Bloody hell, talk about painting yourself into a corner. To come up with a title like that at times like these implies there are reasons to be cheerful when the gut reaction of most right now would be to declare there aren’t actually any reasons to be cheerful at all. I must admit I can’t really think of any that come straight outta 2020. What about straight outta the 30-odd years after the end of the Second World War, though – the timespan that still feels like home? If this wretched century can do one thing to suggest there are reasons to be cheerful it is by enabling the past to be seen again via the technology of the present. The insularity that has been imposed upon the majority this year has exacerbated personal viewing habits that would’ve probably have served me well without a lockdown; however, the circumstances unique to 2020 seem to have provoked a binge on the familiar that has little precedence.
Some opt for Netflix, whereas in 2020 I’ve sat through the following box-sets: ‘The Avengers’, ‘The Strange World of Gurney Slade’, ‘The Prisoner’, ‘Department S’, ‘Jason King’, ‘The Protectors’, ‘Budgie’, ‘Colditz’, ‘Softly Softly: Task Force’, ‘Callan’, ‘Special Branch’, ‘Public Eye’, ‘The Sweeney’, ‘Angels’, ‘Casanova’, ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’, ‘Out’, ‘The Sandbaggers’, ‘Shoestring’, ‘Steptoe and Son’, ‘The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin’, ‘Law and Order’, ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’ – all since March, and that’s not even mentioning numerous one-off productions or documentary series that have filled out my own private schedule. Sometimes, such as these nuclear bunker moments, it pays to have amassed a library of archive TV; the fact that I’d seen all of these shows before didn’t really matter, because there’s a ‘Painting the Forth Bridge’ factor that means whenever you’ve done the lot, it’s time to go back the beginning. All very sad and pathetic, I know; but if you don’t build shelves or knit, what else you gonna do to unwind? I only ever feel alive when I’m creating, and I can’t think of any better way to experience facsimile living during downtime than by remembering how we used to live.
After revisiting the contents of the library, the good thing about being online is the prospect of stumbling upon something absent from that library, and I was momentarily cheerful this morning when I found an old Fred Dibnah programme on YT. I genuinely lost all sense of time, instantly enraptured by the fearless Bolton steeplejack ascending a chimney he was laboriously demolishing by hand. Anyone whose palms become sweaty watching John Noakes’ famous climb up Nelson’s Column needs to see Dibnah manoeuvring his way from ladder to chimney-top as he clambers over shaky scaffolding and wobbly planks positioned God knows how many hundreds of feet above ground. No safety harness to prevent him plummeting to his death, not even any gloves to combat the cold; once in place, he chips away with his chisel, lights another cigarette, and dismantles the brick edifice with the same artisan dignity as the man who erected it a century earlier. The gentle manner of the demolition is almost like Dibnah is showing his respect for his predecessor in a way that simply blowing it up doesn’t.
These films radiate so many different layers of melancholy – melancholy as the industrial landscape that made Britain the workshop of the world was being rapidly erased along with the nation’s global standing; melancholy that doorstep sandwich-chomping, fag-smoking, beer-drinking blokes like Fred – from a time when no working man had a weak handshake – are not so much a dying breed now but an extinct one; and melancholy at the realisation that so many restrictions have been placed upon freedoms which had been hard-won by the generation before Fred, freedoms that have been removed gradually by the generation after him, sneakily and slowly so that few noticed. What we are seeing now, however, is the blatant and ugly acceleration of that process courtesy of a pandemic that waives the previous hesitancy that anticipated resistance. I guess the problem with dependence on the riches of the past to provide sustenance for the present is that cheerfulness is always one step away from melancholy because there’s no escaping the fact it’s all gone.
To borrow a phrase I used in an earlier paragraph, ‘How We Used to Live’ is also the title of a wonderful 2013 film put together by Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley, they of long-running musical ensemble St Etienne, and a film I watched again last night. It could almost be seen as a visual companion piece to Wiggs and Stanley’s superb CD compilations of overlooked and obscure gems from the nation’s neglected record libraries such as ‘English Weather’. It takes ‘travelogue’-type Technicolor footage of London from the Festival of Britain to the end of the 1970s and paints a poignant portrait of the capital as it was before money moved in and natives moved out; the footage is the kind that comprised Pathé and Movietone cinema fillers in the 50s, 60s and 70s but in this case is primarily lifted from similar shorts dispatched to the colonies and not shown in the mother country. Eschewing straight chronology, the film instead mixes the eras together in a delightful dreamy collage accompanied by a suitably lugubrious narration from Ian McShane and a complementary St Etienne soundtrack. Anyone who has a soft spot for old London needs to see it.
Again, however, the viewer comes away from the viewing experience somewhat overwhelmed by sadness. It’s not just the vintage cars or the way people are dressed or even the way the city looks – i.e. before it was scarred by bland glass towers that could slot into any non-dom billionaire’s ghetto on the planet; no, the impression the footage gives is more a lost world of community, consideration, shared values and, I guess, simple politeness – the people’s manifestation of the political consensus that collapsed in the 80s. What the images magically generate is a less rude, obnoxious, ignorant, aggressive, selfish and self-centred country, not to mention less authoritarian; all the worst human characteristics that Thatcherism and Blairism at their most nakedly avaricious legitimised are absent from the Britain of ‘How We Used to Live’. Yes, the exquisite stitching together of the footage could be accused of manufacturing an imaginary past, but it actually works in the same way memory does, far more effectively than if it was a conventional chronological documentary.
Having seen the unnecessary prevention of the public from marking Remembrance Sunday last weekend – and with every day seeming to bring one more despotic and undemocratic curb of civil liberties proposed or introduced by the UK’s devolved administrations under the guise of ‘saving lives’ – one can’t help but compare the world of ‘How We Used to Live’ to the world we’ve allowed to be remade and remodelled by such appalling individuals and not end up wondering how the hell we went from that to this. Of course, you can’t go back, only forward – but forward to what? I’d like to look upon this period as a periodical trough, yet it’s more tempting to view it as the last row of lights going out as it becomes increasingly difficult to detect any reasons to be cheerful on the horizon. Oh, well; if nothing else, documenting decline and fall makes for more gripping reading than trying to describe rise and shine, I suppose, so what am I complaining about?
© The Editor