Thursday, August 31, 2006

Who knows where the time goes?

Below is a paper I did as part of a module last semester. The idea was to try and outline the worldview(s) on display in five items of popular culture all on a similar theme. The theme I chose was 'the past' and the items included the lyrics from that Sandi Thom song, an episode of Dr Who and a children's book. You might find it interesting, it might even get you thinking about your own attitude towards the past and how that does/doesn't fit with the Christian message.

CW1.1 Social File: How does modern culture present the past?
‘I feel like the sixties is about to happen’ Sir Paul McCartney[1]

This paper aims to make some initial observation and analysis about how the past is depicted in modern Britain. It seems evident that how we relate to our recent and more distant past, both collectively and individually, whether that relationship is one of upholding the traditions of an ancestral heritage or of rebellion against the antiquities of a less enlightened era, indicates a great deal about the values and identity of a society. It is the conjecture of this paper that 21st century British society relates to the past somewhat schizophrenically, with a variety of often conflicting attitudes, and that this in itself may be an indication of the fragmentation of society under relativistic pluralism and postmodernism. Five sources have been picked for the making of these observations, and we will deal with each in turn before making some concluding comments based on their collective witness.

Daily Telegraph ‘Ignorance is bliss for children tackling history‘[2]

This article argues that modern schoolchildren are largely ignorant of historical facts. In particular the article emphasises the disparity between historical and fictional knowledge by opening with some statistics about the number of children who mistakenly thought the Spanish Armada was defeated by a mixture of fictional and historical figures.

If true, the findings of the report suggest a society increasingly disconnected from its history. The article is clearly critical of this development, suggesting that there are some (at least the newspaper and its intended readership) who would bemoan this disconnectedness and thus place some value on historical learning.

Doctor Who: ‘The Unquiet Dead’[3]

Although as a whole a popular television series based on time-travelling has much to say about modern portrayal of the past, of immediate interest for this paper are two sets of relationships depicted in this particular episode, based in Victorian Cardiff of 1869.

Firstly, the relationship between Rose (the Doctor’s 21st century human companion, with whom the viewing public are undoubtedly intended to identify) and Gwyneth (a 19th century Maid) betrays an underlying condescending attitude towards the past. Gwyneth is portrayed as a pre-liberated and uneducated female figure, who is consequently embarrassed by the free attitude towards sex exhibited by Rose.[4] This attitude does not go entirely unchecked however, as later in the story Rose is rebuked for thinking Gwyneth simple, although this functions more as a plot device highlighting Gwyneth’s heroism in the climax.

Secondly, in the relationship between the Doctor (a time-travelling alien and hero of the show) and Charles Dickens (fictional depiction of the real 19th century author) there is an implicit air of superiority towards the Victorian worldview. Dickens is depicted as a sad figure nearing the end of his life. It soon emerges however that his troubles stem largely from his sense of having the world figured out, as manifested in his cynicism towards the spectacular events of the story,[5] leading him into argument with the Doctor. Dickens reveals that he has spent his life battling those who peddle fanatical illusions that don’t fit with his rationalistic worldview. By the end of the story Dickens’ experience has brought him round to the Doctor’s point of view, restoring his zest for life; he concludes ‘there are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, even you Doctor’. Dickens is in some ways a representative of the modernist enlightenment worldview, needing to learn that his rationalism cannot lead him to absolute truth such that he has the universe figured out. In some respects it could be asserted that the Doctor is the representative of postmodernism, his openness to other ideas and perspectives is because of his loftier perspective over history than anyone else – something which postmodernism implicitly claims for itself (the ability to see the strengths, weaknesses and subjectivity of past worldviews). The episode suggests a positive attitude towards change and sees history as a matter of positive progression and growth.

Horrible Histories: The Vile Victorians.[6]

There are many recurrent themes in this popular children’s book. Three in particular stand out as regards this paper’s study on modern attitudes towards the past; firstly, an interest in the history of entertainment (even pop culture perhaps),[7] secondly a focus on historical trivia,[8] and thirdly a frequent focus on the human angle of history.[9]

Together these add up to a presentation of ‘history as entertainment’. No doubt this is shaped by the fact that the book is for children and is combating for their attention in the age of television. The underlying message of the book is that history is worth being interested in because of its entertainment value. [10] Very little direct attempt is made to be didactic, either about the major figures or events of the Victorian era.

Sandi Thom: ‘I Wish I was a punk rocker with flowers in my hair’[11]

The lyrics of this popular chart song suggest a number of attitudes towards history. It underlines the idea of history as entertainment by its overall feel. Also, the desire to be a ‘punk rocker’ is no doubt sincere but is delivered tongue-in-cheek - the past is something to look back on with amusement, especially if it involves antiquated fashion styles. The focus on pop culture is thus present again. However, a number of distinctive elements emerge on a closer examination.

In particular the song presents an idealisation of the past. This is perhaps a sincere reflection on what the writer feels has been lost by here own generation, though it is difficult to tell. This partly because it is difficult to ascertain exactly what it is about the recent past that the song is extolling. As such, the pastiche approach to pop history in which ‘punk’ and ‘hippy’ values are sandwiched together, rides roughshod over the fact that these two sociological movements were in many ways distinct and at times conflicting (punk being disillusioned, nihilistic, sometimes self-loathing, whereas hippy culture somewhat more optimistic and self-affirming). This is hardly the point however, since the song is not an attempted discourse on the previous generation and their values, the point is to evoke feelings of nostalgia about a vague ‘never-land’ when things were better. Relativistic pluralism inevitably leads to this kind of scavenging the past in order to recycle it, thereby disconnecting elements from the original metanarrative which gave them meaning.

The song probably therefore reflects an approach to the past which draws on many of the values of Romanticism (which judges aesthetically rather than logically), albeit with a pop culture sheen. The thing to be extolled is not the ideas or events of the past but the (imagined?) feeling of innocence evoked by remembering the days before mobile phones rules the world.[12]

In many ways this interesting website merely advances on many of the themes which emerged in the Sandi Thom song. The past is there for our amusement rather than our learning. This being an internet site there is an emphasis on personal choice. The site promotes itself as an opportunity to experience refuge from adult responsibility, claiming that if the past is another country ‘then each of us is a passport-carrying citizen of that land’[13] and that whilst

‘once there was a time to set aside childish things and get on with life’s journey…our childish things are no longer so easily set aside’[14]

The past is thus presented as being for our self-indulgence and escapism.


If representative, these five items indicate that modern-day Britain has something of a varied (perhaps almost schizophrenic) attitude towards the past. There are times when we feel superior to it, perhaps stemming from our postmodern critique of modernism.[15] Similarly however there is evidence that we feel nostalgic and sentimental about the past, viewing it idealistically from the difficulties we face in the present as a time when things were better, simpler and more pure than now.

On the other hand these items suggest we may be fundamentally ignorant of the past, even whilst we yearn for it. Little attempt is made at a popular level to learn from the past, to assess what it is we may have lost or gained in the passing of the last generation or the last century. We’d rather, it seems, be entertained by the embarrassing fashion errors of yesteryear. This may well stem from the rampant individualism which disconnects people from community values past and present. However, some see modern disconnectedness from history as negative.
This complex picture should be no surprise; it is to be expected in a society were there is no meta-narrative or collective truth, only individuals and their ‘truths’. Likewise, a society that embraces ideological relativistic pluralism should, by definition, include a wide range of approaches to its own history, and be able to move seamlessly between them despite any apparent contradiction. A society (especially an affluent and materialistic one) which embraces relativistic pluralism should view its own history as yet another commodity, subject to the whims of personal taste.

[1] Barry Miles, Paul McCartney – Many years from now, (London: Vintage, 1997), p. i.
[2] The Daily Telegraph, ‘Ignorance is bliss for children tackling history’– 05/08/2004,
[3] Lee Gatiss, ‘Dr Who: The Unquiet Dead’, Originally broadcast on BBC1 2005,
[4] When Gwyneth (almost in awe) calls Rose a ‘wild thing’ Rose somewhat condescendingly tells her maybe it’s a good thing.
[5] The story is essentially a ghost story, although the ghosts turn out to be aliens!
[6] Terry Deary, Horrible Histories – The Vile Victorians, (London: Scholastic Publications, 1994).
[7] For example, ‘Victorian poems, plays and songs’ and ‘A question of Victorian sport’. Ibid., pp. 61-64.
[8] For example, the ‘Ten useless bits of information about Victoria’ includes details of her ‘bishopophobia’. The book contains many such fascinating trivia sections, including ‘Vile Victorian names’, ‘Victorian games you must never try’, ‘Weird Victorian superstitions’ and a true and false quiz about ‘Vile Victorian eating habits’. Ibid., pp. 16-21, 41, 55, 88, 90-91.
[9] For example, ‘A day in the life of a parlour maid’, ‘Vile Victorian child labour’, ‘Ten things you always wanted to know about a pauper’s funeral’. Ibid., pp. 28-31, 42-43, 86.
[10] The introductory section boasts ‘You may find that History is absolutely Horrible – but learning about it is horrible fascinating’. Ibid., p. 6.
[11] Purchased from the ‘itunes’ music store and therefore no publishing details given. A transcription of the lyrics accompanies this paper.
[13] Idem.
[14] Idem.
[15] Many of which may be valid. This paper is not seeking to argue for a rationalistic worldview, but rather to observe and comment on the (sometimes arrogant) attitude towards modernism present in our relationship to the past.

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