Title: Comment Whatever happened to our folk memory?
Author: John E.Blake
Whatever happened to our folk memory?
Folk memory probably still occupies a quiet corner in most peoples' minds, and never more so than at this time of year when December unrolls itself towards Christmas. There may not be a yule log in the miniscule grate, but big fires will symbolise a traditional hospitality, and keep at bay the imaginary cold and snow which, at least in the south of England, will almost certainly exist only in the Christmas cards on the mantelpiece.
But folk memory is not confined to Christmas. It is evident along any suburban street of between-wars vintage, where a suddenly urbanised society had sought to be reminded of its rural origin. And it still exists in plenty of shops and stores where manufacturers have not failed to cash in on the market for nostalgia.
Products which attempt to embody this folk memory have always been a thorn in the side of those who advocate strictly modern solutions to modern problems. But one type of product which has hurt more than most is the seemingly endless variety of electric imitation coal and log effect fires which will grace at least some of this year's Christmas hearths. Indeed, has not the height of stupidity been reached, the advocates might say, in those electric logs designed to give out no heat at all - or even further in gas fires whose living flame is supplemented by similar electrical effects ?
Yet such is the confusion of thought which stems from the explosion of our current pop culture, that when Reyner Banham asks, as he did at Aspen this year, "Why shouldn't man get what he wants ?", we are inclined to nod wisely and rush off to apply our personal seals of approval to any nostalgic gimmick which has shown itself to be a sales success. In doing so we would be making the old mistake of failing to attribute to the public the good sense which it undoubtedly possesses.
One notable point which emerged from the ColD's International Design Congress (fully reported in this issue) was the experience of many speakers and delegates who said that the public is far more ready to accept innovations in design than company sales staff, or the retail trade, ever give it credit for. The failure is in understanding that what man wants may be quite different from what we think he wants, and that what we think he wants may turn out to be what he wanted yesterday and not what he is likely to want tomorrow.
If we return to the electric logs for a moment we shall see that this is no trite play on words, for at least some firms have found that the bottom has been quietly dropping out of the market for this particular brand of nostalgic illusion. The result has been a desperate attempt by others to stimulate a flagging demand with ingenious flame effects which, in the words of one current advertisement, "Only a coal fire can imitate."
But the public, it seems, is growing tired of such illusions, however clever they may be. The fascination with a realism that is known to be unreal, has palled; conscious self-deception is difficult to maintain night after night after night.
The same thing is happening with increasing momentum in almost all walks of life. Bits of boarding are no longer tacked on to gables in feeble imitation of half timbered rusticity. Georgian is no longer the hallmark of the Post Office. And for that matter, turning our folk memory back to front, speed whiskers no longer project our electric irons into supersonic orbit. This is not to say that high standards of design are now universal, far from it. But getting rid of the folk memory is not a bad start. J.E.B.