FORMATIVE YEARS II

People are often like homes. More is spent on changing existing buildings than on building new. Three forces changing buildings: technology, money, fashion. When I was young, iron was smelted in my small east coast fishing town, you could see the sparks, you could hear the whine, it seemed incredible the environments of working life, shiny steel gears were made and many tall industry age factory chimneys dominated the sky line. Victorian and Edwardian street furniture were on every level, even never-used pavilions erected on factory roofs, otherwise grand vases on walls blackened by industry. A man still lit the last remaining gas street lights. Trains to Dundee and beyond still puffed white coal smoke, and television, if you had one, was given in black and white, and hardly anybody had home telephone so there plenty of boxes dotting around the streets. Tin baths were used to bathe in front of the fire. Many of us still had outside toilets and many still used the washhouses out the back, not as storage sheds, but as places to do the weekly wash. The latter was now infrequently used as many people were using plug in washing machines. What was to be eventually our bathroom was ill a box room with no electric light just a defunct gas light. Inside I drew pentangles on the floor and emulated satanic curses, from a past life or Weatley’s “the Devil Rides Out”. I was afraid of that room for years afterwards, even when it became converted, the gas light removed, and an extractor fan installed desperate to compensate for condensation.

It’s funny how cities seem to exert a commercial gravity on the smaller towns which are near. I was born in Dundee, known as the city of “jam, jute and journalism”, but raised in small east coast fishing town of Arbroath. Arbroath is perhaps most famous as the venue where The Declaration of Arbroath was signed at Arbroath Abbey on 6th April, 1320. This was a declaration of independence, set out to confirm Scotland’s status as an independent, sovereign state and its use of military action when unjustly attacked. It took the form of a letter submitted to Pope John XXII, “As ong as 100 of us remain alive we will never subsume to the dominance of the English…” Scots-American historian Linda MacDonald-Lewis believes that this document was the principal model used to inform the creation of the American Declaration of Independence, rather than its roots lying in an ancient Greece or the Magna Carta. Indeed, it is widely known that that period in 18th century characterized by an outpouring of intellectual and scientific accomplishments in Scotland, known as the Scottish Enlightenment, of influenced the charter that laid out the early principles of democracy in the United States. It is additionally unsurprising as more than half of the American signatories were British of Scottish decent. The Scottish Enlightenment, with its intellectual notables such as Adam Smith and David Hume, had effects far beyond Scotland not only because of the esteem in which Scottish achievements were held in Europe and elsewhere, but also because its ideas and attitudes were carried across the Atlantic as part of the Scottish Diaspora which had its beginnings in that same era. As a result, a significant proportion of technological and social development in the United States, Canada and New Zealand in the 18th and 19th centuries was accomplished through Scottish New Zealanders, Scots-Americans and Scots-Canadians.

Arbroath grew considerably during the Industrial Revolution owing to the expansion of firstly, the flax and secondly, the jute industries and later the engineering sector. In 1832, Douglas Fraser of Arbroath established a business specialising in the manufacture of flax and canvas which was used for ship sails. A new harbour was built in 1839 and by the 1900s Arbroath had become one of the largest fishing ports in Scotland, with new fishermen drawn from other northeast towns. With the rise of steam propelled ships, Douglas Fraser & Sons facing declining sails turned their attention mainly to engineering. By the 1950s Douglas Fraser & Sons was almost exclusively an engineering firm. In 1959, Frasers was taken over by Giddings & Lewis, a machine tool company from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, USA.

From the 1960s most large industries were in decline, the weaving mills closed, the fishing declined due to regulated quotas, engineering declined, Keith & Blackman another large engineering works closed in 1985 and Giddings and Lewis-Fraser wound down its operations at about the same time, with the entire plant eventually demolished to make way for a supermarket. The three traditional boatyards closed, the men moved away or retrenched into new jobs. You can spend £30-odd a stone for haddock landed in Scotland, while you could get Icelandic haddock for as little as £16 a stone. Fish and chip shops can’t make profit with home landed fish, and the famous Arbroath Smokie, while smoked still in the traditional style, the fish used is from elsewhere. The harbour is now a marina. The 22000 inhabitants of Arbroath mainly commute to work in Dundee.

In a sense it shows how things are now made, or caught elsewhere. Or otherwise old products such as linen are not longer profitable to manufacture.

Devices

When the newer parts of the human brain are sufficiently developed to act as a ‘centre of intention’ there follows a phase, from the age of three to about nine years, where the child learns from experience and becomes more deliberate and purposeful. This is the phase of ‘concrete operations’ which involves manipulation of physical objects in the child’s surroundings – to begin with, then, there was an old radiogram in our living room at home.

It had an exterior of a rich dark hardwood veneer exterior, perhaps mahogany, and in keeping with much of the media technologies of the time, huge radios, massive television sets, it was a piece of fine furniture as well as a unit providing entertainment. When you peaked in the back grill of such machines, a young boy’s curiosity, there was a wondrous glowing warm world of haunting warm radiant light. Man, I have messed with transistors, chemistry sets, electronic sets, and dissected pregnant mice, all black arts, and the lot of them, but that light in receivers came from the glass valves which lit up to direct electrons at plates – cathodes and anodes. They lent the tone a warm rich sound, as did the large monaural speaker and the large heavy, hardwood cabinet. The vacuum tubes were the angels of mediation, and it was them really singing and making the sounds, not the artists. What did the small ones do? Only the man who came to fix the TV knew, his tool box contained many of the more common varieties of the species, in cardboard cases, sometimes, for a rare one, he had to go back to the shop, or even order it from Dundee and beyond.

When you pulled down the radiogram’s front it revealed an upholstered interior and lighter wood like maple, one side for a drinks cabinet, the other side a record player and radio. Its lower half housed the large 15” speaker flanked by one false cabinet door and one which opened to store records. The 1950s ideal was that the owner would come in from work, pour a cocktail and relax listening to music.

This was an important unit for me. As a young boy of 5 or 6 I would lower the pull down door at the front and place a blanket over it so it draped round the sides, the record storage door became an entry door to my space capsule or otherwise it was where I had to do my computer repairs to get the draft off of the planet. Inside rich deep tones would play and visions were seen and imagined. A set of dials were imagined. It was not only my capsule it was my Plato’s cave – the shadows are as close as the prisoners get to seeing reality.
Now did my ritual – of lying under the radiogram – engender within me an ability to lucidly visualise under the influence of music or was this something which came from within and music was merely the catalyst to these adventures of the mental invironment? Was I taping into Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious, the Arkashic record, or was I merely reconfiguring ideas, cut and pasting, visual maxims, symbols, scenes, pictures that I had assimilated from my experience, including exposure to television or even past incarnations up to that time? The visual look of records was important, the sleeves, the labels themselves. Culturejammers, such as those who make the Adbusters magazine have pointed to the way in which the 3,000 marketing messages we’re subjected to on a daily basis overwhelms us? How do they contribute to how we make sense of things?
Maybe I didn’t need past lives at all to recompile narrative elements in the spy infected and sci-fi dominated Film and TV of the 1960s. Bond Movies, Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer, The Saint (1962-1969), Lost in Space was a great series, Star trek (1969), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea so was The Avengers (first series – 1961 to 1969), Danger man (1960-1968), The Baron (1965-1967), The Champions (1968-1969), Mission impossible (1968-1973), Get Smart, I-Spy, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968), and last but certainly not least, The Prisoner (1967-1968) – TV’s most cultish series ever. They evoked weird thoughts and images, and posed strange moral dilemmas. There were more, Alfred Hitchcock’s scary TV series, The Twilight Zone; yeah, there was a lot to go on, a lot to draw upon to fuel an interest in electronics, spying, and the future. Also, the occult featured in the Hammer House of Horror movies, Dracula, Frankenstein and so forth. Quite a mix.
Of course added to this of course was real space travel, real threat, real background paranoia of real nuclear attack, probably on Leachars Airdrome in fife. The gravest threat to survivors of an all-out nuclear war may be the ensuing pervasive cold and darkness, this is what I witnessed on that fateful trip to the cemetery in Carnoustie, to visit the graves of my mother’s grandparents, in the dark winter rain. It was then I understood the loneliness and isolation, the cold and dark of death, and that one day I would lie there still in my wee black box as well. I got my first taste of mortality, and my fear of death, “I don’t want to die mum, I dinna want to.” She replied semi-jokingly “ you hiv a lang way to go afore that…”

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About Dr. Derek W. Nicoll Ph.D.

My interests lie in technology, creativity, learning, and management - probably in that order...
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