Thursday, October 30, 2014

Not To Be Robert Heinlein

How do you not be a “right-wing fascist?” As a writer, I mean.

I ask this because such is a judgment “against” my favorite author, Robert A. Heinlein.

Alternately, Heinlein is known for being a “long-haired liberated type” after writing the college student cult classic Stranger In A Strange Land. Still, the shorthaired fascist image is the one that seems to stick. In fact, according to the Internet, when that Dutch director who made Robocop made the feature Starship Troopers, based on the novel of the same name, he couldn’t, due to his distaste, finish reading the book. Hence, says the web, his film had a satirical tone.

I dimly recall the 1950’s Starship Troopers being written when the public felt baffled and helpless before a new unprecedented rise in juvenile delinquency. I’m not sure if delinquency has since returned to pre-war levels or if we’ve merely learned to normalize it. At any rate, I think Heinlein, emphasizing social values, had intended to be earnest, not satirical. Or had he?

It was Heinlein who said that sf, written science fiction, (not Hollywood sci-fi) could be more broadly known as “speculative fiction.” To me this means an author could take opposing ideas, mutually exclusive ideas, and then speculate on each idea with various novels. For example, write one novel where people are informed self-reliant Boy Scouts in a sort of stern Roman republic, then another where people say, “What’s the use?” in a wimpy Roman empire, and yet another where they are truly wimps, screwed if ever The Machine Stops. (E. M. Forster 1909) None of her novels would necessarily represent the belief of the writer.

Of course, life is more fun if both literary critics and eager readers like me can pretend to discern the beliefs and philosophy of a writer from just his or her writing—but we can’t, of course.  I really want to believe we can, but— Recently Orson Scott Card has created controversy by his actions against gays; people are saying everyone should boycott the Superman comics he is scripting. I am surprised at Card because I really like his Ender series, especially the books where Ender is gentle middle-aged man. I even underlined parts. I thought Card’s writing suggested a likeable writer of deep psychological insight and compassion, which would rule out his being cruel to gays. (Note: Scientists say being gay is not a choice… then again, the same scientists believe in the theory of evolution)  

I know of another male writer, who shall be nameless here because the public hasn’t twigged yet, a man who has written of very Loving characters—in fact, his straight males can say the “L” word—but his nonfiction essays show him as a jerk… Now I wonder if maybe another nice writer, Paul Gallico, back in the 1960’s, had anticipated the Card controversy. A best-selling author in his day, Gallico wrote a short novel where a lonely orphan girl joins a traveling one-man puppet show. The puppet master is pathetically cruel to her, and he controls his puppets to be very nice to the girl… Truly, people are a mystery.

As for Heinlein, his private life he kept private, so presumably people who judge him fascist do so from his work in general. I generally like his stuff. So what could I or another writer do, to avoid the same right wing fascist label? What could Heinlein have done differently? The question, invoking his book titles, makes an interesting thought experiment.

Thought Experiment

In Red Planet, subtitled A Colonial Boy on Mars, the teen hero is present at a town hall meeting: This was my first exposure to Robert’s Rules of Order. Part of the meeting involved “What should be the age of majority?,” (Voting) a theme returned to in Starship Troopers. It seems Heinlein believes in participation, as in his novel Double Star (which surely inspired the 1993 film Dave) where the characters, none of whom are politicians, all enjoy being party members and participating in democracy.

What is the opposite then, for me, to avoid being labeled fascist? Better to write of a hero in a “what’s the use?” society without public meetings, a society where only an elite participate and the average guy, to paraphrase me at work, thinks, “I only live here.” Like in some sci-fi empire or the Earth in the movie Elysium.

In Rocketship Galileo the teen friends, because of one boy’s father, learn to be properly scientific, keeping careful notes for their hobby of rocket experiments. In Have Spacesuit—Will Travel the hero, thanks to intervention by his dad, takes better, harder courses in high school after deciding to become an engineer. In Space Family Stone the brothers plan to become asteroid prospectors until their grandmother convinces them there is more money in selling to the prospectors: They become entrepreneurs. It seems Heinlein believes older competent folks are responsible to help younger folks have goals and to then become competent in their turn. Maybe that’s elitist. And fascist.

The opposite of this would be all the young adult novels of my formative years—or almost all. One man wrote about an ambitious boy, on the high school school wrestling team, without even saying whether or not the student wins his tournament at the end of the book. The point of the novel was to show the boy making an effort. It was made into a movie, but the title escapes me. The author said he wrote it as a protest: As he noted, all the other teen characters of my formative years, the  longhaired 1960's and 70's, were non-ambitious. (Even the ones who "wanted" to be rock'n roll stars would never take lessons, certainly not lessons from anyone with serious music training) Maybe not losers, but certainly non-winners. Maybe to write about plain non-winners is to be safely non-fascist.

In Starman Jones a passenger starcruiser, a “love boat,” is marooned. Responsible civilians, as well as the crew, are armed with pistols and rifles from the weapons locker. In Red Planet (1949) pistols are commonplace to fend off wildlife. Readers see ordinary colonists, family men, use their pistols to revolt, forcing Earth to give them independence. In Between Planets a teenager who feels orphaned and displaced eventually finds some sense of belonging... by joining the army. Surely Heinlein is comfortable with guns.

The opposite? To write about an unarmed population, about city folks who have never seen any guns except for handguns, who by default find guns icky, disturbing and not-nice—something for big city criminals. Being afraid of guns, I guess, is normal and non-fascist. I could write of such a society, I suppose, even though in real life my sister coaches biathlon and my brother-in-law is the volunteer armorer for the local cadet corps.

I have no idea whether Heinlein, now deceased, (1988) was ever as nice in person as my helpful brother-in-law. Still, I’ve enjoyed this small thought experiment.

Robert Heinlein remains my favorite author.

I'm a writer. I don’t think I’ll write about characters who don’t vote or participate, have no difficult hobbies, no competence, and no sense of responsibility to the next generation. And who are not liberated about guns. No, if such characters were normal and middle-of-the-road, if it’s more enlightened to write about protagonists and civilians rather than about heroes and citizens, well, I’d rather just write like a “fascist.”

Sean Crawford
~I'm reading Heinlein's Double Star, "an easy and enjoyable read" according to the new forward by Ken Macleod, who notes the work is "(Heinlein's) only book that is centrally about politics … idealizes parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy." In other words, a non-fasciest book. 

~ Thinking about whether writers, who have to "act their characters," are nice or not: The November Cineplex Magazine, in the editor's note Feeling It by Marni Weisz begins—and the words could apply to writers—"Here's a question. Do you need a heightened sense of empathy to  be an actor—to put oneself in someone else's shoes and pull off a convincing performance?" No, not according to research by Thalia R. Goldsein. She found that, in comparing acting students and psychology students, "the psychology students had a slight edge it their ability to empathize." 

I am surprised. Maybe the study sample wasn't big enough.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Fine Man, Fine Writer

Have you a passion? For building, sailing, singing or something? Anything?

I, and a few dozen others, (I didn’t count them, or take any notes) spent yesterday evening with a fine man who encouraged us to live our passion. Like a gorgeous wine, such men are to be appreciated as adding a little grace to our life. We sat on soft folding chairs in the little independent bookstore, Owl’s Nest Books. I wasn’t interested in hearing any facts or technical advice, not about writing. Like the rest of the keen crowd, I already knew my craft, well enough for now. Instead, I was there to take in a man, and his more esoteric experiences in being a writer. I was not disappointed.

Can you name any prairie writers? Any prairie mystery writers? Of course not, but you can now: Anthony Bidulka. Thriving in the city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, he knew of only one other writer. (I forget her name) So he went up to her and asked her to tell him about the writerly life. What mattered was her example that it could be done. What really mattered, in that encounter between two people, was not any specific facts she had to say but simply her belief that he could do it too.

Of course the mathematical odds against ever being published are steep, let alone the odds against making a living at writing. And Bidulka would all know about mathematics, since he was a successful chartered accountant. Successful? Yes, he was a partner in a firm… and he gave it all up, to be a writer, after first “saving like a bugger.” You can expect years, plural, before you make your first sale. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is following your passion. He didn’t want to be “sitting on a rock when I’m 85…” and wondering.

I can still hear some of his exact words. But I don’t suppose I should quote him too much, because I know another published writer who is very sensitive about anyone stealing his thunder, and Bidulka might come to speak at a bookstore near you. But I will say Bidulka was a skilled public speaker, humorous, warm, humane and giving of himself. It was so nice to take in a man with a good heart. He said, “time worked its magic” so now he is skilled, and able to help others.

Bidulka explained that it didn’t matter if a passion was part time or half time or if you could somehow make money at it: “That’s a bonus.” In answer to a question about “interests” he named some neat interests, so obviously he has a life, but he had just the one passion. The difference between interests and a passion, it seems, is that a passion makes it all worthwhile. I forget, now, how Bidulka explained the difference, but never mind—I now have lots of time to reason it out.

Obviously Bidulka didn’t mean that anyone’s passion had to be “writing”—although it was for him. At one point he reflected that if he had been braver he could have become a writer straight out of high school—but he didn’t regret any of his jobs. I have noticed that many writers have many different jobs on their resumes. I wondered, last night, if many of them took years in getting free of what they sensibly “should” do, before getting into following their heart. I don’t know. I do know that many good writers have a “real job,” and that seems to work out. (Algis Budrys sold trucks) Bidulka is not a moderate person, he goes all-out, and so in his case trying to do part time writing would just not have worked.

As for the folks on the folding chairs, I would say they all had a life, and real jobs, or were retired. Mostly women. Everyone wore nice clothes, and everyone was over age 30. At one point the ex-accountant told us of going to his first writer’s conference, held outside the prairies, and being delighted at finding people just like him. I know the feeling. This delight is one of the side benefits, I think, of following your passion. I can remember when I was a young man looking for a career: I filed away the fact, according to science, that one of the best predictors of whether a career would be a good personal fit was not by comparing my aptitudes to the job, but by comparing myself to what the other workers were like. Peers matter.

It’s been decades since I went to a conference in my current profession, partly because we are frustratingly short staffed, (Last year I had really wanted to hear Steve Slopak, a guy I once worked with) but at least every year I take a Monday off so I can go to a weekend readers-writers-publishers conference, When Words Collide... held right here on the prairies! Obviously my profession has become for me what musicians call a “day job.” And that’s OK. Not as driven as Bidulka, I can enthusiastically write part-time while holding down a job. Besides, I can count on my fingers the years until my retirement. As for whether writing is my passion… I will need to essay-think my way through that one…

In an alternate universe Bidulka is an affluent long-term accountant—but he’s not as happy. I wondered about a version of myself from age 19 (time traveling) How would I have felt from attending the evening? Probably lost, lonely and alienated from all those rich grownups. Not to mention having despair at lacking enough self-discipline/self esteem to write regularly, lacking any faith or sense of life-purpose. Luckily I have kept my head up, trudging down the years.

Last night I was rich enough to have driven there in a bought-new car (and had learned to drive stick shift) and I was a part of a community, making serene eye contact and talking with three people who knew me: One of whom is on track to submit a manuscript this summer, just like me, and one of whom has way too many books and needs to get rid of lots, just like me—but how? The dilemma drives me mad! Yes, I fit into the writer community.

Gathered in warm community, we writers already knew basically how to write; we were there to see a man, a fine man. I’m glad I went, I’m so glad I follow my passion.

Sean Crawford

~As I’ve said before, most notably in my No Links is Good Links essay, archived July 2012, I don’t believe in enabling a person’s frantic undignified skimming: Hence I seldom make links. (And I don’t run downtown in my business clothes, either) But what I will do, as a trailhead to his Facebook and Twitter paths, is write out a web address: —and I see my computer has automatically made it into a link: how amusing.

~Coincidently, today I saw the Mexican movie Book of Life where a young man’s biggest fear, the one that torments him the most at night, is the fear of being himself. But of course, he doesn’t realize it: To “know thyself” takes years.

I am reminded of how in my youth, to avoid a clichĂ© but still voice a classic yearning, we said, “I want to do my own thing.”

~Also coincidently, with echoes of Bidulka, today I resumed reading a book (over supper) I sent away for by a foreign novelist I enjoy, Haruki Murakami, called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, subtitled (in much tinier print) A Memoir. Opening it at random, I started reading (again) where he sells his business and re-prioritizes his life around the hours and the health he needs to be a novelist full-time: Hence the jogging. He couldn’t just hire a manager for the business. “… I knew if I did things half heartedly and they didn’t work out, I’d always have regrets.” P. 31

Something I won’t look at too closely is where Murakami writes, “I’m struck by how, except when you’re young, you really need to prioritize in life, figuring out in what order you should divide up your time and energy. …(Otherwise) you’ll lack focus and your life will be out of balance.” P. 37

~Another coincidence: Last week I essayed about Introverts and Messages. Murakami sheds light on introverts, as on P. 15 he writes,
“It might be a little silly for someone getting to be my age to put this into words, but I just want to make sure I get the facts down clearly: I’m the kind of person who likes to be by himself. To put a finer point on it, I’m the type of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone. … I’ve had this tendency ever since I was young, when, given a choice, I much preferred reading books on my own or concentrating on listening to music over being with someone else. I could always think of things to do by myself.

Even so, after I got married at an early age (I was twenty-two) I gradually got used to living with someone else….”     

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Introverts and Messages


Cats Eye Glasses
Some of my best friends are introverts, and some of my best friends are feminists. Nice people. How strange that society “as a whole” might not value folks in those two categories, not as much as “everybody” values extroverts as being regular natural folks.

For me, what makes feminists so sexy, even the ones who wear glasses, has nothing to do with their going bra-less and everything to do with their willingness, like me, to seek enlightenment. In the 1970’s they became willing, and then able, to “raise their consciousness.” They regularly met in their homes to do this. Well done.

Back during my favorite decade, the 1950’s, a time when we still believed Dorothy Parker’s 1925 quip, “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses” none of us questioned her. Few asked why the reverse of “men” was not women but “girls.” In our formative high school years the socially valued athletes and cheerleaders, besides not wearing glasses, were perceived as extroverts. The truth of course, that shy quiet girls could be cheerleaders too, was not the pop culture scenario. Thinking back to my school, when extroversion was desired and expected, God only knows how many shy kids were despised as snobs. Strange how so much of the “equality and respect” we knew after the 1970’s, we just never knew during the 1950’s.

It isn’t easy to know things invisible on the wind you “could” know. That’s why we love and fear our painters and poets: They see things. It follows that ideologies, from communism to Nazism, must squish their artists away. True believers don’t want to see anything new—they already know their world is cast in stone. “Nothing to see here, move along.” When oppression gets worse the squishing gets worse too. In the 1950’s U.S. critics only faintly praised The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s play about the Salem witch trials. Later critics could easily see it as a classic—I saw it staged at Mount Royal College—but back then they dare not “see,” not while the oppressive McCarthy witch hunts were going on.

Conditioned and Washed
We valued Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communist hunts back then partly because of something horrible out of the Korean War of the early 1950’s: We learned that some wholesome soldier-boys in the UN forces, while prisoners of the reds, had been converted to communism through force and fear. The dread word “brainwashing” entered our vocabulary. And we feared civilian boys back stateside could be radicalized too.

Back home, in those days of black-and-white TV advertising, Vance Packard had a best seller to expose marketing: The Hidden Persuaders, a book still readable today. (I like it)

It was a time when Helen Gurley Brown, in her best-selling Sex and the Single Girl (I like that one too) said, “Natural is whatever you’re used to.”

Brown said this to encourage young bachelorettes to wear normal makeup and hairstyles. She reasoned that a boyfriend might sincerely tell you he likes “old fashioned” and “natural” looks, but actually he is influenced by what he sees all around him. Brown has a knack of writing lines that swiftly sink in to become part of a young person’s “common sense.”

I think women’s liberation combined knowledge of psychology, propaganda, advertising and Ms. Brown to have an insight: People in society are influenced not only by active persuaders, hidden and open, but by passive messages too, messages they are used to. This insight is why today if we are depicting a little group of much fewer than ten people we will still make sure one of them is Black, even though Blacks are only ten percent of the U.S. population. We want to send a message: Black people are a natural part of society. Natural and valued.

In the 1950’s Americans were known for wanting to be popular and backslapping and talk-talk-talking. During the cold war, Ugly Americans re-e-eally didn’t fit among quiet elders in a bamboo teahouse. Visa students to the U.S., I read recently, are warned Americans don’t like silence in their conversations. I can believe it, since I have viewed some of both the British and the American translations, dubbings rather, of the Japanese Miyazaki animated feature The Secret World of Arrietty based on The Borrowers (I read it, forget whether I liked it) The gratuitous dialogue added into the Yankee version is grotesque.

Invisible Foundation
I have to ask: If there have been things in the past that were invisible, such as a need for equal rights, could there be things in the present, such as the U.S. style of talking, that we don’t notice either? Is our consciousness unraised?

Remembering shy quiet cheerleaders, could it be that we devalue the introverts among us, noticing them much less than their numbers would warrant? Maybe “regular folks” are not the huge majority, not the natural default, that we have been led to believe.

Some years ago I was pleased and relieved—yes relieved, at something that a computer nerd millionaire, Paul Graham, blogged in his essay about why Silicon Valley is where it is, rather than being located in, say, Chicago. The issue is nerds. Graham said (I forget) something like nerds prefer hiking to deafening discotheques, old bookstores and cafĂ© conversations to glitzy shopping malls and fashions, and they don’t want to live in the glamorous cities that regular folks and millionaires choose. The nerds prefer San Francisco and Boulder to Miami and Las Vegas. As for the Eastern Seaboard, Graham has lived in both Boston and New York—and he prefers the quieter Boston.

The next Facebook probably won’t start up in Miami, according to Graham, even though rich investors live there. The nerds won’t ever meet those investors, because they won’t live there in the first place. I was so relieved to read this, because I hadn’t found anyone in print, until Graham, who would validate the existence of a whole group of folk just-like-me.

Brown suspected that at any given party, on any given night, some of the folks walking around with a smile pasted on are faking it. Yes, culture is partly a shared pretense, I get it. Still, in everyday life, it’s as if most people believe in our culture’s official scenario. And so, at a big buzzing party, if I scratch my raffle ticket and win a free trip to Las Vegas for me and a small crowd, I would expect the people around to raise their eyebrows and feel excited for me.

Simple and Plain
In contrast, in Oprah magazine, regarding plain folks who seek “enlightenment” I read… “To you, a “fun” trip to Vegas would be a nightmare; a good time is lying under the stars discussing the meaning of life with a friend, your spouse, or your cat.” I can’t imagine telling people at a party I am dumping my “all expenses ticket to Vegas,” so I can sit with my cat, but … I’m excited to read the validation that some people are like Paul Graham and me, not in the sense of being brainy computer nerds, but in being introverts—and there are more of us than society’s “lowest common denominator” thinking might have us suppose.

In my everyday life I am attending two writer’s groups, one monthly and one weekly. If I enjoy being around writers it is not because they mostly tend to have higher education like me, it’s because they are interested in noticing life. I don’t suppose Jane Austen would be interested in Graham’s computers and his essays, but she is sure good at noticing characters. To me, this alone would mean she’s lively, interesting and, beneath all those petticoats, sexy.

One day, as our group was rising and putting on jackets, a fellow writer (Hi Marie!) dumped books on the table for anyone to grab, but then held one out to me, “I want to hear what you think.” It was a best-seller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in A World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.

I think society is at last getting ready to notice and validate introverts. A cynic might say it’s time to adjust our culture because, and only because, of new economic realities: nerds getting rich with small “start up” companies; a new loyalty to personal “careerism” replacing loyalty to big companies; and a growing emphasis on companies having creativity as a competitive advantage, forcing us to listen more to the introverts among us.

Meaning: There’s no longer enough “bang for your buck,” time-wise, in letting a couple of shoot-from-the-hip extroverts dominate a business meeting, not while denying introverts encouragement to deliberately think and speak. At any rate, I sure found Cain’s book a big relief: Wow, a whole book about people like me. No wonder it’s a best seller.

Maybe we, as a society, won’t be making adjustments, anytime soon, to our scenario of what we “see” and value, but we should: Cain makes a very convincing case that introverts have a lot to offer in our new improved diverse workplace.

Comfortable and Understated
I like Cain’s anecdote of a marriage that was being strained by the couple having two widely differing views on hosting parties. The husband was a bubbling extrovert: Weekly dinner parties were very important to his quality of life. The wife was an introvert, craving quiet and connection. Luckily, they were able to frame their difference in term of ‘-verts.’ Solution: Instead of a big dinner table, trapping the wife, they would have a buffet. The husband got to talk superficially in a crowd of people, while the wife felt permission to circle around the edges to comfortably have the few deeper conversations she craved. Like many introverts, she couldn’t relax to make small talk until after she had relaxed by going deep. I can relate.

If my feminist friends are correct, if society is blowing messages around us, like soft little leaves on the wind, the trick is to raise our awareness so we can feel them. And then choose whether we want to agree.

Becoming aware is fine, as far as everyday life goes, but what about less democratic times and places? Sometimes the folks who send messages will wrap them in fear: “All the better to make you switch off your critical mind.”

In Arabia today they want a whole lot of people—grown women—to be switched off about a whole lot of things. I guess some poor girls in Arabic countries are like Bertrand Russell: He writes that even as a grown man when he is reading and someone comes into the room he feels a fearful impulse to hide his book: His family was against reading, against freedom of thought.

Fear can be as harmless as the emperor’s new clothes, or as devastating as Senator McCarthy ruining lives. McCarthy used fear to make people say, “If you defend an accused witch then you must be a witch yourself, and so you must be accused and dragged away too!” Oppressors have used McCarthy’s trick for centuries, they are using it in the Middle East right now. Such oppressors always hate three classes of people: the artists, the brave and the educated. (For “witch” substitute “communist” … I think of McCarthy when haters refer to skeptics as “deniers.”)

Easy and Carefree
One of my favorite artists is science fiction writer Robert Heinlein. Before I was born, long before the Islamic State was overrunning Syria and Iraq, he wrote in 1949 about the U.S. being under a religious dictatorship. His hero joins the underground and is allowed to use their library:

 “For the first time in my life I was reading things that had not been approved by the Prophet’s censors, and the impact on my mind was devastating. Sometimes I would glance over my shoulder to see who was watching me, frightened in spite of myself. I began to sense faintly that secrecy is the keystone of all tyranny. Not force, but secrecy … censorship.”

Any religion of peace can be perverted to oppress people. There is a prominent Iranian man right now in the infamous Evin “torture prison”: He was thrown in for daring to say that religion should be separate from government. The Ayatollah might love God, but he surely loves power. I’m sure no Iranian dare say in public that Evin Prison should be only a prison, without torture, lest he or she be accused and dragged off too.

While fashion messages are mostly easy and harmless, if anyone wants to know whether they have been brainwashed by society, conditioned by messages wrapped in fear, then the answer might be found by a variation of an experiment for an Arab student:

If you are a young Arab wanting to know whether the Islam you are naturally used to is a fierce and fearful ideology like communism, or merely a peaceful religion then here is a test, if you are brave enough: Tell some young fellow-Muslims that Islam has been true and good and beautiful in the past, and as your friends are smiling and nodding their heads, add there are a few tiny little problems with Islam today. Then check your gut. If you feel afraid of your fellows,  then you have your answer.

God bless you, everyone seeking enlightenment. You are beautiful.

And God bless you, introverts. You are natural and valid.

Sean Crawford

The introvert lady, Susan Cain, did a Tedtalk in 2012 (link)

I advocated giving introverts room to speak during a part of my essay Too Fast, Too Wrong, archived July 2010.

An easy introduction to the McCarthy terror, with archival footage of the senator, is the movie Good Night, and Good Luck. George Clooney directed and acted in it, after mortgaging his home to make the film. Obviously Clooney believes in freedom.

Heinlein’s short novel, If This Goes On—” is published as part of Revolt in 2100.

A fellow Canadian, Irshad Manji, is the young lady who wrote The Trouble With Islam Today. She receives death threats constantly. No wonder someone dedicated a science fiction novel to her.

Here are the Oprah lines in context:
The Oprah Magazine November 2011, P. 166, 4-Step Fulfillment Workbook by Martha Beck, Box title If you’re highly motivated by Enlightenment

Because the things that drive other people—wealth, fame, social ties—leave you feeling incomplete, you sometimes feel like an odd duck. You spend lots of time contemplating what it is that calls you. You may be pulled toward yoga, meditation, religion, or nature. To you, a “fun” trip to Vegas would be a nightmare; a good time is lying under the stars discussing the meaning of life with a friend, your spouse, or your cat.

Another Dorothy Parker quip: You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Outriders and UFO's

I remember the coming of color television during the hip 1960’s. Strange how pop culture parallels everyday life, and how a show from those years can hearken back to citizens living before I was born….

Last month, in connection with the Invictus Games, —more on the games later—Prince Harry was “in distress” that one of his motorcycle outriders was killed. Car crash. If the prince had been of my generation then maybe, like me, from watching the television series UFO (filmed 1969-70) he would have sworn off using motorcycle outriders. I surely have—protocol be damned! A man who dated Princess Margret, Harry’s great aunt, was a fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain. This chap, Peter Townsend, had a comment on outriders. He said they are a ceremonial callback to the use of horsemen riding in front of a formal procession. I just wish they would stop using them—To me the motorcycle riders seem so vulnerable. My father was a motorcyclist in the war, he carried dispatches: He wasn’t expected to defend anyone traveling behind him.

While Townsend was juggling fuel and vectors, trying to intercept incoming squadrons of the Luftwaffe, my dad was serving in Canada, having enlisted when war was declared. Dad transferred overseas after he found himself, to his disgust, serving with folks who had been conscripted, or, in U.S. parlance, drafted.

Last night I thought of Dad. I was up in the Bow Valley Club downtown. There was a mannequin across from the reception desk, modeling upscale fishing gear, with an arrangement of snaps and buckles that allowed for two small packs, front and back. Seeing the mannequin I remembered something from back when I was a boy watching interceptor pilots on TV try to stop incoming UFOs. I remembered my dad; one day I saw him feeling distressed, losing his temper, at a proposal that soldiers have such an front-and-back pack arrangement: No! When those poor guys are under fire they need to be as bloody close to the bloody ground as they can get!

From this, I think Dad would feel as protective towards outriders as I do. My feelings came from watching UFO. On the big box in the basement I saw an outrider: A UFO comes up flying closely overhead—thunderbolt! The car behind the cyclist holds a British cabinet minister, a general and an American, Colonel Straker, with his briefcase chained to his wrist. In the original outtake, the outrider’s face is shown after he lies dead, and Straker is shown coughing blood after being thrown from the car. The car rolls and burns, killing the minister. Of course this grim outtake was never aired on TV.

After Prince Harry’s experience I sent away for the old series, viewing it for the first time since boyhood. I hadn’t realized how affected Straker was by the incident: in one episode he fiddles with a handcuff and short length of chain—something he has kept as a reminder of that day.

In our everyday real life, as I see it, any healthy society requires a certain justice, a certain honoring of those who serve in harms way as outriders, aircrew or sailors. Hence Prince Harry opened the “Invictus Games” last month: Picture a movie trailer for Invictus that played at many British cinemas: We see strong man with short hair going up and down out of the camera frame, wheezing and sweating. The camera moves back to reveal he is doing chin-ups, pulls back still more to reveal he is a legless veteran. Disabled veterans from all over the world, keeping their sense of purpose in life, were invited to come to Britain to compete in athletics.

We civilians, in our escapist TV viewing, aspire to reminders of good conduct—We with our plain lives are encouraged to be heroes, even if only on an old basement TV set. Now, as a grown up, I am finally seeing UFO in color!

In UFO Straker, once a colonel, is a commander described as having “a monkey on his back: …dedication.” With all due respect to cabinet ministers, Straker is determined to defend the earth from UFO’s without regard to politics. That old show, long forgotton, was, as noted on the web, a series where, unusual for sci-fi TV, the endings were seldom satisfactory to the characters—but at least they would manage to stop the UFO. 

While the BBC at the time was doing some adult shows intended to be aired in order, UFO was surely intended for the U.S. market (cars drive on the right) and the episodes were as unconnected as every show was in the U.S. back then, (not counting soap operas) shows such as, say, Star Trek: a three year series (1966-69) that ended the year UFO was filmed in Britain—I forget when UFO aired in Canada. Now I’m enjoying seeing the episodes I never saw, as well as ones I still partly remember—and always will.

A good series speaks to it’s own generation: Baby boomers would vaguely know that Eisenhower had commanded SHAEF, while Straker commands S.H.A.D.O. Boomers would be familiar with uniformed women moving models on a great table during the Battle of Britain, where “never… have so many owed so much to so few,” while at S.H.A.D.O. some women man radar/computer desks. “Man” a desk? In 1969 women’s liberation had not yet dawned. It would be May of 1971 before Helen Reddy sang I am Woman.

A good series speaks to it’s own years. The S.H.A.D.O. logo is like the logo in the spy series The Man From U.N.C.L.E; hiding S.H.A.D.O. below a film studio is like the secret headquarters in U.N.C.L.E. and the Bond flics; the banter with the secretaries in the pilot episode—which was dropped—is straight out of the spy shows of the day.

As for the liberation movements of the 1960’s, before feminism, movements such as Students for a Democratic Society, (SDS) the new left and the Black Panthers—in all of them the captains and lieutenants were male. Women fetched coffee. In the case of the Black organizations, when the 1970’s dawned, as I have often read in historic documents, Black women faced a dilemma—Black men needed all the self confidence and manhood they could get: Was it right, then, for Black “sisters” to displace or “harm” their “brothers” by claiming their own equality?

We forget what the world was like just one year before the feminists raised their own consciousness, and then helped the rest of us to understand. The Star Trek crew of 1969 wore miniskirts, but no one remarked on it; on UFO the camera actually follows retreating female posteriors, in close up. The women of SHADO wear very form fitting uniforms; the men wear something like loose overalls, reminding me of the coming 1970’s disco era. I remember reading in a newspaper during the 1960’s that any clothing would sell for men; everything was in fashion as long as it wasn’t normal… wasn’t from the straight, unhip, uncool 1950’s. For a brief time there were even fishnet shirts, or undershirts, I forget—which surely inspired the shirts worn by the S.H.A.D.O. submarine crew.

I should note the commander of Moonbase is female, and women in the control room wear diamond stud piercings near their eyes, just like young people today.

Nice production values: The sets are gorgeous, especially by comparison to the cheaper sets on Star Trek. And where did they ever get the money to have so many actors in every episode? Very unlike Star Trek.

On UFO tape recorders and computers have big reels, and there is miniaturization; (Stemming from the Apollo moon program); futuristic telephone handsets cover a conventional rotary dial. (I remember it bugged me, watching as a boy, how the headset microphones were as small as stir sticks) The exciting future is expressed by simply gathering up new exciting 1960’s furniture and mod interior decorations; all the men have longish hair and wide side burns, while still having their ears fully showing. The idea seemed to be: The sixties, just like rock and roll, will never die.

But people do. Die, I mean. The guy who played Colonel Foster is described on the web as having died just six days after his co-star, Straker. “Foster” was so unlucky: although he made a record number of test screenings to be the next James Bond, he was never picked for the role. The other colonel at S.H.A.D.O. was a self-made actor, starting his career at age 35. He’s dead too. And so is RAF pilot Peter Townsend. And so is Princess Margaret. She was persuaded to stop dating Peter, give up on marrying him—solely because he was divorced. The royal family, in those years before no-fault divorce, thought they needed to set an example against social decline. When times changed, it was too late for the couple.

It’s become too late for a lot of people I have known. And me? This weekend I had medical tests, and needed two days off work. Yes, I’m mortal and no, I won’t ever have my mid-life crises; in fact I like to joke about missing out on it. Meanwhile, in my own quiet way I am doggedly getting on with my everyday life, and thinking about my place on earth. Never mind.

Filmed a decade before Star Wars made “special effects” a household term, UFO managed without any computer-generated images. (CGI) The trick was using scale models: UFO was made by the same folks who “filmed in super marionnation” to make Stingray and Thunderbirds.

UFO of course, takes place in the future: …1980.

Sean Crawford
October 2014
~I’m sorry for lives missed.
Here is a quote from page 78 of a book on communication, Why We Don’t Talk to Each Other Anymore by John L. Locke:

During the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth in June of 1953, most eyes were trained on the royal proceedings. But some people saw the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, flicking some “fluff” from the coat of Group Captain Peter Townsend. When word of this got out the next day, the ordinary newspaper-reading public suddenly knew something with absolute certainty—the relationship between Margaret and Captain Townsend was intimate.

~I should point out that last week’s light piece now ends with heavy footnotes: I added the notes days later.
Colonel Foster was Michael Billington
Colonel Freeman was George Sewell
Commander Straker was Ed Bishop
The “folks who made” Thunderbirds and UFO were Gerry and Sylvia Anderson
SHAEF was Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force
S.H.A.D.O. was Supreme Headquarters Alien Defense Organization