History, Media and Memory

Ginger (Elle Fanning) worries about the bomb with a family friend played by Annette Benning in ‘Ginger & Rosa’

Ginger & Rosa, the new film from British director Sally Potter is set at the time of the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962. Most people in their 60s today will remember the event – when the world came closest to the possibility of a nuclear war between the West and the Soviet Union. Whether there was a real possibility of war or whether this was just the most dramatic period in the game of brinkmanship between US President Kennedy and Soviet Chairman Kruschev, is something for historians to argue about, but in media terms this was one of the major global events of the period at a time when television in particular was beginning to become an important part of people’s lives, not just in the US and UK but all over the world.

BBC Radio 4 invited Rosie Boycott (born 1951), ex-editor of British newspapers and magazines and a ‘media personality’ in the UK, to review Ginger & Rosa. She remembered the Cuban missile crisis and she also referred to the Kennedy assassination. Kirsty Lang and Rosie Boycott both claimed that as children they had been terrified by the prospect of nuclear war. Boycott also said that she remembered being told about the Kennedy assassination at school. She went to Cheltenham Ladies College – I’m assuming as a boarder, in which case her story makes sense since Kennedy was shot around 6.30 pm UK time. My point here is that the telling of history has changed.

This ‘remembering of historical events’ has now become a modern media phenomenon. The beginnings of ‘live TV news’ was around this time with the Telstar satellites linking North America and Europe. The events of the mid 1960s such as the Six Day War in 1966, the Prague Spring in 1968 and then the war in Vietnam were media events on a scale and immediacy not seen before. ‘Memories’ became live or near live media memories.

But shared though these memories were as media events, the meanings weren’t necessarily equally shared. In her review of Ginger & Rosa, Boycott also asserts that the Sixties decade was a time when people became more selfish and more concerned with ‘self-expression’. This is a familiar observation, often a pejorative comment on social behaviour, but it’s also a very metropolitan statement, applying to a relatively small group of people in London. Elsewhere in the UK, the Sixties change in attitudes and behaviour was a much later phenomenon. Media coverage of major events and changes in social behaviour has been greatly extended since 1962 and media archives preserve a great deal of contemporary material. But how they relate to personal memories is still quite complex.

One twentysomething asking older audience members for Ginger & Rosa about what it was like in schools in the UK in 1962, said “Did you have drills for nuclear attacks?”. Presumably he had seen those US newsreels and public information films about what to do if the missiles came. My memory tells me that we took little notice of the possibility of nuclear destruction – perhaps I’ve repressed that memory? The UK government followed British practice and compiled advice on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack but intended to release propaganda only when an attack was imminent. Wikipedia has quite a good entry on the Protect and Survive materials eventually forced out for public scrutiny  in 1980 and immediately lampooned on TV and then in a more subtle way via a famous graphic novel When the Wind Blows (1982) by Raymond Briggs.

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