Monday, July 20, 2009

"like a treen in a disabled spaceship"

We decided to head up to London on Saturday the 18th - for a primary reason that will be explained in my next post - and we decided to take in a fairly small exhibition that we'd missed previously; Dan Dare and the Birth of Hi-Tech Britain, at the Science Museum. Actually, this turned out to be only a relatively little bit about Dan Dare - a case or two's worth of original art, a display board about the Eagle comic - and mostly about British technology in the '50s, with some imagery borrowed from the Eagle; not just Dan Dare strips, but cutaway illustrations of various bits of noteworthy technology of the time.

Still, this did illustrate two things; first, that the imagery of the comic strip was to a greater or lesser extent influenced by the big technological news stories of the day, and second, that the cutaway illustrations of Stingray and the Thunderbirds and such that decorated the TV21 comics of my own '60s childhood were actually fantasticised - and I'd have to say, thus debased - imitations of the Eagle's attempts to provide actual education. (For that matter, Doctor Who's Daleks, and in particular their TV21 incarnation, owed a significant amount to Dare's Treens, just as Doctor Who in general came to owe so much to Quatermass, especially in the '70s.) The museum had a point about the birth of "Hi-Tech Britain" taking place in that decade.

But that leads all too easily to another point. The problem for an exhibition like this, I fear, is that it has to deal with the persistent scent of failure that hangs over its subject-matter. The Hi-Tech Britain of which this exhibition speaks meant a motor industry whose management and workforce alike were all too stuck in old ways; it meant Comet airliners which crashed, and lost us that crucial lead to Boeing; it meant shiny new diesel and then electric trains, running on essentially Victorian tracks. There was some brilliance there, but too much of it was necessary ingenuity, improvisation around ingrained habits, bad decisions, and the problems of a country still recovering from its involvement in an expensive war. The exhibition was fun in many ways, but it was hard to avoid a sense of melancholy, induced not only by stories of make-do-and-mend shabbiness, but by a huge sense of opportunities missed - a melancholy not, I think, intended by the curators. This is the Science Museum, not a museum of social history, after all.

But not only is Dan Dare not flying the spacelanes in our defence, he's never going to, whatever may happen in space research. We're unlikely ever to see his sort again, and perhaps a big symptom of Britain's problems in the 1950s was the idea that the hi-tech future would lie with a square-jawed pilot who wouldn't have been out of place in the Battle of Britain, backed up by a comedy Yorkshire sidekick and a gruffly paternalistic staff officer. Still, the exhibition gets full marks for presenting the evidence.

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