Sunday, 16 January 2011

The Watership Down Generation?

I'm afraid that postings are going to be pretty scarce for a while, due to work and caring for a relative. But I wanted to share an epiphany that I had when suffering from flu induced delirium. Like quite a lot of people of my age (born early 80s) I have a bit of a thing about 70s culture. Perhaps, quoting Foucault's Pendulum, everyone believes themselves to have been born just a bit too late.

But I sometimes wonder if this fillum which, uhm, indelibly marked a lot of 80s sprogs so perfectly refined the 70s Zeitgeist that it left us with a collective consciousness that was enstamped by the preceding decade?

Yeah, there was social democracy, a lack of Brit wars, vibrant rock music, old Ted giving the finger to Israel, lots of other good stuff from a lefty perspective. But frankly, most cultural figures were none to chuffed with the post-war status quo; using lefty rhetoric they helped pave the way for the hard right economic system that prevailed ever since.

But anyway, back to the film in question, like a lot of kids my age I somehow got to watch loads of 18s before I was 8. In case any nosey parkers are reading and hoping to prosecute, I don't have a clue how or who to blame. All I know is that I saw Terminator, Rambo and Red Dawn in childhood, but none of these left anything like as deep an impact on me as the sight of anthropomorphic bunny rabbits being torn to shreds, gassed and generally behaving like little bastards towards each other.

Perhaps this sounds like the rants of a weirdo, but two of my contemporaries entirely agree with me. There's no android getting crushed by a machine or Ivans getting taken out cathertically. Oh no, even when the nasty bunny gets owned by the dog, the goodies can only hop off to somewhere else that the black rabbit is lurking. What a way of introducing kids to the concept of death.

And what a flippin' existentialist work it was as well. And then there's the pure 70s aesthetic. Look at that shade of red-brown the bunny rabbits were. Surely that ochre/ sienna could only have existed before 1st Jan 1980? Judging from photographs of the 70s, it was always 7.00 PM in Summer or 3.00PM in Winter and the sunlight was always shining through dirty plastic. Of course, this is an animation but still captures that orange filter effect.

Furthermore, the whole warren thing: was this an attack on the communal aspects of the 70s?

Anyone else felt simultaneously traumatised and enlightened by this work?


  1. I hadn't read this post until now, but I just dreamt about what it *might* have been - a suggestion that had the film been released earlier (it came out in September 1978, the real turning point) it might somehow have turned people against Thatcherism. One of the most vivid and powerful dreams I've had for years.

    I must admit that I've never seen this film, but "Bright Eyes" has always moved me: number one on 3rd May 1979, it manages to transcend the horrible Toryism of its writer to sound like an epitaph for the entire consensus. The Manics used to cover it live in the 90s; eleven years old at the time in an area whose misguided attempt to overthrow the consensus from the Left provided the starting point for Thatcher & Joseph's revenge, and whose battle to remain socialist would inspire so many in the 1980s even if it was probably doomed from the start, you know that *they knew*.

    Richard Adams' own politics seem to be very much One Nation Tory; I think he actually stood once (in Newbury or somewhere like that) as an independent on "Tory wet" / conservationist-rather-than-environmentalist (as David Lindsay would have it) principles. So definitely a way of seeing the world that was already being squeezed out by dogmatists on all sides, alas. Along with Tolkien & C.S. Lewis, he was attacked for nostalgia, misanthropy and an anti-technology stance in Michael Moorcock's essay 'Epic Pooh', also originally written in 1978 (though later revised, and I think the versions on the net may be the later versions), and which has dated to the extent that it doesn't really acknowledge the good done by the post-war settlement and sees incipient Thatcherism as far more neo-feudal than it eventually turned out to be, though from memory it is a well-constructed, well-argued piece even if I don't fully agree with it.

  2. @Robin
    Thanks for your comment. I didn't know 'Bright Eyes' was such a hit. Watership Down is actually available on Youtube and I was just watching some of it.

    More than anything, this fable about bunnies demonstrates the obsession that Britain had with WWII. Perhaps it is coming from it from the skewed perspective of an 81r but it made me think a lot of Gerald Scarf's animations for The Wall. Whilst we still have a lot of Churchillian kitsch and a media class that is so historically illiterate that everyone they dislike is either 'Hitler' or 'Stalin' I get the impression that modern culture just can't quite DO fear of totalitarianism. Yes, it's a good backdrop and all that, but I just can't see a modern 1984.

    I often wonder when exactly all these myths arose. The elderly relative I was staying with mentioned the rejoicing in the army when Atlee defeated Churchill.

    Of course, I don't think it would be too great an idea to do primary research into contemporary attitudes towards the bombing of Dresden or forming a pact with Stalin. But I get the impression that whilst these things were never spoken about, they probably did prey on the minds of those who had lived through a war.

    And whilst WWII is viewed with nostalgia now, and nostalgia for nostalgia, I actually think that the (being honest) deeply anti-intellectual post-war population really did have a far less humanistic and optimistic outlook than their culture indicated. Sci-fi of the time is often seriously grim. In fact I think many believed that either way, social democracy was just an interlude that would either gradually lead to Communist Tyranny or else leave an embittered elite that would drag Britain into fascism.

    As for Thatcherism, I think it was inevitable in some ways. And awful as it was, maybe in some regards it's best that its delusions came when they did. If the Post War consensus persevered, maybe Mountbatten really would have been installed (which I personally don't think was unlikely).

    I'll try to find Moorcock's essay.

  3. "Bright Eyes" was actually number one for six weeks and the UK's biggest-selling single of 1979. Of course, "Are 'Friends' Electric?", which is maybe one of the last great pieces of popular art to emerge from post-war paranoia, was another of that year's biggest hits.

    Some very important points here. A lot of people were indeed deeply paranoid and fearful at that time, though in many ways that was the result of Britain's loss of empire (which of course was a direct knock-on effect of WW2's defeat-in-victory). You get a lot of that in Kenneth Williams' diaries - there's a 1969 entry where he recounts a conversation about the futility and pointlessness of the post-war settlement, and about the need for a right-wing coup to rescue us from this mess.

    I still think that fatal victory-by-default in 1974 was the worst thing that ever happened to British socialism; a Labour victory in some phantom 1978 election might have been the final straw for some ... in our fantasising over the good things that might have followed such an event we should remember how many people were desperate for social democracy to be overthrown, and how nasty things might have got in a wholly different way.

  4. It's curious, thinking of your earlier comment about Richard Adams being a one nation Tory how many post-war English cultural figures would probably love scoffing at French philosophers but who were, in a sense, both more existential and less bourgeois than their Frankish counterparts: the double impact of WWII and apostasy, I think affected both countries in similar ways. As a teenager I was a fan of Martin Amis and there is a photo in his autobiog of his boorish dad mocking a French philosopher. Yet from most accounts Kingsley Amis was a far more miserable and paranoid figure than Camus or Sartre ever were. Despite his books mainly being about comfy middle class parochial English types (or so I gather from reviews; I've never read any of his novels).

    Kenneth Williams was similar in some regards, being an overtly cheerful little Englander but deep down severely depressed and despairing and turning to right wing politics.

  5. I've always found it interesting how similar in many ways the French and British post-war experiences were - loss of imperial pride and possessions, new cultural movements as answers to the impact of US culture - and yet how dramatically (and unfortunately) the two countries fell out and became separate from each other after the shared humiliation of Suez (talking of which, I wonder whether the use of pop and rock music to justify many Blairite policies, especially a certain other Middle East adventure, would have made Dennis Potter look back on 'Lipstick On Your Collar' in a different light had he lived). Because Britain's political response to its humiliation by the US Suez was to slavishly follow that country in everything, whereas France's response was to follow its own path, develop a united Europe and in doing so coax western Germany back into the international fold, too many British people (and I think also a good many French) wrongly think that after 1956 - and the inevitable collapse of the serious discussions of Franco-British union immediately before Eisenhower saw off the Suez adventure - the two countries had nothing in common.

    Obviously, the seamlessness of the transition in Britain compared to the dramatic overthrow of the Fourth Republic, from which de Gaulle could be the only saviour, sums up the differences between Britain, on one level gifted but on a deeper, more profound level cursed by its island status and virtually unique long-term constitutional stability, and France, always a vulnerable state for multiple reasons. But the French New Wave was a response to the very same post-war social and political changes, and the resultant need for the country to reinvent and redefine itself, as its British equivalent; just because the differences between the two schools of cinema are so profound, and representative of deeper divisions, does not change the similarity in terms of what they responded to. And the Johnny Hallydays and Eddy Mitchells had far more in common with the Cliff Richards and Marty Wildes - an inevitable, simplistic embrace of consumerism and opportunities beyond a dying imperial culture - than they had with the twin "intellectual" and "naughty" stereotypes of France that most ageing rockers here would probably hold even today. And Serge Gainsbourg - the most travestied "novelty one-hit wonder" of all time in the UK - was as creative and ingenious in his innovations to fill a post-war, post-imperial cultural void as the Beatles or even the early Pink Floyd ever were. To me, this was a case of the differences actually reinforcing the similarities; a great shame that most British people can't see that.

    KW's diaries are almost unbearable to read in the last years - he had so much genuine knowledge and intellect, but it all went to waste.

  6. @Robin
    Thank you for your interesting comments. I agree about France and Britain, missing an opportunity for closer relationships and hope to listen to more Serge Gainsbourg. As you might see from my most recent post, though personal experience I have come to views closer to yours concerning pop culture as a response to the shortcomings of post-war mainstream British culture.