Last month, the boffins at NASA got the first pictures back from Mars. I didn't know that we had sent a probe to Mars in the first place. Now I do know, I don't care. And of course, I feel guilty about not caring, which makes me feel annoyed with the people who do care, so the best thing to do is just look the other way and pretend it isn't happening.
The last time we went to Mars, I cared very much. It was during our school camp, which was a sort of going-away present to the top-year kids at junior school. It was the Bicentennial Year; I didn't know what it was the bicentennial of. NASA had arranged that the Viking would touch down on Mars on the 4th July. Independence Day had to do with American patriotism in those days, not bad movies. In the event, I think it was a day late.
Me and Kevin and Malcolm shared a tent. Malcolm was a Doctor Who fan and whispered "Daleks" in the caves we went down on a day trip because he didn't think anyone else ever had. Kevin was more studious and seemed actually to know things about science and was rude about Doctor Who because it was so unrealistic. He was grown up and clever and I wanted to be like him.
We were allowed to go up to the sweetshop after breakfast (provided we took care on the road) to buy cheap cola and bars of Kendel Mint Cake and a lurid green and pink ice lolly with secret Dalek messages on the plastic stick. On that Wednesday, Kevin actually bought a newspaper because it had the picture of Mars on it. We held onto the picture over the next few weeks. The probe's arm stuck tantalisingly, without analysing the soil. So maybe there was life on Mars after all.
It was a clear photograph. Mars really is red; it has an atmosphere and a sky. It is a place. Not an idea.
We liked reading the paper. We treated it as if it was all quite ordinary, saying "Hmm, I see they've landed on Mars". Talking about Mars and reading reports about Mars and being in a world where latest news from Mars really happened on the News at Six (after The Wombles), made us feel that in some oblique way we were part of a science fiction story. Doctor Who was becoming real.
Kevin was interested in what the scientists were finding out, or said he was.
I was too young to remember the original lunar landings. I remember Skylab. I remember vividly the US-Soviet mission, when one rocket was launched in America, and a different one in Russia, so they could link up in space and the astronauts shake hands. A symbolic gesture which hardly anyone remembers, but it got front page of the Radio Times and a special edition of Blue Peter. That was the first time I realised that "space race" was not mere assonance but actually a competition between two sides.
When I was five, people said "And what would you like for your birthday...." and I would only answer "Something to do with Space". My Grandfather, god bless him, obliged with a silver space suit and a large plastic helmet ("one size fits all") and galoshes intended to make my slip-ons look more like space-boots. It was fashioned after the uniforms that the Apollo team wore in the capsule, not the suits used for moonwalks and spacewalks, and I was dimly aware of this lack of authenticity, but suspension of disbelief covers a great deal.
I soon grew out of the suit, but I still have the space helmet somewhere and could probably jam my head into it if I wanted to. One size fits nearly all. It made my voice echo and sound spacey. I also had a set of walkie talkies, linked with a wire, long enough that I could sit at the top of the stairs and send messages downstairs to my father. We played for ages; message mysteriously being interrupted by the Mysterons and my sister. I had a birthday cake with blue icing and a plastic spaceman decorating it, stuffing a cocktail stick stars and stripes into the jam sponge. But I never, never, never had a space gun. Guns were guns and just about my parents only unbreakable moral principle was 'no guns'. I got one in a jumble sale when I was thirteen and too old to care; it seemed to prove some sort of point.
Maybe it was a metaphor. When you are five, you really are an explorer on an alien planet. Maybe it's because young boys want to become bigger boys, so we liked space because it was the most futuristic grown up thing there was. A few years ago I visited a friend with a five year old son. He was playing with an elaborate space Lego rocket, hundreds of sections high, pointed capsule, crew of 5 astronauts. I'd have killed for it. He was launching it into space, at the ceiling, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 blast off.
"What ever can that be?" I asked.
"It's a space willy" he replied.
Sigmund, thou shouldst be living at this hour.
I remained convinced that I was interested in Space through most of my childhood. I read dreadful boyish science fiction by a justly forgotten writer called Hugh Walters. I have never met anyone else who read them, although he merits two lines in the Science Fiction Encyclopaedia. It was what there was in the library. His books have titles like Voyage to Venus, Journey to Jupiter, Passage to Pluto and (presumably) Narrow Boat to Neptune. They worked from the premise that schoolboys, being small enough to fit into capsules, were the natural people to send as man's first ambassadors to the void. The Victorian fire-place cleaning industry had similar ideas. Beyond the Biggles-buddy-movie relationships of the characters, nothing very much happened. You could guarantee that they would run out of oxygen at least once per adventure, and that character A would give character B his last canister. But character C would tide them over with something whipped up in his chemistry kit, so that was all right.
I don't know quite what people mean when they say that science fiction is bound up with a sense of Wonder. There was not the slightest hint of wonder in Hugh Walters. I would not have expected it. I would not have wanted it. His books were intended for short haired boys with straight ties and chemistry sets. If the stories were prosaic, the ships were grey, the Martian landscapes were desolate then it might, just possibly, be true.
'Wonder' came from various tales of King Arthur, Longfellow's Hiawatha and more serious literary works like the Fantastic Four and Spiderman. The Fantastic Four was for long haired proto- hippies. With its fallen angels and mad gods, prosaic was the last word to be applied to it. I might be prepared to argue that it was poetry of a fairly high order. But true it most certainly was not.
I still have my Brook Bond Tea picture card set, glued into an album, a complete set, about the race into space. It was my favourite, apart from the dinosaurs. Number 49 was a sketch of what the space shuttle would look like. The last card number 50, showed pictures of what the first manned ships on mars would look like, by the middle of the 1980s, really and truly.
I was in the Sixth Form when the space shuttle was finally launched. I watched it on a TV one school lunchtime out of loyalty. There were about half a dozen of us and a couple of the physics teachers. No-one else knew or cared, although the BBC did put the launch out live. This was science, an esoteric interest. The picture cards had been right, in a way. We would live to see space travel become ordinary. And this made it, well ordinary.
When the space shuttle was first touted, its big, big selling point was that it would democratise space. Ordinary people would be able to book trips to the moon, civilians would become astronauts. There was a rather half-hearted attempt, in the States, to set up a real-life space cadets, on the model of the Army Training Corps or the Mickey Mouse Club. There were adverts about it in the American comics I saw, at any rate. And of course, there was a competition for a civilian to go on one of the trips. The idea was that a school-teacher would beam physics lessons to school classrooms from space. She went up on the Challenger. The idea didn't really get mentioned again.
In the end, the Fantastic Four beat Mission To Mercury; poetry beat prose. I made my final irrevocable choice of Art over Science at the age of 13. When I was very small the only thing that I wanted to be when I grew up was an astronaut. Growing up in an age when being an astronaut (or at any rate, ground control staff) might not have been impossible, I missed the countdown. I will never go to the moon. Nothing like Doctor Who will ever come true in my life time.
So when they talk about life on Mars, about rocks and probes and the real-life possibility that maybe we could send something to a nearby star, the safest, least aggravating thing to do is simply look the other way.
I adopt the same approach to cookery programmes and the Olympic Games.