The Next Big Thing

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In 1963 the BBC documentary program, Panorama, commissioned a youthful Michael Apted to film a program about fourteen British seven year olds. The premise of the program was the old Jesuit saying ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.’

In an effort to imagine the future of Britain, the filmmaker selected children from different walks and classes of English life. He chose three upper class boys from a posh British public (read private) school, two boys from St Barnardo’s, one of whom was black, a farmer’s son, two middleclass boys from the Midlands, a missionary’s son and a disarmingly energetic small cockney called Tony. Oh, and he also chose one upper class girl and three working class girls from London.

Michael Apted became so fascinated by his project; he has been visiting his subjects every seven years since, giving rise to the remarkable series of films called 7UP. The last film was 42UP so we can expect another film in a year or so.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

 

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

There are a great many fascinating things about these films, not least to me that his subjects are exactly a year older than I am, so, as I watch their lives unfold, I also watch my own.

All of the children have grown into interesting adults, one of the Barnado’s boys lives in Australia, one of the middleclass boys clearly suffers from a serious mental illness and the farmer’s son has become, as he predicted at seven, a highly successful astrophysicist working in the US.

However, the most interesting thing to me is what is revealed by the original choice of participants. Did you notice? Apted chose ten boys and four girls. What this reveals about 1963 and about how the future unfolds is one of the most important, although entirely inadvertent, things about the project.

In 1963, it was assumed that anything interesting would happen to men, girls would simply grow up to be wives and mothers. After all, this had been the constant way of things for at least 2000 years. It was so unremarkable as to be assumed to be immutable, unchangeable, something that could be utterly relied upon. Yet 1963 was literally on the threshold of possibly the greatest social revolution in the history of the modern world; the remarkable and rapid change in the status and destiny of women.

The greatest revolutionary influences, it seems to me, are the things that sneak up on us, and are outside our awareness. The things that will most affect our lives are the things that are currently invisible to us; circumstances, like the status of women in 1963, that we simply do not see.

There are other famous examples of this present/future blindness, such as the man in the late nineteenth century who seriously lobbied to have the patent office closed because he said everything that could be invented already had been. Or my own mother refusing to allow me to learn to type in the early seventies, partly because she said I’d just end up typing things for the blokes in the office if I knew how, and partly because she thought the typewriter was doomed.

The typewriter was doomed, of course, but not the keyboard. As I clumsily type this with two fingers, how I wish we’d both been more far-sighted. Or the teachers in my high school, also in the seventies, telling us that the only thing my generation would have to worry about was what to do with all our leisure time. God, I sometimes look back on that prediction ruefully. And if someone had told me that one of the most successful new products of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries would be bottled water, when we can get the stuff from taps in our own homes virtually free, I would have laughed them out of town.

That’s the trouble with the bloody future; it’s always sneaking up on us, tripping us up with the forces that are there all right, but that for all sorts of complicated reasons we are utterly incapable of seeing.

So what is the invisible force that is gathering momentum right now? All I can tell you about it is that I reckon there is one. There are lots of possible suspects, the environment, technology, falling birth-rates, ageing populations, our ever-increasing lifespan, China, global pandemics, the return to fundamentalisms of all kind, terrorism, the widening gap between the very poor and the very rich, the vacuum caused by the end of the cold war, globalisation.

But while I am sure all of these will have their effects, I don’t think any of them will be the next big thing and the reason I don’t, is because we know about them. They are part of our awareness, we have conferences about them, academics who study them, policy makers who puzzle over them and make plans to fix them, we have agreements we sign about them, and famous people who proselytise about them. Whatever happens to each and all of these, good or bad, will probably not shock or amaze us; we’re expecting them, at least to some extent.

No, there is something else, a monster in the room. It knocks things over and causes havoc, but we can’t see it yet. When it causes pain and difficulty, we ascribe such things to some other cause, because, although it’s standing right in front of us, screaming its head off, like a neglected child, it is still actually harder for us to recognise it is there, than to keep putting up with its noise. Like Betty Friedan’s seminal book, The Feminine Mystique, where she talks about the female malaise that no-one could put a name to, we won’t be able to deal with it or think about it, until we’ve seen it, recognised it and christened it.

So, what then is my prediction about the future? Well, the only thing I can tell you about the future is that whatever people tell you it is going to be like, it won’t be.

When my husband and I began renovating the derelict old farmhouse we bought in a fit of madness a decade ago (of course, we wouldn’t part with it now) we pulled up some hideous, and completely perished old lino. Underneath the lino, apart from some magnificent redwood timber floors, was a lining of ancient newspapers from March 1932, around the time of the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. In one of them was an artist’s rendition of Sydney in 1982, looking up from Darling Harbour towards the Bridge. There were zeppelins darting about in the sky, weird air bridges and lots of mini-Empire state buildings. In other words, they drew what they knew. Jumbo jets and station wagons and glass skyscrapers were unknown, unthought of and unimaginable.

When whatever it is that is waiting for us to understand it, is finally seen, we will, as generations before us have done in similar circumstances and, indeed, as we ourselves have done several times already, slap ourselves on the forehead, laugh (or possibly cry) and wonder how we could have been so blind.

A couple of years ago the ABC ran a series of programs where they returned to old episodes of A Big Country to see what had changed. Many were fascinating, but there was one I will never forget, looking at the CWA (Country Women’s Association).

The commentary from the old 1960s program by a male reporter was the most extraordinary I had ever heard. The cosy but utterly contemptuous tone he took about these earnest, serious and intelligent women was gob-smacking. How could we not have heard it, not have noticed how completely insulting he was being? Yet such a tone was invisible back then, because it was so common, we, women and men, were used to it and accepted it as normal. The insult must have been felt, but it was not consciously acknowledged, and because it was not, it did the most harm. Those women probably felt humiliated, but blamed it on their own stupidity, their own femaleness. We’re doing something like that now, but to whom and about what, I don’t know.

But we will. Whatever the next big thing is, it is out there, dogging us, like a ghost, a bunyip, or a skeleton in the attic, calling to us, whispering to us, tugging at us, demanding to be recognised.

When we compare the huge outpouring of creativity and energy that followed the last big thing; in music, in film, in art, in the explosion of political activism and questioning of authority, with the narrow, repetitive, conformist and cynical cultural and political climate we live in today, it gives me hope that the next big thing is just around the corner.

In the sixties we celebrated our potential because, by beginning to accept the other half of the human race fully into the human family, we grew. It is always painful to grow and to change, because we have to give up what we know before we can move forward. Maybe that’s why everything feels so stuck, and why everything is so backward looking at the moment, it’s our last terrified gasp before we take another major step into the future.

Fingers crossed.

New Matilda

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