Lost In New Imaginings

dreams about people from your past

Groups of young parents huddle in a hallway, making plans. Old men nap on couches, waiting for dessert. It’s the extended family in all its tangled, loving, exhausting glory.

This particular family is the one depicted in Barry Levinson’s 1990 film,  Avalon, based on the film directors own childhood in Baltimore. But it’s also one that could equally be played out in any post-war town or city in a smog drenched Keyensian Britain.

Battle-fatigued young men who fought for God and country were in no mood for the platitudes of politician’s who had sent many of their comrades to the battlefields where the stench of death still lingered. Hitler fascism, although defeated had, through the passing of time, left indelible scars on the faces of generations of young men ravaged by its consequences.

The fraternity among men who returned to Blighty from war in the hope that society back home could be transformed for the better, was a hope not lost on the ruling class. The establishment were to suffer the torment of a disillusioned nation tired of being used as cannon fodder for the interests of Whitehall pen-pushers.

‘No more war’ was the cry of the huddled, restless, masses. Churchill had underestimated the level of the nations discontent. The epithet ‘war hero’ would have to wait for the writings of historians as the war statesman was rejected at the polls by the very people who had put him into power seven months after Germany’s fascists invaded Poland.

By 1945 it was widely understood by the ruling class that the amelioration of the antagonistic relations between capital and labour was a necessary price to pay to stave off revolutionary levels of proletarian discontent. Churchill, considered by many to be an historical footnote by the working classes who fought a war ostensibly for the vanity of others, were now in a position to force the hand of their rulers.

The Red Army paid the heaviest price for fascisms defeat. Russian revolutionary sentiment still lingered in the air on the streets of London, Birmingham and Belfast. The British working class hadn’t forgotten the toll the war had on the Soviet people, nor had generations before them forgotten the gains of the bolshevik revolution. British prols were in no mood to genuflect at the feet of their ‘betters’.

Perhaps, somewhat ironically, it was the poetic realism of the film, Brief Encounter, that managed to unify a nation distraut by war. David Lean’s 1945 masterpiece about a middle-class woman’s imagined confession of a extramarital love affair, was an allegory for a society in a state of flux, hamstrung by conformity.

The key message of the film was that the ‘free time’ available to the films protaganists, Laura and Alec, that involved their chance encounters at Boots chemist, the Palladium cinema and at a railway station refreshment room, represented newly formed spaces in the public imagination that only an immediate post-war world borne out of servitude was capable of filling. Underlying the poetic sense of realism was a quest for balance and harmony in an otherwise fractured world.

In post-war Britain, nothing less than fair play was acceptable to the masses. Brits weren’t demanding the best cut steak, caviar or smoked salmon but neither were they content with the breadcrumbs from their rulers banquetting table. People needed and demanded homes. Not dilapidated, damp-ridden, rat infested hovels, but ‘homes fit for heroes’. And they got them, three hundred thousand of them, year on year.

But widespread access to post-war housing and the consumerism that followed in its wake, marked the beginning of a societal shift. Family bonds, once close and extended, began to split apart as the desire for more convenience, privacy and mobility represented a shrinking of time and space within the newly booming capitalism.

The time-piece which was popularized at least a generation before, was now a means by which the ruling class would attempt to remind British workers that showing up at the factory gates on time was the necessary price to be paid in order for them to enjoy the exuberent excesses experienced by their counterparts across the Atlantic.

”You’ve never had it so good” was the cry of the Westminster hordes. The young had time on their hands and money with which to spend it. Full employment and ‘jobs for life’ weren’t merely the mantras of dinner partying socialists, but were the realities for millions of working class people. It wouldn’t be long before the public’s appetite for convenience and increasing levels of consumption that money and time implied, would feed into the realm of leisure.

The young bedraggled by war became increasingly hungry for entertainment. They found it in the restaurants, football terraces, shopping malls and movie theatres. American consumerism in all of it’s unbridled excesses was depicted in the latter and Brits demanded some of the action.

Food, entertainment and their corollary, leisure time, perfectly encapsulated the rapid pace of change that was beginning to take hold amid the rubble of bombed neighbourhoods. These shifts in society gave way to new antagonisms across dinner tables the length and breadth of the country as family loyalties began to be questioned.

The violation of well-established protocols was not only seen as a sign of disrespect but more broadly as a metaphor for the beginning of the collapse of the entire family structure and the speeding-up of the pace of life.

As the 1960s beckoned, the extended family began to play an ever diminishing role. In his film, Avalon, Levinson depicts the total destruction of the extended family. What we witness is a young father and mother and their son and daughter eating turkey off trays in front of the television.

In the final scene, the main character is living alone in a nursing home, wondering what happened. “In the end, you spend everything you’ve ever saved, sell everything you’ve ever owned, just to exist in a place like this.”

The scene Levinson depicts is reminscent of the famous parable about materialism and contrasting values in which an American investment banker sits at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village. After meeting a local fisherman, the banker begins to reflect on the meaning of his life, and starts to question notions of success and capitalist values to which he had become accustomed. The American begins to understand that a simpler, slow paced life experienced by the fisherman was far more enriching and fullfilling than his own urban ‘rat race’ life as a banker.

The author, Milan Kundera, said:

”To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring – it was peace.”

Kundera’s evocation of being at peace with life is like a dream in time and space. It’s akin to the days where people told family stories, of the stable, centralized, family and the dense cluster of many siblings and extended kin. It’s like the phantasmagorical experience when watching a colourized film clip of an early twentieth century Paris street scene and a sense of stepping into that world.

The serenity of time and place thus imbued is intensified by the imagination, prolonged by a multitude of echoes. But imagination is also an expression of pain for that which has been lost and can never be recaptured. Today, such visions of historical memory are routinely mocked like a rust that corrodes all it touches. The truth is, the world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless. It will take you everywhere.


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