Sunday, 29 July 2012

Pale blue dot

I've written elsewhere on this blog about Voyager 1, the probe that was launched almost exactly 35 years ago, in August 1977, and which NASA has just announced is now leaving the Heliopause, the last bit of our solar system, making it the first human-made object to enter interstellar space. It also appears in Jake Arnott’s new novel, The House of Rumour, in a scene which transports the reader from Ian Fleming arguing with his wife in their Jamaican house to Voyager 1 to show how insignificant this argument is in the great scheme of things. When Voyager 1 and 2 were launched there was much excitement about the golden disc containing birdsong, music, pictures of the Sydney Opera House and the Pyramids and messages recorded in various languages (‘Greetings to our friends in the stars. We wish that we will meet you someday’) that would help us to communicate with hypothetical aliens. In fact Voyager 1 will not pass another planet for another 40,000 years and its real significance is its reminder of our own marginal place in the universe.

Writers have been reminding us of this for thousands of years. In Cicero’s ‘Dream of Scipio’, a Roman general finds himself looking down upon Carthage ‘from a high place full of stars, shining and splendid’, and realises how small and puny it is from that perspective. Then there is (the atheist) Rupert Brooke's poem, Clouds:

They say the Dead die not, but remain
Near to the rich heirs of their grief and mirth.
I think they ride the calm mid-heaven, as these,
In wise majestic melancholy train,
And watch the moon, and the still-raging seas,
And men, coming and going on the earth.

And in his book Pale Blue Dot (1994) the late Carl Sagan wrote this about the famous 1990 photograph taken from Voyager 1, showing the earth as a tiny speck of colour in a square of black:

'From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.'

On this day

'Walked to Oxford Street, took cab home. The cabman insisted on two shillings, which I resisted; and, on his persisting, I made him drive me to the police office, where a deposit was made for the measurement of the ground. I walked home.' - Charles Macready, 29 July 1837

'Sat and watched the royal wedding on TV ... The image presented to the rest of the world was of a Britain about as socially advanced as France before the French Revolution! We are slipping back to eighteenth-century politics. We've got to fight like anything to recover the position that we had even in 1945. I had the feeling most strongly. It was feudal propaganda, turning citizens into subjects.' - Tony Benn, 29 July 1981

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Phantom railings

I really like the look of “Phantom railings”, a public art intervention at Malet St. Gardens, Bloomsbury, running from 24 July to 20 August as part of the Cultural Olympiad. Developed by a collective of artists and academics at the Centre for Creative Collaboration at the University of London, it is 'an interactive sound sculpture that uses the move­ments of pedestrians to evoke the ghost of a lost iron fence'. This is how they describe it:

'The site of the intervention is a garden in Bloomsbury, whose railings were removed as part of the 1940s war effort and never replaced, leav­ing a line of iron stumps along the surrounding wall. Using sensor-based acoustic devices, the installation makes evident the absence of railings by creating a resemblance of the familiar sound produced by running a stick along an iron fence. The pitch of each railing’s "sound" is set to vary according to the pedes­trian’s speed and proximity, allowing the “phantom railings” to be played and tuned as desired.'

You can find out more on the website
I wrote this four years ago about the railings around London squares:

In all the anniversary discussions of May 68, I have not seen any reference to Britain's most unusual, homegrown variation on the Parisian evenements . Forty years ago this month, in Notting Hill, a loose alliance of hippies, community workers and locals scaled the gates of the private garden squares and claimed them for the people. The psychedelic poet and playwright Neil Oram called the occupation a symbolic quest to convert "unturned on people" and start "a tidal wave which is about to wash away the square world".

As you may already have guessed, this didn't happen. But the Notting Hill insurgents did succeed in a more modest aim. They persuaded the council to buy the overgrown, privately owned Powis Square and turn it into a playground. Campaigners poured on to the grass and erected a banner: "Powis Square belongs to the people at last."

Granted, this isn't quite as dramatic as students from the Sorbonne defending the Latin Quarter with barricades built from iron railings and paving stones. But protests against railed-off gardens have a distinguished place in the English radical tradition. When cast-iron railings began to appear widely in the mid-19th century they were a hated symbol of the enclosure of common land. The Reform League marched on Hyde Park in 1866, pulling down the railings and trampling on the flower beds. And when the railings around London's private squares were removed for salvage during the second world war, many welcomed it as a democratic gesture. At the end of the war George Orwell noted that makeshift wooden railings were being erected so that "the lawful denizens of the squares can make use of their treasured keys again, and the children of the poor can be kept out". For Orwell, the resilience of Britain's keep-off-the-grass culture was a victory for its few thousand landowning families, who were "just about as useful as so many tapeworms".

The idea that these gardens might ever have become permanently communal now seems rather quaint. In a scene from the 1999 film Notting Hill that unconsciously mirrors the 1968 occupation, Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts climb surreptitiously into the private Rosmead Gardens, a few blocks away from Powis Square. But Grant is no one's idea of a long-haired revolutionary ("whoops-a-daisy!" he says, as he slips), and at the end of the film we see them both relaxing in the gardens, presumably having bought one of the surrounding houses.
Personally, I cannot see why private garden squares are any more invidious than private back gardens - which just goes to show, I suppose, that I am a liberal wuss who will be no use to anyone when the revolution comes. More importantly, it shows that we now live in a relentlessly privatised society, in which postcode prestige and gated communities (both official and unofficial) are the norm. If you have to pay several million pounds for your Notting Hill house, then it seems reasonable enough to expect a key to the garden square.

No one today would think, as Orwell did, that railings reinforce the legalised theft of land ownership. Over the past few years English Heritage has been campaigning for the restoration of the railings in London's squares as "a vital component of the public realm". In my own area of Liverpool, I have noticed people installing traditional railings outside their houses, in the pursuit of what estate agents call "kerb appeal".

It is easy to dismiss the occupation of the Notting Hill squares as countercultural self-indulgence. But these revolutionaries realised that social change had to take place in the mundane spaces of everyday life, where inequities of money and class are naturalised. Today we look through railings as though they are invisible; we should remember that what they really mean is "keep out".

Mundane quote for the day: 'No one perhaps has ever felt passionately towards a lead pencil.' - Virginia Woolf

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Ziggy's stardust

I did this for the Guardian yesterday.

On Thursday, 6 July 1972, halfway through an edition of Top of the Pops, David Bowie performed his new single, “Starman”. Dressed in a multicoloured lycra jumpsuit, he put his arm languidly round his guitarist Mick Ronson and looked seductively into his eyes. Now, exactly 40 years later, Dylan Jones has written a 200-page book, When Ziggy Played Guitar, all about those three-and-a-half minutes of television. “It was thrilling, slightly dangerous, transformative,” writes Jones, who was 12 at the time. “For me, and for those like me, it felt that the future had finally arrived.”

Jones is not alone. It would almost be quicker to list the pop performers and writers of his generation who have not cited this broadcast as a watershed in their musical and sexual education. Basildon was a factory, working-class town,” Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode once recalled. “Bowie gave me a hope that there was something else … I just thought he wasn’t of this earth.” The radio presenter Mark Radcliffe, then a 14-year-old pupil at Bolton School, thought that Bowie and Ronson had “arrived from another planet where men flirted with each other, made exhilarating music and wore Lurex knee socks”.

In 1972, less than five per cent of British homes had more than one television. Most teenagers avidly watched Top of the Pops, as the only chart music show on TV, but so did their parents, most of whom had grown up before rock’n’roll, and something unfolding unexpectedly on the living room set could uncover a troublesome issue that ordinarily remained unspoken.

Just before he launched his Ziggy persona in January 1972, Bowie had told Melody Maker he was bisexual. And on 1 July, about 700 people walked from Trafalgar Square to Hyde Park in the first gay pride march. The world was changing, but not fast enough. While a pop star putting his arm round another man on television might not look very revolutionary now, it seems to have been a liberating moment for young people coming to terms with their sexualities. The crime writer Jake Arnott, then aged 11, recreated the Top of the Pops performance in his back garden with his best friend Pete, who had hennaed his hair like Bowie, “feeling a strange sense of excitement as he put his arm around me”.

But did this moment really “create havoc in millions of sitting rooms all over Britain”, as Jones suggests? We do not know, because no fossil record of its contemporary effect on viewers remains. In 1972 there were no Twitter hashtags to collate an instant collective response, and it was only in the 1980s that newspapers, faced with declining readerships, really began to cling parasitically to the younger medium of television as a source of comment and gossip. So Bowie’s performance inspired no press coverage or public reaction at the time, simply vanishing into the ether to make way for the Goodies at 8pm.

All we have are people’s memories of the event, and viewers often misremember what they see on television, an inherently evanescent, momentary form – especially in those days before domestic video recorders. Perhaps these people are remembering having seen it repeated, because it is one of the few Bowie broadcasts around this time not to have been wiped – although there was much excitement last December when a retired BBC cameraman came forward with a lost recording of “The Jean Genie” on Top of the Pops in January 1973. Despite the TOTP “Starman” being repeated often, people still misremember it. When Alan McGee, founder of Creation Records, recalled seeing “Mick Ronson on 10-inch platforms, bending over, giving the guitar fellatio”, this must be a case of the wish fathering the thought. Bowie did simulate fellatio on Ronson’s guitar in concert, but it would have got him taken off air at primetime on BBC1.

One of the traits of popular collective memory is that it likes to fasten on landmark moments when everything was transformed and after which nothing was ever the same. But the truth is always subtler and historical change always more of a continuum. The turning of Bowie’s “Starman” performance into a seminal moment probably has something to do with nostalgic regret for the seemingly lost capacity of multichannel television to create these shared, cataclysmic moments. But all those who saw the performance repeated again on the recent Bowie Night on BBC4 can surely agree on one thing. Even 40 years on, it remains an electrifying piece of television.