The Past Is Another Country, and Vice Versa

I’m about halfway through Jo Walton’s Among Others, a fantasy novel set in Britain in 1979, featuring an unhappy teenage girl who finds relief in reading science fiction and fantasy, and becoming involved with SF fandom. It’s getting rave reviews from a lot of the usual sources, and the concept sounded interesting, so I grabbed it right after it came out.

It’s an easy read in a lot of ways, but also an odd one. In particular, I keep having trouble remembering when it’s set. Despite the frequent reminders that it’s set in an era I lived through (it’s written as a diary, and every entry includes the full date), it feels like it’s set about a generation earlier. Some of this is just the idiosyncracies of this particular book, but I’ve hit this effect before with British books of that time. A big part of the effect is the way the characters interact with technology. Or, rather, the way they don’t.

It’s striking to me that, halfway through the book, there have been numerous communications between the narrator and her distant family, and they have been entirely in the form of letters. I think there are a couple of mentions of secondary characters using telephones offstage, but I don’t believe the main character has used a phone. And nobody in the book appears to watch or even own a television.

The other books where I’ve gotten this most strongly are Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series, which have the same odd telephobia. When I originally read them as a kid, I just assumed they were set in the 1950’s or so, because that’s the vibe I got. It wasn’t until re-reading them that I realized they were supposed to be contemporary with their publication in the early 1970’s, but it’s hard to remember that when reading them. In fact, it was a reference to these books that made me recognize the odd vibe I’d been getting from Among Others.

I remember having this reaction to some other British books set in the 1970’s or 80’s, as well, and thinking of that the last time I re-read the Cooper novels, but of course I can’t think of the names now. It also sort of fits with the British tv I used to intermittently see– Doctor Who of the Tom Baker era is, I think, supposed to be contemporaneous with its filming in the late 70’s, but it always felt more like a product of the Adam West Batman era. This was partly a matter of the laughably bad special effects, but everything just seemed clunkier and more low-tech than the stuff I saw on domestic tv. And of course, it makes perfect sense that the Doctor would disguise his time machine as a phone booth, because nobody in the UK seems to use the damn things.

I’m not speaking from a childhood spent on the bleeding edge of technology and culture, either– I grew up in a small town out in the sticks. I’m fairly consistently surprised when I look up the dates of pop albums and other pop-culture trends, because most of them came out a good six months before the era I associate with them, because that’s how long it took for stuff to make it out our way. My cousins from Long Island always regarded us as hopeless rubes, I think, because whatever trend was au courant in Broome County was ancient history in Nassau County.

It’s a particularly odd feeling, though, for a book that is so rooted in culture to feel so unmoored in time. I suspect this would not be a problem if I were ten years older– while I was alive during the era in question, I was roughly half the age of the narrator, and thus not quite ready to be reading John Brunner and Roger Zelazny. Were I older, I could probably anchor the narrative a little more securely through the books that she mentions eagerly waiting for, but as it was several years later before I read any of that stuff, they’re all in the vague “published sometime before 1983” category. To the extent that I associate any of them with a particular time period, they’re linked to whenever I finally read them–high school or college, mostly.

Of course, there’s also the pop-cultural elephant absent from the room, namely Star Wars. It’s a book about SF fans in 1979, and it takes more than 100 pages before anyone mentions it at all, then it’s raised and dismissed in about three paragraphs, which seems completely bizarre to me. It was a good two decades before I would encounter organized SF fandom, but what consciousness I had of the genre was completely dominated by Star Wars— the movies, toys, trading cards, etc. I’m fairly certain I saw the infamous holiday special when it aired, for example, and while it didn’t come out for about six months after the book is set, the first clear memory I have of detailed conversations about science fiction involve passionate debates about whether Darth Vader could really have been Luke’s father, in the summer of 1980.

(That’s largely a Jo thing, rather than a British thing, I suspect. She’s never seemed to be a big fan of movies. And she’d probably be utterly horrified to hear that my other big SF media associations circa 1980 involve Rankin-Bass animated versions of Tolkien.)

This isn’t meant as an attempt to run down the poor benighted British with their low technology and lack of media, though I fear it probably comes off that way (which would be a reversal of the usual situation– Jo has a way of making comments about the US from a UK perspective that really gets my back up, for reasons I can’t quite articulate). It’s just something that was bugging me for a few nights of reading, and once I figured out what was going on, it wouldn’t go away until I typed this out. So I’m just throwing it out there, make of it what you will. This also isn’t intended as a complete review of the book– I’ll have more to say about it after I finish it, I suspect.

(I should note that, sometime in the 90’s, the British-stuff-seems-old effect went away. I’m not sure exactly when, but more contemporary things don’t have the same problem. I’m not sure if this is a cell phone thing, or a matter of reading more adult books (books aimed at kids often seem to belong more to the era of the author’s childhood than their publication date, which makes them inherently dated), but that’s probably a topic for another time.)

23 thoughts on “The Past Is Another Country, and Vice Versa

  1. I have a vague impression that even local calls from a home phone cost money in Britain up until quite recently. (Maybe they still do. Incidentally the UK phone system, to this Canadian, is still horrendously complex — probably even worse than in the ’80s since deregulation took hold.) That might have something to do with this effect. I could be completely making this up, and would need a Brit to confirm.

  2. If the UK in the late 70’s/early 80’s was at all like Germany at that time, television wasn’t nearly as big of a part of the culture as it was here. At least, that was my impression when I was a foreign exchange student. Things have changed since then though.

  3. British TV always seemed older than it was, even up to the original Office. I think the cameras the BBC used to use made everything look older, or maybe the conversion process to tech standards on this side of the atlantic. Seems to have gone away around the middle of the last decade, Extras and QI and Doctor Who and everything else I see seem to be as crisp and bright as american tv.

  4. Local calls still cost money in the UK now, though the mobile options available make this more complex. Free telephone calls were like golden pavements to me. I was still paying per minute for dialup when I emigrated.

    There are at least two phone calls in the book, though.

    And Chad, I just hate TV. I could write a book set now with a character like me and nobody would be able to tell TV existed in 2011.

    (The Bakshi travesty came later — if it was 1980 it was the summer.)

  5. My memory of growing up in the 60s and 70s is that making a phone call was a Big Deal – one tried to keep the call as short as possible because of the expense. I imagine that the actual cost wasn’t really that great, and it was just my parents’ depression-era mentality.

    Yes, local calls cost money until round about the turn of the millenium, and calls from a land-line to a mobile were horrendous (tens of pence per minute?) until even more recently.

    TV, on the other hand, has been a big part of the culture as long as I can remember. Though we always thought of Americans as being TV-obsessed.

  6. Incidentally the UK phone system, to this Canadian, is still horrendously complex

    I Googled “uk city codes” and found Wikipedia’s list, which confirms my recollection that London’s city code was changed from 171/181 to 20*. I also have a vague recollection of London having an earlier change of city code, which led to complaints from people assigned to the 181 city code, which was the outer part of London. (There were similar complaints in metro Boston when the 508 area code was split off of 617 in the late 1980s when I was there; there were probably similar howls of protest when 212 was reserved for Manhattan and the outer boroughs were pushed into 718.) Per Wikipedia, I see several different combinations of city code lengths and local number lengths, ranging from 2+8 to 5+4. Germany is similarly complicated, with local numbers in Munich having anywhere from 6 to 8 digits depending on the year of issue, but I don’t think they have gone around changing city codes as the UK has done (city codes also vary in length; the two I can name without Googling are 89 for Munich and 5556 for Katlenburg-Lindau, those being cities where I have had collaborators). This is in contrast to the North American system, where all phone numbers have a 3+7 format.

    *I have omitted the leading 0 here, which would only be used for long distance calls within the UK. From anywhere outside the UK, you would call London by dialing +44-20-xxxx-xxxx.

  7. I’m also in the middle of the book, and this hadn’t really bothered me much at all. I think the difference is that I’m closer to Jo’s age, though I grew up in the US. As others have mentioned, phone calls were still a big deal and expensive, so you didn’t make that many of them. I went to college in 1980 about 100 miles away from home, and most of my communication with friends and family was via letters, not phone calls. Many of the dorms on campus only had a couple of phones per floor, out in the hallway.

    And TV wasn’t as a big a deal, either, because there were only 3 or 4 channels. I watched it considerably more as a kid, but by the time I was a late teenager, I wasn’t watching TV that much. And while I saw each of the Star Wars movies as they came out, as a female teenager, I wasn’t really drawn to the toys or the trading cards or other stuff like that, nor were any of the people I knew who were interested in SF. We were plowing through books, and listening to The Hitcherhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy when it was broadcast on public radio.

    So maybe in this case, age is the bigger difference rather than US/UK.

  8. Quibble, but nowadays phone numbers in the UK are pretty much always listed as “0207” etc, because you dial this from a mobile (cell) phone and everyone uses mobiles. Which all have 0 ad the first digit but, weirdly at first to this American, tend to be written or recited as 5-3-3 (e.g. “07870 923 488”).
    The UK long ago surpassed the US in mobile technogy, and now they have wifi in pubs (in pubs!) and everyone has a touch-screen phone.
    Interestingly, mobiles and texting are integral to the plots of a lot of UK shows and pop culture, especially the Rose story on Dr Who. A far cry from the comparitively primitive Internet resources of the late 90’s.

  9. I was in Europe and the UK in the late ’70s, and I don’t recall anybody spending any kind of time using either the phone or the television which were, respectively, expensive, and crap.
    There was the occasional stuff worth watching, such as ‘DR Who’, ‘The Goodies’, ‘Space 1999’, ‘Porridge’, in 1978 the absolutely awesome ‘Blake’s 7’, and then in 1979 the brilliant ‘Minder’. I don’t recall any US TV worth watching. Don’t talk to me about Star Trek – what an awful pile of poo that was/is.

    TV is of course still mostly crap and few people I know waste much time in front of it, and any diary or novel featuring us as characters – whether set in 1979 or 2009 – may well entirely neglect to ever mention the TV, unless the cricket is on.

  10. I left England in 1970. Neither my parents nor I at that time had a phone. I watched very little television — The Magic Roundabout 🙂 at university, of course. The post was very efficient and people did write each other short notes. I don’t know if this state of affairs continued through the ’70s.

  11. I lived in Cambridge for 6mos in 1977 and I do recall the phone technology being clearly inferior to what we had in the US at the time. I wasn’t paying for it (and didn’t really have anyone to call), but I distinctly recall phone calls to France being considered expensive, and the quality being really bad. My recollection of TV was that most local stuff was mostly pretty bad and the locals all loved the US imports (Kojack being one that springs to mind).

  12. Most people in Britain, except in remote areas, had a phone by 1979, even if it was a pay phone (common in rented properties). But long distance calls (anywhere outside the city you’re in) were truly exorbitant, and most people would have written to friends across the country, certainly abroad.

    Certainly local phone calls still cost money in Britain, unless you have VOIP, though these days this can be mitigated by gaming the offers from suppliers. This was the main reason for the slow adoption of the web in the UK during the age of dial-up. As soon as broadband became generally affordable, of course, it went ballistic to catch up and totally invalidated all the providers business models. I humbly submit this as a contributory cause of the “Britain seems old” effect disappearing at the end of the 90s.

    British cellphone plans have been cheaper and easier than American from the get go, as I understand it, and I’m told that Britain has an SMS culture which isn’t paralleled in the US for that reason. If you really want to see the transformative power of the cellphone, go somewhere where the main landline carrier is truly nightmarish to deal with (Spain, Ireland).

  13. If you really want to see the transformative power of the cellphone, go somewhere where the main landline carrier is truly nightmarish to deal with (Spain, Ireland).

    Or better yet, visit a place like China where cellphones became available before the landline infrastructure was extensive enough that ordinary people could afford one.

    Landlines have always been relatively cheap in the US, and that has also slowed the adoption of cell phones, which are more expensive than in many other countries. Also, in the US you have generally (at least during my lifetime) been allowed to keep your phone number when you make a sufficiently local move–my family moved in 1979 to a different neighborhood a few miles away, and we kept our phone number. In some countries, such as Germany, the phone number is attached to the dwelling or office unit, and in such countries having a mobile phone is the only way to ensure that your phone number doesn’t change.

  14. I am a little older than the narrator (and the author) and Canadian. None of those things struck me as odd, just as British. I think it’s not just that their telephone was more expensive, it’s that their post was so good – letters between two different British cities only taking a couple of days, and two deliveries a day to homes (although probably not within boarding schools) and one on Saturdays. Also, I know that my parents and grandparents were reluctant to talk “long distance” in 1979 because of the prices they remembered 10 or 20 years earlier, and since most of the people Mori would have called were of a parental or grandparental generation, it’s not too surprising that she learned her telephone customs from them.

    The people about whom I was arguing about Star Wars in 1977-1978 were not science fiction fans – the few fans I met before the fall of 1979 agreed with me that it wasn’t SF and we didn’t talk about it much. Also, I’d be prepared to believe that neither Star Wars nor Star Trek was as important in Britain as they were in the USA.

  15. I’m older than Jo, and left school in Norn Iron for university in Scotland via a summer job in Wales in 1977.

    Phone calls in all three places were expensive and rarely-used (my school in Belfast and the hotel in Wales I worked in both had their own call-boxes which could not receive incoming calls, but it was generally considered that they had a slight mark-up and you got less minutes per coin than you should have – certainly we tended to go off site to use public callboxes.

    The Edinburgh hall of residence I was in for my first term had two payphones for – I think – 300 people, and again would not accept incoming calls (this was to prevent transfer-charge calls being accepted). When I moved out into a room in a shared flat later in the year, there was no phone – and this was fairly standard for student rentals up through the early eighties. There were, though, phone boxes on most major street corners, in some pubs and in the student unions.

    As for television, I think most families had one: a few of my friends had the family’s old 405 line telly (405 lines was VHF and monochrome, so you couldn’t receive BBC2 and had to get by on BBC and ITV (UTV or STV in Northern Ireland or Scotland) – with a chance of RTE if you lived close enough to the Republic).

    The other thing was that TV reception was not universally good: there are parts of Wales and Scotland that more or less had to wait for satellite TV.

    And as for Star Wars: when it came out over here I was an avid SF reader and a member of the University SF soc and the general impression was that it was all very well, but it was just a film, and the hoopla over it ‘Stateside was a bit over the top….

  16. @Catherine: very likely. At mine, the television used for schools programmes was brought out occasionally if the duty master thought something was “significant” (so we got to see general election coverage and random other stuff like the first broadcast of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and final year pupils, who had a study to themselves, were allowed portable TVs that could be watched only at certain times.

    At university, halls of residence and the union buildings had a TV room or two (always less than the number of channels, and if enough people wanted to watch the same programme, then you’d find the STV room taken over for the Beeb, or vice versa) and some student flats, but by no means all, had a television in the living room.

  17. I was a year older than Mori, and living up about thirty miles further north along the Welsh border. The lack of telephones doesn’t strike me as odd at all, especially given that she spends a lot of time at a boarding school. Phones were expensive in the UK in the 1970s, and only around half of households had them.

    The definitive word on London dialling codes is as follows. London’s dialling code used to be 01, with seven digit numbers (the “0” may in fact a long distance access code, but in the UK it is universally regarded as being part of the dialling code). Due to shortage of numbers, in May 1990, London was split into 071 (inner London) and 081 (outer London). This did indeed annoy a lot of people who got the 081 code. In April 1995, all UK dialling codes (including London) got an additional “1”, so London became 0171 and 0181. In April 2000, they took advantage of the number space that was freed up by the 1995 change, and London became 020, with numbers going to 8 digits — numbers that had been in 0171 were prefixed with a “7” and numbers that had been in 0181 were prefixed with an “8”. Many people quite erroneously believe that London still has two dialling codes, 0207 and 0208. They are quite wrong, as they would rapidly discover if they tried to omit the 0207 or 0208 when making local calls.

  18. I’m British, and when I was at college we had half a dozen telephones for the use of the five hundred resident students; I wrote letters home, as did most of my friends. The use of phones in the book seemed pretty authentic to me. At home, I had to ask if I was going to use the phone, and make my calls as brief as possible.

  19. I haven’t read Jo’s book yet, but I’m British, born in ’63 and grew up about 35 miles from the Welsh borders. We didn’t get a phone until the early 80’s, being poor, working class.
    I didn’t live in a house with central heating or double glazing until 2003.

    Regarding ‘Star Wars’, I went to see it when it came out, on a school outing, I always preferred ‘Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind’. When I joined British SF fandom in the late 1970’s it hadn’t had much impact on the fans I knew.
    I was only really on the fringes of fandom until my first convention in ’82 but even in those days, media fandom and book fandom were quite different and didn’t overlap very much. I’ve always had friends in both camps and only one of them was a real collector and big fan. Mike The Bastard, of Mike and Eric, the Samuri Wookies – Brit fans with long memories may remember them? The photos have been destroyed to protect the guilty.

  20. I’m British married to an American and it seems to me, comparing our childhoods and family lives, that your intuition is correct. TV, cars, fridges, everything technological is set off by about a generation. As for me, I was born in 1970, we got our first color TV in 1989. As kids we were allowed to choose one (1) program a week to watch. We played outside a lot. The Dark is Rising was very much par for the course, we wandered all over the countryside looking for magic places!! If you think of the Narnia series, (1st book aside) that represents the 2nd World War, my parent’s generation.

  21. Chiming in with others to say that the use of phones and TV seems entirely accurate to me. (I’m Canadian, a few years older than Mori.)

    Star Wars was a huge movie event, but a science fiction non-event. I remember being vaguely annoyed but the sudden crowd of people prattling about “sci-fi” who had never read a proper SF novel in their lives and didn’t have a clue. Mori and her book club have the same dismissive attitude, and don’t find anything conversation-worthy about it.

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