Originally an essay and then expanded into a 1992 book, ‘The End of History’ by US political scientist Francis Fukuyama was an instant philosophical response to the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, the climax of the Cold War, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Retrospectively perceived by some as having its judgement clouded by the same wave of euphoric optimism as the rest of the West at the beginning of the 1990s, perhaps we can forgive the apparent naivety in declaring the final triumph of liberal democracy after an ideological battle that had spanned half-a-century; it’s easy to forget how such moments feel – and how they lead us to get carried away by possibilities – because it seems so long since the world experienced one. Yes, we know now that the party was pooped by successive gate-crashers like sectarian civil war, ethnic cleansing, Radical Islam, the resurgence of Russia and China, and Identity Politics; but the early 1990s was probably one of the last times people looked to the future and saw something other than dread. It’s understandable if nostalgia for that feeling occasionally surfaces, especially at a time when endless Doomsday narratives have made the future as unappealing as the present.

The future as a construct of the imagination always swings between Utopia and Dystopia; but it can depend on whose imagination is picturing it as well as the present in which that future is being imagined. It was telling that when Europe joined hands and strode into the brave new world of universal capitalism in the early 90s, the futures that had been envisaged for decades on either side of the Berlin Wall vanished. Suddenly, there was no need to dream them; now we were all singing from the same hymn sheet we could finally consign the bad futures to history and make the good futures a reality. Only, we didn’t quite manage it. And as it gradually became evident we weren’t managing it, those old abandoned futures unexpectedly re-emerged as solace for some. A collective sense of loss has a long and winding tradition in British cultural life, though it usually hankers after an irretrievable Golden Age just beyond living memory; this time round, the Paradise Lost was not an imagined past, but an imagined future.

As the brief promise of the post-Cold War world swiftly began to disintegrate, the real beginnings of ‘retro’ as a commercial and a creative force developed as a response; this was represented not only via a continuous revival and recycling of past trends, fads and fashions whilst contemporary progress appeared to grind to a halt, but as a conscious reclaiming of the future we never got. In the more esoteric corners of pop culture, retro adopted the fanciful genre term of ‘Hauntology’ and could be manifested as a newfound fascination with, say, the 1960s output of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. This ‘retro-futurism’ celebrated the electronic soundscapes we were supposed to be chilling out to in our Moon-bases or colonies on Mars, the very places that Radiophonic composers such as Delia Derbyshire no doubt pictured when creating sounds intended to accompany the futures we were robbed of. Analogue recordings on vinyl or cassette and vintage synthesizers have all been resurrected as symbols of a past that looked forward, regardless – or possibly because of – their sonic imperfections; but it would be wrong to dismiss this as kitsch. This isn’t ‘Mama Mia’; there’s more to it than that.

The revived popularity through repeat screenings of Gerry Anderson’s 60s puppet shows in the 90s was itself a commentary on this yearning for a future we had been led to believe was ours; strings aside, these were always set in near-futures, mirroring cinematic ‘live action’ contemporaries such as ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ or ‘A Clockwork Orange’; even the first few films in the original ‘Planet of the Apes’ franchise clearly had the astronauts catapulted into the planet’s dim distance from an almost-recognisable present day, give or take a decade. When Gerry Anderson finally ditched Supermarionation and hired flesh-and-blood actors with the 1970 series, ‘UFO’, he set it no further than ten years ahead. The memorable opening titles of the show routinely flashed up the year ‘1980’ on the screen. Of course, it didn’t take long to get to 1980, and by then the programme’s late 60s Pierre Cardin concept of ‘the future’, with its shiny silver fabrics and purple wigs, already seemed quaintly antiquated. Within a decade, the naive vision of space exploration for all had been curtailed by earthbound economic realities and a decline of interest on the part of the public.

As a five-year-old watching James Burke host the last Moon Landings on TV and straining my eyes to see the Moon Buggy driving along the lunar surface from my bedroom window at night, I was utterly convinced this would be as common an experience as taking the train by the time I came of age. All the landmark dates on the sci-fi calendar – 1984, 1999, 2001 – always appeared just out of reach throughout my childhood, yet when we did reach them, they bore little resemblance to what the creators of 60s and early 70s sci-fi and futuristic fantasy had prophesised. 2001 isn’t now remembered for a manned voyage to Jupiter, but a manned voyage into the World Trade Centre.

Whenever I Skype someone, I think we have at least achieved one thing that past visions of the future promised we would have – an effective ‘video phone-call’; but how much failed en route? I watched a mid-70s TV ad for Concorde the other day, and even now it still looks like the most space-age form of travel on Earth imaginable; yet, as we all know, the supersonic aircraft age ended in 2003. The hovercraft as a commercial passenger vehicle could cross the water from England to France in half-an-hour before the advent of the Channel Tunnel – and it looked sufficiently futuristic; but this was another casualty of competition and circumstance during the first few years of the 21st century, before we even got the personalised hovercraft ‘Tomorrow’s World’ once implied we’d all have to get us from A to B quicker than a car or a bike. Meanwhile, the jet-pack has never really progressed beyond movies or staged stunts, electric vehicles remain an expensive luxury for the ecologically-minded, and driverless cars are still an option denied the general road-user.

An entire meal in a pill is technically here if one thinks of the vitamin-packed liquid supplements provided to those with life-threatening illnesses incapable of digesting food, and mass communication is one area that has surpassed the technological achievements envisaged half-a-century ago. We have little bits of the old future on tap, yet it still doesn’t feel like we’re there. The laudable racial harmony achieved by the crew of the USS Enterprise was something we were pretty close to when Obama was elected President in 2008, yet the cancer of Identity Politics intervened and is now carrying us back to the safe space of separate drinking fountains. A week in which a mediocre race-baiting Labour MP can milk an incident so that it slots into an oh-so predictable narrative and a Presidential running-mate gets the gig solely on the basis of her sex and colour doesn’t say to me that we’re poised to boldly go where no man person has gone before.

Yes, one could say our 2020 should comprise listening to the Radiophonic Workshop on Quadraphonic eight-track cartridges as we consume a meal condensed into a Tic-tac from the comfort of our homes on the Moon; but it doesn’t. We’re more concerned about gender pronouns and whether we can refer to ‘individuals with cervixes’ as women without being cancelled by polite society. Academic Sean Albeiz described Hauntology as ‘sonic fictions or intentional forgeries, creating half-baked memories of things that never were – approximating the imprecise nature of memory itself’; when the new future seems deprived of the one thing the old future offered us – hope – it’s no wonder the allure of the old future wins out.

© The Editor


Lunar RoverThis isn’t a boast born of vanity, but the truth: Not long after I’d turned forty, I was purchasing a packet of coffin-nails from my local supermarket and the wet-behind-the-ears youth serving at the cigarette counter asked me for some ID. I inquired if he was taking the piss and then I did what old biddies tend to do without much in the way of prompting – I told him my age. To emphasise this, I proclaimed I was old enough to remember the Moon Landings. As a tool for dividing generations, possessing a memory of astronauts steering a buggy across the lunar surface is almost up there with recalling pre-decimal currency. Incidentally, I missed memories of the latter by a year or so, being merely three when we abolished £sd.

Unfortunately, I was only eighteen months old in July 1969, so don’t remember that inaugural giant leap for mankind; but for anyone who missed having a memory of it by decades rather than months, you might not realise NASA kept returning to the moon for the next three-and-a-half years. It often seems the nostalgia industry is so busy focusing on Neil Armstrong’s one small step that all the other steps that followed are almost written out of history.

Fortunately for me, my memories of those later landings remain quite vivid. We, like most working-class British households in the early 70s, still only had a black & white TV set, so to my infant eyes the lunar surface looked like sand on a beach at night (and let’s not encourage those who’ll have us believe that’s precisely what it was).

I remember the intense (albeit groovy) James Burke presenting the broadcasts and I remember watching that Lunar Rover speeding along, aware that a toy model of it was available in the shops – though I never received one in my Xmas stocking, alas. I remember sometimes looking out of my bedroom window at night and straining my eyes at the full moon, desperately trying to see the NASA personnel up there.

By 1972, the whole Apollo programme was such a part of the cultural landscape that it perhaps seemed less fantastic to me than anyone older; I took it for granted and assumed people would one day live up there. I wasn’t to know the giant leap was already in its final phase.

002The last lunar module touched down on the moon on 11 December 1972. It was a Monday, and live BBC TV coverage of the historic event began at 7.35pm – airing after that evening’s ‘Z Cars’; the Radio Times announced touchdown was expected at 7.54pm GMT, though the programme would morph into ‘Panorama’ at 8.00, with the subject under discussion being the end of NASA’s greatest project. The following day, live coverage resumed at 12 noon, 10.55pm and 12.05am. By Friday afternoon, it was all over, with the final edition of a live broadcast that had been a staple of TV schedules since 1969; titled ‘Farewell Moon’, it looked back at the week’s highlights. When ‘Cradle of England’, an archetypal regional programme promoted to the network graveyard slot of the time, was transmitted at 2.15, a broadcasting era was over.

Lest we forget, various Space Shuttle launches were broadcast live throughout the 80s – with the two that stick in the memory being the first in 1981 and the Challenger disaster of 1986; but their crews never set foot on the moon or anywhere else beyond a space station. I recall the unmanned Viking module landing on the Martian surface in 1976, but the question David Bowie had posed in the charts three years earlier wasn’t answered in the affirmative. We’ve had to make do with unmanned craft on Mars ever since, and it’s not the same as seeing human beings up there.

Yesterday, it almost felt like the old days when the launch of the rocket carrying the first tax-payer-funded British astronaut Tim Peake all the way to the International Space Station was covered live on BBC2. No James Burke or Patrick Moore in 2015, of course; we had a former member of a 90s dance act and an Irish comedian fronting the coverage to give it a hip post-modern feel, with their special guest being US astronaut Chris Hadfield, the man who sang ‘Space Oddity’ on the ISS and became that most dreaded of modern phenomena, an ‘internet sensation’. Oh, well. Times change.

If a Brit wasn’t involved, chances are coverage of this latest passenger flight to the ISS would be restricted to an item midway through the evening news; but the presence of Tim Peake appears to be rekindling an interest in space travel in a country that abandoned its own home-grown space project when the Americans and Soviets became engaged in the race to the moon in the early 60s. We never did get Dan Dare after all, so we have to make do with Tim Peake, who will spend the next six months not tackling The Mekon, but partaking in scientific stuff that wouldn’t really make for engrossing viewing.

The arguments for and against space exploration usually centre on the astronomical cost of it, but international co-operation is the way forward today, which bodes well for its future. For someone like me, born into a world in which astronauts playing golf on the moon made ‘Star Trek’ or ‘Doctor Who’ less far-fetched as a consequence, that is good news. There’s almost an element of nostalgia in it now; those born too late to even remember the final Moon Landings look at the archive footage and wonder why, in an age of personal technology unimaginable forty-five years ago, we’re not on the moon or any of the planets in the twenty-first century. Those of us who were there in 1972 wonder likewise. The sense of disappointment when we reached 1999 and there was no lunar colony of the kind Gerry Anderson had predicted in 1975 was a bit of a bummer, to be frank.

Space exploration is worth it in the same way ocean exploration was worth it in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Mind you, I suppose some who waved off Christopher Columbus when he set sail for the New World in 1492 probably grumbled about how the money spent building his ship could have been spent on schools or hospitals.

© The Editor