Graham Higgins Illustration - Literate Graffiti Dept.

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September 30, 2011

Living History 30-9-11

One late night in my teens, when John Peel’s Top Gear radio programme featured, amongst the Captain Beefheart, Third Ear Band and Principal Edwards’ Magic Theatre, readings by poets, I have a tissuey memory of Roger McGough reading one of his about some future in which England would have little to trade on but our history and pantomime tradition and so would become a living heritage centre with Brits playing themselves for the entertainment of tourists.
As I wrote that paragraph it occurred to me that ‘the late 60’s of the 20th Century’ is already a distant bygone era. The Swinging 60’s – mod dandyism, Motown, Op-art, miniskirts and cute Courreges boots – was giving way to hippy boho-style, psychedelia, mystical knick-knacks, tuning in turning on and dropping out.
In theory.
Schoolchildren researching the social history of that decade of radical politics and social revolution will find it surprisingly staid. The Late 60’s Underground culture had its own nostalgia drawing from fin de siecle Art Nouveau and Victorian Imperial formality, which in turn had replaced a previous vogue for the 1920’s  – ‘Thouroughly Modern Millie’ and  ‘The Boyfriend’ at the movies; The New Vaudeville Band in the charts. By the time I’d arrived in Birmingham as a student, the 1930’s had become the reference point. By the time I graduated it was all Country Diary Of An Edwardian Lady and William Morris filtered through Laura Ashley, The Albion Band and Steeleye Span.
Nostalgia for this – our – decade will include an unaccountable – the more forgiving will prefer ‘ironic’ – regard for the pre-punk glitterball Disco 70’s. In the current collapse of faith in the belief-system of Global Economics, my money’s on a replay of the 80’s fling with Weimar fashion, filme noir and kohl-eyed German Expressionist Cinema; decadent chic. As a place-bet I’ll put a fiver on make-do-and-mend Blitz spirit and Ration Book austerity. The Keep Calm And Carry On brand has clearly struck some awf’ly English chord of stiff-upper-lip stoicism.
So… no surprise to discover some of the Keep Calm merchandise in the Black Country Museum Gift Shop on a reconnaissance visit for a school trip.
The Museum is a small cluster of buildings from around the area meticulously relocated and rebuilt, staffed by guides in Victorian costume, though not Victorian clothing, which for most was a durable one-set-of-everything, laundered once a week in the more fastidious households.
Try to banish even the aspiration to have a choice of clothes to suit the day and the weather. Try to unimagine our own distaste for the undeodorised body and its maturing residue in clothing. What if a daily squirt of gently-fragranced 24-Hour Dry Protection Mist wasn’t pretty much the unofficial law?
For £20 you can climb into clip-on costume to have your own sepia-tint portrait as if… as if what,exactly..? (I’ve paused there for several minutes trying to think of a snappy answer. What Derridalical ley-lines of disauthored intertextual dialectic converge in a digital photograph fed through a Photoshop filter and a laser printer that resurrects the souls of our ancestors: pipl dem b’long faraway time.)
A very good son-et-lumiere presentation of the workings of a Black Country drift-mine, with crouching figures given voice by recorded actors, can’t erase the visitor’s knowledge of a working world reshaped by the intervening century, nor replace it with the experience of an unrelieved conveyor-belt of days confined between home and coal-seam, with its fatalist resignation to sudden mortality, disabling injury and meagre diet.
What always strikes me about preserved historic sites is the many ways they remind you that you can’t imagine life as it was lived, even decades ago. Equally, as you return to the Black Country Living Museum car-park via the Gift Shop the airy glass-walled entrance it’s hard to imagine how of-its-time this ascetic turn-of-the century vogue for plate-glass and exposed structural components will look in even another 50 years and who will be looking.

One of the Flickr.com features I really enjoy is collecting Favourites, a scrapbook of other Flickrists’ posted images. Some really need no explanation; some give me quick links to on-line archives of artwork, printed ephemera and found photographs; a few are bookmarked because I’d paused to work out why they made me hesitate.
Like the fashion for Magic Eye 3D(ish) posters, there was a brief blossoming of those composite photographic images created with a patchwork of tiny photographs. The Favourites collection must form some kind of composite mind-map, including characteristic head-scratching moments.
I keep meaning to write occasional footnotes here, so while I’m on the subject of history that makes you go ‘wha…?’, here’s Eadweard Muybridge mechanically recording the kinetic procedure of slapstick.

  1. A timely post, Graham, as I came back from the local market this morning thinking along very similar lines. There was a flea-market stall there, where I had found myself staring at a rather dull game that I’d had as a kid (Mousey Mousey) and the ugly ginger-brown earthenware tea set that my mother bought with several books of Green Shield Stamps, both lovingly set out on a stall as Items of Interest. In York last month, Kevon and I came across a special Sixties exhibition at the Castle Museum, a nostalgiafest for the old and edification for the young, complete with jukebox playing assorted popular records. I don’t know which was more embarrassing, my singing along to the music or the fact that I still knew all the words to so many of them. ‘Hey there, Georgie Girl…’ Either I am now Extremely Old or the young are quietly gaining on me.

    I’m already resigned to seeing the family vacuum cleaner and washing machine in museums; the electric heater, the kettle, the Spong mincer and countless other things I took for granted as a child. I forget just how alien my babyworld is to a child of the Eighties or Nineties.

    How well do I really remember these ‘familiar’ things? And how much of my memory is coloured and shaped by later events, later knowledge, later images, readings, the things I have seen in museums or on the web or at a flea market? Is my own memory of the past any more than a nostalgic recreation for old time’s sake now? The past is another visitor attraction with an over-priced gift shop and a queue for the loos.

    Time flies – you’ll need a pretty good stopwatch to do that. They go too fast even for Edward James Muggeridge’s banks of cameras.

    Comment by Sue Jones — September 30, 2011 @ 6:05 pm

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