New Dawn Fades.

(posted by Mike)

In the comments box attached to my Five Stages Of Working In Paris piece, John sums up exactly what it is about Charles De Gaulle airport that depresses me so much:

I think the awfulness of it is compounded by the airport it was intended to be, or once was. It’s got this towering modernistic sixties/atomic/space thing going on, but it looks so dated and thwarted and smells of dead cigarette smoke and old clothes.

Precisely. For someone of my generation, who was seven years old when Apollo XI landed on the moon, there is something particularly poignant about anything that reminds us of the thwarted technological Utopianism of the 1960s. Why aren’t we wearing silver bodysuits? (Mid-nineties ravers excepted.) Why aren’t we munching magic pills in lieu of boring old-fashioned food? (Er, ditto.) Why aren’t we travelling to work by gyrocopter? Why are there no giant cities underneath the oceans? Why aren’t we taking our holidays on Mars? Boo! Swizz!

The biggest recent example of Failed Space Age is, of course, the demise of Concorde, which made its final flight two days ago. K and I spent a lot of yesterday morning taking the piss out of Jonathan Glancey’s decidedly overblown front page piece in The Guardian, Time machine’s final trip leaves an empty sky:-

The sky seems a little lower this morning; a cathedral without a spire, a mountain without wolves…
And then she turned and pirouetted slowly into her hangar to meet and greet the massed ranks of waiting TV cameras, as 100 celebrities, captains of industry, competition winners, newspaper editors and at least one ballerina and a fashion model emerged from her nipped and tucked fuselage.
That trademark thunderous rumble, as if the clouds were being pushed apart by some titan, caused heads to crane from city streets as she took off or came in to land.
The future we dreamed of in the late 60s has dissipated somewhere between meso, strato and thermospheres.
“When once you have tasted flight”, wrote Leonardo da Vinci, “you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards.”
But when you do so, what you will no longer see is Concorde.

Enjoy the free champers, did we, Jonathan? Tight deadline, was it?

When I was around five years old, and developing a fascination with words, I thought that the “biggest” word in the English language was “supersonic”. How could you possibly get bigger than that? The word itself thrilled me, conjuring up visions of nutty professors in white coats, busily inventing things left, right and centre.

Whatever happened to the “nutty professor” archetype, anyway? The chuckling white-haired boffin in his lab, single-handedly devising the future? Pensioned off, I guess, his place filled by faceless ranks of Product Development Managers. Technological innovation sure ain’t what it used to be. What sort of eager child nowadays could get fired up by romantic visions of Product Development Managers? Ah, there’s the rub.

My uncle, a retired government scientist, has always had a slight whiff of the Lone Boffin about him – although he is anything but nutty (quite the reverse) and isn’t a professor. In early retirement, he took to blowing up passenger aeroplanes, to see what happened to them structurally when they exploded – the objective being to find new ways to strengthen their construction. His team would buy second-hand fuselages (surprisingly cheap, apparently), take them to deserted patches of land, and blast them to smithereens. Nice work if you can get it, right?

Before blowing a plane up, its luggage hold would be filled with a full complement of actual luggage, in order to simulate the correct conditions. (A plane with an empty hold would explode in quite a different way.) To do this, my uncle’s team obtained large amounts of unclaimed lost luggage, which could then be put to use.

A curious and unexpected snag began to manifest itself. It turned out that a disproportionate amount of the unclaimed luggage originated from the Indian sub-continent. (It’s tempting to speculate about Hindu fatalism at this stage – “Our luggage has gone; it was meant to be” – but I shall refrain from doing so.) On inspection, this luggage was found to contain more lengths of folded material than luggage from other parts of the world (sari fabric, maybe?), to such a degree that it was producing a skewed sample – the softness of the fabric cushioning the blasts and producing atypical results. You have to admire the level of precision at which these guys were operating, don’t you?

Now, where was I? Oh yes: Failed Space Age. The first time that this concept hit me was in the early 1980s, when I took my first cross-channel hovercraft ride. Hovercrafts had come along at much the same time as moon landings and supersonic flight, and to me they had always reeked of Tomorrow’s World glamour and modernity. (The show’s chief presenter, Raymond Baxter, was of course another classic Boffin archetype, several years before the clownish Magnus Pyke started to downgrade the whole notion.) A brainy distant cousin of mine had even (so I was told at the time) built his own mini-hovercraft in his back garden; his youngest son could actually ride about in it. Jealous wasn’t the word.

(Incidentally, the same cousin was also a regular judge on BBC1’s Young Scientist Of The Year programme, where teams of nascent school-kid Boffins competed to produce the most exciting, innovative and – this is important – socially useful inventions. It’s a programme which could never be made nowadays. Young Product Development Manager Of The Year just wouldn’t have the same ring to it. The nearest approximation we have is Robot Wars, I guess – where social usefulness has been replaced by Philippa Forrester in tight leather kecks, making all the nerdy boys blush and stammer. Such is the nature of progress.)

It therefore came as a huge disappointment to enter the forlorn, forgotten-looking hovercraft terminal, staffed by “hostesses” of a certain age who were still wearing the same uniforms that had been designed for them in the late 1960s. In the early 1980s, these outfits had yet to acquire much in the way of retro period chic – they simply looked as if nobody had been bothered to update them, and re-enforced the suggestion that hovercrafts were an abandoned, dead-end technology. The rest of the world had moved on, leaving behind a bunch of rather passé looking matrons in matching tartan berets and mini-skirts, marooned in a shed in Ramsgate. The awful, noisy, bumpy ride which followed (I threw up into a paper bag) supplied ample explanation for this.

K remembers the opening of Charles De Gaulle airport being covered on the children’s programme Blue Peter, being deeply excited by its modernity, and being horribly disappointed by the grim reality twenty years later. We’re a scarred generation, we are. We need post-space-age counselling.

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