It was the day before That Night In Barcelona – though for me, it will always be the week “Sweet Like Chocolate”, the moment the other 90s and the other 00s met, was number one – when I first noticed, back when a long train journey to Westminster Library (or from somewhere in Shropshire to the old brutalist Birmingham Central Library, or whatever) was the only way to check these things, that Minnow on the Say had been dramatised by the BBC in 1972, albeit under a different title (I’d find out, much later, that it had also been on Jackanory in 1966 – the Canadian TV adaptation of 1960 feels like one of the last gasps of the old English Canada, at a time when the country was already playing a vital role in Britain’s transition, whether in the development of Armchair Theatre or that of the supermarket trade; in the latter case, precisely as a result of their historically closer ties, their involvement did not feel so much like an admission of defeat in the way actual American involvement would have done, just before the modern Anglo-American relationship was truly formalised and accepted).
I’d already imagined that it might have been televised in that decade – envisaged in my head a Southern Television adaptation (I already knew that it couldn’t have been Anglia, because I think I already knew that they never made any children’s drama, ever, not even one contribution to Dramarama) because I knew that their work, especially in that field, was more quasi-BBC, or to be precise closer to a particular idea of BBC-ness, something deeply necessary for them when the two main parties represented each other’s supporters in broadcasting policy, before Toryism became Whig, and before the accompanying cultural revolution within the more privileged or the aspirationally so (I was once mocked for using, if only by implication, the word “revolutionary” to refer to this change and its direct manifestation, for which I make no apologies; revolutions aren’t only things that the Left approve of, or that you yourself approve of, or that the working class benefit from. The anti-capitalism – and yes, just because it wasn’t in South Yorkshire or South Wales doesn’t mean it can’t be called that, in my opinion – which would still have existed in the Wimborne Minster of forty years ago has disappeared so utterly and completely that it is fair to call its usurping revolutionary. That it hasn’t been usurped by socialism, or anything even vaguely resembling it, doesn’t make it any less so. Marx knew that very well indeed).
It was a weird thing to be an enthusiast for any such field or era of television back then; everything was so incredibly closed off, there seemed barely a moment’s chance of ever actually seeing any of it. Everything was hidden, closed off, dreamt of from far distance (I still wonder how Cornell, Day & Topping got to see some of what they wrote about back in 1993). Imagining what certain things might be like was its own kind of sport, its own private fascination. The motif of elusive treasure rarely seemed more apt.
I found out that the BFI had a copy of Treasure Over the Water (the BBC would also appear still to have the original 16mm film, presumably taken in the summer of “Lady Rose” and “Banner Man”, the one which should have been the summer of “Uncle Albert-Admiral Halsey”, which no doubt would have been too long for Douglas Muggeridge, in the UK singles chart as well) but it was in too poor a condition to be viewed by the public (and I had seen some then-rare – in some cases, it actually still is – material at Stephen Street – no, that isn’t the producer of multiple TPL entries to come, and engineer or producer (don’t be fooled by two of those URLs!) of a few we’ve already seen – myself, and seventeen years on, I can still beat myself up for messing up one of the times I went). The last I checked, a decade ago, this was still the case. Certainly, it isn’t in the Mediatheque. Maybe if it were, I could break out of the Fear and face myself again. Maybe.
Or maybe I wouldn’t want to. It isn’t just that an entire cultural movement, and others latched on, tried – my God, did it try – but ended up getting it all so wrong. It’s more that you can want the world, and when you get the world – and by any comparison to any time in the past, we pretty much do have the world as set out and defined in paragraph 3 – you might not want it so much, you might want to pull away a bit, hold yourself back, hide yourself for fear that it might simply be too much to face before you lose yourself and can’t get yourself back. You might want to “normalise” yourself for a moment (yes, that word again, the word I can never escape), breathe out, keep hold of your sanity. Maybe listen to the new Miguel album. And then, if there’s time, open the box and get to what was once kept out of sight but is now right in front of you, in hope that you won’t hurt yourself too much at the thought of the world you might have lived in, as opposed to the one you actually did.
In other words, there is something appropriate about the fact that the hook for this piece – which grew some way from the squib it started as – is based around the motif of searching for treasure. In an earlier piece here, I explored the way the implications thereof seem different, and not always more admirable or easier to relate to, when you have passed over into genuine adulthood (which is not to infer or imply any kind of reactionary attitudes, least of all with regard to music, but to infer frame and balance of mind). But maybe there is a simpler analogy. You can search for all the treasure in the world, but when it’s right in front of you, you don’t always want to open it, gorge yourself on it, relish and savour its specialness. You might sometimes prefer to edge yourself out of the world completely, if only to make things seem more palatable when you choose to come back in.
Treasure Over the Water is a good analogy. Even if that is still hidden, there is a huge range in front of us which used to be kept on the other side of an unswimmable lake, not part of the same lives the rest of us lived. Now the water has disappeared as I wish the English Channel could – as a state of mind, even if not as a physical object – and the treasure is rapturously unveiled. I must be careful with my words here. I don’t think too much treasure is a bad thing. The more of it the better, for whoever can love it and lose themselves to it unequivocally. I’m not remotely romanticising the glamour of scarcity. I went there, I did that and I never, ever want to go there again. But just because it is there, and just because you recognise it as a good thing, doesn’t mean you always want to open it out yourself. Sometimes the pain is too real. You see your parallel self too instantly, and you don’t always want to be shown it.
When I met Philippa Pearce in August 1998, a brief mental flash came through my mind. I wondered, for a second, whether I might push her into the River Cam, such was my hatred and guilt over what I thought were the possible politics I might be endorsing, the worldview I might be legitimising. I was, of course, profoundly immature – the way I talked that day of her brothers dying as if it were the equivalent of ticking off names in a book! (Or identifying names in the closing credits of Dad’s Army, safe in the knowledge that you never knew any of them yourself.) I’d realise, soon afterwards, that the Countryside Alliance – who had sponsored a Top 40 single that very week – didn’t have a monopoly on my territory, and maybe for the first time in my life, started to create something genuinely new as a result of it. But maybe that fear had some sort of grounding, some sort of reason.
The treasure is unlocked and out there in a world moving ever further away from it and everything it stands for, and having the two together isn’t always quite what it might be for those who are not wired as I am. Minnow on the Say was published the year before the die for the next six decades was cast, in terms of who was closest to whom, when France still could not face the fact that Germany would, at some point, have to be its closest ally. Many fewer British people know that the Beatles cheered Britain up after de Gaulle said “Non!” – giving us another way out of what had seemed a maze from which there was no escape – than know that they cheered America up after two months of mourning JFK. Multiple different people, in different walks of British life, have wildly different reasons for not wanting people to know that. The thought that being in an already gradually unifying Europe might have once seemed like a national salvation is hard to grasp today. But it absolutely was, and if it had been, would pop even have been necessary?
When you wake up, the treasure will look different, and darker.
The only edition of Treasure Hunt in the BFI Mediatheque is mainly there, I suspect, because it puts in a very jolly-hockey-sticks heritage Englishness context the heritagisation of the former industry of north-east England (as also discussed in Adam Curtis’ The Attic, which rescued me from This England, the Mail and the Telegraph when I needed it).
Once you reach adulthood, you know that there is no treasure. The proliferation of former rarities in the present era simply confirms what was probably always true anyway. And what you thought was a panacea might be a chimaera.
But life can always surprise you, and at isolated moments you can still get the thrill you got when isolation was that much more complete, that much more total. And if I had chosen to deny myself that thrill in the name of treasure, maybe I would now have thrown myself off that cliff, maybe I would be lying somewhere under the English Channel, unconsciously and unknowingly drifting out to beach – beyond consciousness, certainly far beyond dreaming – off France, the land of a million half-dreamt treasures.