Monorail Dreaming

Peter Rogerson
‘Northern Echoes’, Magonia 72, October 2000
Every so often in 2000, the undead but prematurely buried twentieth century has given the odd twitch of life. The fall of Concorde is one such twitch, for it is the end of the last survivor of the forgotten age in which this magazine came into being. Magonia was born in 1966 as the Merseyside UFO Research Group Bulletin; and in that year the teenagers of Warrington were asked to write essays on the future, including their visions of the year 2000.

These unique historical documents, preserved in Warrington Library, have a poignant quality, a sort of lost innocence, in their vision of a largely untroubled future. They mix the immediately practical - better traffic flows and the provision of skating rinks - with visions of the city of the future. You can see this vision in much of the material produced by more professional prophets of the time, the ‘secular city’, of tower blocks, underground shopping centres, personal helicopters, and clean well lit streets, all linked by the great mid 60′s symbol of progress, the monorail.

Concorde was part of this vision, a stepping stone to the hypersonic aircraft, which would give us a day trip to Sydney, or an afternoons shopping in New York. By the end of the 1970′s there would be the first colonies on the moon, Mars by the mid 1980′s (1984 was pencilled in as a year with a particular frisson). 2000 was the distant beacon, the bright, clear, clean, world of shiny clothes, flowing architecture, atomic powered cars. and self sufficient space stations,’ The world of 2001: A Space Odyssey. This was to be but the surface of the Utopian world to come, the 'Universal Denmark', where war, poverty and the dead irrational past were to be buried.

The White Hot Technological Revolution would scorch away the last remnants of the old world, forgotten like the disappearing bomb sites, and in its place would come the Great Society, the New Frontier, Space, the Final Frontier. This new world had its great emergence myth; ‘by dint of the sacrifice of the war time generation, the old bad world was swept away, not just Hitler and his crew, but the bad old world of poverty and want, of workhouse and child labour’.

This contrast between the dirty, evil, ignorant past, and the bright, glorious present was often drummed into us. What became of those dreams of monorails and planetary exploration, and the white hot technological revolution and the modernist project which lay behind it? Within a few years there would be large scale turning back on the secular city and the monorail dream, and a major cultural rejection of science and technology and a revival of the irrational.

In 1966 for example, fundamentalist Christianity was seen by modernists as the preserve of a bunch of ageing, rural Elmer Gantrys; Islam would perish before modern science and the Socialist Revolution; the nationalisms of the past would be tamed; and if anyone had told you that large numbers of people would believe they had been abducted by aliens, or that there would be literal witch hunts in America and Europe, you would have laughed at them.

What became of those dreams of monorails and planetary exploration, and the white hot technological revolution and the modernist project which lay behind it?

Monorail dreaming was to fall victim to the anti-scientific backlash which developed from the early 1970s onwards; an attitude summarised by Jerome Clark in The Unidentified: “Man is on the brink of a catastrophe because our age has denied him the capacity for the belief in the magical and the wonderful. It has destroyed the mystical, non-rational elements which traditionally tied him to nature and his fellows. It has emphasised rationality to the exclusion of intuition, equations to the exclusion of dreams, male to the exclusion of female, machines to the exclusion of mysteries”.

At that time Jerry could clearly have made a good career move by becoming a speech writer for Prince Charles! Of course, we are led to understand that in unguarded moments Al Gore still comes up with that sort of thing, and though Jerry has later denounced these views at best, romantic, they are still widely influential and have led on to a variety of relativist, post-modernist and related ideologies. It was not, I think, the absence of ‘wonder’ or awe which led to the revolt against science, but perhaps a lack of human centredness and human scale. There is very little awe and wonder in the alternatives proposed, certainly not in paranormalism or forteanism, much of which is profoundly banal. They offer the easy comforts of belief in life after death, a universe filled with people of a different shape, a planned landscape garden universe, created and overseen by a Capability Brown God.

The universe of modern science is not that, it is utterly ‘other’, wild and inhuman, a raw force of creation and destruction of which we are an accidental by-product. Yet Jerry also saw surprisingly clearly what the fruits of untrammelled romanticism would be “the return of the repressed” which would “overwhelm the world and usher in era of madness, superstition ..terror..war, anarchy and fascism”. That, written in the early 1970′s seems hauntingly prophetic, as the failure of modernism to win the hearts and minds of the people has led to the fundamentalist revivals from Iran to Afghanistan, the killing fields of Algeria, the awaking of the old ethnic conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, to the religious fundamentalism, earth-first environmentalism, new ageism and post modernism of the west, the collapse of the nation state in large regions of Africa. If the candle of modernity fails, we may end up in Carl Sagan’s ‘demon haunted world’ after all.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the Universal Denmark is a damned bad idea, whose only redeeming feature is that all the alternatives are so much worse. Perhaps the balance can be restored by realising that human beings, human imagination, culture, art, science and technology and their products are all as much part of the totality of nature, and as worthy as our awe and sense of the sacred as any mountain peak or forest glade.