Sunday, July 19, 2015

Coffee and Clangers

Suppose I go to a cafe and have a horrible cup of coffee.

There are a number of things I might do. I might send it back and ask for a nicer one. I might decide not to go to that cafe any more. I might say that in the grand scheme of things drinking a horrible cup of coffee isn’t that big a deal.

On the other hand, I might draw the conclusion that it is impossible to get a nice cup of coffee anywhere in England nowadays. I might go further. Until recently, every village and high street in England was full of shops selling really great coffee. Suddenly, all the coffee shops started serving filthy American coffee — the kind where you grind up beans and force steam through the powder, not the traditional English kind that comes in bottles with a picture of a Gurkha on it. And no-one, absolutely no-one, likes this new Star Bucks drink. The BBC decided to give undue prominence to a tiny number of celebrity chefs who told everyone that the foul American drink was better. They probably did so for bad motives. Possibly they had financial interests in the new coffee shops; or possibly they just wanted to reinforce their sense of superiority by affecting to like a drink which no-one could possibly like. 

Before long, I’ll be talking about a powerful coffee lobby with a name ending in brigade or -ista who has made it impossible for anyone to say, or even think, that Nescafe is nicer than single estate Americano – except for you and me, who are the only people on earth who understand these things.

Every couple of Februarys, England loses a day or two’s work to the weather. Everybody who stops to think about it understands why this happens: we get so little snow that it would be pretty pointless to spend millions of pounds on thousands of snow plows that would sit in garages gathering dust on nine hundred and ninety nine days out of a thousand. Nevertheless, it is an important national tradition that we spend the bi-annual cold day in February saying (all together now) 

What’s the matter 
with this country
(of ours)
two inches of snow 
and it 
grinds to a halt!

That’s all perfectly good fun. Almost as much fun as laughing at the railwayman who blamed train delays on "the wrong kind of snow." (He never existed, and he never said it, but it's still good fun.) I recall a year or two back A Pundit, (possibly Christopher Hitchens' brother) going on Question Time to explain that England was now THIRD WORLD COUNTRY and we were slow at unblocking frozen roads BECAUSE COMPREHENSIVE SCHOOLS. No-one has ever actually written my coffee essay, but I do recall A Nother Pundit eating a meal that was more highly spiced then he happened to like and writing a column to the effect that there was no longer a single restaurant in England where they cooked without chili because political correctness. 

The iconic example of the genre is Paul Johnson's 1964 essay which claimed that young people didn't really like the Beatles: they were pretending to like them because politicians told them to; that music critics pretended to be able to tell the difference between different kinds of jazz to cover up the fact that it was all equally a savage cacophony; and that the youth of 1964 liked the same things that young people have always liked, namely Dante, Matisse and Proust.

I don’t think that I would go as far as Philip Sandifier who characterises this kind of mindset as fascist – the golden age, the act of backstabbing betrayal, the belief that the back-stabbers are secretly running things; the need for a mighty hero to come and slay the celebrity chefs.  I’d be more likely to call it the Old Man’s Fallacy. 

Stuff changes. Most of us are more comfortable with the stuff that was around when we were young and less comfortable with the stuff that has come along since. I remember visiting the town I grew up in after a few years absence and being confused and mildly annoyed that the 261 bus that I used to take to school was now called the 84 and stopped in a different place. It would have been terribly tempting to draw the conclusion: "It is the natural order of things for the 261 to stop outside the newsagent; Ken Livingstone must have changed it for some ulterior motive. He is a commie, after all."

In fact, I recall thinking "I suppose when you are old, everything feels like this: the whole world is confusing and mildly annoying."

It would be crazy to believe think that a bus route is part of the natural order of things. As crazy as thinking that the right number of pennies for there to be in a pound is 240, or being prepared to go to jail rather than weigh your bananas in grams. Or starting a political party to ensure that our unit of currency is never called the Euro. A millennium survey found that the second most hated man in history was Dr Beeching (after Adolf Hitler.)

And there's nothing wicked about liking old things and thinking that change for changes sake it is a bit silly. I like the fact that each generation leaves stuff for the next to look at; and I like the fact that the next generation thinks "Why on earth did the last generation leaves us that?" It reminds us that what everyone agrees is obviously true this year is not what everyone agreed was obviously true last year. Next year something different will be obviously true. Two hundred years ago the people of Bristol all thought that Edward Colston was just the kind of person you ought to commemorate with a statue. Nowadays the people of Bristol all think that a guy who made his living selling tobacco and black people is more a monster than a hero. That strikes me as a very good reason to leave the statue exactly where it is.

The Old Man's fallacy is particularly prevalent among Old Men who write for a living. It is possible to turn "I ordered a cup of coffee but it wasn't very nice" into a sparkling anecdote that makes readers want to come back next week and hear the scintillating tale about how you ordered you ordered you steak medium and got it well-done. Bill Bryson has made something of a career out of that kind of thing. But most of us, if required to transmute life's minor irritations into column inches are tempted to read the general into the particular, the universal into the specific. A proper essay on "Why Joe's Cafe served me a rotten drink" would you require you to talk to Joe, interview Joe's customers and Joe's baristas, to take a tour of Joe's kitchen and learn a little about the fine art of coffee making. Actual work; actual research; actual journalism. Any fool can rattle off  "Why this cup of coffee proves the world is in an awful mess" in an hour and a half.   


The Clangers was a children's animated TV show from 1970. There were 24 episodes of the original series, meticulously hand made with stop-motion animation. More or less everyone agrees that it was the best children's TV programme ever made. Forty years on, the BBC has produced a new series, twice as long as the original. 

NuClangers is about as steeped in nostalgia as a TV show could possibly be. Not a sequel or remake, it's more like a painfully devoted love-letter to the original. It uses old fashioned stop motion animation when the temptation must have been to CGI the thing. The characters are still very obviously knitted puppets, although I am told the internal skeleton is more complicated than in the olden days, so the creatures can strike poses they wouldn't have managed in the original. 

It is most unlikely that anyone at Smallfilms in 1969 said "I know, let's use knitted puppets, because that will look quaint and endearing." I think that knitting was probably just the easiest way of making little pink aliens. TV screens were smaller in those days, so probably hardly anyone saw the stitching. Valerie Singleton didn't tell us to knit a Clanger: she told us to make them out of socks. Mine was made out of an old school uniform sock: grey with silver foil armour. But that’s fine because, in the 1970s, the Clangers were grey. We realized they were knitted at the same time they turned pink: when we got to play remastered DVDs on colour tellies. 

A TV show that was obviously meant for children, but was obviously set on an alien planet seemed fresh and strange in 1970s. It can't possibly feel like that now. The original show was made by basically two people, frame by frame, in a shed, doing whatever seemed to amusing at the time. Modern TV reels of lists of set designers and animators in dozens. Old Clangers existed in a very specific time-slot, namely 5.30 on weekday evenings. We kids were still watching our after-school children’s programmes, but Daddy had just come in from work and was waiting for the early evening news. Then it would be tea time, and then, as Zebedee might have put it, time for bed. The children’s programmes that lived in that space were allowed a knowing, adult irony, because kids and grown-ups were likely to be watching them. That slot simply doesn't exist any more. The natural home of NuClangers is CBBC, which means that it has to appeal directly to kids, which makes it slightly more patronising than it was before, and slightly more moralistic. Or at any rate slightly differently moralistic. The Soup Dragon, explains the narrator carefully, is only sulking because she wanted Small Clanger to say "thank you" for the Soup; Major Clanger means well in building Granny Clanger a knitting machine, but doesn't understand that she positively likes knitting. 

If anything, its slightly too faithful to the original show. A classic Old Clangers story involved some new thing arriving on the Moon, and the Clangers, after some initial misunderstanding, making friends with it. Unusually for a kids show, it had a sort of continuity to it. If Small Clanger plants a music tree in episode 3, then there is still a music tree on the Moon in episode 5. Each episode creates a new status quo. NuClangers is reluctant to disrupt the status quo that was established in the final part of old Clangers. It has to place the Iron Chicken and the Froglets and Cloud and even the Sky Moos in fresh configurations to produce new stories. It does a good job in making up new stories about the friends that the Clangers had already made in the original series, but so far it hasn't introduced any new ones. 

The Daily Telegraph's main complaint was the blinkin' obvious one. NuClangers is narrated by Michael Palin, and Michael Palin is no Oliver Postgate. Oliver Postgate had a voice which could comment on the Universe at one moment (“this is the planet earth; our home; it is a small world, wrapped in clouds”) and on Tiny Clanger's hi-jinks the next (“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea...”) with hardly a modulation in his tone. Stephen Fry said that if he believed in God, then the voice of God would sound like Oliver Postgate. Oliver Postgate is not narrating the new series for one very good reason: he has, er, been dead for seven years. 

Well, I suppose one might possibly say "Clangers without Postgate is like Trek without Nimoy: it's an obviously silly idea, and there is no more to be said." The Telegraph proceeds to say that, because of the lack of his voice, the new series is not as sad as the original, which may, perhaps be true. (The main thing that struck me was that in the old series, space was black, but in the new series, space is blue.)

And so the Old Man's Fallacy kicks in. Fings ain’t what they used to be. The reason for this is that bad people have gone around changing fings for bad motives.

It is (concludes the essay) another example of how children’s TV has become sanitised, just like so much else in children’s lives.

To which the only possible answer is "No it isn't and no it hasn't".

No-one has sanitized anything. But it is possible that in the last 40 years, the world has changed in various small ways.

Accepting and adapting to small changes in your world is very much what Oliver Postage's original Clangers episodes were all about.

Old Men who keep abreast of new TV shows, new comic-books and (especially) new music are universally referred to as "hipsters".

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