Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The cardboard car

One of the memorable sights of the weekend of 11 and 12 November 1989, after the Berlin Wall came down, was the endless stream of mustard yellow Trabant P601s, or ‘Trabis’, trundling through the checkpoints from East to West. Jubilant onlookers celebrated with the Trabiklopfen, an energetic thump on the car’s roof.

During the Cold War, while Mercedes, Audi and Volkswagen spearheaded West German economic success, the Trabi was the command economy on wheels. Nicknamed ‘the cardboard car’, it was made from Duroplast, an unrecyclable resin strengthened by Soviet cotton wool waste and compressed brown paper. Its two-stroke engine burned a petrol and oil mix producing ten times as much pollution as Western cars, although the accelerator pedal did have a point of resistance halfway down to discourage excessive fuel consumption.

The Trabi remained in production, virtually unchanged, for a quarter of a century. It was produced as either a ‘limousine’ or ‘estate’ car, in ‘standard,’ ‘special request’ and ‘de luxe’ versions, the latter having such exciting additional features as a different-coloured roof, chromium-plated bumpers and headrests. There was also a convertible Trabi with the trendy name, ‘Tramp’, a civilian version of the GDR army jeep.

After reunification, the East German market was flooded with used Western cars and the Trabant factory in Zwickau quickly went bust. East Germans, who had been on 10-year waiting lists for Trabis, now abandoned them in the street or exchanged them for more valuable currency like Western cigarettes.

But the process of kitsch recuperation soon began. Street artists made makeshift sculptures from these abandoned cars, and smart cafĂ© bars recycled Trabi parts as furniture. Today, Berlin shops sell Trabi T-shirts, key-rings and die-cast models, and modish young people drive Trabis with jazzy paint jobs and souped-up engines. Tourists can go on a ‘Wild East Trabi Safari’ tour. You drive around East Berlin in a Trabi convoy, with a tour guide in the lead car providing a radio commentary, and at the end receive your ‘Trabi driving licence’. Trabi chic is part of the vogue for ostalgie, a tongue-in-cheek nostalgia for the old GDR which sees its pretensions to state-of-the-art modernity as endearingly dated. We can view the primitive rustbuckets of the past with a mixture of comedy and sentiment, safe in the knowledge that we will never have to drive the things.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The terrible privacy of the Toyota Prius

I’m appearing at the Off the Shelf Festival in Sheffield this Saturday with Jonathan Coe. Come one, come all: I’m not sure of the details but I imagine it involves exchanging folding money with someone, although I don’t anticipate ticket touts and teeming hordes.

Coe’s novel, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, has some parallels with On Roads. It’s about a sales rep who drives off to Shetland in a Toyota Prius, hangs out at service stations, falls in love with his satnav voice, and loses his way in the motorway system in a similar manner to Donald Crowhurst in the Doldrums on the solo round-the-world yacht race in the late 1960s. There are some telling descriptions of the motorway as non-place:

There was absolutely nothing to see, nothing to look at, apart from the little punctuation marks that broke up the motorway itself – roadsigns, chevrons, gantries, bridges, all of which merged into one indecipherable, meaningless sequence after a while anyway. There was countryside on both sides but it was featureless: the occasional house, the occasional reservoir, the occasional glimpse of a distant town or village, but apart from that, nothing. It occurred to me that the areas bordering our motorways must make up a huge proportion of our countryside, and yet nobody ever visits them or walks through them, or has any experience of them other than the monotonous, regularly unfolding view you get through the car window. These areas are wastelands; unaccounted for.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

The outlook is bleak

It’s odd how attached we get to the weather forecast, that little extempore lecture to the nation, that consoling quotidian ritual that comes after the news. There has been a forecast on the BBC almost every day since 26 March 1923. The exception was during the Second World War, when the radio forecast was suspended in case it was helpful to the enemy, although the government partially relented in October 1944, allowing information to be given about the weather the day before yesterday. ‘Most people,’ the BBC bulletin stated laconically on the day the ban was lifted, ‘will have cause to remember it because in most parts of the country it just rained and rained.’ ‘Weather forecasts are a welcome return,’ wrote a Mass Observation diarist when the weather forecasts returned properly in 1945, ‘and we don’t care how many deep depressions threaten from Iceland or anywhere.’

Emine Saner from the Guardian contacted me on Thursday with the dismaying news that three of the BBC’s weather presenters are to be culled in a cost-cutting exercise. I was happy to express my admiration for one of the threatened presenters, Rob McElwee:

The journalist Brian Cathcart, author of an excellent short book about rain, recently tweeted that McElwee’s weather forecasts were ‘prose-poems’. It’s true, they are - and they also tell you what the weather’s going to be like, which is not as common as you might think.

This little efficiency drive is all, of course, just an amuse-bouche for the gargantuan main course of Wednesday’s announcement of the spending review results, which will I suspect feel similarly arbitary and illogical.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘If news and sports are of the same stuff and texture, then the weather report plays a literally pivotal role in the inversion and return from tragical or serious impressions of everyday events to their comical or farcical identities …

The programmers appeal to the archaic side of the divining arts in order to produce a timeless climate of myth … the myths which structure the manifold allegories also fabricate the news which frames the weather. In this fashion the meteorologist gives credence to catastrophe by forcing news to be subject to daily rhythms seemingly more timeless than the present currents of international events. He underscores their potentiality by folding them into patterns of the everyday, allowing us therefore to conclude that a balanced meditation on death (the news) and life (the weather) will allow anything to pass through the interstice of history and myth …

A most extraordinary and most everyday production of le quotidien, then, is the weather. It establishes a split between news just passed and future events and allows the occasion, in the time of the climate, for a fake presence to body forth through the report.’ – Tom Conley

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Don't burn your books

This piece by me about ebook readers was in the Guardian earlier this week:

The relentless rise of the ebook is turning me into a resentful Luddite. I want to snatch that smugly tiny ereader from the woman reading in bed in the Sony advert, and give her a doorstop of a hardback that will make her arms ache. As for that trendy young couple reading on the beach in the Amazon commercial, I want to kick sand in their third generation Kindles until they stop working.

My dislike of the ebook is partly motivated by selfishness: as an author I would like my words to end up in some concrete, permanent receptacle, not an erasable computer file which the reader does not even properly own. But mostly it is motivated by irritation at the orthodoxy, typified by Amazon’s widely publicised announcement this summer that its American ebook sales had overtaken those of its hardbacks, that there is an irresistible momentum in favour of digital downloads and the days of the printed book are numbered.

In search of counterevidence, I turn to the experience of the most Luddite author of the last century: George Mackay Brown, the reclusive Orkney poet who regarded the industrial revolution as a terrible wrong turning, warned against our worship of the “synthetic goddess” of progress, and used his column in the local newspaper to moan about voguish inventions like transistor radios and telephones. “What brisk hard-headed common-sense dehydrated little manikins we are nowadays,” he admonished his fellow Orcadians in 1955, “strutting around with our cheque-books!” He reserved his most caustic comments for television, which finally arrived on Orkney in the mid-1950s and which he feared would deliver a death blow to the already endangered activities of reading and communal storytelling.

Time passed, and television found its place on Orkney. It became a mild addiction, which weakened but did not come close to destroying the art of pub storytelling or the pleasures of the printed word. In his later years, Mackay Brown reluctantly gave “half a genuflection” to the goddess of progress. He belatedly acquired a black and white TV, a telephone, a fridge and a digital watch, becoming fascinated by its “dance of dark numbers”. He even listed watching TV as one his recreations in Who’s Who, alongside reading, while he carried on writing in longhand about twelfth-century Orcadian sagas.

I believe that Mackay Brown represents, in extreme form, how many of us late adopters respond to new technology. As the historian of technology David Edgerton argues, our understanding of historical progress tends to be “innovation-centric” rather than “use-centred”. We obsess about exciting new inventions and underestimate how much they will have to struggle against the forces of habit and inertia in our daily lives. Old-fashioned but serviceable technologies often prove surprisingly resilient. There was much amusement last year when the expenses scandal revealed that the former MP Chris Mullin, the Mackay Brown of Westminster, still had a black and white television set – yet, according to the most recent count, more than 28,000 other households also still have monochrome licences. A few decades ago we thought radio a dying form, but it is now thriving in the age of new media. Listeners remain emotionally attached to their analogue radios and a recent report from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport recommended that the switch-off of the FM signal be delayed, possibly indefinitely.

The valedictories for what is now disdainfully called “dead tree publishing” may be similarly premature. The lessons from history are that technological progress is uneven, that consumers are often sceptical of techno-hype, and that new technologies do not supplant old ones in linear fashion. Look at the iPad’s ebook reader: your book purchase is stored on a real-looking wooden bookcase and you take it off the shelf and flip its virtual pages over with your fingers. Why, it’s exactly like … reading a book! So long as the ebook continues to pay it the compliment of mimicry, I suspect that the printed book need not fear for its life just yet.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

So many tapeworms

All the anniversary programmes about the Battle of Britain have reminded me of the ‘scrap for victory’ campaign that began in summer 1940, aimed at collecting and melting down scrap metal to build Spitfires. The most controversial part of this campaign was the removal of the railings around London’s parks and squares. The Times welcomed the scrapping of the railings on aesthetic grounds, as one would the removal of ‘an unbecoming pair of spectacles’ on ‘the face of a pretty woman’; others saw it as a democratic, egalitarian gesture, allowing access to squares which had been reserved for the well-to-do residents of the surrounding houses. Unsurprisingly, the inhabitants of the squares were less keen, believing that the removal of the railings threatened their property values, and presented an open invitation for the lower classes to play football and sunbathe on their private property. They pointed out that the scrap value of the railings was probably less than the cost of removal, and that less symbolically charged items, such as redundant tramlines, had not been uprooted. Since tanks and spitfires cannot be made from cast iron, many rumours circulated that the railings proved to be unusable and had to be secretly dumped into the English Channel, the North Sea or some remote Welsh valley.

In his Tribune column in August 1944, George Orwell praised the removal of the railings as a social experiment which had opened up more green spaces to ordinary people, allowing them to stay in parks until late without being ‘hounded out at closing times by grim-faced keepers’. He noted that, with the end of the war imminent, they were erecting makeshift wooden railings around London squares 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 England’s ‘keep off the grass’ culture was an acceptance of the legalised theft of land ownership, and a victory for the few thousand landowning families in England who were ‘just about as useful as so many tapeworms’.

Orwell used the railings controversy as a way of imagining what sort of society Britain would become after the war. If there was to be a true social transformation, he suggested, it would occur in the mundane spaces and practices of daily life, where inequities of money and class were naturalised. Orwell was not alone in thinking like this. In the Architectural Review, Gordon Cullen developed the concept of ‘townscape’ in articles about park railings, public squares and traffic roundabouts. One of his concerns was the needless restriction of access, the replacement of ‘Common Ground’ with an ‘Urban no-man’s-land, germ-free, hygienic but socially utterly sterile’. He particularly criticised the ‘railing mentality’ that cordoned off public space and then compensated with a token gesture towards amenity such as a flower bed or rockery.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘I like to have time and comfort in the loo. The bathroom is important and I couldn't live in a culture that doesn't respect it.’ – Tony Blair, A Journey