Saturday, 2 November 2013

Old Stuff

I suppose everyone grows up in a world that is "always already" vanishing, where the old and the new, the real and the fake are eternally changing places, but I think this may have been particularly acute for those of us who grew up in the 1950s and 60s, in the dawning of the Age of Plastic.

Overnight, it seemed, "authentic" materials like wood, leather, metal, and ceramic were transmuted into synthetic equivalents.  The world was suddenly full of skeuomorphs; that is, objects made of the new materials that imitated, needlessly, the superseded characteristics of the old materials, with fake seams and stitching, dummy screws and rivets, and imitation wood-grain and fabric "effects".  Car interiors, radios, glassware, toys: anything that had once been made from expensive "real" stuff was now available in a cheaper, plastic alternative.

Naturally, designers soon began to exploit the new shapes, textures and colours that moulded plastics made possible: simple things like airtight plastic containers or carrier bags were a radical novelty back then.  At the same time the older materials acquired the cachet of being the real thing, inevitably more exclusive and costly, like the real wood and real leather interior of a luxury car.  Apart from being expensive, such "real" materials required care and maintenance, which went against the labour-saving, disposable, no fuss ethos of modernity. Incredibly, there was a brief period of misery in human history when nylon sheets, shirts and underwear -- drip dry, no need to iron! -- were considered quite the futuristic thing.

It wasn't long before a reaction set in.  The pop-antiquarian conviction that old stuff is real stuff was, confusingly, both a reassertion of the benchmarks of affluent good living -- can you afford to wear real wool? -- and also a critique of that consumerist "cult of the new" of the 1950s and 60s.  This ambivalence about the virtues of The New was a contradiction at the heart of much of "counter-culture", which was, despite its progressive claims and good intentions, in practice quite backward-looking, elitist and even snobbish.  That reflex counter-cultural rejection of "commercial" production values in favour of the hand-made and artisanal -- as exemplified by old stuff -- was, in a mass society, a pretty anti-democratic instinct.

Really old stuff, Bordeaux, August 2010

You didn't have to take things that seriously to embrace a fashion trend, of course.  In the 1970s there was still enough old stuff installed or lying around in kitchens and sheds for the qualitative contrast of old and new to be an everyday experience. To the discerning, the superiority of a "proper" white vitreous enamel bath over a new plastic bathroom suite in avocado green was self-evident.  The fashion-conscious rescued ornamental Victorian cast-iron fireplaces from skips, or uncovered them from behind the plywood facings of efficient but soulless modern gas fires. There was a fad for decorative old bottles and ceramic jars dug out of rubbish tips; antique mirrors and enamel Edwardian advertising placards were scavenged from pubs and shops under refurbishment.  Even jukeboxes and pinball tables from the 1940s and 50s seemed more alluring than their contemporary versions.  In retrospect, the late 60s and early 70s were remarkable for their obsession with the design-cues of previous decades.

This charity-shop nostalgia -- what would nowadays be labelled "retro" -- was utterly futile as a form of resistance to consumerism, but it did (and does) express a longing for lost authenticity and continuity that is a sort of wound in the contemporary western psyche.  It must have been around then that the words "old-fashioned" shifted from a pejorative term to a marketing strategy.  What greater guarantee of integrity, flavour, reliability and all-round goodness, could there be than "old-fashioned"? That is, apart from "traditional", "original", "farm fresh", and all the other dog-whistle phrases marketeers learned to deploy.

You might also say it was around that time that post-modernism emerged as a sensibility, and that "lifestyle" began to be seen not as a product of background and upbringing but as a modular set of consumer choices.  But, mainly, I think it marked the point where a country like Britain developed a disabling self-consciousness and began to become a fantasy theme-park museum of itself.  A skeuomorph, even, with all the old, useless bits carefully preserved.

Perigueux amusement park, August 2010

14 comments:

Dave Leeke said...

It seems we British have always tried to improve upon Nature. Whilst in the Lyme Regis Museum earlier this week I came across "Coade Stone" (http://bit.ly/1aRhNNL) an attempt to give a natural look but to make it last longer!

Mike C. said...

Dave,

I think it's our instinct as a species: I'll take a loaf of bread over a handful of wheat grains any day! And you just try cooking in an raw clay pot...

Mike

Andrew Sharp said...

But, if you do share a house with a pair of juke box collectors, with one on the top floor and the other in the basement, then either persuade them kindly to only play with one of them at a time or get a stair carpet.

Malvern Road, I think it was. The one with the communal bath and laundry house on the corner. Now that's an old fashioned thing.

Mike C. said...

Andy,

Oh God, "Telstar" at full blast at 2 am... Don't remind me.

Funnily enough, I was describing that East End council bath-house just the other day, and I don't think I was believed.

Mike

Debra Morris said...

I thought vintage was the current preference - is this more authentic than retro? Discuss.

Mike C. said...

Debra,

Tricky one -- I suspect that you can buy "vintage" but have a "retro" attitude. The irony is that much "vintage" clothing was pretty retro to start with...

Mike

Kent Wiley said...

There is something of the snob appeal to shooting 4 x 5 transparency film with a six pound metal camera from the 1960's, I won't deny it. But the tactile pleasure - while diminishing as everything about the experience becomes more difficult - is immensely greater than the point & shoot ease of the dslr even on manual mode. I wear my badge of anachronism proudly. Or is it for the "retro" possibilities?

Mike C. said...

Kent,

Don't get me wrong -- I am quite a fan of old stuff myself, though no longer so much of film cameras, and would never claim there's anything democratic about the pursuit of excellence. "Democratic" is good-enough cameras built into mobile phones...

Mike

Debra Morris said...

I loved my Morris Traveller - ticked lots of boxes in 2000 - significantly economical: light on fuel consumption and no pricey road tax required. Easy for carrying 2 children, small bikes, a buggy and other necessities. Sadly, though it was just too tempting for curious teenagers from the estate just over the back of our road. Once it was stolen from outside our house, and recovered just a few hundred yards away (having been easily hot wired and driven around for a time). Subsequently, stolen from the railway station car park - we decided that if I couldn't rely on the jalopy being available when required, I would need to get a less desirable, more secure car. Consequently, now the owner of an anonymous, character-free Fiesta which has provided no temptation for anyone.

Mike C. said...

Debra,

The cult of the Traveller is an interesting one, and very much in the area under discussion here. I believe the woodwork (and the decline in spare parts) makes them a bit of a high-maintenance object.

The irony is that the status-value of "shabby chic" is generally only visible to those who share those values. Those kids probably TWOC'd your car because they thought it was a junker... If you'd run a Porsche they'd probably have stood guard over it.

It's rather like running a "real" VW camper van, or those Nissan Figaros you see around, which are all apparently specially imported from Japan.

Mike

Zouk Delors said...

I once borrowed a Morris Minor (same design par the Traveller, ex bodywork, I believe) for which there were no keys - not that it was stolen, you understand, just owned by a scatty artist. You didn't have to be any sort of electrical adept to hotwire it: you just had to slip a 2p piece between the contacts on the fusebox (fit perfectly) and press the starter button. 'Course, we used to leave our front doors open in them days.

Martyn Cornell said...

But doesn't this attitude go right back to the ancient Greeks, who carefully reproduced (so I read once) many of the forms of timber-based buildings (eg little carved "dowels") when they rebuilt their temples in marble?

Dave - the "South Bank Lion" by Westminster Bridge is Coade Stone http://www.london-sightseeing.co.uk/south_bank_lion.php

Mike C. said...

Martyn,

Yes, of course that's true (and hence the choice of illustration). There seem to be two balancing human instincts: to discover and enjoy the new, but to use it to reproduce the old. You might say our political system is one embodiment of that.

Have you ever seen that classic Norwegian comedy sketch, "mediaeval help desk", where a monk is confronted by the new-fangled "book":

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pdkucf6wxU4

Hilarious!

Mike

Zouk Delors said...

The Age of Plastic
It seems we may be about to enter the Age of the Mycelium:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03gbs6l