Gone Away ~ The journal of Clive Allen in America

Futureshock and the Wild West
(This article forms part of the Journal that I am writing to describe my impressions of America since arrival in September, 2004. To begin reading this Journal from the beginning, click here.)

I can remember being mildly disappointed when I moved from Africa to England. We were all aware of how far behind the times (estimates varied from twenty to fifty years) we were out there in the dark continent and I had duly prepared myself for that new darling of the early seventies, futureshock. I expected that the latest technology would have transformed old England and imagined a country that bore some relation to the futuristic visions of the fifties' sci-fi merchants.

It was a shock, therefore, to find that the most characteristic view of London consisted mainly of miles and miles of chimney pots (admittedly no longer pouring smoke into the atmosphere - the Clean Air Act had been passed a few years before), that the traffic, although far denser than anything seen in Africa, consisted of the same old metal boxes with four wheels and an internal combustion engine and that the buildings remained, for the most part, more ancient than anything I had known before.

Yes, there were modern buildings, even a few skyscrapers, but we had those in Africa. And these compounded the insult by being surrounded by Victorian and Georgian anachronisms that had their own charm but were anything but modern.

I longed for that futureshock that I'd been warned about, that technological revolution that would transform our lives into a cosseted, climate-controlled dream of soaring monorails and personal helicopters hurrying through a landscape of towering glass and steel.

And that's what it was, of course - a dream. In reality the future, the present and the past live cheek by jowl with each other, the grass pushes up between the cracks in the new-laid concrete, rust bites at the steel ribs, moss at the acres of glass in the latest architect's creation and we still drink ale in our eighteenth century pubs to forget our air-conditioned and frenetic jobs in the twenty-first.

England was particularly hard on me in this regard. I never worked in an air-conditioned environment; in fact my first job there was as a machinist in an old Coventry car factory that existed by accepting the 50-year-old cast-off tools from its Birmingham big brother and making that obsolete machinery produce as never before. The irony was not lost on me and I accepted that there was no mystical future, that old and modern would forever co-exist.

There were compensations, of course. I remember the joyful moment when I discovered that house guttering was now plastic. This, at least, we never had in Africa!

And now, of course, I am confronted by America. I confess to lingering ambitions for the place, that it might prove (as we in England have always imagined it) at least an echo of that forgotten technological dream. Yes, even though I have visited before, I still retained a core of hope that here, at last, there might be signs of a revolution that will force us into a brave tomorrow.

The reality turns out to be different from all expectations. I am neither lifted by new visions of a technological future nor dashed to earth by complete disillusionment. America turns out to be an eclectic mixture of the old and the new with echoes from Africa that mislead and confuse my impressions. The new is everywhere; malls, superstores, drive-in banks, air-conditioned homes, all clamouring for a mention. Yet the old remains, most noticeably in the small stores that scrape a living alongside the modern juggernauts. And there is a flatness to the landscape that will always remind me of Africa.

In malls especially one can feel the dawn of a new age. In that climate-controlled, clean and fresh environment one can imagine that man has escaped at last from the grit and sweat of earth to emerge into an artificial existence of neon, plastic and steel. In Europe our malls have grown tall to make best use of the space available but here the mall can stretch for miles, adding to the impression that this is all there is. So it approaches the dream of the fifties.

But leave the mall and drive a few blocks and one could be back in those fifties with little decaying stores and beaten-up "lube centers" and car washes. Here there is rich ground for a photographic essay on buildings with character, posters and signs of long-betrayed hope and bluster.

Lawton seems to specialise in pawn shops - they pop up everywhere. I love the irony of the pawn shop called "Honest Harry's" when set beside its close neighbour, "Shady Sam's". Now which, I ask myself, would I be more likely to trust? My favourite, however, has to be the gloriously brash and groan-inducing "Frog's Pawn".

Pawn shops speak of poverty, of course, and poverty has no part to play in our dream of a perfect future. I am forced, once more, to recognise that there is no brave new world, that we will never achieve the stainless, shining perfection of those ambitions of yesteryear. There is even a suspicion that I have come full circle, that I have left the savannahs of Africa only to find in the prairie what Africa could and should have been.

Oh yes, I am well aware that I have been ignoring an aspect of new technology that could be said to have made the greatest impact of all upon our lives. The trouble with computers and the internet is that they don't show, they don't create real environments that envelop us and make us into new creatures.

Nobody appreciates more than I how computers have enabled us to create a totally new virtual world (I would never have met Kathy were this not so) and that the internet is a new neighbourhood that remains forever clinically clean without garbage collectors, street sweepers or sewers. I love the possibilities inherent in this virtual world and I have revelled in the exchange of information, the speed of communication and even the plain, homely meaninglessness of chat.

But it's not real. As engrossed in it as we can become, it really doesn't exist. The moment I switch off the machine I am projected back into the real world of sweaty socks and cracked sidewalks. This virtual environment that we have built for ourselves is more closely related to the world of the movies than anything else. We switch on and off at will. For a while we can experience a different existence but, sooner or later, we have to leave, to say "enough". It is, indeed, little more than a moving picture version of those fifties illustrations to science fiction stories.

And so the futureshock that I prepared for so long ago still evades me. Indeed, the ease with which I embraced the new world of the computer leads me to think that I am pretty well "futureshock-proof". There is, of course, that other beast that came to light at the same time - cultureshock. But that is another story...

(to go directly to the next entry in the Journal, click here)


In this regard, Clive, I seem to be the total opposite of you. I believe that we have come entirely too close for comfort to that sterile, bubbleshaped enviro-dome that removes us almost completely from the wonderous lands that God created. I would trade my computer and all the knowledge it affords me to see every last metal monolith and fancy car cast into the sea (except for the environmental inplications that would carry). Let me hunt and gather and forage like our ancestors did and find contentment in a full belly and close friends. Hmm, I think I feel a post comming on.
Date Added: 09/01/2005

Gone Away
Ah, Actress, it's about dreams and imagination. And expectations, too. I do not necessarily want to see the world transformed into an artificial paradise; it is more that I half-expected to see it. And, of course, that expectation is disappointed for we are really only a step away from the wilderness, no matter how far we have come. The dream of the fifties sci-fi illustrator can never be.
Date Added: 09/01/2005

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