Monday, August 13, 2012
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
WHO’S THAT MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN?
Maybe I belong to the last generation that can conjure up a memory like this.
It is just going six o’clock.
Dinner has been served. We are seated at the table and the radio is on to catch the news.
There is a lot of crackle and hiss. The New Zealand broadcasting service has recorded the bulletin earlier off short-wave, because this is the real news we are about to hear.
The BBC News.
It begins, through the crackle and hiss and whistlings on the global ether, with a military march, which I have subsequently learnt is called Echoes of Empire.
It then (crackle, hiss, whistle) goes on with the perfect radio enunciation of an educated middle-class Englishman reading (crackle, hiss, whistle) the bulletin.
Occasionally, through the crackle-hiss-whistle, there is the brief jab of another voice butting in from somewhere between Auckland and London – an inevitable hazard given the imperfections of the short-wave and recording systems.
But how vast it makes the world seem! How far separated we are from the source of the voice. We are on the edge of the human universe.
We listen in respectful silence.
My family aren’t Anglicans, so we are not primed to believe God lives in London. We are not ardent royalists, so we are quite off-handed about the British monarchy and the silliness of some of its traditions. My parents are both second-generation New Zealanders and they certainly never refer to, or think of, Britain as “Home”.
Even so, when six o’clock comes, and the crackle and whistle and military march and carefully-enunciated English male voice, we know we are listening to something important and authoritative and removed from out trivial everyday perceptions.
This scene was often played out in the late 1950s, when I was seven or eight or nine years old. So it would have been some years before Marshall McLuhan (in 1964) coined his famous phrase “The medium is the message”. But it is a perfect illustration of McLuhan’s concept.
It was the distance, the quality of the voice, and the fuzziness of the recording – in other words, the medium – that gave the old BBC radio news bulletins their authority. It reinforced the mindset that we were people of small account on the far side of the world, far distant from the centre of things and the source of real news.
In those days, there was another force that told us how small we were.
Our heroes were mythic beings, twelve feet tall and sometimes even bigger.
Sometimes, indeed, their faces alone filled up a whole wall.
That is because we saw them every Saturday afternoon at the picture theatre, dancing and singing or flying off the decks of aircraft-carriers to shoot down Japanese ‘planes or (especially) shooting it out on the streets of Laramie or circling the wagons to fight off savages.
They mainly spoke with American accents.
If authority was British, then mythology (which means popular and visceral religion) was definitely American.
In the distance we heard rumours of a thing called television.
Apparently it brought this mythology into your very home. Apparently you could enjoy it at the flick of a switch.
We were so impatient for television to arrive, especially as we were beginning to twig that some of the things we were given on radio were really soundtracks of American TV shows, including bits of visual business that you couldn’t understand on radio. We were all singing Stan Freberg’s Tele-vishun before we had ever seen one, and we didn’t realize that his funny sketch about a bubble machine and a guy who said “Wun’erful! Wun’erful!” was a parody of a TV show.
So television comes along.
The heroes are now a few inches tall. Their power fades. They become part of the noise. They are a babble.
Sometimes an old movie from the Saturday matinees turns up on TV. The actors turn out to be just actors, not titans. Did I really believe that James Stewart was a mythic being? Surely it’s not just because I am now older. The world is made smaller – but not in the way that tele-communications people say it is.
The ritual of listening to the recorded BBC news disappears. The recorded BBC news is no longer broadcast in New Zealand anyway.
Now dinner coincides with the NZBC television news, read by New Zealand males trying hard to sound like the BBC version.
Late in the 1960s, I happen to hear a BBC radio news bulletin. A direct broadcast without hiss, crackle or whistling. The reader could be in the next room.
I reflect “It’s just a man in a studio.”
I reflect “It’s just a news bulletin.”
The mystique has gone. The authority has gone.
Goodbye to authority. Goodbye to mythology.
Welcome the adolescent scepticism about everything – which is also known as postmodernism.
Toto has twitched the curtain.