contains no news – even in a safe, kid-friendly form – other than whatever is current in pop and TV. Pilote, by comparison, is a publication that looks beyond the hexagon of France to other countries and, indeed, space (a realm which, after the end of the Apollo program, was largely left to space opera rather than as a destination for mankind’s future).

I admitted earlier that I’m comparing apples et des oranges, and I know I’m stretching a point, but it’s telling that French kids (albeit of an earlier generation – what Pilote was like in 1981 I don’t know) were absorbing developments from across the world, while in the ever-insular UK we were – pardon the pun – just being fed Bucks Fizz.

 

1 Yuri Gagarin’s Vostok flight took place the week before and features as news on page 2.

2 Amusingly, the advert for this shows a cross-hatched map of Europe which misses the UK entirely.

3 Merckx has a cameo in Asterix in Belgium, though it was 20 years before I realised: my interest in Asterix probably waned a little before I discovered the Tour de France.

4 Despite the popularity of the Tour, it’s decades since the sport in general was held in such high regard in France.

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1990: summer of cinema

This piece was an unsuccessful competition entry. The brief was “memories of cinema-going”.

Not for us the spurious joys of cider by the fountain, or Tennent’s behind the hut in the top park. The summer my friends and I turned sixteen we marked this coming-of-age by getting into the cinema to watch 18-rated films. With the benefit of a quarter-century’s distance, I can see now that all we were doing, in trying to collapse the two years between our actual age and our ascension to adulthood, was highlighting our immaturity and youth. The mere act of trying to pass as an adult only spotlights the fact that you aren’t one.

The summer and autumn of that year – 1990 – saw the release of four films that we, as long-standing horror fiction addicts, awaited with excitement: Robocop 2, Total Recall, Hardware and Nightbreed. That only the latter is technically horror is by-the-by: the others were “genre”, and by definition we were sympatico; fellow travellers.

 

Roll up, roll up

My friend Will, at six feet, could easily pass for someone older. Rick and I, though, had the build and the look of sixteen year-olds, and young ones at that. Surely wearing a baseball cap and standing in line on tiptoes outside the ticket kiosk wasn’t going to fool anyone? And yet it did.

Holding the soft paper ticket (containing neither film nor screen information, merely a serial number), I expected at any moment to hear a shout from behind me:

“Wait just a second!”

“There’s been a mistake!”

“What’s your date of birth?”

But no. At the time, it felt like we’d pulled a fast one on the adult world whose number we aimed to join. But with hindsight, the demographic for these films would wait until the evening showing; at that late hour we would have been laughed out of the building. But for a 2.30 showing in a quiet county town, what ticket-seller was going to turn away a few more bums-on-seats? Maybe we’d even buy some popcorn.

 

The cinema in question was the Perth Playhouse. Perth was, and would be until our schooldays ended and we went our separate ways, our Saturday afternoon destination: there was no other realistic choice. Dundee was too far; neither Glenrothes nor Kirkcaldy held any attraction; Edinburgh may as well have been abroad. Will, travelling from outside our village, would come to Rick’s for lunch; I’d meet them on the bus up to Perth. We’d go to the record shops, the bookshops and the indoor market where pulp horror paperbacks could be picked up for as little as 25p; and, if anything good was in town, we’d go to the Playhouse. Afterwards we’d get a chip butty while we waited for the bus home; I’d go to my paper round and we’d convene at Rick’s in the evening. So routine, so circumscribed, so safe; everything about these actions showed up how far from adulthood we were.

Until I went to university, the Playhouse was – barring a trip to Glenrothes to watch Return of the Jedi – the only cinema I’d ever been to. It was entirely typical of its kind and even in its small size generated an unmistakable aura. When I later worked at the ABC (now Odeon) on Edinburgh’s Lothian Road I got a frisson when sticking the little white plastic letters which spelled out the films and the showtimes onto their hole-studded board. Never mind that the job was done in a dusty, chilly basement last decorated in the 1970s; I was like one of Santa’s elves. I was, in however small a way, helping to create the magic.

 

Do I remember the first time?

I don’t remember now which of the two – Robocop 2 or Total Recall – was released first. I think it was Robocop 2, but it doesn’t matter. I could easily check IMDB or Wikipedia and find out, but that would miss the point. The narratives we create about ourselves, our tiny mythologies, are created as much from memory’s failing as from its assiduity.

I’ve not seen Robocop 2 since then, and by all accounts it’s much poorer than the original. My only memory of it is that we whooped when Chris Quentin (Coronation Street’s Brian Tilsley) appeared in a minor role. Other than that – if indeed it came out before Total Recall – its only significance in my life is that it was my first cinema “18”.

I’d seen 18-rated films before, of course. As a horror fan, it would have been neglectful of me if I hadn’t. Videos were passed around the playground, and late night TV at the weekend would often have something worth recording (furtively, hoping my parents had gone to bed before the VCR kicked noisily into action). But a cinema door is something different. It’s a liminal zone, but one where the crossing of which, as soon as you’re old enough for the entertainments within, is taken for granted and then never considered again.

 

The first film I ever saw at the cinema was Disney’s live action “The Cat From Outer Space”, which my aunt and uncle took me and my cousins to. They went back the following day to see it again, and I can still remember being faintly bemused that you’d go and see something you’d already watched. The cinema “bug” had not bitten me and in a way it never did: my parents were infrequent cinema-goers, so it wasn’t part of the fabric of my youth like it was for others. But the rarity of my visits made each one a major event. My Dad is tall and finds the seating uncomfortable, and to this day I have never been inside a cinema with him. Besides, we had a Betamax VCR and anything that came out on the big screen would eventually be available for the small one, no?

I had also had a deeply disappointing experience which perhaps instilled a basic mistrust of the big screen. The local community centre, one Saturday, converted its main hall into a makeshift cinema, with rows of seats and a reel-to-reel projector. They were showing, my aunt told me with great fanfare, Star Wars. I loved Star Wars; loved everything about it, yet had never actually seen the film. You can imagine my excitement that day; I expect I was a handful for my parents. So imagine, also, my disappointment at reaching the centre and finding the blackboard outside bore the words Star Trek.

No doubt it was all the same thing to my aunt: “space film”; very different to me. Nonetheless, we went inside to give it a go. I know Star Trek: The Motion Picture is not actually the longest film ever made, but on some deep, suppressed level you’ll never convince me.

 

What do we want?

Total Recall was controversial at the time, for the levels of violence and in particular the unprecedented number of onscreen deaths. Unlike Robocop 2, it’s a film I’ve re-watched and enjoyed since. It’s as over-the-top as you’d expect of anything involving Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven. There was no sex to speak of in any of these films, nor was the subject matter too mature for our immature minds, nor were they too complex in structure. No; we were prevented by age and the BBFC from viewing them legally because of the violence and the blood. And that was the attraction, of course. I don’t remember being bothered by the bodycount; it wasn’t gratuitous in context: any less of it would have affected the internal credibility of these films. Were the films themselves gratuitous? Of course they were, but very few are not: that’s entertainment. As I said at the beginning, we were bookish teenagers (not nerds: nerds didn’t read Clive Barker or listen to the Pixies; and we’d never have encountered the term geek), unworldly despite our aspirations. Our thrills were vicarious, and if that meant messy celluloid deaths, so be it. But the posters for the films in question were not lurid or grotesque; these were neither video nasties nor experiments in grand guignol. The Robocop 2 poster was “what it says on the tin”; Total Recall featured a moodily-lit Schwarzenegger and a Martian horizon, which was pretty classy by Arnie standards, even if it barely hinted at the Philip K Dick mindfuck that was the source story. Hardware gave less away: a menacing chunk of robot. As for Nightbreed, well, we’ll get to that.

Yes, we revelled in the violence; maybe what critical faculties we had were surrendered the moment we obtained the forbidden ticket. We pretended to maturity, like wearing an older sibling’s clothes: always conscious that the cuffs flapped, and the legs needed rolling up, and the belt had to be taken in another notch.

Will and I went to see the low-budget Brit-horror Hardware; perhaps Rick was unavailable, or didn’t fancy it. Either way the pair of us made up exactly half of the audience that afternoon. Some films leave you able to recall entire scenes; others maybe isolated images. Hardware, which again I haven’t seen since, leaves me with just an atmosphere. A dystopian shade of amber and a production design that evoked The Crystal Maze after a nuclear accident. However, I am backed up by a contemporary review in Starburst magazine which described it as a film to “enjoy immensely for what it is…and then immediately forget about”. Even so, you don’t go to watch films – or do anything – at that age with the purpose of retaining them for posterity (“anticipatory nostalgia”). The present moment is all; the fascination is with immediacy and surface glamour. That changes as you age. The self-consciousness of the adolescent is not the same as self-awareness. I’ll no doubt watch Hardware again at some point, but it won’t be in the cinema. However, though I may later remember more of the film, I’ll not remember the act. Watching a DVD is not the same experience.

 

The one that got away

Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy adaptation came out that summer and my younger brother was keen to see it. Buoyed by the ability to get into a film for which I wasn’t old enough, I told him I reckoned he could get in to watch it with me. Excited, he naturally ran off to tell our parents. I don’t remember it word-for-word but the conversation which followed with my Dad probably ran like this:

“What rating is Dick Tracy?”

“Fifteen.”

“How old is your brother?”

“Seven. And a half.”

Still never seen Dick Tracy. But the real film that got away that year was, agonizingly, the one we wanted to see the most: Clive Barker’s Nightbreed. Adapted from his own novella Cabal, this was going to be “the Star Wars of monster movies”. The creatures – the ‘Breed – looked awesome, and still do. But the studio got wind of what was coming (“what’s that? Redneck humans are the bad guys? The outcasts are goodies? Get out of here!”), savagely edited it and marketed it as a slasher thriller. To do this they played up the role of David Cronenberg as an urbane psychiatrist-cum-serial killer, and downplayed the whole “monster” element. The proposed poster by Les Edwards was a wonderfully enticing monster montage above the Nightbreed’s necropolis refuge; the actual poster was a badly cut and paste line-up. Neither one thing nor the other, the film flopped. A lopsided beast to be sure, but posterity has offered it a rebirth: a Director’s Cut was released in the US a few years ago, giving it a chance of some redemption. But that came far too late for a posse of Fife teenagers.

Despite our requests Perth Playhouse, perhaps sensing a dud, passed on the opportunity of showing Nightbreed. Scouting the listings in the local paper showed that Dundee’s Steps Theatre showed it, but a trip to Dundee was beyond the limits of an evening paper round, and was logistically difficult. Surely it’d arrive in Perth at some point? I was unaware of the realities of film release schedules. It was “out”, in the way a book was “out”, wasn’t it: available on the shelf forever?

The film as yet unseen is, of course, far better than the real thing. None of the flaws exist. Nightbreed was therefore going to be amazing. When I finally saw it ten years later, recorded late at night off a tiny combined TV & VCR unit, it looked awful. The 16-year-old me may have been blind to the flaws, but the 26-year-old me wasn’t. I look on it more fondly now, and for all the good work by the SFX team of Image Animation, wish only that it had come out late enough to have benefitted from the Jurassic Park CGI boom.

Nightbreed’s non-appearance helped open my eyes to the small stature of Perth’s cinema; helped me grow up in the sense that when you’re young your immediate environment seems to be the whole world, when in reality it was just a small corner of rural east-central Scotland. Not that big a deal.

 

Roll credits

Total Recall (or Robocop 2, whichever was the latter release) may have seemed to herald an exciting age of cinema-going for us but was really an ending: the last time all 3 of us went to the pictures together. Saturday jobs and (whisper it) girlfriends intervened; within a year the cracks were showing in our friendship and though we remained together until the last days of high school, it was largely through lack of any alternative.

We left genre behind, to an extent. Its film and literature had given us the rush our hormone-flooded bodies craved. Where it was reactionary (“expel the Other!”) it soothed our anxieties; where it was transgressive (“embrace the Other!”) it opened our eyes to new possibilities. But now journeys had to be made. My four years studying literature at University involved little that you’d find in the genre section of Waterstones. However, long after disowning these films and books in favour of Romantic poetry, the nouvelle vague or post-colonial narratives, their tug pulled me back. Not (solely) for the questionable balm of nostalgia, but because what other mode lets us frame a world becoming increasingly, well, weird? It’s too big a claim for our experience of the cinema that summer to say that it equipped us with the mental tools to process the world; but if it didn’t give us the tools, maybe it showed us where they could be found. And that, at any rate, is part of growing up.

All change: Jan Mark’s “Thunder and Lightnings” (1976)

In my previous post I wrote about nostalgia and the loss of contiguity that can trigger it. There are books, though, that I have always had: every house move has seen them boxed, shifted and unpacked; and, in time, re-read. For these books, each re-reading reveals new aspects: a form of anti- or a-nostalgia. One of these is Jan Mark’s debut novel, Thunder and Lightnings (1976).

I loved this book as a ten year-old. I took it everywhere; read it countless times. I can remember being on at least one visit to a family friend’s and immersing myself in it, to the exclusion of the other children present. I love the illustrations by Jim Russell, and the cover (above, again by Russell, such as you’d never see nowadays) of my battered edition, but I also love the current edition’s cover art.

It was not, however, the book I’d hoped it would be. When it was advertised in the school book club brochure (“The Chip Club” or “The Lucky Club”, I forget which), as an aircraft fanatic I read the blurb and expected it to be about planes. The cover did nothing to dispel the notion. So when it came, I was a little disappointed. Surely I can’t have been surprised: I knew it was going to be fiction, after all. But it wasn’t “about planes”. What was it about?

Andrew Mitchell moves with his family from Kent to a tiny village in rural Norfolk. At school he meets local oddball Victor Skelton, who is obsessed by aircraft: specifically the Lightnings that fly from nearby RAF Coltishall. The two become friends: Victor is an outsider and although never spelled out as such, Andrew is too. As Andrew becomes familiar with Victor’s idiosyncracies (which are largely his means of keeping the rest of the world at bay), he worries about how his new friend will react to the imminent replacement of Lightnings by the newer Jaguar aircraft.

That’s it, in a nutshell: two boys meet, new boy is drawn into local boy’s hobby, worries about how his friend will adapt to change. There’s no plot, as such; something I’m not sure I realised aged ten. Events occur, a friendship develops, and although it most certainly is about things, that’s pretty much it.

On a surface level, then, it’s about a friendship. But what it’s really about is change, and adapting to it.

Andrew is used to change; his family have moved many times in his twelve years: “I went to three junior schools and two secondary schools”. Victor has lived in Pallingham all his life; Lightnings have flown overhead for as long as he can remember. He is anxious about a future without them; the recent retiral of the Hawker Hunter has plainly given him a foretaste of what life without his beloved interceptors may be like. But Victor’s friendship with Andrew – evidently his first close one – and his newfound fondness for guinea pigs suggest a diversification of interests will help him through the loss.

Although Andrew is plainly used to change, he is unmoored by the move, and is feeling his way through his new life. His baby brother, Edward, is too young to be affected by the change, and accepts everything with a nonchalant interest. Until encountering Victor, Andrew’s schooldays are a vacuum: he makes little effort to reach out to other pupils, and is consequently ignored.

Andrew’s personality only comes out in relief, as he is the character through whose eyes we (mostly) read the story. In many of his conversations with Victor he is highly pedantic (not that Victor notices; or, if he does, he bats it back to Andrew). In his favour, he is self-aware enough to realise this and tries to stop, but can’t help himself. I’ve maybe re-read it three or four times since childhood, and the most recent time (last week) I was surprised by how much Andrew needles Victor, unable to reconcile the other boy’s contradictions. Throughout the book there is a face-off between a type of low-level chaos and a desire for order. Andrew’s family and Victor represent the slightly rough-around-the-edges chaotic side, while Victor’s uptight parents with their spotlessly clean house, and (arguably) Andrew with his need for tidy explanation, represent the desire for order. Such dynamics help show both boys that one person’s normal is another person’s weird, and vice-versa.

Much of the boys’ discussions take the form of low-level arguments: in the proper sense of considering each other’s point of view and revising one’s own accordingly. In this manner, Mark makes many points that no doubt escaped me as a ten year old. The boys – and Mrs. Mitchell – read the action strips in boys’ comics, but as they begin to use a nascent critical intelligence, they see through the jingoism and fantasy that usually1 underpins such characters. This is reflected in a trip to a war grave near Coltishall, where the militarism that’s never far from the surface in the UK is simply and elegantly dismantled. It’s an impressive feat the author pulls off, in getting across a genuine love of aircraft with a recognition of what purpose these multi-million-pound weapons perform, while simultaneously recognising the historical feats of the Battle of Britain yet not romanticising or idealising them.

The main theme of adaptation to change by-passed me at the very time in my life I could have done with learning from it. A parental divorce when I was very young, though I was spared the worst, left me at some subconscious level wary of upheaval. Years later, around the time I devoured Thunder and Lightnings, my Gran died. I used to go to her house for lunch every day; in her absence, rather than join my classmates in the school dinner hall, I’d head up the high street and eat my packed lunch on doorsteps, hidden from view, as if repeating the forms of the ritual would restore the substance of it. Taking pity on me, I was occasionally invited into friends’ houses by their parents to eat with them. I’ve no idea how long this went on for – no more than a week or two – before my Mum and Dad found out and I had to go to the dinner hall.

In denial? Maybe a little.

On a slightly more bathetic note, I went off football (having been a big Aberdeen fan, like most boys in my part of the country in the early 80s) when Alex Ferguson and some of the team’s best players – the ones who’d brought so much glory to the club – left throughout 1986. Like Victor, never having known the team to have changed more than just a little at the edges, the wholesale transformation (for the worst; they won only three more trophies in the next decade) was not something I could accept. I went off football almost overnight, and for the best part of a decade2.

Mark wrote the book for a competition (which she won) soon after moving to Norfolk; she based the Mitchells’ shock at the jets’ noise on her own. Coltishall replaced its Lightning fleet with Jaguars in the summer of 1974 (the year I was born), though they continued to fly from bases such as RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire until they were finally withdrawn from service in 1988. Jaguars were scrapped in 2007, though Coltishall itself had closed down the year before. There is a photograph of me, in my Aberdeen shirt, standing in front of the Lightning “gate guard” at Coltishall, taken one summer evening in (I think) 1985. Yes, I pestered my parents to drive from the caravan park we were staying at near Yarmouth, through the back roads of East Anglia, purely to see where Thunder and Lightnings was set.

As well as being the first I’d heard of Green Shield stamps and the phrase “a fine and private place”,  it taught me (pace Andrew’s Mum) “there’s no such thing as fair”. Many years later I gave a cameo role to Andrew and Victor as adults, in my story The Other Field, as a tribute.

Victor, as Andrew’s mother surmises, is more adaptable than Andrew imagines. While Andrew fears that their new friendship may already be waning, Victor is planning cycle trips to RAF Marham to see his namesakes, the Handley-Page Victors. He sees no reason for the rest of the summer holidays not to provide a deepening and a furthering of their friendship. At the end – no spoiler alert needed; this isn’t a plot-driven book, and the replacement of Lightnings by Jaguars is a matter of historical record – Victor seems accepting of the end of the era. A lone aircraft does a trademark vertical ascent:

“”forty thousand feet in two and a half minutes”, whispered Victor…he grinned, his old and famous grin, and made a searing dive with his hand.

“Well, if that wasn’t [the last Lightning of all], that ought to have been…”

There are books you start again as soon as you’ve finished them, but the ambiguous ending of this one meant that was never the case for me. No matter, I’d return to it sooner or later.

 

 

1 I’ll look at this in a future post. In my previous post on nostalgia, I split artefacts into three categories: those which were lost and which when regained are the “true” nostalgic items; those which travel alongside you and grow with you, revealing something new each time (Thunder and Lightnings); and those which also travel alongside you but which do not grow, and form a sort of halfway-house between the other two. Into that category falls I Flew With Braddock.

2 And when I got back into it, it was as a fan of Aberdeen’s big 1980s rivals, Dundee United.

 

Source:

Mark, Jan: Thunder and Lightnings (Puffin, 1978)

 

photo: Jamie Gorman

The lure, the lie and the lessons of nostalgia

“Proust had a bad memory…The man with a good memory does not remember anything because he does not forget anything.”

Samuel Beckett, ‘Proust

To begin with, the first part of the quote above must look like exceptional contrariness on Beckett’s part. Proust’s most famous work is, after all, À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), the prime subject of which, explored at great length and from every conceivable angle, is the working of the passage of time on memory. Surely Proust, of all of us, had a good memory?

But no. What Beckett means is that if Proust had a good memory, he would never have forgotten his past in the first place; it would always have been with him. In this case, his memories would have been subject to the mind’s processes – re-remembering, mis-remembering – which render memories unreliable because they irreversibly distort the original mental “image”.

It is only because Proust’s memory was so poor that the taste of the famous madeleine (dipped in tea) brought everything rushing back to him, fresh and undisturbed. He’d forgotten everything about his early life in Combray. So, untouched and unsullied, it comes flooding back with an intensity and vividness not available to the person who has periodically revisited those memories in the interim. These recollections – the result of involuntary memory – are not “sepia-toned”; on the contrary, for the brief period that they can be grasped (before the conscious mind seeks to falsify them by expanding the captured moment, or by attaching other, non-contiguous memories), their immediacy renders them as vivid as the present moment.

Nostalgia is big business. Ebay could barely exist without it. As I write, Blade Runner 2049 is in the cinemas (and explores the role of memories in the creation of the self), and Episode VIII of Star Wars is not far off release: two movies whose existence owe much to nostalgia on the part of the post-baby-boomer generation that makes up the bulk of their fanbase; a generation to which I, born in the mid-70s, belong.

Nostalgia has been big business for years, of course. Using Star Wars as an example again: after Return of the Jedi, with the saga finished, interest in that particular universe dried up over the next few years. By their own admission, Lucasfilm never wanted to experience anything like the period from 1986-1992 ever again. But in the early 90s1 fans slowly rediscovered the trilogy, and haven’t let it go since. Of course they hadn’t “forgotten” Luke Skywalker in the same way Proust had forgotten Combray, but the crucial thing in both cases is that the continuum was broken. If something ceases to be a continual presence in your life, when it is later summoned to mind it will trigger associations up to – but not beyond – the point that you and it parted company.

To switch to music; when we shared a student flat in Dundee, my friend Dave and I were into the electronica that was coming out (including Warp’s Artificial Intelligence series) at the time. There are tracks from the early 90s which I have listened to ever since but Dave hasn’t, and vice-versa. As a result, tracks that have formed part of my soundtrack for two decades immediately take Dave back to evenings in a damp-smelling maisonette because he hasn’t heard them in the interim, while they maybe take me back to the bus journey home from work a few weeks ago, because that was only the most recent time I listened to them; or they don’t spark any association at all because they’re a background part of my life.

“”Something to do with eBay”, Johnny reckons
He’s bidding on it now, for a Subbuteo catalogue ’81-’82
He’ll win it, put it in a drawer, and forget he ever bought it.”

Saint Etienne, “Teenage Winter

The key thing about the items in the photo above is not that they date from the 1980s. They don’t necessarily come from contiguous parts of my childhood: I may have devoured Look-In intensely in 1981 but a few years later it would have been a distant memory because I was reading Asterix, and then a few years later Zzap!64. Each stage of childhood is lived intensely; but when it passes, it’s dead. For a child, a decade feels like a geological era and at 14 you are no longer the person you were at 7, or even 11.

What links these items is that they are all things which I had – or which I remember, or my friends had – at the time but were thrown out (or lost) and which I purchased much, much later, usually via ebay. Although during this time (and to this day, though my son has custody of them now) I had, for instance, a Star Wars annual and other books and magazines from my childhood, the things pictured above had long since ceased not only to be present in my life, but even to exist in my voluntary memory. As a normal and healthy part of growing up I had forgotten the existence of these things, and from day to day my memory wouldn’t even stray down pathways that would lead me to recall them. This is what the Star Wars generation had forgotten: the memorabilia and paraphernalia that – while the films remained – had long been thrown out, passed down to younger siblings or given to charity shops

There are studies which show that nostalgia can trigger positive feelings in the brain and certainly the pleasurable shock of recognition when confronted with something long-forgotten is a thing you can crave. The photo at the top is proof of that.

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But what is it we’re looking for when we’re nostalgia-hunting? The idea that things were better in the past, that there was some golden age that we can hark back to, is a reactionary one that I do not subscribe to. But for the vast majority of adults, childhood was a time largely free of responsibility, when life had an intensity that is experienced much less frequently when you’re older. And nostalgia needn’t mean looking as far back as that; as I said above, the continuity of presence is the key, and once that is broken you can be nostalgic for things that happened (relatively) much more recently.

The things in the photo above date from roughly 1981-1986. A little after that, my main interest was horror fiction, much of which I’m happy to re-read today. But revisiting things from earlier, from pre-adolescence, should not surely be done with the expectation of gaining anything of worth, should it? Most of these items are annuals, comics and magazines, and their very form is significant: they are ephemera, weekly or monthly output designed to be read and discarded. Books are different, or can be (the gamebooks in the photo are a bit of an outlier: not disposable but still unlikely to be of any real worth to someone older than their target market of boys aged 10-14). So these things represent the little background forgotten elements of my childhood. The nouveau-roman author Alain Robbe-Grillet, perhaps surprisingly, sums this up perfectly in his autobiography:

“the importance of things…obviously doesn’t lie in their intrinsic significance but in the way they stick in our memory”

The associations are the key. The items above don’t actually offer anything significant other than their existence, and the fact that they remind me of a particular time of my life. Is there anything deeper that my obtaining them seeks to reach? What did I actually gain from buying these things? From watching dodgy VHS transfers to YouTube of 70s and 80s kids’ TV opening titles? “A walk down memory lane” is an inappropriate metaphor. It isn’t a bucolic stroll the nostalgia-junkie seeks, it’s a jolt; a hit.

The initial thrill is just that: initial, a short-lived burst of – what? A moment wherein your own personal Combray opens up; the layout of the bedroom you had when you were eight; the wallpaper, a mood, an atmosphere, whatever was in the charts at the time. You thumb through the magazines for a brief diversion: maybe some of the stories are better-written and better-drawn than you appreciated at the time, maybe some others aren’t, and even the adverts – those least important, most peripheral pieces of cultural jetsam – give you the hit. “I remember that! And that!” And what of it?

Because our oldest memories were created by a child’s perception, which is very different from that which we have as an adult, it lends those mental snapshots an incomplete, hazy quality, into the gaps of which can easily slip a sense of the eerie. It is this disjoint – an adult playback of a childhood recording – that has made hauntology such a successful aesthetic in recent years.

In using nostalgia not solely for its own sake, but by acknowledging and actively promoting the argument that the past is not a golden age lost, but exists instead as a weirder place than we can now “properly” recollect, hauntology is in this respect a progressive mode.

But, my interest in hauntology notwithstanding, I’d be kidding myself if I’d bought a thirty-year old copy of Look-In for anything other than that first rush of familiarity.

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The ten minutes spent leafing through the magazines above were the mental equivalent of the junkie hit: intense but fleeting; maybe leaving a sense of wasted time and money, a slight feeling of shame, and a promise never to do it again. What were you looking for? A time that’s passed, long past. An impression of it, then: for what reason? To do what with it? A retreat, anaesthetic.

Buying such items again is a form of reclamation; an attempt to recapture the time in which they were part of our lives. But all we end up with are the artefacts; the associations we hope to rekindle with them – temporal, ephemeral – are long gone.

Nostalgia can be a sugar-coated trap. Life should be lived facing forward, not back. Brexit is only the most extreme version of what happens if you disengage with the present and wallow in nostalgia (or, worse, nostalgia for a time before you were born2, the reality of which you therefore can’t verify and which has been pre-packaged for you).

However, Proust, in his final volume (Le Temps retrouvé – Time Regained), has the epiphany that all of one’s past still exists, and can be accessed via involuntary memory by finding the relevant triggers. For him, these include an uneven cobblestone, a ringing doorbell and, obviously, the madeleine. But he also realises that this time must first be lost before it can be found, in order for it to contain meaning.

As I’ll examine in a subsequent post, there are things from childhood that grow with you, in which you can constantly find relevance and meaning. Other things don’t, and we may regard them with a sense of bewilderment that we ever invested so much emotional stock in them. A further type of things, also, don’t speak to the person we are now but can still offer a briefly enjoyable visit to the past. They give nothing new, they speak only to us like a crackly recording.

This last category, I think, covers the things photographed above. The things from childhood which still speak to me are those whose presence in my life has never been interrupted: for the very reason, possibly, that they still held meaning for me. There are countless items – and I’ll look at them too in the future – that I have not sought to re-obtain, even though they ostensibly belong to the same category as Look-In and Zzap!64. The items in the photo, then, represent those things in which I have tried, and failed, to find contemporary relevance and which have delivered the (pleasurable, but ultimately sterile) hit of nostalgia for its own sake.

 

 

1Someone (not me) could write a thesis (furthering the work of Simon Reynolds and Mark Fisher in this area) on the part played by the events of the late 80s and early 90s (downfall of Communism/”the end of history”, etc.) in creating a cultural environment which could give rise to the burgeoning nostalgia industry; ironic given that from the viewpoint of 2017, the early 90s seem like a lost utopia.

2The “WWII/finest-hour/time-when-the-population-was-entirely-white” mentality that led us into this mess.

sources:

Beckett, Samuel: Proust & Three Dialogues (Calder, 1965)

Proust, Marcel: In Search of Lost Time, (six volumes, Vintage, 1996)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain: Ghosts in the Mirror (Calder, 1987)

 

photos: Jamie Gorman

After the Factory

(This post is an unpublished piece I wrote over a decade ago, about the village in Fife where I grew up. A few details have since been updated, but on re-reading I can’t believe I didn’t mention the huge hill figure of a bear above Parkhill which was carved – the lines set alight to better mark them out – around the same time as the factory burned down. You can just make it out in the photo above.)

 

Until the late 1980s, to anybody entering the town by road or river, Newburgh would have seemed a factory with village attached. From across the river Tay, on the low, berry-rich lands of the Carse of Gowrie, the view would have been striking. The factory was huge, a massive red-brick Victorian edifice dominating the shoreline.

On a clear evening in May 1980, my cousin mistook the thick black smoke sweeping low over our Gran’s rooftop for effluent from the recent eruption of Mount St. Helen’s. It was terrifying to think that this smoke had travelled across the Atlantic to wreak havoc on a small Fife town. But it wasn’t the volcano, it was the factory.

The factory. The former Tayside Flooring Company building had stood empty since the company stumbled into receivership in 1978, giving its workforce – several hundred strong – 15 minutes’ notice. It was founded in 1891 by one Thomas Greig who, in common with the public-spirited, or perhaps guilt-ridden, tycoons and philanthropists of the nineteenth century, gifted a tennis court, curling pond, bowling club and park to the town. The bowling green is still there, tucked into the southern corner of the park; the first thing you see as you enter the town from the west.

We watched the fire from the sloping lawns of the ex-council houses on the hillside street where my Uncle still lives. The town is spread along a hill that tumbles down to the Tay, and the factory was on the water’s edge. On the north side of the High Street, where we lived with my Gran, the long strips of orchard garden reach almost to the river. Her house was too close to the burning building to give a good view, and there were obvious safety concerns. Up the hill, the adults stayed indoors and gazed through windows; we went outside where – even at a distance – it felt more dangerous. The rumour spread fast, as rumours do among children: the fire had reached a storeroom containing petrol and gases, and explosions were imminent. Perhaps the adults safely indoors also framed guesses, more educated ones: half my family had worked there. The flames seemed mean and vicious against the proud orange brickwork and the thick column of smoke that rose high into the clear evening sky. The smoke would have been visible from both Dundee, 10 miles downstream, and Ben Vorlich, much further west. The explosions never came. The fire had, thankfully, taken no casualties.

The story, for such it was, appeared on TV the following night; Reporting Scotland or North Tonight. There was nobody on hand to capture live images, so viewers were shown half a dozen shots of the smouldering ruins and of a High Street deserted but for my other cousin and a friend dawdling home from school so slowly all the shops had shut. I still remember their wary backward glance towards the camera. It seemed the only evidence of life in a village suddenly paralysed.

I say ‘paralysed’: life goes on, of course. But small towns and villages take a longer and harder route to adapt to sudden change than cities do, especially when adapting to the loss of the largest single employer. The factory had been closed for two years, though I retain a memory of noises from inside that I couldn’t have formed at such an early age, so perhaps some further work was carried on in parts of the building. If ever there was the symbolic setting of a seal on a town’s past, then this was surely it. Like Banquo’s ghost1 pricking the conscience, the deserted shell was a reminder of what was gone, and that the future was suddenly an uncertain place. With hindsight, at this point in Scottish history – after the 1979 General Election – such desolation of heavy industry seems horribly prescient.

The factory was traditionally the heart of such towns. In the morning were pumped in workers from the town and surrounding villages; in the evening they were pumped out again, and this beating allowed a growth of contingent and ancillary industries to develop. Ships stopped at the quay to load and unload. After the fire, the other industries lingered on a while, expiring their final breaths slowly over a number of years. The quayside – once full of grey lorries with the sturdy red-and-yellow BELL’S logo of the local quarry company – fell into disuse and was demolished. A town in this position looks around for something to quickly fill the gap, but here, no substitute would be strong enough to prop up such a heavy body. The prevailing economic winds were blowing ill for British heavy industry. That said, there are no real parallels with the systematic destruction of the coalmining industry that hit south Fife so hard a few years later. Newburgh’s factory went into receivership, which is the result of bad management. Of course it is the workforce who suffer hardest, and their families, local businesses and the social life of the community. It is, however, the common outcome that Newburgh shares with Lochgelly, Cardenden, Polmaise, Thornton.

Private enterprise was one of the dogmas of the Thatcher government. Some locals started up small businesses alongside (and sometimes in the empty shells of) the established family-run shops, but few survived the repeated recessions. Now, despite the gloss of the fresh road signs and the speed reducing measures – a sure sign that your village is merely a nuisance to be passed through en route to somewhere else – it has become, inevitably, one of the surrounding villages of a larger town; a commuter base, even, for people who work in far-distant Edinburgh.

 

Until the 1950s, children were educated to secondary level at the local school. The bus that has since taken pupils to the local secondary (Bell Baxter, in Cupar) has always been infamous as the roughest and rowdiest. This has always been an independent town; it has always stood apart, distant from neighbouring villages and with no obvious kinship to any of them. It’s location in Fife sunders it from communities in Perth & Kinross by virtue of being in a different administrative district. But to Fifers, it’s hidden away, right on the border, practically abroad.

Cupar draws its school catchment from the villages of the agricultural Howe of Fife, or those beyond the reach of Dundee and St. Andrews: Auchtermuchty (‘Muchty’, home to The Proclaimers and Jimmy Shand) and Strathmiglo, Ladybank (an important railway junction: Newburgh’s abandoned station exists in a slow state of collapse at the top of the High Street), and the Pitlessie-Kingskettle-Falkland-Freuchie polygon that encompasses the pine forests and mushroom fields that litter the flat, fertile Howe. Newburgh stands apart from all of these: the North Fife hills, an extension of the Ochils, separate it from the others. Its view is not to the central peaks of the Lomonds, but out towards Dundee, Perth, the Trossachs and beyond. It looked outward: pleasure boats visited until the 1960s. For their shopping, its citizens visit Perth rather than Kirkcaldy or Glenrothes. Different outlooks, different habits. And it had industry.

Once, it boasted cinemas and a swimming pool, but its decades since the town has merited either. The ice-cream from Annie Divito’s café at the top of the High Street (recently an antique dealers, now a café once again), was a snow-white milky pleasure that garnered national recognition. The recipe was a jealously-guarded secret she took to her grave. She closed the café area down at the end of the 70s and though the sweetshop and ice cream were still hugely popular, Newburgh was no longer a place people wanted to stop in and eat. Cafés have sporadically opened, prospered briefly, and closed again ever since. The story is familiar across the UK: small towns and villages lose their garages, their pubs, their chip-shops, one by one. Newburgh is no special case.

Also common to small towns everywhere is an instinctive wariness of strangers, or ‘incomers’ as they were, and are, with slightly more irony, still known. This doesn’t just apply to the family of travellers who arrived seasonally for many years (openly called ‘the Tinkies’), but to settlers from outside the village boundaries. Indeed those same borders are re-affirmed every seven years in a good-natured day-long procession known as ‘the Riding of the Marches’ over hills, through fields, and across burns. Some of the more successful businesses since the 1980s have been those started up by ‘incomers’, possibly because the owners are unknown quantities and its harder to measure what exactly ‘getting above themselves’, in proper Scots fashion, would constitute.

One such ‘incomer’ who has quite happily made Newburgh her home is the poet Kathleen Jamie2. Her garden is one of many that stretch up to the railway line that cuts across the town like a belt, and covers the ground that was once entirely orchards: plum and apple trees that my Gran could recall dotting the slopes in endless numbers.

 

The only contemporary guide3 to the town was written and published over thirty years ago by the parents of my friend Will, themselves English ‘incomers’ (Newburgh: A Historic Trail, Linda Pinfold, Michael Pinfold & Malcolm Robinson; Pinprint). Even today, whole chunks of this book, put together by hand in the short-lived studio they’d converted from a former sweetshop, can be found copied without acknowledgement on websites that feature Newburgh as a possible tourist stop. The book’s final chapter is on the linoleum factory, referring to its plunge into receivership but not it’s gutting by fire. Perhaps the event was too recent; unnecessary to recount. The factory at that time still stood, blackened, silent and shamed, visible down every road that hurtles to the river. It may or may not be significant that this attempt at gathering together the town’s many strands of history was not done by locals but by a couple only just settled in the area. It is indicative, though, that for a long time only this, an ‘Old Newburgh’ photo book, and the cardboard-and-glue history projects of the local Primary School children appeared since the factory fire to portray an image of the town.

But print is not the only means of representation. The end of the 1970s saw the establishment of the Pageant, part of a week-long Newburgh Festival that ran in mid-August for a few years. The Festival featured daily (and nightly) events such as the pram race, in which grown men dressed as babies and pushed each other in prams the length of the High Street, and between each of the town’s (then) half-dozen pubs. The Pageant took the form of a play: there was a ‘Jungle Book’ in the superbly atmospheric setting of the ruined Lindores Abbey, and an ambitious ‘King Arthur’ in which the audience followed the action on foot throughout the village. The highlight was a real-life Lady of the Lake, whose arm rose from those silvery Tay waves, offering Excalibur to the King. Pageant and Festival dwindled, like so much else, as the 80s ran their course.

 

There is a working factory, still, in town. Construction began not long after the old one burned down, at the eastern end of the village. We watched from the school playground every lunchtime as it went up in sheets of grey metal. This was a new type of factory: light industry. Long and low and looking like it was built from plastic, it appeared to have been set down alone in a field next to the school car park. If people were pumped in and out we never saw them. Today this atrophied industrial estate is shared with a modern fire station. The car park has grown to meet them under the demands of the school run.

It took a decade for the old factory ruins to be pulled down. Another passed as the site became overgrown and filled with pools of stagnant water. Finally, a luxury development of riverside homes was built on the factory site, in response to the rising cost of houses across the UK. Handy commuter town and rural retreat. This bland new vision of Newburgh is that of developers and estate agents: their usual airbrushing of history.

 

Most of the factory’s old employees have by now retired, having long ago been forced into what other work they could find. Unemployment in the early 80s was higher than today, but you must travel further to find the work. It’s impossible to picture a factory there now, though the buildings fringing the site still seem to be on their guard against some threat from across the road. The landlord of a Dundee Bed & Breakfast, himself a retired carpet-fitter and once familiar with the town, upon hearing where I came from, reckoned ‘it hasn’t been the same since the factory; lots of unemployment’. He captured neatly the town’s standing in the local imagination: once a small town, now just a village whose day has passed, slumbering like so many others.

 

 

1 A mile outside the town, in a field next to the country road to ‘Muchty, stands the ancient carved stone rump of ‘Macduff’s Cross’. The head of the clan Macduff was historically Earl of Fife.

 

2 Kathleen is not Newburgh’s first poet. Up the hill, at the back of Mount Pleasant, where town meets whin-covered hillside, stands a small cottage built in the early nineteenth century by brothers Alexander and John Bethune. Weavers and poets, crippled by poverty and illness, neither of them reached 40. A single copy of Alexander’s edited collection of his brother’s poetry resides in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. They built – unaided – the cottage for their parents. It is shaken daily by blasts from the quarry which has, despite a spirited local campaign in recent years, spread its empire further and further west, coming gradually into view of the town, where the scars are less easily concealed.

 

3 The 50s and 60s saw versions of a Newburgh town guide, with map and illustrations, but for a deeper view of the history and customs, look to ‘A History of Lindores and its Burgh of Newburgh’. This 1876 tome reads like a parochial version of ‘The Golden Bough’ with its exploration of magic and myth. It boasts superb illustrations of local landmarks, notably Mugdrum Cross, an 11th century needle-like pillar of stone covered in what are believed to be Norse engravings, which stands hidden deep in the rhododendrons of Mugdrum estate, overlooking the Tay.