Peebles High School Film Club

 

© Handmaid Films / Python (Monty) Pictures / Orion Pictures

 

The death of Terry Jones last month prompted many tributes – obviously because he was a member of Monty Python, one of the most influential comedy teams of the 20th century, but also because he was a skilled (though underrated) film director.  Indeed, a few of the tributes cited the Jones-directed Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) as being the funniest movie of all time.

 

I don’t know if it’s the funniest, but I’d surely put Life of Brian in my favourite half-dozen comedy movies.  One interesting thing about the film is that it’s practically part of the DNA of modern British cultural identity.  Lines like “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a  very naughty boy!” have become national catchphrases and Eric Idle got to sing the film’s climactic song Always Look on the Bright Side of Life at the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games.  Yet at the time of its release, it was incredibly controversial.

 

Its tale of an amiable, innocuous oaf called Brian (Graham Chapman) born in the Holy Land at the same time as Jesus, and then getting continually mistaken for Jesus as he bumbles through life, put more than a few religious noses out of joint.  In Britain, the film attracted the ire of the usual sanctimonious suspects: Mary Whitehouse, Malcolm Muggeridge, the Nationwide Festival of Light and Glasgow’s Pastor Jack Glass (a Scottish Mini-Me of the Reverend Ian Paisley).  It was banned in various municipalities.  The Welsh town of Aberystwyth was a particular hold-out – it didn’t get publicly shown there until 2009 when, amusingly, the town’s mayor was none other than the former actress Sue Jones-Davies, who’d played Judith Iscariot in the film.

 

And yet, despite it being such a hot potato, I remember being shown Life of Brian at the start of the 1980s, when I would have been about 15, on a big screen in the assembly hall of my school, Peebles High School.  It was shown to an audience of a hundred or more pupils by one of the teachers.  When I think about this now, and recall the censorious and disapproving mood of the time and how much the religious establishment detested the movie, I find this pretty amazing.

 

Life of Brian was shown as part of the programme for that year’s Peebles High School Film Club. The club was run by an English teacher called Dr Mike Kellaway.  I have to say that these days when people my age gather in a pub in Peebles and Mike Kellaway’s name comes up in the conversation, it’s usually greeted with sighs, winces, shaking of heads and rolling of eyes because the guy had some serious failings, which I’ll talk about later.  However, just now, let me relate the story of the Film Club, which I actually believe reflects well on Kellaway, or as he was also known, ‘the Doc’.

 

First, some historical and geographical context.  In the 1970s Peebles was a small country town of several thousand people.  It had its own cinema, the Playhouse, up until 1977.  Then the Playhouse closed down and thereafter, if you wanted to go to see a movie in a cinema, you had to travel to Penicuik (10 miles away), Galashiels (18 miles away) or Edinburgh (21 miles away).

 

Your only other way to see films was to watch them on the era’s three terrestrial TV channels.  Talk of cable and satellite TV still seemed like science fiction to most people, and concepts like the Internet, YouTube, online streaming and so on were incomprehensible.  Miss a film at the cinema and you had to wait four or five years before it might appear on TV and of course you were still limited by what the programmers chose to show on their schedules, already congested with TV series.  Also, there were no such things as DVDs and DVD players, and video cassettes had barely made an appearance – even by 1982, only 10% of homes in the UK owned a video cassette recorder.  So in other words, if you were a film-lover in a Scottish country town without a cinema in the late 1970s and early 1980s you were, basically, screwed.

 

The Film Club was meant to address this problem.  Membership was open to pupils from third year to sixth year.  They paid a membership fee of a few pounds at the start of the academic year and got to see a film – sometimes two on a double bill – most Monday evenings during term-time.  Occasionally, certain films would be for pupils in fifth and sixth year only ‘because of their adult nature’, as the club’s promotional leaflets put it.  So Monday evenings at the school would usually see the assembly hall turned into a cinema auditorium.  A big screen was erected at the front and Mike Kellaway, the Doc, would set up a projector on a table at the back.  Into this projector were fed spools of film that he’d ordered from a catalogue designed for private film clubs like ours.

 

I joined as soon as I could, in 1978, and renewed my membership every year until I finished school in 1982.  One thing that strikes me about the club now was that Kellaway was potentially walking on thin ice because some of the films he showed, like the aforementioned Life of Brian, could be accused of having content unsuitable for schoolkids.  One way that he circumvented this danger was by opening the club’s membership to parents as well.  You could get your folks to come to the school  and watch the films with you.  This was in keeping with the AA film certificate that existed in British cinemas up until 1982, whereby certain films were deemed “suitable for those aged 14 and older… those under that age must be accompanied by an adult.”

 

© British Lion Films / F.A.R. International Films

 

Actually, I don’t remember many Film Club members taking the Doc up on this offer and inviting their folks along.  I certainly didn’t.  Although I recall a guy in my third-year class bringing his mother with him to see one of the first offerings that year, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973).  Sitting next to your mum during the long, explicit sex scene that takes place between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in the middle of that film can’t have been much fun.

 

Thinking about it now, I suspect many of the films shown during those four years were ones close to the Doc’s heart.  He’d have been a young man in the mid-to-late 1960s when a new generation of stars, writers and directors took hold of the reins in Hollywood and elsewhere: Robert Altman, Lindsay Anderson, Michelangelo Antonioni, Warren Beatty, Albert Finney, Mia Farrow, Jane Fonda, David Hemmings, Dustin Hoffman, Norman Jewison, Sidney Lumet, Malcolm McDowell, Roman Polanski, Nicolas Roeg, etc.  It must have been great being a film-fan whose youth coincided with all this.  Everyone in those films was radical and cutting edge on one hand and cool and beautiful on the other, and it was easy to imagine you were those things too.

 

Accordingly, the Film Club’s choices were frequently either socking it to the Man and His traditional conservative values, like If… (1968), Easy Rider (1969), M*A*S*H* (1970), Performance (1970) and Le Cage aux Folles (1978); or simply exuding a glow of youthful, affluent, liberal gorgeousness – usually American, occasionally French or swinging-1960s British – like Blow Up (1966), Un Homme et une Femme (1966), Barefoot in the Park (1967), The Graduate (1967) and Heaven Can Wait (1978).

 

Alas, having worked for many years as a teacher myself, one thing I’ve painfully learned is that to preserve your sanity and faith in humanity, you should not expose your pupils to your favourite things – films, books, music – and expect them to react with the same enthusiasm.  Nothing is more depressing than playing your most cherished late-1960s Rolling Stones album to a class and then discovering that the little thickos think Ed Sheerin is better.  So it was with the Film Club.  Some of those films, which surely meant a lot to the Doc, we just didn’t get.  It didn’t help that we were teenagers.  We saw ourselves both as knowing, blasé hipsters and as tough, hardened cynics reared on the mean streets of, um, Peebles.  If anything struck us as unintentionally funny, silly or lame in those films, we reacted immediately with jeers and laughter.

 

We were particularly unforgiving to any film that seemed old to us.  There were notable exceptions, but I remember us barracking the black-and-white The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) and Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954).  Samurai we didn’t like because we knew it’d been the basis for John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960), which we thought was much better because (1) it was in colour and (2) it didn’t have subtitles.  Today I find it ironic when I hear middle-aged film buffs complain that modern kids are cine-illiterate and incapable of enjoying the classic movies they enjoyed in their youths, back in the 1980s.  In fact, the gap between 2020 and, say, ET (1982) is three times greater than the gap between 1978 and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which we had such a problem with.

 

© Warner Bros.

 

Another film we were brutal towards was Franco Zeferelli’s 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet.  The moment that Leonard Whiting’s Romeo first came onscreen wearing a pair of medieval tights, some tosser in the audience shouted: “Imagine gettin’ a hard-yin in those!”  Thereafter, the crotch area of every male character’s tights was watched rigorously; and if we thought we spotted a slight curvature, we screamed with laughter.

 

With depressing regularity, when we got out of order, a disgruntled Doc would have to turn off the projector, switch on the lights, come down to the front and give us a bollocking.

 

Significantly, as my classmates and I progressed through four school grades, got older and acquired a little wisdom and maturity, we found our attitudes to the films changing.  We were baffled by the non-linear structure of Roeg’s Don’t Look Now in 1978 (though fortunately it had Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie’s sex scene, and a good, graphic throat-slashing, to hold our interest).  Yet four years later, we were discussing Roeg’s no-more-linear Performance in enthusiastic and hopefully intellectual-sounding tones.  By 1981 I’d even asked the Doc if he could book David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) for next year’s Film Club – to which he replied, deadpan, “I think most people would find that one a bit obscure.”  And as we grew up, we found ourselves getting increasingly annoyed at the braying, cackling third and fourth-years whom we had to share the club with.  “Those stupid wee shites!” we raged on more than one occasion at the end of a viewing.  “They totally ruined that film for us!”

 

Thankfully, there were plenty of films on the club’s programmes that everyone enjoyed.  Comedies did very well. In addition to Life of Brian, we got Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Jabberwocky (1977), the Billy Connolly tour-documentary Big Banana Feet (1976), at least four Woody Allen efforts – Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas (1971), Play It Again Sam (1972) and Sleeper (1973) – and at least three Mel Brooks ones – Blazing Saddles (1974), Young Frankenstein (1974) and Silent Movie (1976).  The Doc was evidently worried about how we’d react to the later scenes of Blazing Saddles, when the film becomes increasingly ‘meta’ and characters burst out of its western setting and invade the settings of other movies, and he gave us a talk before it started and explained the anarchic effect Brooks was trying to achieve.  However, we hardly noticed when Blazing Saddles broke the fourth wall because we were still guffawing about the much-earlier scene involving the campfire, the plates of beans, and the cowboys farting like mad.  We were such sophisticates.

 

Also approved of were action / thriller movies, such as The Mechanic (1972) and Death Wish (1974), both of which were directed by Michael Winner – the Doc, though he had good taste in movies generally, seemed to have a blind-spot when it came to le cinéma du Winner.  Curiously, the action movie I remember provoking the biggest and most visceral response during my four years in the club was, of all things, Peter Hyams’ Capricorn One (1978).  The audience almost blew off the assembly hall’s roof cheering that film’s finale, when Eliot Gould and Telly Savalas swooped down in an old crop-duster plane and rescued James Brolin from the bad guys.

 

© Paramount Pictures / Shamley Productions

 

What I feel especially grateful for now was that the Film Club allowed me to see certain films where they ought to be seen, on a big, cinematically proportioned screen, as opposed to on a pokey little television set.  I was four years too young in 1979 to see Ridley Scott’s X-rated Alien when it was released in cinemas, but the Film Club gave me the chance to see it in its full, terrifying immensity a couple of years later.  That big screen also gave much, extra impact to Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971) – of which Stephen King once said, “In terms of ideas, the film is an idiotic mishmash.  In terms of image… the film is brilliant” – and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), whose white backgrounds seemed especially suffocating on a large scale.  Best of all, though, was seeing Stanley Kubrick’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey in correspondingly epic dimensions.  I felt I was hurtling alongside Keir Dullea through that stargate at the movie’s climax.

 

And not only did you get to see movies in large form – you got to see them in the presence of a lot of other people too.  This could be a pain when many of those people didn’t appreciate the film, as I’ve said.  When they did appreciate it, though, and the hall was filled with a shared and palpable sense of excitement, the experience was electrifying.  I’ll never forget the terrifying final scenes involving Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin in Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark (1967), which caused everyone in the audience to jump six inches off their seats.  Meanwhile, we shouldn’t have enjoyed Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) because it was old and monochrome and relatively bloodless.  But it managed to scare the bejesus out us while we watched it communally.  In fact, I feel privileged that I got to see Psycho on a big screen, with an audience, at a time when the film’s twist ending hadn’t yet become common knowledge.

 

As I hinted earlier, things didn’t end well for Mike Kellaway at Peebles High School.  Shortly before I finished school, he was discovered to be in a relationship with one of his pupils.  She was above the age of consent, but nonetheless he broke the bond of trust that’s supposed to exist between teachers and pupils and caused much hurt and embarrassment to his family and colleagues.  Astonishing though it seems today, he was allowed in those more lenient times to quietly move away and start a teaching job in another part of Scotland.

 

I really wish I could say that was the end of it.  However, years later, he took his own life after he was suspended at another school over allegations that he was in another relationship with a pupil.  The investigation into these claims was dropped immediately after his death.  And that’s all I know of the matter.

 

Anyway, in Peebles, when my contemporaries and I reminisce about school, Kellaway’s name sometimes crops up and inevitably the conversation turns to the scandal he was embroiled in.  But occasionally we go on to discuss his Film Club and we agree that, whatever pain and mess he caused in his professional and personal life, he showed his pupils some great films, in optimal circumstances; and in some of those students at least, he encouraged a love of cinema.  Look at me now, for example.  I’m obsessed with films and rarely shut up about them.  A good quarter of this blog, if not more, is devoted to the topic.

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

 

Incidentally, here’s a list of all the movies I recall being show at the Film Club between 1978 and 1982.  But I’m sure there are a few gaps in my memory and a few omissions in the list…

 

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), Airplane! (David and Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, 1980), Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), Allegro Non Troppo (Bruno Bozetto, 1976), Bananas (Woody Allen, 1971), Barbarella (Roger Vadim, 1968), Barefoot in the Park (Gene Saks, 1967), Big Banana Feet (Murray Grigor, 1976), Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, 1963), The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963), Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974), Blow Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966), Le Cage aux Folles (Edouard Molinaro, 1978), Camelot (Joshua Logan, 1967), Capricorn One (Peter Hyams, 1978), Car Wash (Michael Schultz, 1976), The China Syndrome (James Bridges, 1979), Dark Star (John Carpenter, 1974), Death Wish (Michael Winner, 1974), Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971), Don’t Look Now (Nicholas Roeg, 1973), Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), Every Which Way but Loose (James Fargo, 1978), From Russia With Love (Terence Young, 1963), Fun with Dick and Jane (Ted Kotcheff, 1977), The Graduate (Mike Nicholls, 1968), Gumshoe (Stephen Frears, 1971), Heaven can Wait (Warren Beatty, Buck Henry, 1978), Un Homme et une Femme (Claude Lelouch, 1966)…

 

If… (Lindsey Anderson, 1968), Jabberwocky (Terry Gilliam, 1977), The Jokers (Michael Winner, 1967), Kelly’s Heroes (Brian Hutton, 1970), Kes (Ken Loach, 1969), The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick, 1955), Lancelot Du Lac (Robert Bresson, 1974), Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970), Lord of the Flies (Peter Brook, 1963), Lord of the Rings (Ralph Bakshi, 1978), Macbeth (Roman Polanski, 1971), M*A*S*H* (Robert Altman, 1970), The Mechanic (Michael Winner, 1972), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, 1975), Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979), Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976), Nosferatu the Vampyre (Werner Herzog, 1980), The Outlaw Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood, 1976), The Odd Couple (Gene Saks, 1968), Performance (Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg, 1970), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (Blake Edwards, 1976), Play It Again Sam (Woody Allen, 1972), Pleasure at Her Majesty’s (Jonathan Miller, Roger Graef, 1976), Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)…

 

The Quiller Memorandum (Michael Anderson, 1966), Rollerball (Norman Jewison, 1975), Romeo and Juliet (Franco Zeferelli, 1968), The Rose (Mark Rydell, 1979), Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968), The Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954), Silent Movie (Mel Brooks, 1976), Sleeper (Woody Allen, 1973), Snoopy Come Home (Bill Melendez, 1972), Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959), The Spy who Came in from the Cold (Martin Ritt, 1965), Stardust (Michael Apted, 1974), Take the Money and Run (Woody Allen, 1969), Tess (Roman Polanski, 1979), That’ll be the Day (Claude Watham, 1973), The Three Musketeers (Richard Lester, 1973), To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962), The Ultimate Warrior (Robert Clouse, 1975), The Vikings (Richard Fleisher, 1958), Wait Until Dark (Terence Young, 1967), The Wrong Box (Bryan Forbes, 1966), Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks, 1974).

 

Boldly going where no chap has gone before

 

© Voyager / Harper Collins Publishers

 

The Sentinel is a collection of nine short stories written between 1945 and 1980 by legendary science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, perhaps most famous for his collaboration with filmmaker Stanley Kubrick that resulted in the movie and book versions of 2001: A Space Odyssey (both 1968).  Indeed the collection’s title story, which was first published in 1951, contains some of the same elements and themes as 2001 and is seen as its forerunner.

 

As you might expect from a science fiction writer like Clarke, The Sentinel treats its readers to descriptions of weird and wonderful alien lifeforms.  In the first and oldest story, Rescue Party, there’s a creature called T’sinadree, who ‘normally employed twelve legs and could use twenty when he was in a hurry, though no one had ever seen him perform this feat.’  There are vast jellyfish-like organisms, ‘more than a mile long’ with ‘scores of dangling tentacles’, floating in the atmosphere of Jupiter in A Meeting with Medusa, while The Songs of Distant Earth offers an underwater species called the Shining Ones, ‘giant squidlike creatures who communicate in the total darkness of the abyss by beautiful displays of multicoloured luminescence.’

 

However, it’s on page 183 of the collection, halfway through a story called Jupiter V, that we meet the strangest and most unexpected lifeform of all.  A woman.

 

Admittedly, the preceding stories had contained occasional, faint but tantalising hints that, somewhere in Clarke’s universe, women might exist.  In Breaking Strain, at a time of crisis, a crewman on board a spaceship reflects briefly about his ‘wife… of whom he was moderately fond’, presumably back home on earth.  In The Sentinel, a geologist inside a vehicle trundling across the moon’s surface describes himself being in the vehicle’s galley ‘by the frying pan waiting, like any terrestrial housewife, for the sausages to brown.’

 

But in Jupiter V, a tale of two rival expeditions engaged in a battle of wits over one of the moons orbiting the solar system’s biggest planet, which has turned out to be a giant spherical spacecraft laden with alien artefacts, Clarke holds back no more.  He actually shows a real, in-the-flesh woman.  She’s called Marianne Mitchell and, while the male characters in the story are scientists, space pilots and, in one case, a photographer commissioned to take pictures of the solar system by Life magazine, she has a less glamorous job: she’s a secretary.  But at least the story’s narrator credits her with having brains.  “I could tell that Marianne was a very intelligent woman,” he remarks.  “It was quite remarkable the way she saw my point of view… in everything I showed her.”  I’d like to think that was Clarke poking ironic fun at his narrator’s unthinking male chauvinism here but, to be honest, I’m not sure.  Also, the narrator expresses frustration that he has to show the dishy Marianne around the airless alien spacecraft while both of them are space-suited up.  “A space-suit is the most perfect chaperone ever devised, confound it.”

 

After this shockingly upfront description of womankind in Jupiter V, the creatures disappear from view again in Clarke’s subsequent stories.  Refugee has a humorous reference to a spaceman’s ‘plump girlfriend’: “He had never quite lived down a blind date on Mars which had given him a completely unwarranted reputation for preferring statuesque blondes.”  In A Meeting with Medusa, a woman’s voice from Mission Control is heard on the hero’s radio for a little while.  It’s not until the final story, A Song of Distant Earth, that a woman plays a prominent role in the plot and isn’t the butt of jokes, but A Song is only six pages long and is actually a synopsis of a never-realised follow-up movie to 2001 that Clarke sketched out for Kubrick.  It feels like a postscript to the collection rather than a story in its own right.

 

So, my first reaction to The Sentinel was ‘Wow!’ – and not ‘Wow!’ in a good way.  It’s a startling reminder of how traditional science fiction, back in the days when Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein were known as ‘the Big Three’, was a blatant, unabashed boys’ club.  As the award-winning writer N.K. Jemisin noted in a recent article, “Fifty years ago in science fiction… Nobody gave a damn about race or gender or any of these other identities.  Everyone was a white guy, and if you wrote a woman, she was a white guy with tits.”  And while female writers have won the Hugo Award for the year’s best sci-fi novel six times in the last decade, there are still dark corners of the sci-fi universe today inhabited by embittered male writers and fans who remain in a huff about girls barging uninvited into their genre and insisting on playing with their toys and taking all the fun out of it for them.

 

However, having got over the fact that Clarke fails to acknowledge the existence of half the human race in these stories, I have to admit I found most of The Sentinel extremely enjoyable.  Breaking Strain, about a spaceship losing its supply of oxygen, starts off as a bog-standard nuts-and-bolts science fiction tale but, while the air leaks out of the ship and the two men on board grow increasingly desperate, we’re treated to some unexpected character development.  Similarly, The Wind from the Sun, while ostensibly about a yacht race from the earth to the moon, is a meditation about aging and achievement that’s as character-driven as the sails of the futuristic yachts in it are solar-driven.

 

A Meeting with Medusa tells the story of an explorer entering the upper atmosphere of Jupiter and encountering a weird airborne ecosystem composed of giant creatures.  By itself, A Meeting is phantasmagorically entertaining – it reminds me of the 1913 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story The Horror of the Heights, which takes place in ‘the jungles of the upper air’ – but Clarke also cannily builds in a twist-ending that gives the story a new perspective.

 

And the title story is rather wonderful.  Like 2001, it features a mysterious alien transmitter on the moon that informs its distant, unseen creators when humanity arrives and interferes with it.  In other words, it lets them know that a technologically advanced civilisation has now evolved on earth.  The Sentinel conveys in just 11 pages both a sense of cosmic wonder and a sense of niggling trepidation.  As its narrator muses at the end: “…they must be very, very old, and the old are often insanely jealous of the young…  If you will pardon so commonplace a simile, we have set off the fire alarm and have nothing to do but wait…  I do not think we will have to wait for long.”

 

By the way, having recently waded through a few stories by other writers from the supposed Golden Age of Science Fiction, such as John W. Campbell’s practically unreadable 1938 novella Who Goes There?, I should also compliment Clarke on his prose.  Unlike that of many of his contemporaries, it’s sinewy and unshowy, never gets overheated and never gets in the way of the story it’s telling.

 

Even the story that for me is the worst one in the collection is entertaining in a fashion.  Refugee features a character who, Clarke hints in his introduction to it, was inspired by Prince Charles – ouch!.  (“Captain Saunders, who came from Dallas and had no intention of being impressed by any prince, found himself unexpectedly moved by the wide, sad eyes.  They were eyes that had seen too many receptions and parades, that had had to watch countless totally uninteresting things, that had never been allowed to stray far from the carefully planned official routes.”)  It’s also set in a futuristic Britain that’s managed somehow to strike a balance between human technological and social progress on one hand and ritual and tradition on the other.  This shows a rather affecting naivete on Clarke’s part and is amusing when you compare his starry-eyed version of 21st century Britain with the sorry place it’s really become in 2019.  For example: “The London Underground was still, after a century and a half, the best transport system in the world…”

 

Well, Arthur, that’s one prediction you certainly didn’t get right.

 

From wikipedia.org

 

From the moon to the loon

 

From pixabay.com

© BBC

 

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the historic day when humanity, in the form of Neil Armstrong, set foot on another world.  For yes, although in astronomical terms the moon is a small, insignificant and boring piece of rock skulking in the earth’s immediate neighbourhood, it’s still not of this world and so qualifies as another world.

 

To be honest, considering everything that’s happened since, I don’t particularly want to write about it.  This resulting blogpost will be at best be a nostalgic wallow and at worst an exercise in despair.  But anyway.  Here goes.

 

Even I am slightly too young to remember seeing Armstrong plant his spacesuit-encased foot on the lunar turf on July 20th, 1969.  But I do recall live TV pictures of a subsequent Apollo mission to the moon in the early 1970s.  Admittedly, I wasn’t altogether sure what I was watching.  At the time my family and I were huddled around a small black-and-white television set in Northern Ireland, which picked up a single channel, BBC1.  (Well, it showed a second channel, Raidio Teilifis Eireann from the Republic of Ireland, if my Dad poked a screwdriver into a hole at the side of the set and did some hazardous, electrocution-risking fiddling with it.)  All I could discern on the screen were some fuzzy pale blobs floating against a blurry dark-grey background.  However, my parents assured me that these were men walking about on the moon, high above us, at that very moment, so I took their word for it.

 

One thing I remember from the Apollo coverage was that the BBC used Richard Strauss’s fanfare Also Sprach Zarathustra as the theme music for their broadcasts.  This had already featured memorably on the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the greatest science fiction film ever made, and I assume the BBC used the same recording, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic and conducted by Herbert von Karajan, that appeared on the film.  It was disconcerting when I saw 2001 later, as a teenager, and heard Also Sprach Zarathustra again.  Instead of making me look ahead to the future, to 2001, it stirred associations with the past, with the early 1970s and that grainy old moon-landing footage.

 

It must have been in 1973 that my imagination took a leap almost as giant as the ‘leap for mankind’ that Armstrong spoke of when he descended from the lunar landing module.  This was caused by the arrival of two sets of newly-published encyclopaedias that my parents had seen advertised somewhere and ordered.  They consisted of a 15-volume set with lemony-coloured covers called the Childcraft books that, accordingly, were for children; and a 24-volume set called the World Book series that were for adults and came in sombre, mossy-green covers.  Together, all 39 encyclopaedias just about fitted along the biggest horizontal surface on the sideboard in our living room.  They made an imposing sight because until then I hadn’t suspected that there were enough books in the world to fill the top of our sideboard.

 

I immediately set about reading these encyclopaedias, both the juvenile and adult ones, and my horizons were swiftly widened.  Not all the consequences of this were positive, however.  My parents had neglected to read the small print in the advertisement.  If they had, they would have discovered that the encyclopaedias had been printed in America, by Americans, for Americans, and their contents were duly biased towards America.  As a result, I wasted a lot of time searching in the fields of our farm for evidence that woodchucks, porcupines, prairie dogs and Gila monsters had been foraging there.  Also, some unusual words started to appear in my vocabulary – diaper, candy store, soda fountain, rest room – which at school created much hilarity for my classmates and much misery for me.

 

From ebth.com

 

One feature of these encyclopaedias that rubbed off on me was that, because they were American and because they’d been published just after the moon landings, they were dripping with optimism.  This was a scientific as well as an American optimism.  Yes, there was a time not so long ago when America took science seriously and saw it as one of the key tools for converting the rest of the world to the glories of the American way.  At the age of eight or nine, I lapped all this up.  Unfortunately, with hindsight, I realise that some of the assertions in the encyclopaedias were over-optimistic to say the least.

 

For example, the encyclopaedias predicted that, having reached the moon, it would only be a short time – the 1980s, at the latest – before human beings were tramping around the surface of Mars too.  The ‘S’ volume of the World Book encyclopaedias had a lengthy entry about ‘space travel’ and on one page I found a multi-pictured diagram showing how astronauts were going to get to Mars.  Admittedly, the Mars spaceship in that diagram, as well as having a long, sleek fuselage and a beak-like nose, had wings, which seemed suspicious because by then I knew that in outer space there wasn’t any air and wings were thus superfluous.  (I suspect the artist behind those pictures had been unconsciously influenced by a non-space vehicle that was making a stir at the time, Concorde.)  Elsewhere, there were pictures of what a moonbase – only a few decades away in the future, I was told – would look like, although it was an unprepossessing cylindrical structure that resembled a giant tin-can left as litter in a lunar crater.

 

(Incidentally, it was surely no coincidence that the equally lengthy entry on ‘motion pictures’ in the ‘M’ volume was headed by a handsome colour photograph from Kubrick’s 2001.)

 

Anyway, I assumed this was what my life would be like by the time I’d reached my thirties.  I’d be living on a moonbase, watching Concorde-like spaceships streak past on their way to Mars.

 

Needless to say, as the 1970s wore on, I began to get uneasy about the fact that very little futuristic stuff was happening anymore.  As far as manned spaceflight was concerned, there was just the Skylab project and the space shuttle.  Skylab came to an ignominious end when the by-then empty space station crashed back to earth on July 11th, 1979.  By this time my family had moved to near the town of Peebles in southern Scotland, and on that date I was attending a scout camp outside the neighbouring town of Hawick.  I remember feeling slightly worried that Skylab might fall on top of the field we were camping in and take out the entire 1st Tweeddale Scout Troop.  As for the space shuttle, it received a lot of publicity and hype when it first took off, but it didn’t venture beyond earth’s orbit and, frankly, seemed a bit shit to me.

 

And what had happened to that you-can-do-anything-if-you-put-your-mind-to-it American optimism?  It seemed to fizzle out as the 1970s became one long litany of American trauma: the Vietnam War, the 1973 oil crisis, Watergate, the Iran hostage saga.  I suppose as far as those encyclopaedias were concerned, the writing had already been on the wall because their coverage of modern American history ended with the presidency of Richard Nixon, shortly before Nixon fell spectacularly from grace.  (Though anyone familiar with Nixon’s character would point out that, in the grace stakes, he never had far to fall.)

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

 

Still, even Nixon seems a model of intellect and restraint (if not integrity) compared with the specimen we have inhabiting the White House on July 20th, 2019.  Trump’s entire being seems to loudly and violently rebuke that clear-minded scientific positivism that embodied America in 1969, at least as those encyclopaedias portrayed it.  Science?  What’s that?  Trump has tried to slash funding for science and remove it from policy areas in crucial need of it, like the environment and public health.  He’s tried to stop NASA doing research into climate change and tried to censor US Geological Survey press releases so that they don’t mention it.  More generally, he’s made a point of proudly proclaiming his ignorance at every twist and turn of his presidency.  The oaf doesn’t even read books.  Give him a set of encyclopaedias and ten years later he wouldn’t have got past ‘A for aardvark’.

 

Of course this doesn’t matter one whit – indeed, it boosts his popularity – among his core support, who themselves are a ragtag army of anti-science ignoramuses: climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers, crackpot conspiracy theorists and religious fruitcakes who maintain that the universe was created in six days 6000 years ago.

 

It’s particularly depressing at the moment to see Trump slandering non-white female politicians – knowing fine well this will energise his racist support base in the run-up to the 2020 presidential elections – when it’s documented how black female mathematicians helped keep NASA’s show on the road in the 1960s.  Today, some of Trump’s supporters would probably want to ‘send them back’ to Africa.

 

Yet it’s too easy to scapegoat Trump for all the world’s ills.  Humanity generally hasn’t distinguished itself during the fifty years since NASA and the Apollo astronauts gave our species its finest hour.  Our collective greed, laziness, materialism and indifference are taking a devastating toll on the earth’s environment and resources and unless we pay heed to the warnings of the majority of climate and environmental scientists – if, indeed, it’s not already too late – I don’t see much of a future, or any sort of future, for us.  Maybe, just as Ernest Hemingway spent the late 1920s knocking out classics of 20th century American literature like The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929), but three decades later had become a sad, unpleasant, paranoid pisshead who ended up blowing off his head with a shotgun, humanity has already peaked, is now in decline and is heading for a graceless and suicidal end.

 

Fifty years ago, the tune that defined humanity seemed to be Also Sprach Zarathustra.  Today, I’m more inclined to think our theme tune is Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ People Ain’t No Good.

 

From pixabay.com

 

I blame Neil Armstrong (…and Gerry Anderson… and Arthur C. Clarke)

 

August saw the death of Neil Armstrong, the first-ever human being to set foot on an alien world.  All right, it was only the moon, which is hardly in the same league as Krypton, Tatooine or the fancy three-dimensional planet in Avatar, but for a wee species that only evolved out of the Homo genus about 200,000 years ago, that first step of his in 1969 was still pretty impressive.

 

Armstrong’s passing got me thinking about an uncomfortable question.  How come the future has turned out to be so rubbish?

 

Even I am a little too young to remember seeing Armstrong plant his spacesuit-encased foot on the lunar turf 43 years ago, but I can just about recall live TV pictures of a subsequent Apollo mission to the moon in the early 1970s.  Admittedly, I wasn’t altogether sure of what I was watching.  At the time my family and I were huddled around a tiny black-and-white television set in Northern Ireland, which only picked up one channel, the BBC.  (Well, it showed a second channel, Raidio Teilifis Eireann from the Irish Free State, if my Dad poked a screwdriver into a hole at the side of the set and did some dangerous-looking twiddling.)  All I could make out on the screen were some fuzzy pale blobs floating against a fuzzy dark-grey background.  However, my Dad assured me that these were men walking about on the moon, high above us, at that very moment, so I took his word for it.

 

It must have been in 1973 that my imagination took a leap that was almost as giant as the ‘leap for mankind’ that Armstrong spoke of when he descended from the lunar landing module.  The cause of this were two sets of newly-published encyclopaedias that my parents had seen advertised somewhere and ordered – a 15-volume set with lemony-coloured covers called the Childcraft books that, accordingly, were for children; and a 24-volume set called the World Book series that were for adults and came in sombre, mossy-green covers.  Together, all 39 encyclopaedias just about fitted along the top of the sideboard in our living room.  They made an imposing sight.  Until then, I hadn’t suspected that there were enough books in the world to fill our sideboard.

 

I immediately set about reading these encyclopaedias, both the juvenile and adult ones, and my horizons were swiftly widened.  Not all the consequences of this were positive, however.  My parents had neglected to read the small print in the advertisement – if they had, they would have discovered that the encyclopaedias had been printed in America, by Americans, for Americans, and their contents were duly biased towards America.  As a result, I wasted a lot of time searching in the fields of our farm for evidence that woodchucks, porcupines, prairie dogs and Gila monsters had been foraging there.  Also, some quaint words started to appear in my vocabulary – diaper, candy store, soda fountain, rest room – which inevitably had my classmates at primary school tearing the piss out of me.

 

One feature of these encyclopaedias that really rubbed off on me was that, because they were American and because they’d been published just after the moon landings, they were dripping with optimism.  This was a scientific as well as an American optimism.  It’s hard to believe today, now that one of the two main American political parties is infested with right-wing religious fruitcakes who maintain that the universe was built in six days flat a few thousand years ago (http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/politics/2012/10/republican-congressman-evolution-lies-straight-pit-hell), but there was a time not so long ago when America took science seriously and saw it as one of the key tools in converting the rest of the world to the glories of the American way.  At the age of eight or nine, I lapped all this up – even those assertions in the encyclopaedias that, with the benefit of hindsight, were a bit over-optimistic.

 

For example, the encyclopaedias predicted that, having reached the moon, it would only be a short time – the 1980s, at the latest – before human beings were tramping around the surface of Mars too.  The ‘S’ volume of the World Book encyclopaedias had a lengthy entry about ‘space travel’ and on one page I found a multi-pictured diagram showing how astronauts were going to get to Mars.  Admittedly, the Mars spaceship in that diagram, as well as having a long, sleek fuselage and a beak-like nose, had wings, which seemed a bit suspicious because by then I knew that in outer space there wasn’t any air and wings were thus superfluous.  (I suspect the artist behind those pictures had been unconsciously influenced by a non-space vehicle that was making a stir at the time, Concorde.)  Elsewhere, there were pictures of what a moonbase – only a few decades away in the future, I was told – would look like, although it was an unprepossessing cylindrical structure that resembled a giant tin can left littering a lunar crater.

 

Anyway, I assumed this was what I could expect by the time I’d reached my thirties.  I’d be living on a moonbase, watching Concorde-like spaceships streak past on their way to Mars.

 

My expectations were buoyed further when in the mid-1970s my parents finally got round to buying a new TV set that got three channels, the BBC, RTE and ITV – Independent Television.  Although ITV had (and still has) a reputation for cheap and lowbrow programming in comparison with that made by the BBC, it did broadcast at the time various action / adventure series made by a subsidiary called ITC entertainment, run by the cigar-smoking Jewish-Ukrainian impresario Lord Lew Grade.  Aimed at international markets and at the American market in particular, ITC’s shows commanded higher-than-average budgets and looked quite glossy by the standards of 1960s and 1970s British TV.  They included The Prisoner, The Persuaders, Department S and a host of science-fiction shows made by the remarkable Gerry Anderson.  These I was suddenly able to watch for the first time.

 

Gerry Anderson, of course, is best-known today for his ‘Supermarionation’ sci-fi series, which were populated by puppets and featured special effects that, for the time, looked impressively cinematic: Thunderbirds, Stingray, Fireball XL5, Joe 90…  Not to mention the surprisingly grim Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, each episode of which began with the rumbling, terrifying Voice of the Mysterons transmitting from Mars and threatening to wreak havoc somewhere on earth (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bV8YbLvGrb0&feature=related).  But it was seeing repeats of Anderson’s first live-action sci-fi show, UFO, made in 1970 and starring Ed Bishop, George Sewell, Michael Billington, Peter Gordeno, Wanda Ventham (Benedict Cumberbatch’s mum) and Gabrielle Drake (Nick Drake’s sister), that convinced me that the future was going to be absolutely brilliant.

 

For UFO, Anderson’s production team envisioned the shape of things to come through a prism of gaudy late-1960s design and fashion, with a smidgeon too of then-fashionable psychedelia.  It didn’t just feature spaceships and moonbases, but also sleek super-cars, talking computers with hallucinogenic panels of flashing lights, giant submarines with detachable nose-modules that turned into aircraft when they reached the ocean surface, guys in groovy-looking suits that didn’t have lapels, and a lot of sexy ladies wearing silver miniskirts and sporting purple hairdos.  (Here’s UFO’s famous title sequence, by the way: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mb4nMFHXxro).  So, I thought, I’d be living on a moonbase, watching spaceships streak past towards Mars, and Gabrielle Drake would be shimmying around me looking fetching in silver and purple.  The future seemed better than ever.

 

Needless to say, as the 1970s wore on, I began to get uneasy about the fact that little futuristic stuff was happening any more.  As far as manned spaceflight was concerned, not much occurred after the Skylab project – yes, there was the space shuttle, but that didn’t venture beyond earth’s orbit and, frankly, seemed a bit shit.  Meanwhile, the Viking 1 probe landed on Mars but, alas, found nothing interesting.  There were no aliens, Martian canals or three-legged war machines shooting out death-rays – just some boring geological formations that had once been river valleys.  And what had happened to that you-can-do-anything-if-you-put-your-mind-to-it American optimism?  It seemed to fizzle out as the 1970s became one long litany of American trauma: the Vietnam War, the 1973 oil crisis, Watergate, the Iran hostage saga.

 

I still held out hope, though.  In the mobile library that came to our village every week, I picked up a copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s novelisation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the classic late-1960s sci-fi movie he’d co-written with director Stanley Kubrick.  It was reassuring to read Clarke’s sober, matter-of-fact account of a journey from the earth to the moon and then on to Saturn.  (In Kubrick’s film, the final destination was changed to Jupiter because the job of convincingly depicting Saturn’s rings was too much for his special effects team.)  By then I was well-versed in astronomy and space travel and the book seemed to reinforce everything I knew already about the subjects.  It also made the idea that humanity would be out exploring more of space in the early 21st century seem feasible and, indeed, logical.

 

When I finally saw 2001 the movie, however, it was the early 1980s and even I had to concede that it’d become a bit of a museum piece.  In some ways it possessed an admirable, almost documentary-like realism – for instance, I was impressed by the fact that, unlike the spaceships in every other sci-fi movie I’d seen, Kubrick’s spaceships didn’t make any noise (because sound doesn’t travel in the vacuum of space) – but it struck me as a historical artefact nonetheless because it was clearly rooted in a past time and in past conceptions of what lay ahead.  It offered a late-1960s view of the future, one that just wasn’t plausible any longer in 1981 or 1982.

 

(By then, the Mad Max movies had started to do the rounds and, after the oil shortages of the 1970s, they presented an unfortunately more credible vision of what the 21st century might be like.  It was also telling that a couple of years earlier, in 1978, Lord Grade’s ITC Entertainment, which had once stimulated my space-age fantasies with the Gerry Anderson shows, had produced the movie Capricorn One – a cynical sci-fi thriller about a NASA expedition to Mars that is actually a hoax, with the supposed landing on the Martian surface being filmed in a TV studio in the American desert.)

 

And now in 2012 I find myself inhabiting a world far removed from the visions that Neil Armstrong, Gerry Anderson and Arthur C. Clarke inspired in me during my childhood.  An international space station has been in low earth orbit for the past dozen years (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Space_Station) but, still, little else is happening on the manned space-travel front – I doubt very much if people will get to Mars in my lifetime and I’m beginning to wonder if they will get there at all, ever.  Okay, I spend my working days squinting into the screen and poking at the keyboard of a computer, but it doesn’t seem like a proper computer.  After all, when a proper computer developed a fault, it would surely – like HAL in 2001 – start singing ‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do…’  Mine just mutely informs me that it has encountered a problem and is going to shut down.

 

In fact, the only thing that anyone back then got right about the future was the scenario in Gerry Anderson’s Captain Scarlet.  For many years, up until recently, we did cower as the Voice of the Mysterons, at regular intervals, threatened to wreak havoc in our lives – though to be fair, it wasn’t the Voice of the Mysterons broadcasting from Mars, but the Voice of Osama Bin Laden broadcasting via smuggled-out video cassettes from a compound in Pakistan.  (I often wonder if the ten-year-old Osama watched that show on television in late-1960s Riyadh and borrowed a few ideas from it.)

 

Armstrong departed from this world – again, and this time for good – on August 25th.  Clarke died back in 2008 (whereas poor old Kubrick didn’t even live to see 2001).  And Gerry Anderson, I was saddened to read recently, is now suffering from Alzheimer’s disease (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-18614483).

 

And that’s ironic in a way, for I sometimes feel I am suffering from a reverse form of Alzheimer’s – not one that erases my memories of the past through neuro-degeneration, but one that erases my fanciful memories of the future through on-going exposure to dull, disillusioning reality.