I’m on my way to Edinburgh for the Fringe. Apparently it is the biggest cultural festival in the world – everything has to be some sort of -est for it to be worthwhile, doesn’t it? Really it is just great fun. Now, some people have suggested my life is one long holiday and I would like to challenge that notion. It’s a series of interlocking holidays, like a sort of vacation Venn diagram and this particular part is one of my summer’s highlights.
This year, in addition to the Textiliste I am joined by the Lawyer, in the gap between his Graduate Diploma in Law finishing and his Legal Practice Course starting and before he commences his training contract and has the blood drained from his veins, and the Beautician. They haven’t been to Edinburgh before and we are looking forward to introducing them to one of our top three UK cities. For how much longer will we be able to call it the UK? It is about a month to the referendum and I’m becoming more than a little nervous. Scotland has always been there, as both a part of ‘us’ and something separate and, if not exactly exotic, noticeably different.
It’s about shared experiences I think. Nationally, as peoples, we English have suffered and celebrated with the Scots as well as against them. But overall, we have a lot in common with the curmudgeonly and companionable Scots, both in their dour grit and eccentric humour.
Going to the Fringe with some of my family is also about shared experiences; the unexpectedly moving drama, the hilarious comedy, the street theatre that holds you rapt. All to be enjoyed in the moment of half caught glances and smiles and subsequent debriefs that repeat the self-same expressions of joy.
Which brings me to my sitting room, circa 1970. Back then, as a trainee teenager, the sitting room functioned as a crucible of shared experiences with the TV providing the heat and light. Television was a relatively new thing for us as a family, having enjoyed the benefits of the set for less than a decade. We still only had access to three channels and, in our house at least, colour had yet to make an appearance.
The thing with TV back then was the prescriptive way it was enjoyed. We came home from school, had our tea and then the TV was turned on for children’s programmes at 4.45pm, switched off at 5.55pm after the last five minute of cartoon fun. There was a pause – dad came home about ten to six and checked his veg and had sneaky fag or pipe. Dinner followed for mum and dad and then we all migrated to the sitting room about 6.30 for the current magazine programme – Nationwide probably. We had strict bedtimes, the Archaeologist half an hour after me. God, did I moan at the unfairness. I had a heightened sense of persecution, back then – no wonder he wanted to experiment on me.
The Archaeologist and I watched the children’s stuff alone. We still watched even though we were past the age they were aimed at. There wasn’t anything specifically for our age. The notion of teenagers having different tastes wasn’t common currency. You were a child or an adult. So it was Blue Peter and Magpie and Tony Hart and Johnny Morris and Do Not Adjust Your Set (an early vehicle for some of Pythons plus David Jason and one of my favourite surreal bands of all time – the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band) and Crackerjack and News Round. And then there were the puppets and cartoons at the end: Twizzle, Magic Roundabout, Top Cat, Deputy Dawg, Yogi Bear and Bobo, Wacky Races, Captain Pugwash even – oh bliss, oh rapture – Tintin.
Somewhere in the 70s we moved from a separate tea to a family tray dinner and we enjoyed our meals on our laps, faces grey from the reflection of the screen. The chairs formed an arc from the bookcase and the gas fire (dad) past the standard lamp and sewing basket (mum) to the two seater (him and me, fidgeting and told to ‘keep still’ – at some point I developed a foot twitch that caused endless annoyance for mum and the Archaeologist – it was retribution for being constantly crushed).
If the TV was especially gripping Dad fell asleep. Once he woke to find two lovers, overwhelmed by guilt, leaping out of bed with barely a stitch on. ‘We must master fate’ said the women. Dad blinked, looked at Mum and said, ‘Did I hear that right? On the BBC?’
Engrossing TV could be dangerous, too. On one occasion Mum was about to take a mouthful of coffee when something on screen caused her to lose concentration for a fateful half second. One minute the room was silent, focused on the unfolding drama; the next she was swearing and pulling off her top, having neatly poured half a cupful of scalding beverage into her cleavage.
Sex on TV was the most difficult to deal with. Sex and parents go together like coalition governments – you hope they never happen but if they do you know they will end in embarrassment. Should nudity be involved – and I will be the first to say that the 60s might have been the liberal decade but there was far too little of it on TV so far as I remember – that Whitehouse woman, I suppose. To be fair, Mary Whitehouse wasn’t all bad – she led a campaign against the increasingly open approach to paedophilia that today is rightly seen as abhorrent but back in the 60s and especially the 70s seemed to be becoming acceptable. Anyway back to our sitting room, there we would be sat, enjoying some Play for Today and off would come a bra or a pair of pants and the tension in the room exploded. While the nipples or the buttocks seemed to fill the screen, the Archaeologist hid his head under a cushion; I tried to stare at the curtains at the end of the room, while keeping half an eye on the pictures; Mum’s sewing increased in tempo; and Dad stopped breathing. Mostly these moments were fleeting and we could relax and pretend nothing had changed but if Dad was likely to asphyxiate himself Mum would noisily put down her knitting and say ‘Shall I make tea?’ Dad would stand. ‘I’ll help you Barbara.’
You might think this was perfect for two hormonally exuberant teenagers but of course that wasn’t in the script. As Mum passed the TV she would say something like, ‘I’m not sure I understand this play/film/documentary’ and summarily turn it over to Malcolm Muggerridge pontificating about something dull and worthy or Come Dancing.
We watched as they landed on the moon; when the Torrey Canyon (an oil tanker leaking its cargo and killing the sea and birdlife) was bombed off the Cornish coast; as Sir Winston Churchill’s coffin was taken down the Thames on a barge and all the cranes in the docks were lowered like mourning mechanical beasts. We thrilled at unexpected sporting successes and moaned at inevitable failures. We sat bored beyond belief at Royal weddings, feeling we had a duty to watch. We marvelled as Uri Geller bent forks and laughed madly at the Two Ronnies, Morecombe and Wise and, a family favourite, Dave Allen. I fulminated at being banned from Monty Python and Pete and Dud; I swore that if ever I had children they would be allowed to watch sport in the afternoon – for Dad the TV was an evening experience and only when the Five nations rugby was on could we watch during the day. And I moaned fit to bust when Top of the Pops and Match of the Day were voted down in favour of Clarke’s Civilisation or the Six Wives of Henry VIII.
But most of all we watched together. I learnt a lot from the documentaries we sat through; my parents shared their love of gardening via the screen. Natural history, even in black and white, came alive – Jacques Cousteau and Hans and Lotte Haas for instance. Shakespeare and Pinter were names I knew from the TV even if it was decades before I enjoyed their skills. We soaked up the foreign imports: the Man from U.N.C.L.E, Bonanza, High Chaparral. We had a common vocabulary. And when a series – Doomwatch, say, or Softly Softly -ran a storyline that covered two or three episodes we shared the excitement of anticipating the denouement.
I’m closer to my children than my parents were to me in many ways. I’ve always thought of the 60s as a watershed in the way we relate to our children. For those whose childhoods were before that decade the parent/child relationship was prescribed, if not proscribed. More formal, less emotional. After, we became more involved with our children. I think that’s a function of appreciating children as fully formed people more than some form of lesser category; this is especually true of teenagers who have valid and intersing views on the world but, back then, we irritating sub-adults. Today my children have brought a whole new language home from school, using expressions they and their generation created and which has entered the family lexicon. The Archaeologist and I didn’t. If we had we would have been scorned, told to speak properly and generally ignored. My music tastes aren’t so far removed from my children; we enjoy a lot of the same films and books and wear similar clothes. They have to fight to differentiate themselves from their copycat parents.
Back then we had no much choice but to wait to be adults before we could come into our own. However in that nether period the Archaeologist and I joined in their world and absorbed it, sharing it because, hey what else was there to do? Looking back, I people-watched my parents and their vicarious reactions to the events on screen. We were the first generation who got close to our parents in that way, I suppose. It was a one way experience and an experiment for today when we overwhelm our little darlings by joining them on sky dives and bungee jumps and muddy festivals.
Which bring us back to now and the Fringe. Our shared festival, though at least there won’t be wellies and mud and toilets that act as constipators. I’ll leave that sort of sharing to others, thank you. I’ll let you know how we get on.