Alexi Sayle joins the fight.

Alexei-Sayle-e1473856388102Question: there has been a sizeable spike in views on the site in the last couple of days, but why? . This is usually caused by Dominic having a new programme on TV, but if this is the case now I have missed it. The only explanation that I can come up with is that Alexi Sayle is currently venting some righteous spleen over Dominic’s work on the Fringe at Edinburgh. For the record, I have a great deal of admiration for Alexi’s work, and view his Stalin Ate my Homework and Thatcher Stole My Trousers as works of contemporary British history vastly greater in insight and accuracy than thinly veiled Thatcherite apologia that Dominic produces.

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The Unthinking Person’s Guide to the 1980s.


An interim review of The 1980s with Dominic Sandbrook, part 2 “Under pressure” First broadcast on BBC, 11th August 2016.

Can be seen on BBC iPlayer util 11th September 2016


The second part of The 1980s with Dominic Sandbrook is, even more than the first, difficult to review.  It is rambling and unstructured.  Each segment, on a different aspect of the 1980s (and there is a focus here on the second Thatcher term, but even this is by no means exclusive) is brief, undeveloped and often leaves out what should be included.  In many instances, a conclusion is drawn from this history-bite which is sweeping and often inaccurate.  In this stroll Dominic takes on video games, the Falklands war, video nasties the Miners’ strike,  the special relationship with the USA, shopping centres, the Americanisation of culture and its anti-American reaction, “loony left” councils, AIDS, computers and the Brighton bombing.

The overall conclusion is that the changes of the 1980s led to a feeling of fear and anxiety but out of this a more modern tolerant post-imperial and post-industrial national identity emerged that was nonetheless more assertive and confident.  I will be writing a full analysis of this in the next few weeks, but in the meantime here is analysis of two sections of the programme: those on the Falklands conflict and computing.


The Falklands conflict.

What is telling is that from the first words after the title, there is evidence of a disregard for the facts in this programme.  By far the best history of Thatcher and the Falklands conflict is contained in the first volume of Charles Moore’s authorised biography of Thatcher.[1]  Despite Moore’s obvious admiration for Thatcher, the bulk of his analysis is rigorous and fair, based on the widest range of sources including Thatcher’s papers and interviews with the participants.  Now maybe Dominic’s sources and history is better than Moore’s and when his footnoted book of the Thatcher years appears it will show this, but in the meantime it can only be assumed that Moore’s is likely to be the last word on most of the details relating to Thatcher and the Falklands.

What is noticeable is that many of the details than Dominic uses to add colour to his story are at variance with Moore’s account.  It would appear that he is making up details to create a compelling narrative.  Thus, just before the invasion Dominic states that the head of the Royal Navy, Admiral Henry Leach, “stood across Westminster Bridge” to the House of Commons (he did not, he had already been to the Ministry of Defence looking for the minister, John Nott, to be told he was in the House of Commons).  Dominic tells us he was a “magnificent martial figure in his naval regalia” while Moore believes that he (as was likely) was in his day uniform, not full “regalia” (and indeed his uniform made such a muted impression that in her memoires Thatcher recalls him wearing civilian clothes).[2]  It is not the case that, as Dominic states, the Admiral was “nearly detained” on entering the Commons, he was held-up for fifteen minutes.  Although the gist of the story is true, he stiffened Thatcher’s resolve by telling her that a task force could and must be assembled to retake the Islands,[3] Dominic wastes a great deal of time creating detail and colour that is, according to the best sources, false.

It is much more important, however, that both in what he goes on to say, and in what he omits, Dominic creates an unbalanced and inaccurate picture.  Dominic states as the Argentine invasion force mounted the Thatcher government was in crisis.  What he omits is that this crisis was the result of it being widely believed that the government had been giving signals to the Argentines that the invasion would not be opposed.  A review commissioned under the previous Labour government following an early invasion threat calling for economic development and military defence of the islands had been rejected, spending cuts meant that it been announced the Royal Navy’s patrol vessel in the South Pacific would be withdrawn; the 1980 Nationality Act had withdrawn full British citizenship from the Islanders; some within the government had appeared to be willing to consider a change in the Islands’ sovereignty; and there had  been no swift response to early signs that the Argentines might be moving towards military action.[4]

The Conservative government’s slow response was compared unfavourably with the previous Labour government’s response to an Argentinean threat in 1977 when it had dispatched a pre-emptive task force which was combined with diplomatic initiatives to forestall the crisis.[5]  Callaghan made great political capital of this in 1982 in a speech in the Commons that damaged Thatcher.[6]  It is commonly held that this was a result of Thatcher having weakened the structures of cabinet government while having too little resource to run government from her own office – thus she could deal with crises, but such crises were more likely to arise.[7]

Nor does Dominic mention how lucky Thatcher was.  Slightly greater military loses might have made the retaking of the islands impossible.  Having Reagan in the Whitehouse kept the USA as an ally despite some opposition in his administration being strongly opposed to military action, particularly his Ambassador to the UN, Jeane Kirkpatrick.[8]  The unwillingness of the Argentineans to negotiate meant that British government was able to agree to diplomatic initiatives that they knew would be rejected (Thatcher’s willingness to agree to such initiatives may also show that she was not quite as one-sidedly committed to the military option as Dominic suggests).  Labour did not expose Thatcher’s short-comings as vigorously as they might: the Labour leader, Michael Foot, was transported back to 1938 and saw the Argentinean junta as fascism that could not be appeased[9] although the traditional right of the party in the form of Jim Callaghan, Dennis Healey and (more persistently) the maverick right-winger Tam Dalyell did a more consistent job of opposition.[10]

It is also not true that Britain, as Dominic claims, “had stood up alone against a foreign bully”.  Without US intelligence and communication intercepts, and use of Sidewinder missiles and other technology supplied in the course of the conflict, the outcome may have been very different.[11]  Of course, he prefaces this statement with the word “seemed”, a weasel get out clause for saying something that is not true without offering any substantive statement of reality and appearance differing.  As outlined above, the relationship with the USA was far from smooth, with the US constantly pushing for a diplomatic settlement, casting some doubt on the uncritical acceptance of the brains and brawn picture of the UK’s special relationship later in the programme.

The most problematic element of Dominic’s analysis of the Falklands conflict is not simply that instead of an accurate picture we are offered little more than a pro-Thatcher victory parade, but that its ends with the somewhat fascist sentiment that Britain was again “a warrior nation renewed in battle”.  The conclusion is that it helped restore national self-confidence and renewed patriotism.  This sits very uncomfortably with the assertion that Dominic made in the previous programme about the Falklands conflict, that the boost in popularity that Thatcher received from the Falklands had no impact on her victory in the 1983 election.

That the Falklands conflict was not a factor in the 1983 has some weight.  It has been argued by Sanders, Ward, Marsh and Fletcher in a 1987 analysis that suggests, contrary to previous analyses,[12] the boost that the Conservatives received was both small (around 3 per cent in the polls) and temporary (it did not last until the 1983 election).  Their view is that the Conservatives had suffered a mid-term slump but their recovery was driven by economic recovery not the Falklands conflict.[13]  Here is not the place to fully assess this statistical work, but there is certainly a great deal of truth in it.  The  Conservatives’ fortunes were recovering prior to the Falklands conflict, and this was driven by the way that the economy impacted on individuals.  It is certainly the case that if potential Conservative voters had seen their economic prosperity linked to voting for an opposition party in 1983, then the Falklands factor is likely to have amounted to little (see material on John Major, below).

I would suggest a different view, (and I put this forward as a hypothesis, not a conclusion) that the economic factors and the Falkland factor worked together, making Thatcher more dominant than she would have been otherwise.  Both Thatcher’s image and her standing within her own government and parliamentary party were hugely boosted by the Falklands.  Prior to the war she had not been in complete control within government (although her battle against the wets on economic policy had largely been won by the end of 1981), but only after the Falklands was that fully consolidated.[14]

A comparison with Major and the first Gulf War is telling here.  Major’s approval ratings at the time of the war in 1991 were better than Thatcher’s at the time of the Falklands, with his approval rating improving from +15 before the war, to +46 at its height.[15]  Even at her most popular during the Falklands conflict after the taking of Port Stanley, Thatcher never united the country in the same way – her approval rating was only +21 (60 per cent thought she had done a good job, 39 per cent did not).[16]  This high disapproval rating is likely to be a combination of two factors: first, her economic policies split the country, with those suffering most from unemployment not rallying behind the war; second, the strong feeling that the conflict was, to some extent, caused by the government’s ineptitude dealing with the situation.[17]  What is certain is that Dominic’s assertion that “after years of imperial decline, Britain had rediscovered its patriotic pride” does not capture a more complex situation.  There is little evidence of such a shift in national identity and attitudes.  This was a more straight forward boost.  As the pollster Robert Worcester has commented, where a war is seen as “just” then there is often strong public support.[18]




This section is rather confused, compounding three different elements

  1. The impact of computers on British industry.  The use of computers in business was by no means new in the 1980s: famously Lyons coffee shops had started using a computer in Britain as early as 1951, and by the 1970s their use in business and academia was widespread.
  2. The manufacturing of computers (and also software and peripherals) in Britain. The British computer industry had its origins in academic experimental machines in Manchester and (with a more lasting heritage) in Cambridge in the late 1940s.  British companies, Ferranti in the first instance, competed against US companies (mainly IBM) in the domestic market.  In 1968 the main British computer companies merged to form ICL (International Computers Ltd), which traded until 2001 and then disappeared into Fujitsu.  ICL was part of the technocratic hopes of the 1960s Labour governments, and its creation was encouraged by the Minister of Technology, Tony Benn (then a leading figure on the technocratic right to the party).
  3. The cultural impact of computer, particularly home computers on people’s lives. Although this developed in the 1980s, even in the 1970s Britain had a dedicated group of hobbyists developing their use at home.


Dominic’s section on computing is weak, not least because these three currents are completely confused.  However, much of the factual material about computers is also wrong.  Thus he starts by giving the impression that importance of computing was first recognised by the Thatcher government, and that “Mrs. Thatcher decided not just to pour money into the British computer industry but to try and create a nation of young programmers and to do that she put computers into schools.”  This is wrong.  Mrs. Thatcher had no great commitment to developing computing after she was elected and blocked early moves in developing government IT strategy.[19]  Policy was developed at this time, but was not led by Thatcher but by an existing network promoting IT and computing in the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), Department of Education and Science (DES) and Manpower Services Commission.  It was this coalition, along with the BBC who since the late 1970s had been developing its Computer Literacy Project that led to the creation of the Acorn BBC Micro.[20]

It is also not the case that Thatcher “poured” money into the IT industry. (And why is money always “poured”?  Last week money was poured into the steel industry, the term is both a lazy cliché and ideologically loaded suggesting waste.  Why not spent?  Or even invested?)  The only policy to which this could apply was the Department of Industry Micros in Schools scheme, which offered a 50 per cent subsidy on schools buying computers, the rest of the expense being met out of schools budgets or fundraising.  This was no small sum with the BBC Acorn Model A coming in at £299 and the more powerful Model B at £399 in 1983[21] (£900 to £1200 in 2015 prices).  (Coincidently, Dominic was a lucky man to have a BBC Micro, when his parents bought one in 1984 its cost would have been more than three weeks’ disposable income for median working-age household.)[22]

There was no “contract” to supply computers to schools, as Dominic claims, schools were allowed to buy whatever computer they wished.  The widespread adoption of the BBC Micro was because it was the machine that had been developed with the BBC for educational purposes.  Certainly, this boosted the BBC Micro’s sales.  But the British home computer industry, led by the Sinclair Spectrum, succeeded without government help.

Dominic is clearly right that the generation who cut their programming teeth on the BBC Micro and Spectrum ZX went on to form the backbone of a vibrant British games industries.[23]  But what is noticeable is that he has said very little about what became of the British computer industry.  He gives the impression that the Acorn Computers, which made the BBC Micro died out.  Although the company was swallowed up by Olivetti, it left a very important mark on the British computer industry.  In 1985 it started to develop a new Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC) chip, the Acorn RISC Machine, or ARM.  Olivetti cared little for this part of the business and it was spun off as ARM Holdings in 1990 and went on to become one of the world’s leading microprocessor design companies.[24]  When sold to the Japanese company SoftBank in 2016, it was worth £23.4 billion.


[1]  To this should be added the official history of the war,  Lawrence Freedman , The Official History of the Falklands, Volume 1: The Origins of the Falklands War and Volume 2: Campaign: War and Diplomacy(London: Taylor and Francis, 2005)

[2]  Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (London: HarperCollins, 1993), p179.

[3] Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher: The Authrorized Biography.  Volume One: Not for Turning (London: Allen Lane, 2013), pp665-667

[4] Moore (2013), pp656-665.

[5]  Ben Fenton. “Secret Falklands task force revealed” The Daily Telegraph. 12th Apr I 2008 (Accessed 18/8/2016)

[6] Moore, p664. 682

[7] Peter Hennessy,  The British Prime Minister: the Office and its Holders since 1945 (London: Allen Lane, 2000), pp138-140  [check reference]

[8] Peter Collier, Political Woman: The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick (New York: Encounter, 2012), pp134-140.

[9] Kenneth O. Morgan, Michael Foot: A Life (London: HarperCollins, 2007) pp410-415

[10] Moore (2013) pp179, 732

[11] Moore (2013), p?

[12] See in particular Ivor Crewe, ‘How to Win a Landslide Without Really Trying: Why the Conservatives 1983’,  in Austin  Ranney (ed), Britain at the Polls 1983 (New York: Duke University Press, 1985) and Patrick Dunleavy and Chris Husbands, British Democracy at the Crossroads: voting and party petition in the 1980s (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1985)

[13] David Sanders, Hugh Ward, David Marsh and Tony Fletcher, Tony, “Government Popularity and the Falklands war: A reassessment”, British Journal of Political Science, 17: 3 (1987)

[14] This, I appreciate, is very speculative and as unsubstantiated as Dominic’s assertions.

[15]  Prior to the war 37 per cent of voters thought that Major was doing a good job, and 22 per cent thought he was doing badly.  By January 1991 war 61 per cent favourable, 15 per cent unfavourable.

[16] Major is Britain’s most popular PM since Churchill.

David Hughes and Andrew Grice.

The Sunday Times (London, England), Sunday, January 27, 1991; pg. 4; Issue 8684.  (771 words)

[17] Rallings, Collins; Thrasher, Michael and Moon, Nick  “British Public Opinion during the first Gulf War” Contemporary Record January 1992,p386

[18] Robert Worcester,  British Public Opinion: a guide to the history and methodology of political opinion polling (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), p87.


Thatcher hampered government support for IT, papers reveal”, Computing 20th April 2010 ( (accessed 18/8/2016)

[20] Alison Gazzard, Now the Chips are Down: The BBC Micro (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016), p20.

[21] Gazzard (2016),

[22] ONS, Middle Income Households, 1977-2011/12 (December 2012) (accessed 18/08/2016)

[23] But see the more detailed account in Rebecca Levene and Magnus Anderson, Grand Thieves & Tomb Raiders: How British Video Games Conquered the World (London: Aurum Press, 2012)

[24] Gazzard (2016), pp169-170.

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Class, Consumers and Cookery:  how not to understand the 1980s.


A Review of The 1980s with Dominic Sandbrook part 1, “The Sound of the Crowd”. 

First broadcast on BBC, 4th August 2016.  Available for 28 days on iPlayer at

In this new series on the 1980s Dominic Sandbrook attempts to do something quite difficult.  Each episode combines themes that run through the 1980s (which would appear to really be the twelve-and-half years in which Thatcher was in power 1979-1990) with a chronological approach (with each of the three parts covering one of Thatcher’s three terms in power punctuated by the Conservatives’ election victories in 1983 and 1987 and terminated by her defenestration in November 1990.  This suggests either a highly skilled historian, or someone who is willing to cobble together half-baked arguments without regard to accuracy or coherent narrative as long as there is a decent contemporaneous television clip to go with it.

So this first part looks at Thatcher’s first term in office from 1979 to 1983 while also emphasising the theme that what was happening in Britain was not a transformation imposed from the top by the Conservative government, but from below by changes in social attitudes.  Dominic argues that Britain’s culture was becoming more individualist, inspirational consumerist and domestically focused and that it was through this bottom up cultural change that new identities were forced, sweeping away old identities particularly those of class, sweeping out Old Labour and with Thatcher being a result of these changes, rather than their cause.

This individualism meant that people turned away from collective sources of identity (the pub, the football game, the trade union) towards more private and even solitary activities (watching snooker on the TV, cooking at home).  Consumerism, Dominic argues, meant that people changed their attitude to shopping.  It ceased to be a search for the essentials of life, but instead a search for identity through consumption and this allowed for a move away from collective identity to one where a wider range of identities was possible.   Domesticity, which is least explored in this programme, suggests that people retreated out of public spaces behind their front doors into a private, family space with programmes such as Delia Smith’s Cookery Course (BBC, three series 1978-1981).

One problem is that this thesis is not used consistently through the programme.  In particular, the idea that there was new domesticity that underlay the changes of the 1980s is contradicted in other parts of the programme.  Thus the rise in working mothers, lone parents and single person households is emphasised as something that created a more fragmented society.  Indeed, Delia Smith is used as evidence not only of increased domesticity (people being keen to cook more adventurous meals at home) but also of working mothers (women needing to prepare meals after a full working day) and people not living in household units at all (her 1987 cookery book and TV series, One is Fun!).  While all of these can clearly be simultaneously true, they cannot co-exist with Dominic’s sweeping generalisations about the changing nature of British society.[1]

The focus on Delia Smith demonstrates another flaw in Dominic’s overall approach.  Instead of looking at long, often gradual, changes in British society he sees, in place of trends, only events that “happened” in the 1980s and were thus only transformative within that decade.  Thus Dominic claims that “Delia is the key to really understanding what happened to Britain in the 1980s”, Thatcher was responding to, not driving change.  Something which is typical of Dominic is his refusal to understand (or his laziness in not be willing to look at) the histories of particular aspects of social life.  Thus cookery shows are not simply shapers and reflections of the times in which they are made (although they are that), but they also have their own history.  Delia Smith’s Cookery Course exists in the context of previous TV cookery programmes.  In Britain these go back (at least) to Philip Harben’s programmes, at first on the radio in 1942 and then on television from 1946 with his programme Cookery.  Although these were programmes at a time of austerity and rationing, the idea that television cookery might already be aspirational was clearly there – his first programme showed the viewer how to make lobster vols-au-vont.  He soon became established as the first celebrity-TV chef, famous enough to have a cameo as himself in a Norman Wisdom film.  Marguerite Patten also started appearing as a TV-cook from 1947, and appeared alongside Harben in the BBC’s Cookery Lesson (1956).  The aspirational elements were firmly rooted in a didactic approach that characterised Delia Smith.

None had the aspirational reach of Fanny Cradock, who first appeared on the BBC in 1955.  She eschewed British food for the French cookery of Auguste Escoffier, and the cook’s apron for chiffon gowns.   More prosaically, she played a major role in popularising both pizza and prawn cocktail in Britain.  In print Elizabeth David chartered a more demure course through continental cookery (although it is worth noting that in their private lives both Cradock and David were far from conventional for their time).

Delia Smith’s first national BBC programme was earlier in the 1970s, Family Fare (1973-1975).  Her Cookery Course (1978-1982) was firmly in the didactic tradition of Harben and Patten, and it was produced by the BBC’s further education unit.  Smith shared particularly with Harben an approach that not only explained how to cook but a little of the science behind cooking.  There is a lack of serious scholarship on cooking in Britain, but my own anecdotal evidence of arriving in self-catering student flats in 1982 was that many students turned up with a copy of Delia Smith Complete Cookery Course, not to aspire but to learn to cook (I had a copy of The Good Housekeeping Cookery Book and a Rose Elliot’s Not Just a Load of Old Lentils showing, I think, that I was both less middle-class and more pretentious than some of the fellow students: discuss).

To an extent Dominic has picked on the wrong programme.  The consumerist programme on food from the early 1980s was Food and Drink which originally ran on BBC2 from 1982 to 2002.  It is consumerist in that it was not a cookery show, but was more overtly about the consumption of food, including in restaurants, and particularly wine (the wine critic Jancis Robinson is credited as coming up with the idea for the show).  The show attracted maybe a tenth of the viewers of Delia’s Cookery Course and could not be credited with the same kind of reach as Delia.

The point here is that Delia Smith simply does not have the significance that Dominic gives her, he states she inspired something “little short of a revolution”.  In reality, her books and TV fitted in with a current that had long been around on British TV.  Her approach was much more educational than aspirational, but she was reacting to the broadening of palates that had been permeating through British culture not just from Elizabeth David but the impact of immigrant communities.[2]  Dominic has used the lack of a clear understanding of the role of cooking and cookery programmes in British culture in the early 1980s not to embark on some serious scholarship to fill the gap, but to create a semi-fictional fake history.  Academically, this is poisoning the well.

The wilful disregard for serious history is also shown in Dominic’s comments on microwave ovens.  As everyone who has ever had a microwave oven knows, these appliances have attained the status of essential kitchen appliances while having no real purpose (I make porridge in mine in the winter months, and that’s about it).  But for Dominic the boom in microwave oven sales in the 1980s was the harbinger of the domesticity/individualist/consumerism which is at the centre of his understanding of the 1980s.

This is combined with other errors.  Dominic points to the coming of the Chicken Kiev, a “Marks and Spencer ready meal for one” as showing the new consumption patterns of the 1980s.   There are a number of errors here.  The M&S Chicken Kiev is not a ready meal, it is a single item ready-prepared/convenience food that would be part of a meal (it thus no more a ready meal than a sausage or a fish finger).  Convenience and pre-prepared food do not start with the Kiev.  Heinz first sold tinned soup in Britain in 1910, and tinned ravioli followed (1927 in the USA, not sure about the UK).  Frozen fish fingers were launched in Britain in 1955 (although Clarence Birdseye thought that his “herring savouries” would be a winner, not the bland cod-sticks).[3]  M&S had introduced vacuum packed ravioli and other “fresh” convenience food in 1974.  If one wanted a technologically determinist view of the changing role of women in the home, as far as kitchen appliances are concerned it was the fridge that made all the difference

Even in 1959 only 13 per cent of homes had a refrigerator, in 1962, 33 percent of households had a fridge and by 1971, 69 percent.  This combined with the rise of the self-service supermarket from the mid-1950s which made a weekly shop possible, and freed women from the need to shop on a daily basis.  It was probably this more than microwaves or Chicken Kievs which related to women’s changing role (although I will not comment on cause and effect here).

This is reflected in the changing patterns of women working in Britain.  Dominic oddly, places this firmly in the 1980s.  The picture here is, again, of gradual and long-term change.  The proportion of women working rose from around 40% in the immediate post-war years, passing 50% in the 1960s.  In 1971 the gap between the proportion of men and women of working age in the workforce was 40%, which fell to 35 per cent in 1974, 30 per cent in 1979, 25 per cent in 1981, 20 per cent in 1986 and 15 per cent in 1992.  The gap currently stabilised around 10 per cent in 2009.[4]  A similar picture of gradual change in women working part time (although the massive majority of part-time workers, around 41 per cent of women working part time compared to 11 per cent of men in 2015).  The gender pay gap too has become narrower while still being very real.[5]  There is nothing particularly special about the 1980s in any of these regards.

So all that Dominic offers here is insubstantial and impressionistic.  Thus when he claims “In Delia’s world, voters turned to a new kind of political leader”, and even if we disregard that when Thatcher was elected only the first series of Cookery Course had gone out, there is very little substance to this claim.  Perhaps we can be generous, that Dominic is really arguing that there was attitudinal change in Britain towards a more individualistic and consumerist society and this underpinned Thatcher’s election victory in 1979.  There is little evidence to support even this view.


As John Lawrence and Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite have pointed out, while the Conservatives under Thatcher may have succeeded in tapping into a current of individualism and privatised family consumption that existed in the working class already in the 1970s, this “was not a culture which Thatcher, as an Oxford Young Conservative and then a millionaire’s wife, had much exposure to since her time as a grocer’s daughter in Grantham.”[6]  Indeed, the creation of Thatcher as the frugal and understanding housewife and daughter of the Grantham grocer was one of the great marketing successes of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  The irony here is that Dominic repeats these marketing images of Thatcher uncritically, while at the same suggesting the marketing was the characteristic shaper of 1980s social discourse.  Thus we should be careful to pick our way between myth and reality (in a way that Dominic is not).

The Conservatives were clearly keen on developing the idea of the privatised, individualist workers early on under Thatcher’s leadership.  As early as 1976 the Centre for Policy Studies, the think-tank that Thatcher had established to develop her views, produced a booklet, The New Acquisitive Society, arguing that working class identity was in decline.  Written by a largely discredited sociologist, Ferdynand Zweig, it argued that working class consciousness had become unimportant in the minds of the workers.  This was something that Zweig had been arguing for years, even though Goldthorpe and Lockwood’s Luton study had found his idea did not correspond to reality, he carried on arguing the same idea.[7]

There is a great deal to say about the changing nature of class identity in the 1980s, and the impact that this had on Labour voting.  But the crass and superficial treatment of it given here is not even a starting point.

The first thing is not to confuse the idea of working class with the traditional industrial working class.  While it is clearly the case that there are lesser dockers, but in return there has been a rise in routine non-manual occupation, often low paid and low status (stereotypically, call-centre workers).  This group have more recently been seen as having poor conditions of employment giving rise to a “pacariat”, but this is going beyond the focus on the 1980s.

There is evidence that in some ways things did not change in the 1980s or since.  Looking at the headline data from the annual British Social Attitudes survey (which unfortunately only commenced in 1983), the number identifying themselves as working class, rather than middle-class, has changed little, being a little above 60 per cent.  There is much more than could be said about this, but time will not allow.

Alongside this there is an equally odd understanding of the 1983 election.  It is central to Dominic’s view that it was underlying social attitudes that had changed, that the outcome of the 1983 be invested with the kind of inevitability that it did not, in fact, have.

Thus, the problems of the Labour Party are conceptualised by Dominic solely in terms of the party (left and right) struggling to come to terms with this cultural shift in politics.  There is no evidence produced to support, and indeed there is little evidence that this is how the participants understood what they were doing at the time.  The argument was much more about Europe and nuclear weapons (SDP in favour, Labour left against) as well as the record of the 1974-1979 Labour government and whether the Labour Party needed to decisively break from this.

Thus the series of events that Dominic presents as being disparate reactions to changing culture are in fact linked by the above foci.  The 1980s Labour conference passed the principle of a constitutional change to broaden the method for electing the party leader (and deputy leader).  It did not agree to the method which was to be decided by a special conference.  To avoid having a new leader elected under a new system Callaghan resigned, with the PLP electing Foot in November 1980 under the old rules.  Dominic’s assertion was that Foot was elected by MPs to “heal the divisions” in the party.  At least three of the MPs who were to defect to the SDP voted for Foot.  Healy’s view is that many MPs, under pressure from activists in the constituencies, did so in search of a “quiet life”.[8]  Certainly, there is evidence even in the 1976 leadership contest that centre-right MPs voted for Foot under pressure from their constituency party members.[9]  The Wembley conference [24th January 1981] decided the electoral college for electing a leader and this was the trigger for what was to become the SDP’s split from the Labour Party with the Limehouse Declaration (25th January 1981) and which allowed Benn to stand (2nd April 1981).  Dominic’s understanding of these events is so vague as to be hopeless.

Oddest of all, Dominic states that by the end of their first term (which could have run as late as May 1984) the electoral situation looked hopeless for the Conservatives.[10].Things certainly did not look hopeless at the end of the Conservatives first term.  They developed a lead over Labour from March 1982, which grew steadily.  From the beginning of 1983 the Conservatives maintained a lead of more than 10% over Labour, so calling a general election a year early was a low risk strategy for them.  There is some truth in Dominic’s rejection of the Falklands War as the factor that turned the Conservative’s fortunes round, their vote was clearly recovering before the British task force set sail on 5th April 1982, but by the time of the Argentine surrender in June, the Conservatives’ poll rating had increased from an average pre-invasion of around 30 per cent to around 47 per cent, a poll rating they were to maintain until the election in 1983.  Labour’s poll ratings had been strong until early 1981, showing anything up to a 10 point lead over the Conservatives, but never recovered after the formation of the SDP in March 1981.



Figure 1: Polling data on voting intention 1979-1983 for Labour, Conservatives and SDP/Liberals.


There are a number of key points that can be drawn from this data.

  1. The Conservatives’ support dropped in their two years in office, by their ranking by early 1981 (around 3 per cent) would be no more than one would expect with a government implementing a painful economic programme
  2. The Conservatives’ vote dropped much more painfully after the SDP was formed particularly in the summer of 1981 and by the beginning of September was consistently below 30 per cent. There were signs of a Conservative recovery however, before the start of the Falkland war in April 1982, but only to a level of around 33 per cent support.
  3. It was only in the course of the Falklands war that their support recovered, over the three-month course of the war it rose from around 33 per cent to 48 per cent. Support remained at this higher level (42 to 49 per cent) until the 1983 general election.
  4. Labour support was high after the 1979 general election. It rose from around 44 per cent at the time of the election to nearly 50 per cent at the beginning of 1981.  With the formation of the SDP it fell back to a figure in the 27 to 33 per cent over the course of the 1981, and this continued to be the picture up to the 1983 election.

This does not support what Dominic suggests, that the Falklands war  had little to do with the 1983 election result.  It is very odd that in this programme where he focuses so much on the idea of brand, image and identity that Dominic cannot see that the Falklands were the point when the Conservatives, or more particularly Thatcher, were able to transform their image from being callous and stubborn to being tough and principled.  It was not simply the Falklands that allowed her to do this, by 1982 she was much more in control of her cabinet.  Inflation, which had been 18 per cent in 1980, had been cut to 4.6 per cent in 1983.

Again there is more that could be said here, particularly on how the Conservatives were able to win despite there being considerable opposition to their policies (and not an individualist acceptance of them).   Part of the answer is that they were never that popular.  Dominic refers to the Conservatives “landslide” victory in 1983 as evidence that the Conservatives were buoyed up by the rising tide of individualism and consumerism, but this is highly misleading.  For sure the Conservatives won a landslide in terms of seats, with a 150  seat majority.  But in terms of the popular vote they won a smaller percentage than in 1979, polling only 42 per cent of the vote (turnout was also down from 76 per cent to 73 per cent).  The election showed many things, but a shift in the population towards the Conservatives and their values was not one of them.

The paucity of Dominic’s historical research is evident in his comments on breakfast TV.  He states, quite unequivocally, that Margaret Thatcher won the 1983 general election because she understood the importance of breakfast TV, while Labour leader, Michael Foot, was trapped in a time warp address at mass meetings (with footage of Foot, addressing a mass meeting and Thatcher on breakfast TV).  This is very wrong in one important way, on the first day that the first breakfast TV show started (BBC’s Good Morning Britain) one of the guests was Michael Foot.[11]   It is certainly the case that in the 1983 Labour’s media operation was far from being at its best,[12] but this is far from being a general truth.  Labour’s understanding of how to use television had in the 1950s been ahead of the Conservatives,[13] and again in 1987 their media campaign was considered to have bettered the Conservatives.[14]  There are thus other reasons why the Labour media machine appeared amateurish in 1983, particularly that in 1982 Jim Mortimer had been appointed a General Secretary of the Labour Party.  He was a solidly trade-union based mainstream left-winger (and was Foot’s appointment), but he was far from being a success as General Secretary.[15]

Dominic is right that Labour’s campaign in 1983 was particularly poor.  There are a number of reasons for this.  First is that Foot struggled to master communicating through TV, although he did improve his skills somewhat during the 1983.  The battle between Benn and the right in the party had left its scars, and many in the Labour Party’s Walworth Road headquarters were appointments who had been made during the left ascendency of the Labour NEC that was coming to an end in 1983.  Although Foot’s own chosen candidate as General Secretary of the Labour Party, Jim Mortimer, had been appointed in 1982, he was a poor choice for the role and could not create a disciplined party machine for Foot.  While Foot had a small and competent staff (Tom McCaffrey as Press Secretary, Sue Nye as his personal secretary and a few others), Walworth Road was organisable.   It is certainly not the case that Labour loss was pre-ordained by the cultural shift that Dominic suggests.

Nor is it clear that a mass meetings approach, or rather a break with the developing precepts of political marketing, could not have made a difference.  If we look back to the period where Labour was doing well in 1979-1981, it was the kind of campaigning approach that Labour took.  In 1981 the Labour Party had organised demonstrations against unemployment alongside the TUC.[16]  Foot himself was a speaker at many of the large CND rallies of the early 1980s – at that time some of the largest political demonstrations that Britain had seen.[17]  Foot was abundantly clear that this action outside of parliament was to propel an elected Labour government back into power via Parliament, Labour was not content simply to measure opinion through polls and give the public the message it wanted through the media.


What Dominic is trying to create here is a sense that the led Conservative government was inevitable because of a cultural change in society.  But it is not clear that there was any reality to the change to which he points, or that it was independent of the defeats inflicted on the working class by the government.  This was really not a decade that Delia Smith created, it was one created by the balance of force between left and right, by splits within the labour movement, by conflict between the trade unions and government intent of limiting their power.  Shopping really did not come into it.

[1] I should point out that there is a lack of references in this section of Delia Smith, and what I write here is thus a sketch for possible research and not thoroughly grounded.  There is very little research (at least that I am aware of) on the cooking and consumption of food in contemporary Britain (if readers know of any, let me know).  But Dominic has used this absence of research to create a largely fictional narrative.

[2] See Panayi, Panikos, Spicing up Britain: The Multicultural History of British Food (London: Reaktion, 2008)


[4]ONS,  Full report – Women in the labour market (25 September 2013), accessed 11/8/2016)

[5] ONS, What is the Gender Pay Gap? (February 12, 2016) accessed 11/8/2016.

[6] Jon Lawrence and Florence Sutucliffe-Braithwaite, “Thatcher and the Decline of Class Politics” in Ben Jackson and Robert Saunders (eds), Making Thatcher’s Britain (Cambridge: CUP, 2012), p139

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hayter, Dianne, The Fightback of the Traditional Right in the Labour Party 1979 to 1987, Queen Mar University of London PhD thesis, 2004), p21

[9] Peter Kellner, “Anatomy of the Vote”, New Statesman, 9 April 1976.

[10] In order to analyse the polling data I have used a five-poll rolling average to smooth out the rouge polls and short-term fluctuations.  Polling data used is from “UK Polling Report” )

[11]Katherine Hassell, “Rise and Shine: The joys of breakfast television”, The Express (online), Tue, Jan 15, 2013[11]

[12] Diane Abbott, “Michael Foot, 1913-2010: adored even in defeat”, Guardian Online

3 March 2010

[13] ref

[14] Ref

[15] Hayter, Dianne, The Fightback of the Traditional Right in the Labour Party 1979 to 1987, Queen Mar University of London PhD thesis, 2004), p139.

[16] John McIlroy, Trade Unions in Britain Today (Second edition, Manchester: MUP, 1998), p209

[17] Ref

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Dominic – a load of balls?

Dom 1980s

Oh. I was hoping to ignore the new Dominic Sandbrook series on the Eighties.  But with a thousand views of this blog in the last three days, I guess I can’t.   So in the next few days I will be attempting to put together an analysis of the programme.

This will be a challenge.  it combines a simplistic and overarching hypothesis  that the eighties were driven by an inward looking domesticity and individualistic aspiration –  with a bizarre selection of evidence that may (or may not) support such a view.  This is often so random and un-thought-through that unpacking it would be an immense task.

Worst of all is Dominic’s decaditisis – the pathological belief that history happens in discrete ten year units.   Shifts to a culture in which individual consumption is more central is seen as characteristic of the 1980s, not something that had been growing for decades unevenly but relentlessly through society.  Football hooliganism is seen as something more central to the 1980s than its 1970s antecedents were to its supposed decade.

The other aspect of this that strikes me as extremely odd is the way that Dominic pivots this on cultural change.  His work on the 1960s includes a a large dose of suggesting that the “swinging sixties” were a myth, and in his work on the 1970s he dismisses punk in the same way.  Only in the 1980s, where the cultural changes become bound with the defeat of working-class solidarity and the rise of the new right does he recognise such cultural change.  The reality is that all such changes are partial, contradictory and ebb and flow.  Nor are they (as Dominic argues here) simply “bottom up”, but a complicated relationship between individual agency and social/structural factors.  All of this needs careful teasing out – not the blunderbuss approach taken here.

[The first part of The 80s With Dominic Sandbrook was shown at 21:00 on BBC2 on 4th August 2016.  Another two parts will follow.  It was watched again at]

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Not the History of British Popular Culture

country house

In place of a review of Let Us Entertain You: Part 2 In With the Old  (First shown on BBC2, 11th November 2015.  Available for a limited times on the BBC iPlayer at

As I have commented elsewhere I don’t think I can write a review of the second instalment of Dominic’s Let US Entertain You, it was rambling and incoherent. The first programme did, at least, have a narrative behind it. But the second programme (“In with the old”)?  The British have a thing about stately homes (true), why (they just do). The Royal Family began to see the need to market themselves after Diana (true), what does this show about modern royalty (nothing). There was a satire boom c.1960 (true), politicians are now in low esteem (true, but the satire boom petered out years ago and the attitude of the press in, most recently, the expenses scandal has more to do with the recent decline in public trust in politician).  Why the BBC continues to use him is a mystery to me – it is not that he is right wing, but he that he is a poor history.  It is not that I don’t want to engage with the arguments here, it is rather that is not possible to indentify an argument with which to engage.

It any most evidence were needed about what this is, please note that the TV reviewer in UKIP-backing Daily Express loved it for its offer of post-imperial grandeur, “Britain dominates the globe with culture now  … gives you reason to feel proud.” [].  It is not even as if the dropping of any pretence of serious history has pulled in the crowds – this programme pulled in a 3 per cent audience share (691,000). [ ]

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Telling Stories? Popular culture as the new British Empire.

beatles invade

A review of Dominic Sandbrook, Let Us Entertain YouPart one: The New British Empire (first broadcast on BBC2, 4th November 2015).

Available for a limited time on the BBC iPlayer at

[This is a quickie, and the latter sections are not footnoted too well.  This reflects a lack of time, and a lack of proper rigour.  I would be tempted to call this a first draft and subject to revision, but I have no intention of returning to this.  My advice is that if an element of this review does not have a footnote, it is done from memory with a bit a back-up courtesy of Google – and should thus be dealt with caution.]

In recent years Dominic Sandbrook has emerged as one of Britain’s leading right-wing historians.  His basic method is to emphasise the continuity of people’s everyday lives. In the past he has played down the importance of popular culture.  In his book about the Sixties White Heat he argued that the common people continued to tend to their gardens rather than joining in the swinging sixties.[1]  Typically, he then fails to analyse the impact of gardening on people’s lives[2] or, indeed, that gardening can be an expression of radical politics.[3]  His is a picture of a conservative nation, more at home with Dads’ Army than Monty Python.  The problem with his view is that it does not recognise change, which as Arthur Marwick describes, starts with small groups of pioneers before permeating through society.[4]

In his new BBC2 series Dominic appears to have revised his attitude towards popular culture.  This is not a programme about gardening, but about the Beatles and Black Sabbath which are now seen as part of “the extraordinary success of British popular culture in the last century”, and in turn are key to understanding what modern Britain is.  Dominic has not changed his mind completely.  Such popular culture has at its heart, in Dominic’s view, a reassertion of the Victorian values that once made Britain great through industry and empire, and now make it great again through Phantom of the Opera and Grand Theft Auto.

In this first programme “The New British Empire” Dominic starts to develop a number of themes:

  1. That while in the past Britain made things, it now makes popular culture which it exports to the world.
  2. The nature of the culture as conditioned by Britain’s imperial decline, but the success of this has overcome the perception of that decline (and possibly the decline itself?)
  3. (I would argue that to show this, Dominic uses a reductionist view of culture where it does no more than reflect the economic conditions under which it was created).
  4. This culture is a consciously manufactured product.
  5. And continues a spirit of entrepreneurship, enterprise and innovation established by the Victorians.

What I hope to show below is that this is very poor history.  It commits the worst sin in the creation of a historical narrative:  it confuses the order of events so causes appear later than consequences.  Elsewhere evidence is one-sided, inconvenient facts are ignored and the conclusion forced onto the facts.

No longer making things, now making culture

The centre of Dominic’s argument is that Britain has ceased to be a country that makes manufactured goods, but has instead become one that makes popular culture.  There are problems in the factual content that is used to support this from the very start.  As the programme opens, with camera panning across the London skyline towards Stratford, Dominic states in his best authoritative voice that the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics were “billed as a showcase for the very best of British’”.  Were they?  By whom?  When?  My suspicion is that these words are from Dominic’s own imagination.  They allow his facile comment this created a problem: “no-one really knew what that [the best of British] meant”.  Although it is possible to find commentators using these words both to describe their aspirations for the event[5] and in praise for the event afterwards[6] this was not how the creators of the event understood it.  The title of the opening ceremony was “Isles of Wonder”, and it sought to create a sense of modern British identity emerging through its history.  The director of the ceremony, Danny Boyle, wished to trace British identity emerging through industrialisation, the struggle for women’s suffrage and the creation of the NHS.  Of course, elements of popular culture are shot through this, particularly the music of the Beatles not to mention James Bond and Mr. Bean.  If anything, the organisers worried that they had created something too parochial and inward looking, the very opposite of the outward looking showcase that Dominic claims.  Although the evidence is the world (Dominic aside) got it, this was in an important sense an inward-looking opening.; as Boyle stated in the official programme, its theme was: “We can build Jerusalem, and it will be for everyone.”[7]

Dominic thinks that the opening ceremony has another meaning, that industry and empire has been replaced by popular culture – that Britain “has gone from a country that makes things to a country that makes culture” and this popular culture bestrides the globe as the Empire once did.  Even though if this is not what the opening ceremony was actually about, there is some truth to the more general claim that the cultural and creative industries are important to the UK economy.  The UK produce a considerable quantity of commercial cultural products (popular culture if you like), but this is blown up out of proportion by Dominic.

A British Government Department of Business, Innovation and Skills report from 2012 (part of the government’s underpowered attempt to “rebalance” the UK economy after the 2007/2008 banking crisis) found room for a half chapter on the creative industries.  The report states (on rather dated figures) that in global terms the UK does have an important creative sector, its UK creative-sector exports constituted 9.4 per cent of the global total (whereas British goods and services in general constitute 6.2 per cent of global trade overall).  This greater share of exports can, in large part, be explained by the strength of the computer software and gaming sector which then accounted for one-third of these exports (and has continued to grow as a proportion so today it is more like half of creative exports).  While this is a significant element of the UK economy, it was worth around £16.6 billion in 2007, this constituted only 4.5 per cent of all British exports.[8]  Other sectors are far more important, particularly that Britain accounts for 22.8 per cent of the world financial services.  Indeed, the trade surplus (the excess of exports over imports) in financial and insurance products in 2014 was £61 billion[9] which gives a far more accurate picture of the imperial roots of the UK’s post-imperial economy.  Indeed, quite contrary to Dominic’s “thesis”, many sectors of the UK manufacturing industry outperform the creative sector.  Figures from 2011 show contributions from areas of manufacturing far in excess of the creative sector: pharmaceuticals were worth (£24 billion), chemicals (£29 billion), computer, electronics and optical (£23 billion), motor vehicles (£31 billion), aircraft (£22 billion), machinery and equipment (£28 billion).  All far outstrip export earnings from film and video recording (£300 million), audio recording (£171 million), print publishing (£2.7 billion) and creative, arts & entertainment services (£4 billion).  Even rubber products (£2 billion) were able to outstrip the export earnings from music (£1.6 billion) but few would dream of arguing that rubber goods define modern Britain.[10]

Even within the creative industries it is not the export of popular culture that dominates.  The dominant “creative” exports are advertising and marketing expertise, computer software and other products that are far removed from British popular culture.[11]

It is true that the cultural sections of the UK economy are strong.  Britain has the third largest market for music in the world (after the USA and Japan).  It exports more books than any other publishing industry in the world (although many of these books are likely to be technical, not cultural) .  It has the second highest-grossing film production in the world.  It is the third largest computer game producer in the world.[12]  But the cultural sector is a relatively small sector of the world economy, and while important these industries are far from defining Britain economically.  Britain’s share of the world’s industrial output may have shrunk, but its exports are now dominated by the service sector, retail, banking, financial services, health services, transport, and communications and so on, not popular culture.

This does not stop Dominic claiming huge importance for popular culture in terms of the value of British exports.  He thus spends some time emphasising reports of the Beatles being important for British export earnings without ever putting in context.  He quotes the figure of the Beatles earnings in the US at £20 million in 1967.  This would have constituted 0.05 per cent of British GDP for that year, which while impressive for one band, in itself does not make them the “prime minister’s secret weapon” or significant for the UK economy.

The culture of decline

There is thus a huge question-mark over Dominic’s next assertion: that the nature of Britain’s rise as a cultural exporter is conditioned by its imperial and industrial decline.  Here he uses the example of heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath to show that as industry declined, cultural production took its place.  Dominic expressly states that in the late 60s Black Sabbath rose from “the ashes of our industrial heritage.”  His narrative here is rather confused, he refers to the “steel works” of Birmingham, but the steel industry was found in Sheffield, the North East and Scotland.  The West Midlands was the centre of engineering, including stamping and shaping metal.  It was the foundries, where molten iron was cast for components that the dirtiest, most dangerous and unpleasant of jobs in the region were found.  Dominic appears to be using the foundries of the West Midlands to stand for all industry in the area, much of which was far lighter work.  Even so, to say that the members of Black Sabbath were destined for jobs in the “steel works” before “they decided their lives should be different” is wrong on a number of levels.  Of the four original member of the band, only Tony Iommi worked in engineering, before the accident where he lost his finger tips, although this was one of a number of short term jobs he took as an aspiring professional musician.  He had also worked as a trainee plumber, but no-one would suggest that Black Sabbath’s music was influenced by blocked U-bends.  After his accident he worked in a shop for a time.  Ozzy Osbourne was too much of an oik for even semi-skilled factory jobs, and mainly worked on building sites.  As far as I can make out, drummer Bill Ward never had a proper job and was always a drummer.  Bass player Geezer Butler was training to be an accountant.[13]

Even if all of Sabbath had been working in heavy industry, Dominic’s assertion that it spat them out onto a human slag heap is wrong.  British industry may have been ageing, creaking, undercapitalised and uncompetitive but in the 1960s was not in the calamitous decline that Dominic describes(portentous voice: “life for these lads was looking a lot bleaker”).  Here, Dominic’s history is seriously out of order.  It is true that many of the older and less productive foundries began to close in the 1970s, but the serious years of industrial decline and mass unemployment were under the Thatcher government in the 1980s long after Black Sabbath was firmly encamped in the Los Angeles hills.

What drove young men out of traditional industry was something quite different: their own aspiration for something better.  Oddly, this exact point is made by an old piece of documentary voice recording used in the programme, but which Dominic does not appear to have listened to carefully.  This eyewitness makes the important point, stating “the iron trade is a dying industry  … the lads leaving school now won’t entertain it, they won’t have it.”  The point that the voice is making is that the young of Birmingham didn’t have to go to work in the foundries.  Geezer Butler’s decision to train as an accountant is telling, his family worked in factories, he could chose not to.  Prospects were not bleak for the youth of Birmingham, they were good.  You could earn enough money to buy a guitar, start a band, dream of life in rock and roll band.  Even if you didn’t escape you could become the manager of a cinema (as Rob Halford, lead singer of Birmingham’s Judas Priest did) or an accountant (as Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin did, although he left the course after two weeks to return to college to gain more O levels).

More importantly, Dominic entirely misunderstands (or perhaps refuses to understand) the music that members of Black Sabbath were playing from the mid-1960s.  Like nearly all British bands of the period, this was not distinctively British music at all.  These proto-Sabbath bands looked to US blues music (and soul too, but this was less important to the proto-Sabbath).  Listening to these bands Earth, Mythology and the Polka Tulk Blues Band (you can listen to this on YouTube)[14] you can hear the movement to a heavier blues based sound that was more rock – Sabbath took it further, and revelled more in the sonic possibility of electric amplification.  This was not, as Dominic opines, something “totally new”, it was built on what went before.  Sabbath, unlike Led Zeppelin, did move away from blues based rock (rejecting three-chord blues forms, instead beginning to substitute unresolved tritones and Aeolian modal scales.)[15]  They were, however, far from being alone in moving on blues based music at this time, the whole of progressive rock was predicated on such a move and the proto-punk movement in the USA was too.

It is difficult to say whether Sabbath were a musical evocation of industrial Birmingham, as Dominic claims.  The band was, however, part of wider movement of heavier, non blues-based, rock.  (Anyone who believes for a second Dominic’s assertion that heavy metal could only come from industrial Britain should listen to Bitter Creek’s 1967 song Plastic Thunder – Bitter Creek were from the US state of Georgia and show the importance of US psychedelia in the emergence of hard rock).[16]

What Sabbath represented was another step in the British musical invasion of the USA, which even in the 1970s was beginning to falter.  In the early 60s the Beatles (and even more so the Stones) had taken music based on soul and blues to a white American market that had, after the initial stirrings of rock and roll, fallen back into a musical that was as racially segregated as society was.    Most of the British bands that became big in the US (and from there became global stars) developed black America music, and returned it to the US market.  The clearest, and most literal, example of this was Jimi Hendrix.  He was brought to Britain by his British management in late 1966 where he developed his sound with a British band and had initial success in the British charts.  British bands bridged black American and white American music in a way that was more difficult in the USA.  Black Sabbath’s importance is that they started the process of making heavy metal less bluesy, a process that ended up with post-punk metal bands typified by Iron Maiden.  But it was also a temporary state of affairs.  There has been no new Beatles, and not since the new wave of British heavy metal in the 1980s (Iron Maiden, Def Leppard), no new Black Sabbath.   In the US the heavy metal market has long been dominated by the US glam-metal bands such as Mötley Crüe.

Economic determinism of culture.

Dominic presents heavy metal as determined by industrial decline.  This is not simply factually wrong, but shows an overly deterministic approach to culture that has much in common with crude Marxism.  Dominic often fails to understand that particular social phenomena (even the bombast of heavy metal) have their own history and their development should be understood, in the first instance at least, in terms of that history.  Certainly, the broader socio-economic context is an important part of this history but it tells you little about the precise form that cultural forms such as heavy metal took.

Dominic does this with art too.  Dominic suggests that the emergence of the Young British Artists from 1988 was a product of the Thatcher years and the triumph of market forces, that its key backer Charles Saatchi realised that “this was art for the age of money” and “the perfect products for an age of conspicuous consumption” ..All of this is at a level of vague generality that makes it difficult to assess, but if one begins to examine the real history of Saatchi and the YBAs this simplistic narrative begins to unravel.

Saatchi, Dominic confidently tells us, “strode into the world of art at the high water mark of Thatcherism” after her third election victory in 1987.  This presumably refers to Saatchi visiting the proto-YBAs Frieze exhibition in 1988, although his systematic interest in them did not start until 1991, the date when he started buying and then commissioning contemporary British art (Saatchi is no fool, the art market had collapsed in 1990 with the property market).  The term “Young British Artist” was the result of Saatchi’s interest, and did not emerge until 1992, and the acronym YBA only started to be used in 1996.  What this misses out was that Saatchi was already in 1991 a major art collector.  However, not of British art but of American and particularly pop art, and had been an avid collector of American pop culture since he was a boy.  He bought his first New York minimalist painting by Sol LeWitt in 1969 and was almost solely interested in American contemporary art until 1991 (that Saatchi, like the Beatles, had been obsessed with American pop culture does not fit in with Dominic’s narrative, so he ignores it).

While it is true that the Goldsmith’s group, who were to go on to be at the heart of the YBA movement, emerged in 1988, the YBA movement did not coalesce until around 1992 when Saatchi started setting up YBA exhibitions, and the process reached its zenith in 1997 with Sensation at the Royal Academy.  The narrative of this all being about the money is, however, deeply flawed.  The London art market was at this time in the doldrums.  As FT’s art market correspondent Georgina Adam puts it, “In the late 1980s and early 1990s contemporary art was hardly sold at auction.  While there was a brief ‘greed is good’ interlude in the 1980s – when Julian Schnabel and others enjoyed superstar status – this ended with the 1990 slump.”[17]  The art market only picked up around 2004 and since then prices have spiralled.  Damien Hirst put on his Frieze show of 1988 because the big-galleries were uninterested in the proto-YBA’s art, and Saatchi’s patronage in the early 1990s was important to them because no-one else supported it.  Saatchi bought Hirst’s shark, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone living for, £50,000 in 1992 (he sold it for it for £6.5 million in 2004).  It was not until well after 2000 that YBA art began to demand high prices.

What is clear is that the narrative about the YBAs and Saatchi that Dominic sets up makes no sense.  These were not people who in the period of high Thatcherism found a ready market for their art.  They toiled for years for very little reward.  It was only in the mid-1990s, with Saatchi’s support, that they began to be able to sell work at all, and only around 2004 that their work attracted big bucks as the global market for contemporary art boomed.  It is interesting to note that Damien Hirst’s star has waned since his boom year of 2008.  Just as Andy Warhol prices collapsed as a result of overproduction, the existence of over 6,000 Damien Hirst artworks has led one analyst to call his work the sub-prime of the art world.[18]  There is a story to be told about the relationship between British art, international trends in art, the art market and the British economy.  But Dominic does not tell it.

This determinism is visited upon us one last time when Dominic is talking about the computer game Elite.  I am not sure how important Elite was as a video game, and as with many of Dominic’s choices I feel it is more to do with what he was interested in when he was ten.  I am also not sure that computer games carry much national cultural content, they all have either a Super Mario type no-place to them, or are clearly part of US pop-cultural hegemony.  There is no way of guessing Tetris is Russian, Candy Crush is British or that Minecraft is Swedish (my knowledge of video games is limited, so I will happily be corrected here).  So when Dominic suggests that “Elite was a product of the Thatcherite 80s, a fact reinforced by its mercenary ethos: trade, fight and pillage your way to the top…” I doubt that he is right.  Games develop largely in the context of the games that precede them, and he is overstating how their context reflects the immediate social context in which they are produced..  Whatever their faults, Thatcher’s governments were little interested in military-mercantile adventurism (let alone pillaging) so the analysis is strained anyway.  Elite’s roots are, I suspect, in an older form of computer gaming that did not rely on video graphic but text based choices (which go back to the very earliest computer games such as the text-based 1971 game Star Trek) and also has roots in non-computer based fantasy gaming.  It would appear to me that unless these sources are understood, then it is impossible to say anything about the relationship of a game to its contemporaneous social influences.

By the end of the programme, Dominic has lost any sense of where it started (that Black Sabbath were selling a culture that could not have come from anywhere else than Britain, its socio-economic roots determine its content as uniquely British).  Elsewhere in the programme he argues that J. Arthur Rank’s motivation was to create British film, and cites J Maynard Keynes (amongst other things, the founder of the Arts Council) rousing the post-war British radio audience with the imperative of “death to Hollywood”.  But by the end of the programme Dominic is lauding the Grand Theft Auto series of video games.  These are made in Scotland but are (as Dominic points out), culturally American.  It is indicative of the intellectual and thematic mess of this programme that the theme of post-imperial British popular culture reasserting a sense of Britishness slips from view and is then contradicted.  So is Britain now just exporting cultural material that may just as well be American?  If this were a serious history of British popular culture, we would surely have an answer.  Here, the question is not even asked.

Culture is a thing manufactured for profit.

Dominic has a rare gift for smugly stating the bleedin’ obvious while simultaneously entirely missing the point.  The key case in point here is his repeated assertion that British popular culture is manufactured for profit.  Of course we live in a capitalist society and cultural capitalism is like any other, it takes human creativity and subordinates it to market relations.  But that popular culture is made to be sold tells us very little, directly at least, about the content of that culture.  Very often the inventors, musicians and artists have to work in opposition to the market, toiling without reward or recognition for years.  Thus Dominic is profoundly wrong in compounding the way culture is made within the content of that culture.

The first example that Dominic uses is J. Arthur Rank, the scion of Britain’s richest flour-milling family who became its most important film producer form the 1930s to the 1950s.  Rank started with a series of acquisitions in 1935 leading to the formation of the Rank Organisation in 1937.  However, Dominic is very confused here.  On the one hand he states that for J Arthur Rank films were a commodity like any other, and also that he wanted distinctively British and culturally uplifting films.  Both of these might have been pressures on J Arthur Rank.  It is a question of carefully sifting the evidence to see how these commercial and cultural pressures played out.  Certainly, the early Rank Organisation films suggest the objective was to make money.  The most successful early Rank films were a series featuring the music hall star Will Hay, often playing a feckless school teacher involved in various criminal shenanigans.  These films were somewhat amoral.  But these are not what Dominic focuses on.  Instead his sole focus is the 1945 film of Henry V.  This tells us very little about J Arthur Rank.  The film was not produced by the Rank Organisation but by Two Cities Films, a company set up by two Italian exiles from fascism, Filippo Del Giudice and Mario Zampi.  Two Cities was interested in making films more than money, and made some of the most notable British films of the Second World War years (Freedom Radio (1940), In Which We Serve (1942) as well as two films engaged with women’s role in the war The Gentle Sex and The Lamp Still Burns (both 1943).

Thus, when Laurence Olivier began to develop the idea of a film of Henry V as a wartime morale booster it was to Two Cities that he turned.  Two Cities produced the film, but turned to the Rank Organisation for money (they had worked with Rank as a distributor already).  The film cost so much that Rank ended up owning Two Cities.  The point is there was a tension between J Arthur Rank (who was cautious of the film and feared it would not make money) and Olivier and Del Guidice who were more interested in making something of artistic value (exactly the tension between those who wish to create culture and those who wish to sell it outlined above).  It is thus highly questionable whether Henry V is the prototype for historical dramas (as the British brand) that Dominic suggests.  Indeed, the Rank Organisation’s output in the 1950s was dominated by a mix of home market films, Norman Wisdom comedies beginning with Trouble in Store (1953), the Doctor films starting with Doctor in the House (1954) and war films such as The Malta Story (1953).  Henry V presaged no headlong rush into costume drama, indeed the Rank Organisation had made a number of costume dramas through Gainsborough Pictures (which it had owned since 1937), but dissatisfied with the results shut the studio down in 1949.

The second example of culture as business that Dominic uses is the Beatles.  He suggests the Beatles were not so much performers as business-people (a view which somewhat beggars belief given the controversy that still surrounds the consequences of handing their business affairs over to Brian Epstein until his death 1967; their lack of business acumen was then amply demonstrated by their attempt to run their own business affairs through Apple Corps).  While it is true that the Beatles made a lot of money for the people involved, is this really the framework for understanding their impact?  The image that Dominic presents of the Beatles as of a group of cheeky Liverpudlians enriching themselves while being willing shaped by a Svengali figure, their manager Brian Epstein.  There is some small truth to this.  It was Epstein who put more structure into the Beatles stage shows, and encouraged them out of denim and leather and into suits (all of this was readily accepted by McCartney, and resisted by Lennon).  The suggestion, however, that in so doing he created “a sanitised exaggerated Britishness” is utter nonsense.  The Beatles characteristic colourless suits were German, and their adoption was probably under the influence of Astrid Kirchherr, the Hamburg girlfriend of Stuart Sutcliffe (the Beatle’s bass player in the early 1960s).  Kirchherr has been credited with their haircuts too (Sutcliffe long favoured a moptop), but she denies this suggesting that it was a common style in Germany at the time.  Other items of the Beatles wardrobe in those early years were variations of mod fashion.  The mod suit drew heavily on French and Italian styles, although they were usually tailored locally.[19]  Their Cuban heeled boots were of US heritage, probably by way of Italy again.  There was not much British about their clothing.

More importantly, the significance of the Beatles lies not in their dress sense but their music.  If they had dressed like the more eclectic Rolling Stones in the early 60s (large dollops of mod mixed in with bits of jazz-beatnik and stronger US influences) would it have made that great a different?  What made the Beatles stand out and last is that they were not manufactured as other bands were at that (and many were afterwards).  Particularly, they chose their own repertoire and increasingly wrote their own songs (which was not common at the time for many genres of music).  After their first album, Please, Please Me (1963) on which Lennon and McCartney wrote only eight of the fourteen tracks, all subsequent Beatles albums were written nearly exclusively by band members.  It was because of the Beatles and singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan that it soon became only manufactured pop-bands who had their material written for them.

It is worth emphasising that, in the early years at least, the primary influences on the Beatles music were (other than the Shadows) almost entirely American (blues, Motown, Little Richard’s falsetto shrieks, Chuck Berry’s rock and roll, and even ragtime, with some white influence of  rockabilly, Elvis and especially the country-derived close vocal harmonies of the Everly Brothers).  As noted above, the success of the British musical invasion if the US was the ability to be white while performing black music (while also synthesising and developing it), a knack that after Elvis joined the army many white American performers lost.  Some, like the Animals and the early Stones, did this entirely by lifting (mainly) black American repertoire.  The Beatles took it further by synthesising elements from different musics into something new – but it was not British in any meaningful sense.

While it would be wrong to divide the world into artistic types and business types – there are many artists who have a very strong grip on their business affairs – it is usually the case that the producers of pop culture and those who administer its business side are different people.  The production side cannot, as shown above, be reduced to a business plan as Dominic suggests.

The Victorian Legacy

The last theme that Dominic develops in this programme is that British pop culture is just the most recent manifestation of a British entrepreneurial spirit stretching back to the industrial revolution and fully realised in Victorian values.  In this first programme, Dominic is not (in the main) referring to the content of the pop culture, although I understand he will go on to argue that.[20]  The Victorian values here are a sanitised Sunday school type version (like Thatcher’s Victorian values).  Dominic’s kind of Victorian is an upstanding entrepreneur, a civic minded philanthropist, self-made man (sic), self-reliant, industrious, innovative and driven to sell and trade everything that he (sic) makes.  There is certainly no hint of moral ambiguity, hypocrisy or sexual impropriety, the Victorians were simply above these things in Dominic’s universe.[21]

There is little about this particular element of Dominic’s analysis other than the assertion that British cultural entrepreneurs are very much like their Victorian counterparts.  Thus, Charles Saatchi is characterised as a self-made man who bought art and set up museums, very much like Henry Tate.  Ignoring that Saatchi is hardly a self-made man (his father did leave his wealth behind when he fled Iraq in 1947, but re-established his fortune in Britain through textile manufacture),[22] more importantly Saatchi is entirely unlike Tate in that he is a market maker who resells his acquisitions for profit.  He bought much YBA art cheap, and sold it expensive.  He may have paid around £10,000 a piece for much of Hirst’s early work; in 2006 Hirst bought twelve of these pieces back for a reported £8 million.  It is undoubtedly the case that Saatchi helped to make the market in YBA art and then profited tremendously from selling some of the work.  There is no comparison with Henry Tate (even though he was a Victorian, there is no evidence that he hit his much younger wife).

The comparison with the past becomes ridiculous when the young inventors of the computer game Elite are compared with the inventor of the water frame, Richard Arkwright (Arkwright, like many of the inventors cited by Dominic, is not a Victorian but a Georgian who died in 1792).  Arkwright had no formal schooling, became a wig dyer before moving into textiles.  His engineering was self-taught.  The creators of Elite, David Braben and Ian Bell, were well educated (one privately) and were studying science and maths at Jesus College, Cambridge at the time they wrote Elite.  The machine that they wrote it on was the BBC Acorn, a state subsidised machine[23] that hardly matches the classical liberal of Victorian innovation.

Another one of Dominic’s new is Andrew Lloyd Weber who is held up for being an impresario, capitalist empire builder, entertainer and producing culturally uplifting and enlightening material (no, really) just as his nineteenth century forebears did.  That we still live in a world where people engage in market based activities, entrepreneurs will continue to look like entrepreneurs.  One may as well say that we are just like the Victorians, we drink, eat and breathe.  What one needs, at the very least, is to show that others are unlike this.  But it you look at entrepreneurs in (say) the USA, they too will look very much like the Victorians under these vague criteria.

Dominic adds another dimension to his Homo Victoriani by adding the imperial element.  Here he tells the story of Chris Blackwell, scion of the white colonial aristocracy in Jamaica.  In the 1960s in Britain, through his Island Records label, Blackwell brought Jamaican ska to a British audience with Millie Small’s My Boy Lollipop 1964.  Through the sixties, Island put out a huge quantity of ska and early reggae (rocksteady) records in the UK, but by the 1970s Island switched to a roster of artists dominated by a left-field selection of white folk-rock and progressive rock artists.  Reggae concentrated on one or two acts, most notably Jimmy Cliff but after the film and album The Harder They Come Island and Cliff parted company.  Thus Blackwell was looking for a new reggae star with which to break into the mainstream.

The way that Dominic tells the story is that Blackwell launched The Wailers (there was no “Bob Marley and….” until the third Island album, Natty Dread) into mainstream recognition with his first Island album, Catch a Fire.  The essentials of the story are accurate, but the context in which Dominic puts this success could not be more wrong.

Dominic is wrong to say that through Bob Marley Blackwell took reggae into the mainstream.  As the historian of reggae Lloyd Bradley has argued, he really only took Bob Marley into the mainstream.[24]  This is not Island’s fault, in the wake of Marley’s success they reinvigorated their reggae output and put out some of the best roots albums of the 1970s, a little to dub and toasting into the bargain.  Between 1974 and 1979 they released records by Burning Spear, the Lee Perry produced Upsetters, Junior Murvin and Max Romeo, Toots and Maytals, the Heptones, Dillinger, Rico, and Jah Warrior, they also put out the first releases of British reggae bands Asward and Steel Pulse.  These met with little commercial success in the 1970s, although Island did have some with the louche reggae of Third World.  The only sizeable white audience that reggae had in the 1970s beyond the crossover of Bob Marley were punks, the only radio play artists other than Marley received was on John Peel (it is worth remembering that Dominic thinks that there was no such thing as punk, just as he thinks that the sixties did not happen – all in tradition and continuity).

The main point, however, is Dominic’s assertion that this bringing of reggae (or at least the part represented by Bob Marley) into the mainstream “could only have happened in Britain … Blackwell .. was capitalising  on the relationship between the imperial metropolis, London, and the former colony, Jamaica.”  This simply is not true.  The clearest evidence of this is Johnny Nash.  Most people will have forgotten Nash (his biggest hit was I Can See Clearly Now but most people now think it is a Jimmy Cliff song).  This is understandable, much of his material sounds pretty bland today.  Nash was a black American singer with a soul background.  He travelled to Jamaica (accounts differ, but it was between 1965 and 1968), worked with the Wailers and others, and recorded some rocksteady tracks.  He sought to break these in the USA, which he did with considerable success.  In Britain too be had success with three top ten rocksteady hits in 1968 and 1969 (they are somewhat easy listening with overdubbed strings, but the basic track is straight down the line rocksteady).  In 1972 he took Bob Marley’s Stir it up into the top twenty in both USA and UK charts (despite a very odd bit of recorder on it).  The follow up, Nash’s own composition I Can See Clearly Now went to number 1 in the US.  Nash was the first international reggae star.

Importantly, there is a clear link between Johnny Nash and Bob Marley.  Nash was managed by a black American manager, Danny Sims.  In order to gain more commercial freedom Sims moved to Jamaica in 1965 (perhaps taking Nash with him).  In the late 1960s Sims began to manage Marley and introduced him to a wide variety of black American music: soul, blues, jazz and Hendrix.  In 1970 Nash was invited to work on a film in Sweden, and Marley went too, and the two worked together to develop a sound that would appeal to Swedish audiences.  All of this, even before Blackwell, had a huge influence on broadening Marley’s sound.[25]  The link with Empire is, it would seem, not as vital as Dominic suggests.  Reggae spread is not the result of imperial hangover, it is the result of musicians moving around the world and learning, synthesising and playing to audiences – a heritage of colonialism is simply not necessary to do this.


There are many lessons here.  The main one is that things have their own history.  Reggae, heavy metal, the British art market, the Beatles, computer games and the musical all have their own histories.  Some of these histories are contested, some have not been codified and others have poor history.  It is right that historians take these histories and attempt to synthesise them into a greater whole, a rounded history that has greater reach and understanding than the small and atomistic understandings.  Sadly, this is not what Dominic has done.  Rather he has ignored (in large part) these histories, cherry picked parts of them to fit (what I can only assume to be) a preconceived conclusion.

Dominic concludes that we (the British) have all become storytellers.  Sadly, with Dominic that is what we get, a story.  A collage of historical snippets collected together to create a picture that is no longer reality, but a comforting set of myths of enduring British greatness and continuity.

[1] Dominic Sandbrook, White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties (London: Little Brown, 2006), pp200-202.

[2] Although it can be done, see Margaret Willes, The Gardens of the British Working Class Paperback (London: Yale University Press, 2014)

[3] George McKay, Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism and Rebellion in the Garden (London: Frances Lincoln, 2012);  Peter Wilson, Avant Gardening (Semiotext, 1999)

[4] Arthur Marwick, A History of the Modern British Isles 1914-1999 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), p239;, The Sixties, (Oxford: OUP, 1998); p265. “The Cultural Revolution of the Long Sixties: Voices of Reaction, Protest, and Permeation” International History Review, 27/4 (2005).

[5]  For example, Tony Parsons, “Celebrate the best of British and stop sneering at Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony”, The Daily Mirror, 16th June 2012 [ (accessed 6/11/15)])

[6] and another For example, Patrick Sawyer, “London 2012: opening ceremony wows the Queen and the world with wit and drama”, The Daily Telegraph, 28th July 2012 [ (accessed 6/11/15)]

[7] Frank Cottrell Boyce, “London 2012: opening ceremony saw all our mad dreams come true”, The Guardian [online] 30th July 2012 [ (accessed 7/11/2015)]  (The print version of this was, I think, in The Observer]

[8] BIS, BIS Economics Paper No. 17: UK trade performance across markets and sectors (London; BIS, February, 2012), p83.  [ (accessed 7/11/15)]

[9]  Ref needed

[10] ONS,  UK Trade in Goods Analysed in Terms of Industry, Q4 2013  [ (accessed 7/11/15)].  Also see Department of Culture, Media and Sport, Creative Industries Economic Estimates

January 2014 Statistical Release (London DCMS, 2014), P21 [ (accessed 7/10/2015)]

[11]  BIS, BIS Economics Paper No. 17: UK trade performance across markets and sectors (London; BIS, February, 2012), p86 { (accessed 7/11/2015)

[12]  BIS, BIS Economics Paper No. 17, p84.

[13] Tom Norton, Five minutes with: Geezer Butler, 2014 [–five-minutes-with-geezer-butler (accessed 7/11/15)

[14] Mythology (1968) doing a very standard blues workout can be heard at; Earth (1969) can be heard at

[15] Andrew L Cope, Birmingham: The Cradle of All Things Heavy:, Black Sabbath and the rise of heavy metal music (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010) pp19-21.  If you listen to the opening eponymous track on Sabbath’s equally eponymous album you can here this in full other worldly effect.

[16]  Can be heard at

[17] Georgina Adam, “How long can the art market boom last?”, Financial Times 6th June 2014 [ (accessed 9/11/15)]  For a fuller picture of the rise of the art market see her Big Bucks: The Explosion of the Art Market in the 21st Century (Farnham: Lund Humphries, 2013)

[18] Julian Spalding, Con Art – Why you ought to sell your Damien Hirsts while you can (self published e-book: 2012, 2nd edition).

[19] Melissa M. Casburn, A Concise History of the British Mod Movement (n.d.), [].  Also see Richard Weight, Mod! A very British Style (London: Bodley Head, 2013): From Bebop to Britpop, Britain’s Biggest Youth Movement (

[20] There is a question in my mind about why there is no mention of Aleister Crowley, who although he lived to 1947 was thoroughly rooted in a Victorian esotericism and belief in the paranormal, maybe because Crowley’s heroin addition, sexual appetites and malevolence fit poorly with Dominic’s view of the Victorian legacy, but there he is on the front cover of the Beatle’s Sgt. Peppers, and was also a huge influence of Black Sabbath

[21] For a more accurate picture see, for example, Judith R. Walkowitz , City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives Of Sexual Danger In Late-Victorian London (London: Virago, 1992).

[22] Thank to ‏@SiBarberPhoto for this nugget.

[23] Thanks to @martinmcgrath for pointing this out.

[24] Lloyd Bradley, Bass Culture: When Reggae was King (London: Viking, 2000), pp396-398

[25]  Bradley, Bass Culture, pp403-408.

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Let us misinform you

Programme Name: Dominic Sandbrook: Let Us Entertain You - TX: n/a - Episode: Let Us Entertain You - ep 1 (No. 1) - Picture Shows: at The Centre for Computing History, Cambridge. Dominic Sandbrook - (C) Oxford Scientific Films - Photographer: India Bourke

A few initial thoughts on Dominic’s offering tonight on my Twitter feed (  Will put them together into a considered piece soon.

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Entertainment or history?


I have been a little tardy in posting a review of Dominic’s new book, The Great British Dream Factory, but it is up to his usual standards (that is large chunks of it are driven by one or two sources) and many of the judgments and comments are nonsense.  For example, Dominic’s  suggestion that the the cover of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is “teaming” with Victorians is a distortion, as is the overemphasis on its music hall quality; this is actually a modernist album and the presence the two other musicians on the cover, Stockhausen and Bob Dylan, is telling, as is  the well documented direct influence of avant garde composers on its music, such as that of John Cage on A Day in the Life.

Similarly, the claim that the Netherlands has contributed nothing to global popular culture is driven more by a sneering English snobbery to small European states than close attention to the facts – however much one may decry the influence of Dutch Endemol TV empire, they did introduce Big Brother, Deal or No Deal, and The Voice to the world.

The main theme of the book, that British culture is a commodity that is made just as manufactured goods were once , is imposed on the material in a one-sided way.  It is a conclusion around which the evidence is selected and squeezed,  rather than a nuanced understanding that flows out of the evidence.  Indeed, this theme of culture as commodity swamps any other form of understanding, particularly what the content of the culture is  as being dominated the pre-existing culture, that of the Victorians, which is (Dominic claims) repackaged for the global market.

I will be trying to work up a Twitter storm at 9pm this evening (@MattCooperX), using the hash tag #LetUsEntertainU (unless a better tag comes up).

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An historian on the edge of time.

timelincolnfistsoffuhrercoverA review of Tomorrow World’s: An Unearthly History.  Part 4 – Time (first broadcast BBC2, 13th December 2014).

[Spoiler alert:  This article contains spoilers for Looper and Twelve Monkeys]

Of all the programmes in this series, this last instalment is probably the worst.  It suffers from two particular problems.  The first is that the programme’s theme, the history of time travel in science fiction, is hardly developed in the programme and is examined only in a superficial way.  Instead the programme widens its theme to include visions of the future and other time related stories, it fails to hang together in any coherent way.  The second problem is the selection of material.  There are some obvious SF film and television programmes highlighted including La Jettée (1962), Doctor Who (1963 onward) along with Twelve Monkeys (1995).  A reasonable range of literature is mentioned (often very briefly) including HG Wells’ The Time Machine (1895), Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder (1952), much of the rest of the material is overtly popularist examples of recent mainstream cinema and TV.  Although there may be a case for including Back to the Future (1985) for its popular impact, it is poor SF.  Similarly, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) may be an amusing film, but it is hardly canonical SF, indeed its SF element is weak and flawed.  (The premise of the film is that people from a future society, based on the harmony brought by Bill and Ted’s music, travel back to ensure that they don’t flunk history and thus would be separated.  This does not make sense, their society could not exist if Bill and Ted had been separated, what’s the point of going back in time to undo something that is already undone?).  Some material is not SF at all, particularly Groundhog Day (1993).  The consideration given to the film Looper (2012) is quite out of proportion to what is, in SF terms at least, a very poor time-travel story (although it does at least create a time traveller’s sense of déjà vu with two films involving Bruce Willis being sent back in time being considered).

Another major problem, implicit through the series, and particularly in evidence here, is that SF has nowhere been defined, but it is important that the stories have some kind of scientific rationale to them.  In many, if not most, SF stories the details of how time travel is achieved are necessarily vague but the stories are grounded in SF narratives through their concentration on dystopian-utopian future, technological and social changes and logical paradox.  The idea that SF narratives themselves have a history, which is surely what a programme promising to be the history of SF should (at least implicitly) provide, is entirely absent.  What is offered instead is, ironically, a timeless vision of time travel stories.  What the programme presents is HG Wells’ The Time Machine as a foundational text, and then some mainstream film and TV treatments of time travel, largely dating from the 1980s onwards.

Time travel and the representation of the future in fiction have a history that predates (and is an important antecedent of) science fiction.  This is well explained in a work important for anyone wishing to understand the origins of science fiction, Paul Alkon’s The Origins of Futuristic Fiction.[1]  Alkon argues that stories about the future were uncommon before the nineteenth century.  This was not simply that the social conditions for people to imagine a  future that was different did not exist: it is commonly accepted that the rise of market capitalism and the technological and social changes that accompanied it laid that basis for such future oriented fiction existed long before the first time-travel stories.  What also needed to be developed were the literary forms of telling such stories.  One key work in the development of such futuristic fiction was Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s 1771 work, L’An 2440 (rêve s’il en fut jamais) [The Year 2440 (A Dream if ever there was one)], a utopian vision of the future clearly reflecting the political ferment in France in the years before the Revolution.  But what is notable is that while previous writers had framed their utopias as being in some contemporaneous other place, Mercier introduced the idea that it was in the future, and thus was not a timeless alternative but a development out of existing circumstances.  At this stage the weakness of this was that whereas a story of travel to another place could be told with existing literary conventions, stories in the future could not.  Thus, Mercier’s narrator is transported in a dream.  Other early writers have similar mystical framing devices, such as angels bringing letters from the future.

Dominic mentions one notable example of pre-SF time travel by mystical agency, Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol (1843) but fails to understand how it is a fantasy that is different from a science fiction story.  This difference was outlined in a highly prescient work of Félix Bodin’s Le Roman de l’avenir [The Futuristic Novel] (1834) which argued for the development of a “realistic fiction of rational wonders that might be morally useful without giving up the appeal of fantasy.”[2]  It was HG Wells who first achieved this in The Time Machine (1895).

This brings us to a further questionable point made by Dominic in this instalment.  While in the previous three instalments of Tomorrow’s Words he has asserted his view that SF reflects the “hopes and anxieties” of existing society, time travel is presented as “fantasy”, a form of wish-fulfilment to see the past and future.  Although both could be true at the same time, this switch is jarring.  I would take issue with the use of “fantasy” both by Dominic and in the Alkon/Bodin formulation above since the word implies something of the earlier form of futuristic literature, that it is a vision or illusion.  Certainly, Wells did not see himself as a prophet or visionary.  Nor is The Time Machine (as Dominic suggests) a “biting satire” on the Victorian class system.  Wells viewed himself as a scientifically grounded futurologist and used future-based fiction as a popular tool for disseminating those ideas.  He wrote non-fictional futurology, popular science and political commentary too.  In this he was similar to Isaac Asimov who was a trained scientist like Wells, although in Asimov’s case to a much higher level.  Asimov saw his SF writing as informed by hard science and sociology.  Indeed, between 1958 and 1973 Asimov wrote no fiction at all, instead concentrating on the popular understanding of science.

The key section of The Time Machine is set in 802,701 AD where the Time Traveller encounters the infantile Eloi and the troglodytic Morlocks.  Wells had studied under TH Huxley and was immersed in the post-Darwinian eugenics movement, and the Eloi and Morlocks were not simply a metaphor for, or satire of, class.  Rather this was Wells’ view of the outcome of continued class society expressed through evolutionary biology.  This is didactically explained in the Time Traveller’s narration of events in the book.[3]  (Wells’ views on evolutionary biology seem quite odd now, but were very popular, even in some parts of the left, at the time).[4]

In many ways Wells’ book was not foundational, but a development in futuristic fiction.  The time machine is merely a framing device.  Time travel is not the main subject of the story, the future is.  As SF and other forms of future fiction became accepted as a fiction genre, stories about the future could be told without any need to explain how the author knew the future, the reader accepting that SF authors will write about the future since this had become established literary convention.  Time travel in science fiction ceased therefore to be a gateway to the future or past, rather it became the subject itself.  Like so much else in SF, this was developed in the golden age of the pulps.  One of the earliest examples of this was the Charles Cloukey short story “Paradox” published in 1929 in Amazing Stories Quarterly.  A scientist finds the plans for a time machine in the hand-writing of a friend who knows nothing of it.  A machine that will travel to the future is built which the friend uses to travel to the year 2930 where he meets a scientist who has built a machine which can travel to the past.  A copy of the original plans are made and the friend travels back to place the plans in the scientist’s draw so he can find them.  The friend also believes that with knowledge of his death he can avoid it, but he cannot.

This is typical of time travel stories.  They centrally concern the paradoxes of time travel, the consequences of interfering with the past or knowing the future.  The line taken in Tomorrow’s Worlds is not to worry about the paradoxes too much, just enjoy the ride.  But it is the paradoxical nature of time travel that has interested SF writers the most.  So quite contrary to Dominic’s assertion that a major theme of time-travel SF (and it is the only one he identifies) is that “through the power of science, we can make time do our bidding,” I would suggest that one of the major themes of time travel fiction is that we can’t have power over time.  In some cases the past is found to be unalterable and attempts to change an event are inevitably part of the cause of that event; in other stories travel to the past is fraught with danger and intended consequences.

To explore this more fully, it is necessary to understand the different models of time travel that SF has used.  Each creates paradoxes, but of different kinds.  I would suggest that there are three basic paradigms used in time travel fiction (there are some further types that are less common time travel narratives, and I will append a section on these at the end).  In brief, these three are:

  1. There is one immutable time line. Attempts to alter the past (or a known future) are doomed to fail, it has happened and if you try to alter it you will discover that this is already part of the past.  I will call this the fatalistic model of time travel.
  2. The time line is mutable, and the actions of someone who has time travelled to the past (or has precognition of the future) can change the future but this will not change the time traveller themselves. They will continue to be the person from the future that will no longer happen.  I will call this the insulated time-traveller model of time travel.  (This can also be conceptualised a product of the multiverse)
  3. The time line is mutable, but the direct and indirect consequences of the time traveller’s actions will affect the time traveller themselves, they will become the person from the new future. I will call this the feedback loop model of time travel.

Most science fiction that is serious exploring time travel sticks to one of these models and deals with the paradoxes.  Ultimately, science fiction about time travel are thought experiments that suggest that time travel because of its paradoxical nature (meaning something has to be true and false at the same time) is impossible (although it is certainly not the case that all physicists accepts this).[5]  To put a little hard science into this, this is an application of the Novikov Self-consistency Principle.  Developed by the Russian physicist Igor Novikov in the 1980s in response to some hypothetical solutions to general relativity equations that allow the possibility of particles travelling backwards in time, this principle disallows these solutions where a paradox would occur (and in practice that is any change to the past at all).  Technically this allows time travel that affects no change, if the time traveller is a conscious agent aware of the past, this is inconceivable.

Using the categorisation I have developed above, it is possible to say more about time travel than (as Dominic does) “it happens (in SF)”.  Fatalism is common in SF, it underpins Cloukey’s story “Paradox” (see above).  This story contains a “bootstrap paradox”, a closed time loop paradox with where the knowledge about how to build the time machine has no origin.  But more importantly, it contains the most common fatalistic time-travel paradox, the predetermination paradox.  In this paradox travelling to the past to change events leads the time-traveller to become a cause of the events they are trying to affect.  A poetic and rather beautiful version of it can be found in Robert Young’s SF short story “The Girl with the Dandelion Hair” (1961).  Here, a young woman from the future tells the man that she is falling in love with, that, “the book of time has already been written.  From a macrocosmic viewpoint, my father says, everything that is going to happen has already happened.  Therefore, if a person from the future participates in a past event, he becomes a part of that event—for the simple reason that he was a part of it in the first place—and a paradox cannot possibly arise.”  She then travels further back in time and marries a younger version of the man.[6]

The idea of the time traveller becoming part of the cause of the events they seek to stop has long been a theme of SF.  This is central the film 12 Monkeys.  (There is a problem in the relationship posed in Tomorrow’s Worlds between 12 Monkeys and Chris Marker’s short film/photo-roman La Jetée.  The programme suggests that 12 Monkeys is an adaptation of La Jetée, but adaption is perhaps too strong a word, and (as the film credits say) “inspired” is more apposite, 12 Monkeys is essentially different from its inspiration.  In La Jetée the prisoner/time traveller, having been to the past, solves the problems of the post-apocalyptic society by being given a power source on his travels to the future.  It is the future people who aid his escape back to the past and a woman he has fallen in love with there, but he is then killed by his captors from his present who have pursued him to the past.  As in 12 Monkeys the killing of the adult is seen by his childhood self, but in La Jetée there is no element of his attempting to avert the apocalypse.  Rather it is his memory of seeing the shooting that gives him a strong image of a point in time that allows him to travel to it without going mad, an example of the predestination paradox).

12 Monkeys, while taking much from La Jetée, is a different film.  La Jetée is atypical  of time travel SF in that it is fundamentally about memory and transience, although it is by no means alone in this, there are elements of this in Cloukey’s “Paradox” and much of Philip K. Dick’s work.  It is also notable in its elegiac and rueful tone that it is similar to The Time Traveller’s Wife (see below).  Rather, like much of time travel SF, 12 Monkeys is more interested in the paradoxes of time travel itself and in building a compelling story around these.  Those sending James Cole (Bruce Willis) back in time take it as read that the past is unalterable, they are seeking information that will help them combat the virus that has devastated humanity.  Even when Cole, at the last, attempts to change events it only makes his witnessing of his own death as a child come about.  (For anyone interested, there is one glaring inconsistency in the film, whereas the phone call made to the carpet cleaning ansaphone by the psychiatrist (Madeleine Stowe) has always been in the time line, the corrected information left at the same number at the airport a few hours later by Cole not only appears in the future (in terms of the meta-time of the film) “at the same time”, but those time travelling back from the future can only act on that information “after” the call has been made.  This is completely inconsistent with the way that time travel is treated in the rest of the film, but necessary to set up the dénouement, and an all-too-common example of consistency of time travel being dropped when it conflicts with the need for dramatic impact).

The idea that events cannot be altered is a constant in much time travel SF.  The skill is to weave this into a story.  Some of these fatalistic views were given their strongest early development in the pulp period by Robert H. Heinlein (with both bootstrap and predestination paradoxes in the mix) in his stories “By His Bootstraps” (1941)[7] and “-All of you Zombies -” (1959)[8].   It underpinned the US TV series The Time Tunnel (1966-1967), where the characters unable to return to their present hopped between various (mainly past) time periods, but in the past were unable to change the outcome of events.  This concept is central to The Terminator (1984) with Skynet’s attempt to stop its defeat at the hands of John Connor by sending a cyborg back in time to kill his mother leading to his conception (predestination paradox), although this principle fatalism is not carried forward consistently into the sequels.

This is also developed in its literary form in The Time Traveller’s Wife (both its author, Audrey Niffenegger, and the book are featured in this instalment of Tomorrow’s Worlds).  This is a book that was published in 2004 and was not pigeon-holed as SF.  Dominic is right to point out that it combines classic SF time-travelling tropes with a more naturalistic emotional and character-driven literary form (and it might be interesting to speculate that this is not only a product of SF having become hugely popular both on screen and print in the last forty years, but one that has moved from its early almost exclusively male fan base to an audience which, according to some reports, contains a majority of women).[9]  But this misses an important point, about the history of SF.  Nifenegger’s treatment of time travel has something in common with Phillip K. Dick in that time travel results in genetic-neurological disorder, as well as being a descendent of 1960s new wave SF in that it is not centrally about the science.  Most importantly, it shows how science fiction has escaped its ghetto.  The Time Traveller’s Wife is not seen as SF, but is sold and consumed as general fiction.  This is an important development in science fiction.  Many SF authors who wished their writing to be considered beyond the SF ghetto in the 1950s and 1960s struggled (Kurt Vonnegut is one who pushed against this boundary for many years).  What is notable is that many novels that contain elements of what might be considered SF are increasingly seen as general fiction.  Arguably, this goes back to HG Wells, and had its English literary high points in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949).  But it is very notable that many books that have elements of SF in them are not seen as SF, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), David Mitchell’s The Cloud Atlas (2004) and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) are examples of this.  These books assume that people can read through the SF context, and use this to build more humanistic stories.  Thus, the time-travel in Niffenegger’s book is used as an extended metaphor for loss and memory.  The time traveller, Henry, witnessed the death of his mother and is forced to revisit it repeatedly, just as his non-time-travelling father is forced to confront his dead wife in his son’s face.

In this context it is easy to accept Niffenegger’s conceptualisation of time-travel as being circular, the past cannot be changed even if the time traveller has knowledge of the events in which they play a part.  They are past events that have happened and cannot be changed (I would argue that this is bad metaphor for memory, where events are replayed in the mind and conversation exactly to change them).  The physics-philosopher Tim Maudlin has argued that this model of time travel is the one that can be internally consistent.[10]  I am not so sure since it creates a predestination paradox.  This means that even with additional information that can only be known after an event, that event cannot be changed.  It reduces human agency to the bearer of some abstract will of history.  If I go back in time, knowing the event I wish to change then it is by no means clear that I will fail.  To use a clichéd example, if I go back to Hitler’s youth to kill him before he can do any harm, I should stand a good chance of succeeding (although this probably would forestall the rise of the Nazis, or something similar, they would not be led by Hitler).  How likely is it that I will simply traumatise the child, leading to latter aggressive paranoid behaviour which has its roots in my botched assassination attempt which the historical record has failed to fully explain.  And if I fail, what if I or my associates continue going back to young Hitler’s time with increasingly heavy armament until they do succeed?  Or more prosaically, what if I go back 30 seconds in my time machine to stop the toast burning?  In short, going back in time would introduce new information into history, and unless one holds an entirely mechanical view of history where the ideas that people have make no impact whatsoever, the fatalistic model must create unsolvable problems.  (It is interesting to note that a fatalistic view of time travel has implications for the historian.  The main thing that the time traveller takes back in time with them is knowledge and ideas, and to believe that these can have no impact is to suggest that ideas have no impact on the course of history.  That is an entirely mechanical view of history being driven by structural forces with the thoughts in people’s heads existing as pure epiphenomenon).

SF has no plausible answer to the problems that the fatalistic view of time travel meets in the face of the time-traveller determined to change events.  It does have plenty of implausible solutions.   For example, one episode of Doctor Who (“Father’s Day” (2005)) has Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) attempting to alter history by saving the life of her father who was killed eight years previously.  Whatever the emotional and dramatic impact of the story from an SF point of view, it was nonsense.  “Time” becomes takes on a conscious personality in the form of pterodactyl-like creatures, “reapers”, which materialise to restore the previous status quo.  This is hardly consistent with the mathematics of space and time, rather it turns time into a mystical consciousness.  This instalment of Tomorrow’s Worlds has a lot on Doctor Who but, oddly, none of it related to time travel.  The focus on recent Doctors’ assertion that they cannot grow old with their (female) assistants is nothing to do with the Doctor being a time traveller (their assistants are too), but because he has great longevity.  On the whole time-travel paradoxical situations are shrugged off, or confined to single episodes (“Blink” (2007), an early example of Steven Moffat’s writing for the show is, I think, as fine an example of the bootstrap paradox as you will find).  Notably, although the novel The Time Traveller’s Wife is seen in the programme, Steven Moffat lifted a story arc starting with “Silence in the Library” (2008) where the Doctor first meets his wife, River Song, but she last meets him, and then used this story through the 2011 and 2012 series.

The non-fatalistic paradigms, where events in the present and thus the future can be changed, are also common in SF.  The most famous example of the insulated time-traveller paradigm, mentioned in this instalment of Tomorrow’s Worlds, is Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” (1952).  (Even here, Dominic makes a complete mess of the issue.  The story concerns time travelling big game hunters who shoot prehistoric big game under carefully controlled conditions so that no part of the past is changed.  One (Eckles) steps off the allotted path and crushes a butterfly.  Dominic describes this as one of the earliest of stories of its kind. But this genre was already well established.  The most personalised form of such a change in the past is the grandfather paradox (a time traveller goes back in time and kills one of their ancestors, thus they could never have been born) which was used in a story at least at early as Nathaniel Schachner in his short story “Ancestral Voices” (1933).  In 1939 L. Sprague de Camp published his short story (and in 1941 a novelised form) “Lest the Darkness Fall” in which a man is transported back to 6th century Rome and through his endeavours creates a more enlightened a peaceful Europe, one that will experience no Dark Ages (thus the title).

Lastly, the feedback loop model is less commonly seen in SF.  An example of this is the prevalent model used in the film Looper.  The premise of the film is that in the film’s present, young assassins kill victims sent back from the future.  Their last job is always to kill a 30 years older version of themselves, to “close the loop”.  A secondary character in the film, Seth, fails to kill his older self who then goes on the run in young Seth’s time zone.  The mobsters who control the process proceed to dismember young Seth, and these injuries (with thirty years of healing) are immediately manifest in old Seth.  This is bizarre, it gives “time” knowledge of events that have not happened and a process of communicating with that hunk of matter that is now old Seth that is mystical rather than physical, and begs the question of how old Seth, who has now been a multiple amputee for thirty years, ever ran anywhere.  An attenuated version of this is also used in Back to the Future where Marty McFly begins to fade after he disrupts his putative parents meeting in the past.

These models have their paradoxes and I would argue that the difference between good and poor science fiction is, first, how consistently the logic of the time travel is applied, and second, how the paradoxes that it leads to are addressed, and third, how these are incorporated into a compelling narrative.  I would suggest that good SF time travel fiction has a consistent logic to its time travel, and addresses the ensuing paradoxes through its narrative.  Thus I would suggest that (for the most part) Twelve Monkeys is good SF since it uses its (fatalistic) notion of the potential of time travel as an integral part of the story it tells, while Back to the Future is poor SF since the narrative selects different and incompatible understandings of time travel to meet its needs at different times.

Looper is a prime example of this inconsistent application of time travel.  While the film is an effective thriller, as far as being a time-travel SF story, it is a disaster.  The central character in the film, Joe, is another looper who fails to close his loop.  The film’s main model of time travel is one that privileges the moment that is being viewed, if something happens in that moment that was not previously the time line, then it is immediately inscribed in that time line (one assumes, at all future and past points on the time line), thus young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is able to send a message to old Joe (Bruce Willis) by scarring it onto his arm.  One has to assume, although the film fudges the point, that old Joe gains new memories of the conversations he has with young Joe that were not previously in his timeline (and at this point has always had those memories).  Ultimately, young Joe stops old Joe killing someone by killing himself, old Joe immediately vanishes although events up to this point do not “unhappen” (which would create a paradox that young Joe would not kill himself in the newly altered time line).

The point here is not that Looper’s feedback model of time-travel is an intrinsically unsatisfactory one, but that the film cannot deal with the paradoxes it causes and instead resorts to papering over the cracks in the narrative using other models of time travel.  One key point is young Joe failing to close his loop by killing old Joe.  The problem is that old Joe has already experienced this moment thirty years previously, and closed the loop.  How can it not be closed (there is not “this time”, it is the same moment).  The same moment has happened twice, with different things happening.  It simply makes no sense.  What has changed?  Nothing, no-one has time travelled back to change things prior to the incident.  It is the same incident in the same time line.

Worse, old Joe has a reason for not accepting his fate.  In the future a new time crime boss, the Rainmaker, is reported to be closing all the loops, killing off the loopers (although surely, this is always the fate of loopers, it is part of the deal?).  In the process of Old Joe being sent back to die, his wife is killed.  Thus, old Joe seeks to kill the child who will grow up to become the Rainmaker.  The problem is that young Joe realises in the dénouement of the film that it is only in old Joe’s failed attempt to kill the child-Rainmaker (an attempt that will leave his mother dead) that he is set on the road to becoming the Rainmaker.  The problem is that this is the single line fatalism view of time-travel (to be precise, a predestination paradox), with the time traveller creating the event that he seeks to avoid.  Thus young Joe kills himself and thus old Joes vanishes (switching back to a feedback loop model of time travel).  It is an inconsistent and unsatisfactory mess.

Back to the Future suffers from similar problems of picking and choosing the form of time travel that it wishes to use.  On the whole, the film uses an attenuated version of the feedback loop (as in Looper).  When Marty McFly travels back to the era when his parents were in high school, and disrupts the events that led to them marrying, he begins to fade (although slowly, conveniently giving him time to address the situation).  But paradoxes of the single-line fatalistic type are also introduced (Marty, it turns out, is named after himself, and by playing Chuck Berry song on guitar, he invents the style which is appropriated by Chuck Berry), while other events change in a non-fatalistic way.  He returns to find his parents and siblings more happy and contented people, although he himself is not changed in any way.  Again, a mess.

There are ways of avoiding any kind of paradox in time travel.  Particularly, it is only time travel to the past that is paradoxical.  Time travel to the future is not problematic (we are doing it now) and it is physically possible to do (by travelling fast).  The science in Planet of the Apes (1968) is quite plausible, astronauts do return to earth having not aged as fast as those that remained behind (although not to the extent of the film).  There are no paradoxes or inconsistencies.  Of course, then travelling back in time (as some of the chimps in Escape from Planet of the Apes (1973) still has all of the problems of travelling back in time.

Stories that involve viewing the past as a passive observer also create no problems.  Isaac Asimov, an SF writer with a zealous regard for ensuring that the science worked, did write one time-travel paradox story (“The Red Queen’s Race” (1949)) which only avoided paradox by human intervention.  His other stories involving time travel avoid any form of paradox.  Thus the short story “The Dead Past” (1956) involves a chronoscope able to look at anything in the past, but since it cannot change the past or see the future it creates no paradoxes.  Similarly, time travel into the past can be paradox free if it is entirely passive, look but don’t touch time travel.

Asimov has another form of non-paradoxical time travel fiction by creating a place outside of time.  In his novel The End of Eternity (1955) “the Eternals” are outside of time and thus see time spread out before as a completed thing (although there are areas that they cannot see).  They can intervene and change time at will, but since they are no longer in time there are no paradoxes (except, perhaps, that since they originated in time, they can change time so that they never existed there while they continue to exist outside of time).

The commonest answer is “lighten up”.  This is the answer often cited in Doctor Who, where time is variously like a river that will keep flowing or a plate of spaghetti and will sort itself out in some way.  I am not convinced that his is the way that the physical world works, and if we are to have science fiction that is based on science rather than fantasy dressed in pseudo-scientific rags it will not do.

Probably the most interesting take on time travel is that of Philip K. Dick.  Philip K. Dick is very poorly dealt with by Dominic in this instalment.  In his usual way, Dominic suggests that Dick’s writing is part of the late 1960s San Francisco drugs scene, as Dominic puts it was “rooted in the political realities of his sixties heyday”.  There is a degree to which this could be considered to be just imprecise, Dick lived in the Bay Area, but never in San Francisco itself.  Certainly, he lived in his teens in Berkeley and hung out in bohemian circles.  But for his most productive period he lived in Point Reyes Point where he moved in 1958,[11] a sedate town thirty miles north of San Francisco.  Only in 1968 did Dick descend into a full on drugs binge surrounding himself with the rougher end of what the late 60s Bay Area had to offer.  By then he was living in Santa Venetia district of San Rafael in County Marin,[12] like Point Reyes Station, considerably to the north of San Francisco.  This period was a result of his writing running into the buffers, he wrote nothing for the four years from 1968.

Nor should Dick he confused with the drug-fuelled writing of William Burroughs.  Not that Dick’s writing was not drug fuelled, but this was largely amphetamines and tranquillisers, not major psychedelics such as LSD (Dick apparently took this only a small number of times in 1964) or even cannabis.  He reportedly took mescaline once in 1970.[13]  After his1968 breakdown he left the San Francisco area, moving briefly to Vancouver and then returned to California but ended up living in the conservative area Orange County near Los Angeles.  This was the least productive period of his writing life, with only five completed novels and virtually no short stories completed before his death in 1982.  I would argue that this late work is amongst his least successful (although many of his fans would disagree).  With the exception of his A Scanner Darkly (1977), a semi-SF and semi-autobiographical account of Dick’s late 1960s descent into the drug subculture, these late writings are dominated by his belief that he had been visited by aliens and that through them he was linked to a meta-religious Vast Active Living Intelligence System, stepping beyond the bounds of classic SF into something informed by theology.  I have always assumed that all the speed that Dick had taken combined with his always fragile mental state had broken his mind by the early 1970s and he never fully recovered.

Thus, Dominic’s comments on Dick’s writing are careless with the facts.  Dick wrote much of his huge body of short stories in the period 1953-1959, and the bulk of his nearly fifty novels from 1952 to 1968.  This was not a product of San Francisco counter culture, not only did Dick not live there was he was agoraphobic and did not get out much.  His writing was influenced by the politics of the time (particularly his negative view of Nixon) but the political paranoia was informed more by the anti-communism of the McCarthy period during which Dick was both investigated and (reportedly) offered the chance to become a double agent.[14]  He became increasingly paranoid that he was under surveillance (he appears to have had propensity for this but it was probably also a side-effect of his amphetamine use).  If Dick’s politics are rooted anywhere, it is rooted in his early 20s liberal response to McCarthyism, a time of life when many of us form our political outlooks.

Dick’s attitude to time travel has something to do with paranoid views, and elements of the meta-religious which was fully expressed in this later writing had long underpinned some of his work.  These combined to create fiction based on the idea that the world of appearance may not be real, and that there may be an underlying reality.  Thus time travel is possible since the world of experience (including the flow of time) is an illusion under which there is a deeper reality.  This is best seen in Dick’s novel Ubik (written 1966, published 1969) where the apparent backwards running of time is (possibly) explained by the people experiencing it being in a virtual reality and the Ubik of the title is a spray that is applied to fix areas where this fabric of unreality is falling apart.  The uncertainty of what is real and what is not is typical of much of Dick’s output.  It is not simply a product of the 1960s, rather Dick is one of the writers who was part of the emergence of such attitudes.

Tomorrow’s Worlds wilfully refuses to address such issues.  Rather the nostalgia for forty-somethings tone continues.  So the main question is not “how has time travel developed within and beyond SF” but “how can we fit in a clip from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

Having come to a shaky and unsatisfactory halt in the story that it is telling about time travel, after 27 minutes the programme switches to discuss the idea of visions of the future.  To discuss this Dominic return again to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) although (as with the comments in the “Robots” instalment) nearly every factual statement about the film and its making is wrong.  It was not the case that after visiting New York in 1924 Lang was “inspired”.  Although Lang claimed this himself, plans for the film preceded his visit in October 1924 and some of the designs for the look of the city in Metropolis were already in hand.  Nor is Dominic’s claim that Metropolis was the first feature length SF film true, that accolade probably belongs to the Soviet film Alieta: Queen of Mars (1924).  Nor is the city ruled by rich industrialists, it is ruled by one man Joh Frederson, a father/god/owner of the city.  Nor are the workers’ factories underground, their homes are underground, not the factories.  To point out these errors is not nitpicking, that nearly every factual statement made about the film is wrong suggests that Dominic and the makers of the programme have not bothered to watch the film or carry out the most basic research into how it was made.

Dominic them jumps from this to JG Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise to suggest that SF has a theme of seeing future dystopian cityscapes as arenas for the collapse of society into class war.  This is certainly not the case in Metropolis where the working class are a geometric mass called into action only by the robotic provocateur acting on the orders of the city’s patriarch, Joh Fredersen, and then pacified by his son and the saintly Maria.  It can be argued that there came a point in SF films in the 1970s where this became dominant, and Bruce Franklin’s study suggests that all films presenting the future after 1970s were dystopian.[15]  There is clearly a case that this became the way that Hollywood used SF, but I would question the degree to which this is more generally true.  There are strong utopian elements in written SF (think, for example, of the Anarcho-socialist society that Marge Piercy describes in Woman on the Edge of Time (1976)).  It is questionable whether the Los Angeles of Bladerunner is a dystopia, rather it is a version of now.

Dominic, however, attempts to make dystopia the template for all SF and attempts to force JG Ballard’s High-Rise into that mould.  He sees the book as Ballard’s criticism of 1960s and 1970s architects and planners, whose present-day utopias become “tomorrow’s nightmares”.  The block is “isolated”, a microcosm of class society that leads to class war.  Dominic even links it to his favourite bête-noire, the miseries caused by class struggle in mid-1970s Britain.  He cannot resist slipping in: “If you had been reading High-Rise in the mid seventies, perhaps by candle light during an unscheduled power-cut, you might well have wondered just how far away Ballard’s dystopian future was.”

There are elements of truth in this.  One penthouse at the top of Ballard’s high-rise is occupied by its architect, Anthony Royale.  But this is a post-class society, the lower floors are occupied by “the vanguard to the well-to-do and well-education proletariat of the future, boxed up in these expensive apartments with their elegant furniture and intelligent sensibilities, and no possibility of escape.”[16]  These are media professionals, doctors and academics.  Their isolation is not imposed by the architecture, but by their own psychology.  Ballard tells us they are, “content with their lives in the high-rise, [they] felt no particular objection to an impersonal steel and concrete landscape, no qualms about the invasion of their privacy by government agencies and data-processing organisations, and if anything welcomed these invisible intrusions, using them for their purposes … They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with other, and the total self-sufficiency of their lives, needing nothing, were never disappointed.”[17]

It is telling that one of the lead characters in the book is Dr. Robert Laing, whose name echoes the radical psychiatrist Dr. RD (Ronnie) Laing, who from the 1960s argued that it is the world that was mad, the mental problems that people suffered often being the only sane response, RD Laing arguing that the self became divided and that psychiatric practice should seek to reunite these divided selves.[18]  Ballard’s irony is that these new urban landscapes allow a new psychology to emerge, both modern and primitive healing for these divided selves.  As one resident of the block explains to Richard Laing: “It’s a mistake to imagine that we’re all moving towards a state of happy primitivism.  The model here seems to be less of the noble savage than our un-innocent post-Freudian selves, outraged by all that over-indulgent toilet training, dedicated breast-feeding and parental affection …. Our neighbours had happy childhoods to a man and still feel angry.”[19] (129)  The residents are not imprisoned, they chose to stay, and even while facing violent death and starvation, feel more alive than they ever have (at least, the male characters do, Ballard’s female characters are notoriously underdeveloped).  This is Ballard’s version of the integrated self, integrating aspects of their mind and body in unitary whole that expressed their freedom and autonomy.  It is this concept of freedom not tower blocks, at which Ballard has turned his critical gaze.  It is the idea of small enclosed communities, be that on a piece of land cut off between motorways (Concrete Island (1974)) or an inward-looking suburb (The Unlimited Dream Company (1979)).

Again, in the name of history we are offered no history.  The task of time travel in science fiction is given the most superficial history and is only history in the sense that HG Wells wrote first, then Dr. Who started and then Back to the Future was made.  The idea that time travel in SF has a development, that it changes, is missed out.  A very basic sketch of such a history is what started as a framing device for stories of the future in HG Well’s Time Machine and then became the paradoxical subject matter itself in the time of the pulps, then with the new wave becoming a metaphor for understanding people’s relationship with their own past and future, something that has continued in post-genre SF writing.  But just as this is not developed here, nor is SF’s drive to be both utopian and dystopian.  The overall appraisal of this instalment is that the light that burns twice as glibly lights only half as much, and Dominic has burned so very glibly.

[1] Alkon, Paul K., The Origins of Futuristic Fiction (Athens GA: University of Georgia Press, 1987)

[2] Alkon (1987), p245

[3] See, for example Section 5, HG Wells, The Time Machine (London: Penguin, 2005 [1895]), pp47-49.

[4] John Partington (2011)  “H. G. Wells and Population Control: From a Eugenic Public Policy to the Eugenics of Personal Choice” (accessed 21/01/2015)

[5] See, for example, Paul J. Nahin, Time Machines: Time Travel in Physics, Metaphysics and Science Fiction (Second Edition, New York: Springer-Verlag, 1999).

[6]  The story can be read at : [accessed 28/12/2014]

[7] Can be read here:

[8] Can be read here: [accessed 28/12/2014]

[9] Adam Roberts, Science Fiction: The New Critical Idiom (London: Routledge, 2000), p93.  Sadly, Roberts gives no reference for this significant piece of information.

[10] Julian Sancton, “Time Out Of Mind”, Movieline,  September 27, 2012, [accessed 28/12/2014].

[11] Lawrence Sutin,, Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (n.p.: Citadel Twilght, c.1989), pp96ff

[12] Ibid., p158.

[13] Ibid.,  p165

[14] Ibid., pp83-84

[15] H. Bruce Franklin, “Visions of the Future in Science Fiction Films from 1970 to 1982″ in Annette Kuhn, Alien Zone (London: Verso, 1990).

[16] JG Ballard, High-Rise (London: Jonathan Cape, 1975).p97.

[17] Ibid. p42

[18] RD Laing, The Divided Self (London: Penguin, 1990 [1960])

[19] Ballard (1975), p129.

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The Shape of Things to Come


I will be posting a review of the last part of the BBC2 series Tomorrow’s World: The Unearthly History of Science Fiction, “Time Travel”, in the next few days, probably a little after Christmas.  This was very thin stuff.  Much as though I like Groundhog Day and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure neither is science fiction in any meaning sense, and Dominic Sandbrook’s further comments on Metropolis have convinced me that he has not bothered to watch the film.

This will be followed up sometime in January with a piece that will integrate the contents of all four reviews into one overall article that will draw out the patterns and delete the repetitions.  I will also take the chance to remove some of the too-hasty judgements and deepen some of the analysis and relationship to existing writing on science fiction in literature, TV and film.  Unless something remarkable crops up, its conclusion are likely to be:

  1. This is not a history, indeed it wilfully ignores the history of SF, particularly the importance of the pulps from the 1920s onwards and then the division of written SF into hard SF and the new wave from the late 1950s.
  2. In the place of history there is a narrative that focuses on the clips from a number of films and interviews with (largely second order) participants in the production of those films. This is overtly popularist, with the films chosen not form their impact or importance on the genre but their retrospectively understood popular appeal.
  3. On top this Dominic Sandbrook places an analysis that suggest that SF is a response to social and political changes in society. This makes SF appear as merely a reactive reflection, rather than (as it is in some cases) part of the cultural invention that redefines the way in which people see themselves, the world and their place in it.

I will be seeking to publish this piece (which might weigh in at around 12,000 words) so if anyone wants it for their publication, drop me a line.

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