September 6th, 2009


I was a teenage cargo cultist!

I'm not one of the "typomaniacs the world over... outraged by Ikea's decision to switch from Futura to Verdana". Sure, there might be some small symbolism in switching from a Bauhaus-designed font to a Microsoft-designed one (from collegiate to corporate, from European to American, from classic to not-so-classic), but really, who cares? It's just a font. And it's just Ikea.

One thing did jump out of the Guardian's picture story about the font fuss, though. This Volkswagen advertisement from 1978 had a particularly personal resonance for me.

Now, this is a combination of being an exile and being almost 50, but this advert, which appeared when I was 18, speaks to me of a society I was quite enthusiastically a part of. At 18 I was a materialistic little nerd, pestering my dad to buy me a Mazda 323 hatchback just because they looked cool. (He didn't, but instead let me have the use of an old Trafalgar-blue Wolseley 1300 owned by his company; I plied back and forth between Edinburgh and Aberdeen in the banger, listening to a tape of David Bowie's Lodger album. Eventually the Wolseley was stolen, and I never again had the use of a car.)

Over the next five years I was to be radically challenged and changed by stuff I checked out of the university library: Erich Fromm's To Have or to Be, Franz Kafka, Ivan Illich, Marx, Adorno, Barthes. Even Slits and New Age Steppers records shook me up and taught me not to become a materialistic idiot. I re-oriented myself completely; I remember telling my brother I was seeking a "low-calorie lifestyle" which entailed getting by with just-enough: just enough money, just enough food, just enough accommodation. After these bare minimums were met, the only thing that mattered was being creative. Making things, but not things which just went into the system of commodities. Things which, in some way, undermined it, and tried to signpost other possible ways of living.

So when I look at the 1978 VW ad, I connect with what was, in a sense, the last time I was a good little consumer, and a "well-adjusted citizen". I recognise all the car models outlined, and know their names: the Diane, the Polo, the 5. I recognise the much more anti-capitalist Britain the ad's copy conjurs, a Britain in which you weren't allowed to mention brand names on the BBC, or cite consumer magazine endorsements in your press ads. Which magazine had just started, and it was Britain's first consumer testing magazine. We were still one year away from the Thatcher victory which would usher in thirty years of neo-liberalism, and which would seal my status as an internal exile, a refusenik, a subversive.

The teenage me, the me-who-does-not-yet-say-no, the me who loves and recognises and wants all the cars in the VW ad -- even to the extent of doodling their outlines endlessly in his school exercise book -- will be revived soon. At Haus der Kulturen der Welt on September 16th I'll sing the songs that teenager wrote in a thematic context -- archives and world music -- which suggests that he's a member of some kind of vanished tribe, an adherent in a Cargo Cult.

Emailing this week with Steve Harvey, my friend who lives in Athens, I asked him whether living in that "exotic" environment all year round ever palls. Steve said no. What's exotic for him now is Britain, its windswept industrial greyness. "Even the shapes of the trees and houses in the street I was brought up in, though unchanged, now appear somewhat alien, lost, in danger of coming loose finally from my childhood perception of them."

That's very much how I feel looking at the VW ad. The cars look shabby and backward -- cars in general look shabby and backward to me now, something we have to get beyond, the way the German town of Vauban has. And yet I also remember my positivity and excitement about consumer culture -- what it felt like to be a teenage cargo cultist.