Recollections / October 3, 2017
Images courtesy of Moonbase Central
My Nana, a sewing machinist who spent her working life in the rag trade in factories around the Manchester area, devoted most of her free time and retirement—or at least the part not devoted to bingo and socialising with her cronies—to trawling jumble sales in search of children’s clothes for me, handbags and shoes for herself, and good quality adult garments, which she would use her seamstressing skills to sort out and then sell on at a mark-up to a mysterious and never-seen “agent” from Southport for “pin money.” Pin money was for ciggies, lippy, Johnny Walker, Barry Manilow cassettes, and the package holidays her and her gang took to the then-developing Ballardesque holiday resorts of Mallorca and Torremolinos, in hotels which, as per the cliché of the day, were often still under construction and existed more as ideas than realities.
I’ve no idea if jumble sales still exist, or, if they do, whether they’re anything like the affairs of the 1970s, which resembled a free-for-all taking place in a collective vomiting-forth of the popular culture’s sociological stomach lining: usually held in church halls or schools, they sold the unwanted tat people had donated to make money for one of myriad good causes. Nowadays, when our nostalgia-driven hoarding of anything vaguely “vintage” has given our former playthings a disproportionate perceived value, it’s difficult to express what it was like when none of this stuff had any value at all other than you liking it. Adults would have scoffed (and in fact did) at the idea that, say, a mint copy of the first edition of a 2000 AD comic could ever be worth anything above the 5p it cost you—or, indeed, that you shouldn’t give it to the jumble sale in the first place if you’d already read the bloody thing.
The area around Manchester, once the centre of the world’s textile manufacturing industry, was probably the first to enjoy/be subjected to the avalanche of stuff that capitalism (or as it has sometimes been known, “Manchester Capitalism”) implied, and its jumble sales were legendary—people around greater Manchester were filling their shelves and wardrobes with mass-produced junk when people in Kent and Sussex were still crafting beakers out of cow horns and worshipping trees. This material prodigiousness had conferred upon Mancunians and (some) Lancastrians a finely-tuned understanding of the aesthetic qualities of mass-produced commodities (hence their reputation for stylishness) and of appearance (hence the local abundance of Barry Gibb-like hairdressers).
Despite Nana’s hygienic modernism—which saw bookish children like me, who preferred mooning over spaceships to roughhousing outdoors with their peers, as being inevitably doomed to grow into unhappy deviants of one kind or another—she was vastly indulgent of me, and this manifested itself in the cardboard boxes I would get for Christmas, filled with anything she’d found at the jumble and thought I might appreciate. This was a good idea for two reasons: first, it helped temper my nascent anality and fetishising of pristine factory-newness (and we all know where that ends up—grown men coveting unopened Hot Wheels), because the stuff in the boxes was so amazing I’d have chewed my way through lumps of diseased human flesh to get at it; and second, because it meant drugs never had much appeal to me: I’d already had my fucking brain turned inside out. Inside the packages, amongst the Lego bricks, their sockets filled with plasticine, fragments of deconstructed Action Men, toy soldiers and battered Dinky SHADO Mobiles and Corgi Man from Uncle toys, there were books: annuals, the Gideon’s Bibles of Gerry and Silvia Anderson’s TV religion, Supermarionation. Millions upon millions of the things must have been sold through the late sixties and early seventies, because there wasn’t a jumble sale or charity shop in the UK that didn’t possess a portfolio of them.
I’ve chosen to talk about the cutaways of the Thunderbirds from a Thunderbirds annual, but I could just as easily have chosen the ones of the vehicles from Captain Scarlet or Fireball XL5, because they’re all beautiful. Despite the fact that they’ve got practically nothing in common with each other, the Thunderbirds and pretty much all of the vehicles featured in the the Andersons’ TV shows—even Terrahawks, as grotesque as it feels to admit it—somehow form a cohesive aesthetic whole which often transcends the programs themselves. That’s the reason I still find them so—reassuring isn’t the word, nor is endearing. They’re actually exciting. All the the machines in the Anderson universe evoke a peculiarly British mixture of elegant futurist functionality and awkward pragmatic bulk which will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a Morris Traveller or a red phone box, and yet they posses a strangeness, a dreamlike intensity that makes them instantly unforgettable. A strangeness that often borders on Max Ernst-like surrealism, as was the case with the Jungle Cat or Joe 90’s car, where ergonomics and metaphysics seemed to come into direct collision. Even the least interesting Thunderbird (Thunderbird One, piloted by the most irritating Tracy brother, Scott) was made bizarre by that incongruous and strangely erotic-looking red nose, which seemed almost to be pushing its way out from within.
For reasons I don’t understand, some attempts to investigate fictional realities give me great pleasure, while others inspire a vague and inexplicable sense of revulsion. Cutaway drawings of Star Wars vehicles and structures make me vaguely nauseous, for instance—perhaps it’s some kind of uncanny valley effect. If I ask myself why these particular made-up spaceships, and some even more abstract drawings of their workings, make me feel happy, it gets complicated. Yes, there’s that old saw, all that “promise of a better future that never happened” bollocks, and it’d be a lie to pretend that the Thunderbirds‘ benign technocracy isn’t an alluring fantasy, but fuck it—I’m sick of always feeling Nostalgieschuld when I look at these things, as though adoring them implies automatically indulging a backwards-looking morbidity. If I continue to find the artwork of Yves Tanguy inspiring, is that unhealthy nostalgia, simply because it was painted before Invasion of the Bodysnatchers came out? Why is finding excitement and stimulation in the evocative contrasts of form and the feeling of “alienness” in the sculptures of Ernst justifiable, while finding it in the ridiculous spaceships emerging from Tracy Island is not? Is it that the (often very justified) criticism of nostalgia sometimes contains cultural suppositions which are implicitly class-based, and therefore dismiss a priori accidental popular art?
The Thunderbirds vehicles, like all powerful art, imply an alternate way of seeing and experiencing reality, and like an Arnaldo Pomodoro sculpture, their innards, their hidden interior spaces, feel as though they’re actually part of what they’re about as an object. There’s something mystical—almost reverent—about them, and they reawaken you to your physical environment and to spatial possibilities, shock you into seeing things in new ways. And just because they do it in the context of a children’s puppet show about millionaire quintuplets who live on a private island and repeatedly save the world with their secret fleet of spaceships doesn’t mean that they’re not doing it, though obviously you’d be forgiven for presuming it might. And all this is without even mentioning the Anderson ne plus ultra: the Eagle Transporter spaceship from Space: 1999, which remains one of the most beautifully-designed, un-ageing artefacts of modernity—full stop—deserving of a place in any museum of design for it’s nonsensical agglomeration of volumes into a whole which even now, forty-odd years later, remains surpassingly compelling and strange without ever having curdled in any way into kitsch or retro.
Or perhaps I’m just overintellectualising it all in a silly attempt to justify my intense personal affection for some made-up old rockets. I don’t think I’m objective enough to say.
Richard McKenna grew up in the visionary utopia of 1970s South Yorkshire and now ekes out a living among the crumbling ruins of Rome, from whence he dreams of being rescued by the Terran Trade Authority.