January 15th 2000

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Articles from this issue:

BOOKS: 'Robert Menzies: A Life', by A.W. Martin


Letter from France - Farm subsidies a fact of life in Europe

DRUGS - Towards a drug free society

EDUCATION - Different abilities; different outcomes

FAMILY - Women and civilisation

The age of depopulation

CANBERRA OBSERVED - Peter Costello: when will he run?


ECONOMICS - Seattle conference: what did it all mean?

INDONESIA - Indonesia's dangerous year


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by News Weekly

News Weekly, January 15, 2000

The contribution of coal heating to the peasoupers of yesteryear was vast - until the government of the day, in 1952 (or was it 1953?) outlawed yellow-green fogs by the simple expedient of banning coal fires in London after a massive death rate from smoke-related bronchitis and pneumonia. This, at any rate, was the gist of news items we read at that time, in Singapore.

One last recollection about Montpellier. At the next corner of our street, a school friend lived with his relatively prosperous family. One day in 1929, he invited me to come to his home to see and listen to the family's new acquisition: a four-feet high mahogany device from which spoken words emerged.

My first introduction to the radio left us open-mouthed, not least because the emerging voice was giving us listeners finer details of the Wall Street crash (which at the time meant little or nothing to me). At about that time J. L. Baird, the inventor of the television, was starting an experimental low-definition service from Crystal Palace, but TV at home was a long way off.
Oh, and air travel. How things have changed! My father used the first commercial flight from London to Sydney, in 1939, which took two weeks. So thrilled was he that he wrote a book about it (which unfortunately remained unpublished). Come to think of it, the changes in commercial air travel are both dramatic and amazingly recent.

My first round-the-world-trip took place in 1956-57. At that time, Heathrow's terminal for international travel consisted of a few wooden shacks. I had headed eastwards - to cover the state of affairs in South-East Asia for The Economist - crossed the time zone over the Pacific for the first time, then crossed the Atlantic after a brief stay in New York. This last leg of the journey took eleven hours, but any chronological dissatisfaction was neutralised by the fact that the flight took place at night. To the future displeasure of my Editor, I flew first class and slept soundly in the comfortable bunks provided by British Airways, complete with sheets, blankets and pillows. Nowadays the flight takes about seven hours and no beds are needed.
Another detail of that first world flight: I bought a new clockwork shaver, made in Switzerland. You wound it up and reduced the volume of your bristles. Not long after, it was outdated by the portable electric shaver. But on this particular flight series, it attracted mildly envious glances and comments.

On a more serious note, the 1940s and 50s brought nuclear weapons of mass destruction, which forced Japan to its knees by obliterating Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Then, after the A-bomb came the H-bomb. Fortunately for the world, the only time these masterpieces of destructive technology really did threaten to destroy the world was during the Cuba missile crisis of 1962. But the West's Soviet spy Oleg Penkovsky proved to President Kennedy that the West was ahead of the Soviet Union in this domain, so Nikita Khrushchev failed to -bury' us.

A working journalist has seen and benefited from many technological advances in recent times. For years, as a roving correspondent, I used a portable typewriter. When writing books superseded roving correspondent, I brought myself a massive -silent' typewriter which served me well before technological forward jumps of recent years. In the late 1960s, a technological leap forward rendered it semi-obsolete, when the enterprising Dutch firm, Philips, introduced portable tape machines. Enthused by the leap forward, I wrote two or three of my books with my voice handing the minitapes to a secretary who turned the voice into typed words. The only drawback was the possibility (or probability) of telephonic interruptions, which blocked the flow of words and sentences, therby cancelling some of the time saved.

And then of course, in the 1980s and 90s, electric typewriters, followed by word processors, followed by personal computers, changed the whole writing process for us scribes. I am not alone in wondering how on earth we could have managed without them.

Yet here again, I can point to a drawback. In the days of typewriters, I had a horror of revision, or rather a guilt feeling about allowing it to be necessary. Even in my longest book (a biographical history of de Gaulle: 360,000 words in 760 large printed pages), I claim, possibly from a self-backed lapse of memory, not to have rewritten more than three pages, my guiding principle being: 'Never write anything if it's not what you meant to say'.

Now, as one of tens of thousands of computerised authors, I am far more careless, secure in the knowledge that I can change anything instantly, move paragraphs at will, switch to italics to bold, and change the typeface at will. This is late twentieth for us: bad as well as good; but jolly convenient.

In many other ways, the routines of writers and secretaries have changed beyond belief. Carbon copies used to be imperative. High speed photocopiers have usurped their place: you can photocopy a whole book in less than half an hour.
Or, if you prefer, just command your computer to produce two copies per page instead of one. Whether by photocopier or computer, the second, third and so forth copies are just as good as the first, outmoding semi-legible third copies and illegible forth ones.

And now, back to TV. In the late 1950s and early 60s, our daughters fell for the singing and dancing skills of 'Elvis the Pelvis' in black and white. Then colour took over and the old black-and-white screens became obsolete.
For that matter, just think what has happened to the big screen cinemas. Cinemascope was a great leap forward in its day, but nowadays, cine-programmes start with half an hour of giant screen advertising, bemusing the watchers with deafening and visually startling special effects. Black-and-white is obsolete except in revivals of ancient Greta Garbos, Charlie Chaplins or Joan Crawfords at their antiquated best.

Such names bring us back to the cultural pluses of high technology. Not all that long ago, I bought myself a Japanese made clavinova, whose organ tone, in its devastating quality and volume, causes the player to imagine that he must be at the side of the real organ in Canterbury Cathedral.

In the same order of ideas, it took decades for the old 78s to yield to the better 33s, and a good deal less time for the 33s to be superseded by today's CDs, with their scratch free tone and the facility to listen to whatever song appeals to you or whichever movement of a concerto or symphony calls for your musical attention, all this at the mere touch of a button or two.
Then there is the photographic side. One of our century's minor but impressive achievements was the Poloroid, enabling the amateur photographer, within a minute or so, to see what a mess he has made of that precious family gathering. With this, and much more, the word 'digital' has acquired new meaning.

Of course, there is a down side: how could there not be? The antics of the Turner prize, with its rows and bricks and chemically preserved animals, is there to remind us of our cultural decline. So is the deafening blast of blockbusting tape recorders.

On the whole though, the technological advances of our time have improved life rather than damaged it beyond repair. Who knows, the second century of the new Millenium could bring us holidays on the moon or Mars and reduce the London-Sydney flying time to an hour or so. I wish I knew whether I shall be around by then.

Brian Crozier's new book is The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire. This reflection appeared first in The Salisbury Review.

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