Tuesday, 31 March 2009

But having said the below ...

... is it perhaps a universal human pathology that we all like to think we came in at the end of something very rare, special and beautiful that those younger than us did not experience, or is it more commonplace among those who do (I insist) have a greater justification for it than others?

Three examples spring to mind.  There is Peter Hitchens' entire existence, built as it is on his being "just old enough to have seen with (his) own eyes ... the very last years of an older Britain" (mirages of the summer of '59 define every breath he draws in '09), Neil Clark's fixation on his own 1970s childhood, the final years before the Fall of his own half-true, half-romanticised left-right hybrid vision (it is sometimes impossible to believe that he was 17 in 1983, so little does that period seem to have made any impact on him at all) and my own determination - some would say desperation, but I hope and believe I can control that, indeed resisting all temptations to escape into my own hermetic universe is a huge priority for me - to know more about, to get a deeper and stronger feeling for than I could experience directly, the lost universe of the Puffin Club, Wednesdays at 5.10, schools radio, The Book Tower, European imports und so weiter (the demise of Radio 4's ghost ship Go4It feels like the absolute end of the last twitchings, the point from which there will never be return, and the old school of literal-conservatives know it).

It is undoubtedly true that people's earliest clear memories are their most voluminous and special, as well as (obviously) their furthest away at whichever point in their life, so I think it is probably a natural tendency to exaggerate that specialness.  But funnily enough I also think Hitchens, Clark and myself have more justification for taking such a view than some others would, which probably does explain why it is so strong among the three of us (who hardly have anything else universally in common - Clark may share some of his views with Hitchens and some with me, but there is precious little uniting all three of us, nor should there be).  It is true, overdone though it once was (and to a lesser extent still is) by lazy amateur historians (who have now largely moved their focus on to the '70s and '80s), that Hitchens' earliest remembered years (he was born in October 1951) were the last years of a vast network of steam railways, the last years of genuine public deference towards, even fear of, authority (at least in the southern English, middle-class world Hitchens existed entirely within), the last years before the influence of the mass media began to accentuate towards its current level, the last years of widely-held collective and class-based cultures (on all social levels) largely untouched by popcult.  It is true that mass consumerism and Americanisation were obviously beginning to make their presence felt in the post-Suez, pre-Beatles period, and the psychological ramifications of Britain's retreat from empire became stronger and stronger during that time, but it was still just about possible for those who were sufficiently innoculated through privilege and rural isolation (as Hitchens' family undoubtedly was) to pretend it wasn't happening.  So, although it obviously doesn't excuse his political paranoia (Cameron a "socialist" or whatever else he has convinced himself, in his madness), I think Hitchens - or anyone else his age who shares his yearnings - has a greater justification for mythologising his earliest remembered years than many people of many other generations, let us put it that way (indeed, the importance of this period is confirmed by the way their early childhood continues to have a vital impact in the narrative of post-war history set up by many other babyboomers whose views on virtually everything are Hitchens' antithesis, as What We Needed To Get Away From, and the working-class experience - "grey", etc, etc - of the post-war years seems to have left a vital imprint in the minds of many boomers of that age, of all political views but generally leaning towards the left, who had none of Hitchens' social privileges and certainties, inevitably to be shattered by The First Time You Heard The Beatles).

Clark, for all his faults (fewer than Hitchens, and his heart is usually in the right place, but that doesn't paper over them) has similar justifications.  I'm much more ambiguous about him, and sometimes openly critical, than I once was.  The middlebrow nature of the "international" films he cites here is all too typical - there's no room for Godard in his Daily Express Page 9 vision of the past, any more than there's room for even P&P, let alone Petit, in his excruciatingly Mailish (with one very obvious exception, which in context is more startling than it deserves to be) list of favourite British films. Mainland European influence in the UK charts of the late '60s was on nothing like the scale he suggests (even back then, the BBC's imports were, as its former controllers of children's TV Edward Barnes and Monica Sims have clearly stated, part of a public-service drive against the tide rather than the way things were naturally, if left alone, heading), his use of the phrase "The New Labour Reich" (because of the smoking ban, apparently) is unworthy even of Littlejohn, and several comments on his blog (the thinly-veiled anti-Semitism of two contributors, along with the apparent defence of theatre censorship, enforced by the holder of the noted egalitarian/socialist office of Lord Chamberlain, by another - "the working class" weren't clamouring for it to be abolished, apparently) are simply indefensible. Nonetheless, he too has an unusual level of justification in citing his early life as a profoundly special, separate period.  Born in 1966, Clark's early memories will be - as he himself comments here - of a time (as I have mentioned before, unsettlingly like now) when every moment of a British person's life seemed, in some way, to be connected to a last battle, a final conflict for the ownership of the future that lay beyond the crumbling consensus, when nascent Thatcherism was merely an equal competitor to a strong, powerful socialist movement which appeared to stand an equal chance of winning.  What was clear, even before 1979, was that the centre could not hold, and that fact gives Clark an equal justification for his fixation with his childhood - the more voluminous and tense your early years are, the more total and absolute they remain, up to and including the moment you die.

And for me?  Well, my fixation is more specific - to do with broadcasting and media structures, and the culture they maintained, rather than grand-scale social changes (my childhood and adolescence were characterised by the long march through the institutions - of which the changes in broadcasting was merely one of the key moments - of the ideology that reached power shortly before my birth, not by any specific moment as epochal as 1979 or, in a different way, 1963).  Nonetheless, as a 1980 baby, I did experience the last years of the programmes, institutions and associated structures and systems mentioned at the top of this long, pointless ramble, I was 10 at the time of the 1990 Broadcasting Act, I did live my early life amid what everyone knew to be the dying fall of a world where broadcasting was in large part protected from the full rules of the market and had aims beyond sensation and the hard sell.  And, again, that makes my early years, in terms of broadcasting, more piquant and potent than they would be for many/most others.  I was inspired to write this by a comment from my mum (who still doesn't know how important and fascinating this idea - the elusiveness of time and early life - is to me) while reading this piece, to the effect that I'd experienced the very end of the heyday of children's literature that Rachel Cooke talks about, the last knockings of a particular world before it finally crumbled before the wider world and the entirely visual basis of the new British childhood.  She was right.  So are Hitchens (on this if very little else), Clark and me.  It may be a universal syndrome, but the fact that the three of us do so much of it suggests that, while it is obviously easy and tempting and horribly lazy for everyone to look back on their formative years and say "ah, that was just before everything changed", and while it is undoubtedly true that a paleoconservative like Hitchens and a traditional socialist like Clark are both naturally programmed towards - ultimately - rather pointlessly wistful nostalgia, their assessments are echoed, if from an entirely conflicting perspective and for different reasons, by those of utterly opposed views from the same generations, and I'm sure the same would apply to the action cartoon fans of my age.  Some people do have more justification for this kind of thing than others, and the knowledge that evolution must continue doesn't make it any less painful.  That's why I listen to this.


  1. "to get a deeper and stronger feeling for than I could experience directly, the lost universe of the Puffin Club, Wednesdays at 5.10, schools radio, The Book Tower, European imports und so weiter"

    Heh heh - it's all getting a bit Fry and Laurie.

  2. You mean the "und so weiter"?

    F&L have probably influenced me, somewhere - if nothing else, they showed that you didn't have to be ultra-trendy-leftie to be anti-Tory, and that you didn't have to be a mockney to loathe elite prejudice and arrogance. In fact, they're probably a key reason why I think mockneydom is really reheated Toryism, and their humour was easily the cleverest and most socially subversive posh English comedy (Private Eye was never so good).

    p.s. are you one of the three Davids I've known since pre-millennial days?

  3. No, I meant more "Wednesdays at 5.10", sort of like something from the "language" and "creamy olde england" sketches.

    No, I'm not one of your pre-millenial Daves. I'm mostly a lurker, though I did comment a small bit on your previous blog.

  4. I see. I only mentioned that time because it is very, very special to everyone of a certain generation/s who was A Certain Kind Of Child (though such a rosy tint has attached to it that it must be recalled that it was sometimes also a trough, mostly during the no-new-programmes-in-sight summer months).