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July 18, 2009

When You Get Caught Between the Moon, Vienna and a UK City

In celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the Moon landings the BBC have recently put online all their news reports from around the time. Included is a Panorama episode from 20 July 1969, taking place while the triumphant astronauts were still circling the moon trying to re-dock with their shuttle and return to earth. If you’ve never seen it, the BBC Online Archive is full of great vintage reports from major moments in modern history but I’d advise against spending too long there. I did once and a dark depression is the inevitable outcome, along with grumblings about there being no more heroes.

If you get a chance, watch that Panorama episode (address below). It’s a mesmerising six-man discussion hours after Armstrong’s first steps, and all the subtexts swirling around this moment clash together in every which way – the Cold War, Art & Science, Nuclear War, Postmodernism, Religion & Science, Civil Rights and the End of Empire. That final one, the decline of the British Empire is an interesting and unexpected one. All the panel agree that this is the first advance in human endeavour since the 17th century that the British have had no part (quite incorrectly, but it's 1969) and the revelation prompts a substantial period of mourning.

A miasmic tone hangs over the entire debate, largely down to the immediate threat of nuclear war. Asked their main feelings on the Moon landings, most panellists indicate ‘relief’ that perhaps this means that the war is over, and that it was done without a bomb. One, pressed on whether they felt any euphoria watching the landing, simply says, ‘No, hope. The two are very different.’ The future is utterly uncertain. The question that hangs over the debate is, after this giant re-ordering of the state of man, what now?

Economist Barbara Ward puts the moment in perspective: ‘It’s the first time that the human race has been able to see in its imagination where it actually lives, and how small, and how shining, and how real it is, and how vulnerable. And if it’s true that we change nothing until we change our imagination, I think it’s possible that this is the first step towards changing how we think about ourselves.’ So will this be the point when the world realises it is just one unified race and comes together, or is this really the moment when everybody gives up on each other?

In the tradition of Marco Polo and Columbus, Apollo 11 offers the West a profound new understanding of the world and sets the stage for a reorganisation of man’s place in it. Barbara Ward later suggests that when world leaders begin to look at the world as the little orb that it is, it may prompt a re-examination of values. Perhaps it’s the end of them fighting unjust wars, hoping to ‘get away with it’. In response, James Mossman, the chair of the discussion, responds that a baby is a little orb and we see them all the time, but we still kill each other.

How weary with the state of the world must a journalist be to make that remark on BBC primetime just hours after man walks on the Moon? Brian Aldiss, then science-fiction writer, now vice-president of the HG Wells Society cheekily sums the pessimistic tone with his summation that this achievement is simply a victory for two simian traits, curiosity and tribalism; probably not a slogan upon which to build our Benetton-ad World. When the panel sum up the impact of this re-ordering of man, it is overwhelmingly pessimistic. You can almost hear Herod in Wilde/Strauss’s Salome: 'Hide the moon, hide the stars! Something terrible is going to happen!'


Speaking of Strauss, this idea of a widespread re-examination of the place of man reminded me of a story about the European music scene in fin-de-siecle Vienna. In the late nineteenth century the idea of a musical canon was only just beginning to emerge, and as a result of this process many composers’ places in history were at that moment being written (or re-written). The public sentiment, especially in Vienna, the centre of European music and the driving force for this concretisation of the canon, deemed that the modern composers would not come out of this reorganisation looking too good. Praise was lavished on the – dead – old guard, and in just a few decades the proportion of living composers in the Liepzig Orchestra’s repertoire fell from 84% to 24%.

This did not go unnoticed by the leading composers, and Schoenberg in particular became sick to death of the public. People wanted either sainted dead men or the cakewalk and popular music, and Schoenberg’s solution was to ignore the common man completely. The voice of the people, he said, was the voice of the devil. He made a stand and became perhaps the first artist to refuse to court public attention. The public’s examination of the place of the artist eventually means that fin-de-siecle Vienna is when the people and the artist finally wash their hands of each other.

The fragmentation didn’t stop there. At the same time, all the European composers (except the Austrians and Germans) were straining to cast off the Austrian and German influence, and really do anything so long as it wasn’t Prussian. They resented the hulking yokes of Wagner and Beethoven hanging around their necks, they were intimidated by their bombast and the idea that this was the pinnacle of music. Furthermore, there was a feeling post Franco-Prussian war the Germans had an eye on European dominance in all departments.

The war and the establishment of this canon forced re-examination, and this dug up a great deal of resentment among the Europeans. They also turned away from the music of the city, and Stravinsky, Bartok, Ravel, de Falla each in turn began to write music lifted from folk tunes and traditional, pre-urban motifs, and the rejectionism in modernist art begins. Some simmering resentments have come to a head but this crisis is mainly about that singular re-examination of place, and the only solution is splits and fragmentation. The centre cannot hold, Yeats wrote a couple of decades later. All these groups just forget their commonalities and break up, and up, and up.


Antony Gormley's 'One & Other' is the public art project currently resident in Trafalgar Square, in which 2,400 people take turns doing anything they want on the fourth plinth for an hour, over the course of 100 days. Of course, it’s all wrong – for starters, they’re twenty feet off the ground and no-one can hear them. It’s also a small platform and very windy – there’s a reason pulpits have sides. There are big nets to catch them if they fall, but these just make the plinth look like something which has fallen off those giant walking machines that patrol Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back.

Alternatively, as someone pointed out in the Times, it now looks rather like an armed guardpost at an internment camp, hammering home how divisive the project actually seems. But there’s something rather pointless about ridiculing the Fourth Plinth, every newspaper did straight away with an unsurprising knee-jerk cynicism, and anyway what we should deride is that the frivolous exhibit gets mountains of column-inches because it is in the capital, whilst, for instance, the news last month that Bradford had beaten Los Angeles, Cannes and Venice to the title of UNESCO’s first City of Film was only ever reported on the TV news channels at 28 or 58 minutes past the hour, and with a smirk.

Consequently, I’m delighted that Liverpool have done so well with their year as European Capital of Culture and that, inspired by their success, the Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw this week began the UK Capital of Culture competition, starting 2013. I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t hear the announcement, it was so quietly hidden away, but it will be an honour hard to avoid when it is bestowed since it will include the host duties for a range of events including the Turner Prize, BBC Sports Personality of the Year, The Brits, The Stirling Prize and the Electric Proms. It will be a genuine decentralisation of cultural events (every four years) and should be applauded.

It is hard to say what became of that cultural, political and sociological crossroads that seemed so imminent as Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins circled the Moon. It might be worth noting, however, that Neil Armstrong performed six months of publicity out of a sense of duty to the American taxpayer, and since then has become a complete recluse. He has given almost no interviews in forty years – do you know what he looks like? – and his signature alone is worth thousands.

But his seeming rejection of mankind was clearly to the personal benefit of the man. We break down and break up and are better for it; the more fragmented we are, the more freely individual. The Viennese schism had an interesting after-effect – it heralded an ascendency for composers from small towns. Janacek, Bartok and Ravel were all from minor towns and never forgot that feeling of otherness. They brought to the fore the notions of the outsider and of the schizophrenia of dual origins, themes which persist in all modes of art to this day, and the UK can only benefit from promoting a little fragmentation and schizophrenia of its own.


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