Thursday, 24 May 2012

Happy birthday Spaghetti Junction

I wrote this for the Guardian's Comment is Free site today:

Happy Birthday Spaghetti Junction, 40 today. As it enters middle age, it is worth reflecting on what the Gravelly Hill Interchange near Birmingham says about our changing cultural attitudes to roads. For when it was completed, it generated a certain amount of giddy excitement. A Burton-on-Trent coach firm ran guided tours to see it, and it featured as a scenic backdrop in the 1973 film musical Take Me High, in which Cliff Richard plays a merchant banker who lives on a canal barge in Birmingham. In one scene, with a moody instrumental of Moog synthesisers playing in the background, Cliff whooshes along the canals in a mini-hovercraft, admiring the new junction.

The big excitement 40 years ago was that Spaghetti Junction completed the missing “Midlands link” of the M6. In 1962 the minister for transport, Ernest Marples, had announced plans to complete a thousand miles of motorway in the next ten years. The target was met and Spaghetti Junction meant that motorists could get the full benefit of this thousand miles. Motoring journalists drove the 300 miles from London to the Scottish borders and reported back excitedly on this epic journey, made without meeting a traffic light or roundabout. One newspaper headline read, “I’ll take the Spaghetti road and I’ll be in Scotland afore ye”. Another, just in time for the late May bank holiday, read, “Spaghetting away from it all”.

But Spaghetti Junction was also finished just as the early excitement about motorways was curdling into disillusionment and anxiety about their effects on congestion and the environment. That is why, for such a complex junction, it is quite frugal with land, using just 30 acres. And of course the nickname it was immediately given is not especially flattering. The main thrust of the metaphor was that spaghetti just arranges itself as a series of random loops on a plate – which is how messy and unplanned the new junction seemed to the British sensibility. Motorists worried that they would drive round it in perpetuity, unable to find their way out. In fact, it is quite easy to navigate, and if you are driving through it on the M6, all you have to do is keep straight ahead.

The main problem with Spaghetti Junction’s image today is that its stanchions are made of that unloved material, concrete. As the signature material of the 1960s, concrete has become the scapegoat for more complex and intractable social failures. Concrete is now an all-purpose metaphor for the supposed planning disasters of that era - not just the flyovers but the related inner-city landscape of pedestrian subways and tower blocks. Many subways have since been replaced by footbridges, and the ceremonious dynamiting of high rises has been a common sight since the Thatcher era. But the flyovers cannot be demolished without creating traffic mayhem and were anyway, at least technically, a success, being durable, safe and easy to use. And so they have remained, as a stigmatic image embodying the false hopes of that era.

But there is no accounting for taste. “Seen from the air, the ribbons of curving carriageway seem to interlace with the pleasing intricacy of an Elizabethan knot garden,” enthused Clive Aslet, the conservationist and Country Life editor, about Spaghetti Junction in 2005. For a while today Spaghetti Junction was trending on Twitter, and the muddled affection apparent in some of the tweets was not always ironic. Perhaps, now the excitement of the motorway age is a distant memory, there is space for some double-edged nostalgia about its naive embrace of the future. Spaghetti Junction reminds us how long ago the third quarter of the twentieth century now seems - an era that Jonathan Meades calls “that brief and far off parenthesis when Britain was modern”.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Seven Up!

In 1964, Michael Apted worked as a researcher and assistant producer on a documentary for Granada TV called Seven Up! The programme, broadcast in May of that year, took fourteen children from diverse backgrounds: Neil and Peter, from a state school in a middle-class suburb of Liverpool; Nick, from a small village in the Yorkshire Dales where he was the only pupil in the schoolhouse; Sue, Lynn, Jackie and Tony, from elementary schools in London’s East End; Symon and Paul, from a Barnardo’s children’s home in Middlesex; Bruce, from a boarding school in Hampshire; and Andrew, Charles, John and Suzy, from exclusive, fee-paying day schools in London. With the programme’s director, Paul Almond, Apted talked to the children about their lives, interests and aspirations, and solicited their views on class, money, race, the opposite sex and school life. They were then brought together to be filmed on a day out in London, when they were treated to a party and a trip to the zoo, and were left to their own devices in an adventure playground. The aim of the programme, according to the narrator Douglas Keay, was to test the Jesuit maxim, ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,’ and to provide ‘a glimpse of England in the year 2000’. Although it was initially envisaged as a one-off, Apted has returned to the project in various formats every seven years, following the children through from adolescence to middle age in five additional films: Seven Plus Seven (1970), Twenty-One (1977), 28 Up (1984), 35 Up (1991), 42 Up (1998), 49 Up (2005) and now 56 Up.

The introduction of lightweight 16mm film cameras and smaller, synchronous sound equipment in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the increasing speed of films which enabled most scenes to be filmed in natural light, allowed the documentarist to penetrate into previously unfilmable areas. These technological changes helped to create new forms of documentary-making in British Free Cinema, American Direct Cinema and French Cinéma Vérité, with an emphasis on location filming, spontaneity and intimacy rather than staged situations and didactic commentary.

Seven Up! was partly a product of these technological changes and their transition to television. The film offers unprecedented glimpses into the daily routines of children, albeit sometimes through reenactments. It shows Neil skipping down a suburban street in his duffle coat, and doing free movement to music in a PE lesson; Suzy surreptitiously scratching her nose in ballet class; John, Andrew and Charles singing ‘Waltzing Matilda’ in Latin; and Tony acting as milk monitor and being told off for turning round in a lesson. There are impressionistic snatches of children’s lives in the form of playground fights, skipping games, communal school dinners and the queue for Saturday morning pictures. In one scene, the camera even adopts Tony’s eye view as he moves across the schoolyard and into a line of pupils. The film thus attempts to use the new technological sophistication of documentary-making to examine children’s culture on its own terms, in the manner of Iona and Peter Opie’s influential book, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959), which sees the initiation rites and secret languages of the playground as expressions of a tribal culture with its own hierarchies and meanings.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Look out for my ghost

The Mass Observation Archive invited me to give a lecture at the University of Sussex last week. It's the first time I've been back since I was a postgrad there years ago, but you can't go home again. When I left, the library computers had fat-screen monitors and the librarians all had pictures of Colin Firth as Mr Darcy on their desks. The library is now unrecognisable, with 'quiet zones', 'silent zones' and social hubs. I wandered invisibly among the frantically texting students thinking of these lines by Patrick Kavanagh:

On Pembroke Road look out for my ghost,
Dishevelled with shoes untied,
Playing through the railings with little children,
Whose children have long since died.

On Saturday I did a talk at the British Design Conference at the V&A. One of the other speakers was Maurice Howard, a professor of art history at Sussex who has curated the current exhibition on Basil Spence (the campus architect) at the University of Sussex, celebrating its 50th anniversary. One colour photograph he showed of Falmer House, the student union building, pulled me up short. It looked like it had been taken last week, but it was actually 50 years old. I thought of the hundreds of thousands of students, most of them now ghosts, who have walked through its quad over the last half century. The bright, unfaded colours of the photograph made it seem like what Thomas Hardy called 'an eyelid's soundless blink'.

Actually, I think I did see the ghost of my 25-year-old self in the library, hurrying off to the stacks to check a reference for a thesis that will be read by precisely two people, one of whom is now dead. I tried to catch up with him, but I no longer know my way round the bookshelves, and when I turned a corner he was gone.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Laugh out loud

Glancing over something I wrote five years ago in my book Queuing for Beginners ...

Email occupied a confusing middle ground between the premeditation of a letter and the expressiveness of a phone call. To compensate for the absence of verbal intonation in email, early users of message boards used ‘emoticons’ and ‘smileys’ to denote things like ‘only joking’ and ‘happy,’ and acronyms such as LOL (laugh out loud, sometimes embarrassingly mistaken for ‘lots of love’).

... I must conclude, with a heavy heart, that the prime minister is not one of my regular readers.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Mass Observation and Me

Tomorrow I'm doing this talk at the University of Sussex on Mass Observation:

If anyone reading this would like to come, you're very welcome (though you have to RSVP). Topics discussed will include the shouts and gestures of motorists, gasmasks, the 1953 Coronation and the Morecambe and Wise Show ...

Saturday, 5 May 2012

A slightly longer version of the piece I did for last week's Guardian about the new oral history:

Over the last few weeks I have been eavesdropping on private conversations. I heard a homeless South African tell a charity worker how moved he was to be offered a sandwich and a cup of tea after walking 20 miles through Lincolnshire; and an elderly Hull woman, reminded by her daughter how much of her life she had spent pregnant with her 10 children, concluding that she “must have been bonkers”. The Listening Project has been harvesting these intimate gobbets and broadcasting them before the Radio 4 news.

The launch of the Listening Project by the BBC and the British Library coincides with the return next month of another pioneering work of oral history: 56 Up, the latest in Michael Apted’s now eight-part series stretching over almost half a century, following a group of ordinary Britons from the age of seven into what is now deep middle age.

Both projects reveal how new technologies can add inestimable value to our bank of collective memory. The Listening Project, which allows anyone to upload their own conversations, is aided by smartphones and computers with inbuilt microphones and audio software, and the ease of editing and placing sound archives online. When Granada’s original 1964 documentary Seven Up! was broadcast, it was the recent arrival of the Ampex video recorder, before which all television was broadcast live and vanished into the ether like a dream, which allowed a medium without a memory to become an evocative archive of our changing daily lives. Even the changing technologies themselves seem to speak of time and transience: the juxtaposition of grainy, 405-line black and white footage of the children of 1964 with high-definition colour images of the same people in later life is inescapably affecting.

Of course, these brief entries into other people’s lives are fragmentary and artificial. We might think we know the heartbreaking story of Neil, the cheerful seven-year-old from Liverpool in Apted’s series who descended into depression and homelessness. But we don’t really. Every life is too misshapen and strange to be enclosed within a project that momentarily interrupts it with a ten-minute update at seven year intervals. The same reservations can be made about the Listening Project, in which people know their conversations are being recorded and the material has been chosen, shaped and edited, perhaps especially to work on and move the listener.

But these reservations tend to melt away when you listen to a couple talking straightforwardly about the husband’s early onset Alzheimer’s, or two retired workers recalling their tears at the closing of Huntley and Palmers’ biscuit factory in Reading. The conversations bump into important bits of social history by accident: measured voices describe their encounters with the Normandy beaches or the Kray twins. It is the messy, unscientific, improvised nature of this kind of oral history that can make it so eloquent.

What is striking about both the Listening Project and the Seven Up films is how much the participants want to be seen as the authors of their own lives. Apted, who describes himself as “a pretty neurotic, ambitiously driven, middle-class person from Ilford” has tended to make sense of his participants’ lives in terms of achievement and reward. In 42 Up, he bravely asked one of the participants, Jackie, if she could have done more with her life, and she bristled: “I’ve just started all over again, but with three children. But that’s life.”

And so a project which began as a way of thinking about the determining effects of social class – a hunch that it has mostly and depressingly corroborated – has also become about what the filmmaker Mike Leigh calls “the entirely disorganised and irrational business of living”. The last time we saw them, in 49 Up, Apted’s subject were simply pottering round, worrying about their now teenage children and aging parents, and most had nothing very concrete to show for the last seven years. But that’s life – and every life, even the most comfortable and uneventful, is a uniquely rich, endlessly surprising and quietly heroic thing. The Listening Project conveys the same sense of inclusiveness. The story of a transgender woman or an asylum seeker sits naturally alongside that of an old married couple contemplating the “last chapter” of their lives.

Oral history is flourishing in other ways. Craig Taylor’s Londoners, a book of conversations with lost property clerks, manicurists and currency traders, will tell you more about the multiform life of the capital than a lifetime reading the Evening Standard. The verbatim theatre of Alecky Blythe, Gregory Burke and others is creating absorbing drama out of recorded transcripts. And the organisation that started it all, Mass Observation, is celebrating its 75th anniversary with a new wave of interest, its archive better mined than ever by writers and historians like David Kynaston, Juliet Gardiner and Simon Garfield. I hope the BBC Listening Project is being safely stored in a format that can be read in another half century - for Apted’s series of films show that ordinary life, when combined with the passing of time, can be as spellbinding as any fictional family saga.