Tuesday, May 13, 2008

50s way to leave your lover

It was like something out of Things To Come (1936) – and one of the glorious utopian bits, not the bits with fighting. A. and I made our way to the Science Museum’s ticket desk to buy our way into Dan Dare and the Birth of Hi-Tech Britain (until 25 October 2008). And it turns out to be free.

Hooray! We almost skipped in the great glass elevator up to the second floor.

Also strikingly modern was the new-fangled audio guide. Rather than being given some ersatz walkie-talkie, you used your own mobile phone. (Calls were charged at London landline rate, rather than at some cunning premium. We, um, didn’t bother.)

The post-war period is a fascinating one, and is also currently RESEARCH. Which means any exhibitions and related books and curios are tax deductible. And what follows is cobbled together from various bits of reading and not-quite-thinking.

Britain was punch-drunk after the war, reeling from the barely-understood-yet evaporation of her empire. There’s a thing in Graham Green’s “The End of the Affair”, where the narrator describes the fearlessness of living in the Blitz, where you might die any moment. It seems it’s only when there’s no more bombing, when you might survive, that your muscles unclench and you again remember how it is to be terrified. This is a post-traumatic stress civilisation. How in hell did it get through?

The shared effort of war has led to expectations of a shared effort in peace. There’s a welfare system, a National Health Service and as much dentistry and spectacles as anyone can eat. A huge rebuilding operation was also required.
“The full extent of the war damage to London’s infrastructure and housing stock made reconstruction an urgent priority. The publication of Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan established a framework where issues of reconstruction and social progress combined in the utopian idealism of slum clearance, New Town development and green belt conservation.”
Paul Rennie, Festival of Britain Design 1951 , p. 36.

And with that rebuilding came a magnificent street party, deftly coinciding with the 100th anniversary of a great bash in a greenhouse. In his book on the Festival of Britain’s design and merchandising spree, Paul Rennie speaks of jubilant firework displays and nights of dancing.
“The relative sophistication of these entertainments, for ordinary people, and in the context of post-war austerity, should not be discounted.”
Ibid, p. 21.

The new fashion for promenading wasn’t just dangerous for its European influence. The Thames beside which young people strolled was still busy, noisy and industrial, and the London smog killed 4,000 people in 1952. Yet the Festival marked something important; freedom after the austerity and secrecy of the war.

In some ways, the Festival was a conscious step backward to the pre-Great War – and imagined – period of church fetes and bicycling vicars. Look at the type-faces used in the Festival’s literature: fat-stemmed, fussy, serifed fonts as if Modernism had never happened. Things clearly fashioned by men and not machines. That, says Rennie, is a conscious turfing out of the
“ubiquitous sanserif faces of the 1930s and WWII”.
Ibid, p. 52.

The celebration is especially evident in the Festival’s logo; a compass decked out in coloured bunting. Abram Green’s Festival logo and his posters for the Financial Times, according to Rennie,
“define the graphic style of the decade perfectly.”
Ibid. p. 24.

And yet Rennie’s own book and the Science Museum would seem to disagree. The Festival isn’t of its age for looking fondly backwards, but for its yearning, breathless gaze into the future. It was symbolic, says Rennie, of,
“Britain’s status as an atomic power and the technical lead that it had in such fields as radar, computers, telecommunications, television and jet engines.”
Ibid., p. 50.

The Festival was defined by technical innovation. New electric trains from Waterloo meant the South Bank site was viable because there would be less soot and smoke (p. 15), while the Festival also introduced ordinary people to the space-age concept of proper toilet paper (p. 19). It was this generation that put men on the moon.

Oliver Postgate – later inventor of Bagpuss, the Clangers and Ivor – had a job at the Festival. He helped build the scientific machines, which were constructed around complicated bubble machines,
“in essence, a large diagram depicting a flow of materials, the flow being marked out by thin glass tubes through which coloured liquid, regularly interspersed with air-bubbles, would travel along slowly."
Oliver Postgate, Seeing Things, p. 165.

His description of that work gives a brilliant, idiosyncratic sense of what the Festival – and its time – might have been like.
"The main characteristic of work for the Festival was that nothing that was supposed to happen happened when it was supposed to. Our material was finished and ready on time but the building it was to go into, the Power and Production Pavilion, was, to put it simply, not there. It was eventually made available to us exactly a week before the Festival was due to open, whereupon we discovered that, for reasons we knew nothing of, the showcases had not been made according to the plans we had been working to.

There was no time to argue about this and no point in doing so because nobody was taking responsibility. Bob and I just set to and sustained by Benzedrine and knobs of sugar, worked, non-stop, night and day for the whole week.

Even then I didn't quite finish. As the King and Queen and the two Princesses came through the pavilion, viewing the exhibits on the formal Opening Day, they might have thought that all the ingenious animated displays were electrically driven. Not so; I was lying on my back underneath one of them, winding it by hand.”
Ibid., p. 167.

I love the glee and naivety around this new-fangled science stuff, of civilisation being on the cusp on an enlightenment it doesn’t like to admit it doesn’t understand. Shoe shops of the period excitedly offered to X-ray your feet on the pre-text that they’d fit your shoes much better, but really because it was just cool to use the gadget. Paul Rennie tells of similarly overly-enthusiastic space-age jollity at the Science Museum.
“A proposal for a new 'Newton-Einstein House', which subjected visitors to extreme gravitational forces, was ultimately rejected.”
Rennie, p. 51.

The present day Science Museum is divided into three. The first section contents itself with the new technologies that people chose themselves. There’s the ultra-slim GEC hairdryer (model DM397A) from 1956. “Unlike previous types,” says the label, “it had a compact and quiet induction motor. This did not protrude from the main body and allowed the hairdryer to be sleek and stylish”.

There’s Russell Hobbs’ first offering, an electric coffee pot from 1952. There’s early electric toasters and the onomatopoeic “Sylph” electric iron. Various versions of bulky hi-fi systems all include complex valve and bulb-strewn amplifiers and hardly space-age wooden surrounds. The clunky Post Office-provided telephone receiver was still supplied until 1981.

The list of artefacts is important because each is a sea change in how people lived their lives. More, it gives an insight into how they filled their time and recorded their experience, increasingly with gadgets. I was taken by the mechanics of a Bell & Howell cine-camera, where you only used one side of the 8mm film at once, reloading it when one side was full. At the process lab, the film was split lengthwise and the 2x 25 foot lengths spliced together into 1x 50 foot length.

Beside me in the exhibition, a fellow visitor was trying to capture this explanation on his mobile phone. In the modern world, you just plug in a USB or email the pictures to yourself, or go to one of those photo machines that accept every kind of plug in but the one you’ve got.

And last there were the Frigidaire electric refrigerator, a Hotpoint washing machine (with mangle attachment on its top) and a Dishmaster electric dishwasher – all with the same stylistic rounded edges and gleaming surfaces, like props straight from Dan McRegor Dare.

Dare is the subject of the second section, which sketches who he was and how the Eagle came about, and includes a few pages of original artwork from his comic strip adventures and a selection of the wild merchandise that went with them. Admittedly, the Dan and Digby walkie-talkie is rather less strange a concept than my own walkie-talkie Eccles and Slitheen.

Excitingly, there’s two exclusive Frank Hampson posters, commissioned by the Science Museum in 1977. You can see them here:
I was rather sad to see the state of the exhibits. On the latter poster, Hampson’s signature is smudged, while the original artworks would surely be better framed.

I wasn’t surprised to see no mention of Colonel Dan’s adventures in 2000AD, Eagle mark II or recent CGI. A panel did show covers to the Garth Ennis-scripted Dan Dare strip and the Best of Eagle collection, and of course neither of these was available to buy from the shop.

Lastly, there was a section on broader developments in technology – the health service, nuclear power and electric trains. The Daily Mirror of 25 January 1955 (price 1½d, “Forward with the people”) broke the news of a “£1,200,000,000” network of electric trains, ordered by the Transport Commission. And, from Saturday, it would also be offering a brand new “Woman’s Sunday Mirror”.

I loved the British space suit – or rather the “Royal Aircraft Establishment flying suit” – with it’s goldfish-bowl round helmet, chunky zips and pleated arms and legs, with slipper-like boots lacked to the suit’s ankles. It seemed so cheap and simple, and made of natural fibre, that it seemed more like a costume from a low-budget sci-fi show. The adjacent oxygen cylinder had apparently been used on the conquest of Everest. Noticing the chunky black piping, I wondered if the air would taste of rubber. Nicely, these exhibits were often labelled with classic, cutaway illustrations from the old Eagle.

It’s a strange exhibition in all, I think because of the disconnect between the bright-eyed aspiration in the comics and designs – the determination to built a better future after the horror of the war – and the literal fall-out. It’s not just the X ray machines in shoe shops, or the scant protection offered to the Duke of Edinburgh in the photo of him visiting a nuclear power station – in a nice suit, just some paper coverings on his feet. A. spoke of having seen many of the exhibits in his own family’s homes, only yellowed with years of cigarette smoke.

In looking into this period, I guess I keep seeing the same thing; people plunging into the future because it was too awful to go back, rather than because they had any idea what they were doing. There seemed to be no thought at all that people might get burnt by the white heat of technology. The nearest mention we get of the nuclear threat in the Science Museum is an Eagle cutaway of a British intercept missile.

And I didn’t spot any mention of the hovercraft, the resolutely British invention I associate so indelibly with its Eagle cutaway. But then only this weekend I was reading how the hovercraft helped kill off some of the sexy sheen which difficulty lent stuff we take for granted.
“James Bond did not take the car ferry to France. This is the one part of the journey where my plans must diverge from his. He headed instead for Lydd Ferryfield airport, in Kent, where he drove up a ramp and straight into a Bristol plane bound for Le Touquet. This used to be a regular practice for the rich until the hovercraft killed off the business in 1970.”
Jon Ronson, “The name's Ronson, Jon Ronson”, The Guardian Weekend, 10 May 2008, p. 45.

See also Charlie Higson’s piece on Ian Fleming, and the booze and fags and women that killed him, in the same bat-time, same bat-paper:
“Let's face it, writers are pretty boring. Writers never know how to pose for photographs – is it hand on chin, or hand not on chin? Some might get drunk and sleep around, some might shoot themselves in an effort to appear more interesting, but the fact is 99% of our lives are spent locked away in a small room with a keyboard.”
Charlie Higson, “The Man Behind 007”, The Guardian Review, 10 May 2008, p. 21.

Which is my cue to just shut up.


Rob Stradling said...

I was in the Science Museum recently, but I only had ten minutes - most of which I spent trying to photograph the Sopwith Camel and Ford Model-T.

Have you ever been on a hovercraft? If not, my advice is - don't go on a hovercraft. If you have, my (probably unnecessary) advice is - don't go on a hovercraft again. I can't believe that Yuri Bloody Gagarin felt that sick.

Keith Ramsey said...

I can't say that I ever thought that much of Dan Dare, or anything else in the Eagle, much of which seemed very preachy, even when I was a kid, although that's hardly surprising for a comic that was edited by a clergyman with a main character who was originally intended to be a space-travelling chaplain.

The new Virgin Dan Dare is much better, although it seems to have upset many who were fans in the 50s. I've only seen the new version in Forbidden Planet and can't understand why it isn't more widely available - it isn't like Richard Branson to miss an opportunity like that.

SK said...

Ennis's Dare is a travesty, but what can you expect -- as soon as I heard he'd got the job I said there was no one less suited to it. Dare's world is fundamentally optimistic, and Ennis is apparently incapable of writing anything that isn't pulling something down and fouling all over it. Small wonder then that he got every single character, the world itself, and the whole point of the exercise, utterly wrong (examples available on request).

Still, Titan's reprints of Reign of the Robots arrived this week, less of a delay than I feared. That's my weekend sorted!

0tralala said...

I've not been on a hovercraft, Rob. But they are cool. Just look at the one in Planet of the Spiders.

And I'm keen to read Ennis' Dare, even if it is no fun. I loved the Grant Morrison one all those years ago. And even have a soft spot for the Eagle II and 2000AD ones. Bear! Sugar Joe! JJ!

I am wrong and filthy.

Also, I don't think Eagle I is preachy, so much as clean-living in a Boy Scouts / Blue Peter way. And Harris Tweed is just brilliant.

Rob Stradling said...

Hovercraft are only cool from the outside. Like Baldrick's trousers, never be tempted to discover what lies within.