‘The man with the child in his eyes’ – Childhood influences in work, play and performance
When I took up knitting again last year I knew that I absolutely had to make a Clanger – knitted pink aliens who starred in their own tv show in the 1970s, which was repeated when I was a kid in the 1980s and rebooted not so long ago. Reminiscing about the tv shows, film books etc of our youth can be great fun and I’ve enjoyed talking with friends on Twitter recently about various iterations of the Robin Hood story, Henry’s Cat and Doctor Who. But these conversations have also got me thinking about how the popular culture that we experienced when we were kids can stay with us, provoking fond memories, but also seeping their way into the work we do – or the style in which we work as adults.
I chatted about some of those influences and where they’ve taken us with library consultant extraordinaire Matt Finch, who excels at using popular culture in his work.
- What elements of popular culture made a big impression on you when you were a child?
Matt: I was a voracious consumer of stories - comics, books, and especially television. I got told off by my kindergarten teacher because we had to write or draw a "diary" of what we did at the weekend each week, and I was always making up stories about my adventures with the helicopter Airwolf and Agent 57, the master of disguise from Danger Mouse. I was probably pretty excessively imaginative - I was convinced I had seen Wombles on Wimbledon Common and I made the family track down the London postbox where Danger Mouse was supposed to live, too.
Mildred Hubble from The Worst Witch was my hero, and that was my first Hallowe'en dress-up; I also vividly remember my mum buying me a Captain Marvel - then Ms. Marvel - comic which stuck in my head.
Kat: I also dressed up as a witch at times, but then that morphed into Dracula. I think one of my earliest memories was of seeing Oklahoma! at my local theatre and for a while afterwards dressing up as Curly the Cowboy. I don’t know if that sparked my love of theatre but being taken to see musicals and pantos (and excessive Gilbert and Sullivan) was a magical experience and I wanted to be part of that process.
Matt: Oh, tell me more about Curly and cross-dressing? It's always interesting when dress-up gives us the opportunity to play across genders and how that opportunity changes with age. I can't help but remember the NZ Library Conference (LIANZA) where you went as a SMERSH henchman with workwear and an Uzi, while I turned out as the Atomic Blonde.
Kat: I’ve never been a so-called girly-girl, and I’ve always felt much more at home in trousers than in skirts. And while part of me would love to dress up as Elizabeth Taylor in the wedding dress (I think) in The Taming of the Shrew, I’d much rather emulate Marlene Dietrich in a tuxedo – I was bowled over as a teen by the way she played with gender in Morocco, questioning Gary Cooper but never undermining his masculinity. With the LIANZA dinner, as a member of the committee, I wanted to get into the spirit of the James Bond theme, but at the same time stand out and not do the obvious. And then you came along and it was great, dancing the night away…
Matt: There was a lot of music, too. I was super into Ultravox's 'Vienna', which must have stayed with me as I ended up doing postgraduate work on the city and its Jewish emigrés...and I was pretty obsessed with Ghostsbusters soundtrack, which I bugged my parents into buying as they decided I was too young to watch the film in 1984.
Kat: Ah screaming the Ghostbusters theme song at the top of our lungs at school discos! The tv and film memories that I perhaps remember most clearly are the ones that distressed me – crying my eyes out during Dumbo and my friends having to tell a teacher, and then some cartoon about a puppy that had lost its mother which also had me in floods of tears and my dad getting so cross at the cartoon. I can’t bear anything with lost animals! I guess this reflects my compassion and empathy, which are things I am really getting in touch with again as a public librarian – I want to be there for library users, to help them and care for them.
- Matt, did your pop cultural choices have any bearing on your choice of career, or on the way that you work?
Matt: I guess that I always kept that desire to be able to step into the world of a story, or cross back and forth over the border between worlds. It's not hard to draw a line between making your own stories using action figures and more sophisticated interactions that come later on.
Storytelling is something we use to develop relationships, entertain people, change the future, build strategies for an organisation, convince funders, attract allies; I never stopped making little shared worlds of make-believe, it's only the purposes that changed?
And I guess all that childhood play happened in the context of being deeply cared for and nurtured by my extended family - who are also some of the primary story-givers in a young life. As my route to my current career went via working in infant schools and with asylum-seeking children, I guess an element of nurture and care alongside the creativity and make-believe is also part of the journey.
Kat: For me, I think popular culture has had more of a bearing on the way I work, rather than my career. I know I always try to bring humour and fun to the work I do in some way and the programmes I liked the best when I was a younger were usually the ones that were funny and quite silly but also clever. I loved Maid Marian and Her Merry Men - and wrote my own version starring Kevin Costner and Madonna - and always enjoyed Henry’s Cat and Albert the Fifth Musketeer.
Matt: I'm literally singing the Albert theme song as we speak! Theme tunes are also amazing and we should talk about them, too!
Kat: Yes!! Count Duckula, Jimbo and the Jetset, Family Ness etc etc – just so evocative. A while ago we must have been talking about Wombles or something out the back at work and a whole group of us spontaneously burst into the Wombles theme song. It was a lovely moment of shared experience and team building.
Matt: I am a bit in love with TV theme tunes. I remember getting a lot of stick from friends because a song I was into a couple of years back "just sounded like a TV theme". And I can't think of Australian librarian Warren Cheetham without thinking of The Saint, (a) because he is pretty saintly and (b) because of a fascinating bit of local history in his city of Townsville.
Best actual TV theme though? I wouldn't want to rank them. I know that Red Dwarf as a little kid or Party of Five at the tail end of my teens were like the bell to Pavlov's Dogs...
You know what you were saying about librarianship as performance? Justin Hoenke in the States wrote well about public librarianship as performance art.
Kat: Mmmm – lots to think on. I love the idea of public service being a library programme, and it reminds me of what you said in an interview about there being no distinction between collections and programming. Programming should flow into everything we do. Libraries are so full of opportunities and we don’t want to limit ourselves – we need be there ready to help our users (as well as taking care of ourselves). Where will we go today? Who knows! I sometimes feel that as public librarians we are some kind of mix of a ring-master, referee, entertainer, respected sage and stage manager. Particularly in the leadership role I’ve been in until recently I’ve felt very stage managerly – is everybody where they should be? Is the furniture in the right place? Is there a problem needs sorting? Although I liked that time you compared me to Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan looking after a flock!
- Have you managed to incorporate your childhood passions into your work?
Matt: Obviously I'm pleased that the storytelling which has shaped so much of my life is useful at work, and I do get to pick and choose my pop cultural references - but this is still work, and that brings its own ambivalences. The choices I make are not about self-indulgence, they are about finding the right tool for the job, the right piece of culture for a community or audience or target group to respond to; and sometimes by sharing a piece that means something to you - especially songs - you sacrifice their personal value in order to get a professional result at work.
I especially feel that about the "Bitch dance" which I shared in workshops and keynotes a few times last year; it was the right thing to do, in terms of discussing memory and libraries, to share a daft dance invented by a school friend who's no longer with us - and you can see how well people responded to it online - but it was too overwhelming for me emotionally and started to feel like selling his legacy short, so I don't really do it any more.
Kat: This is so important isn’t it? And there is such a delicate balance between sharing personal stories in order to make a connection or a point and becoming trapped by your stories – this has been excellently articulated by Hannah Gadsby recently. Our childhoods are so influential, but there are things we need to ring fence and protect. I guess our experience gives us a whole spectrum of memories that we can choose to tap into for our vocations or to protect.
- So much popular culture from our childhoods gets repeated, rebooted or reimagined - does this help or hinder incorporating your childhood passions into your work or way you work?
Matt: I'm always keen for fresh stories, new characters, unexpected adventures, but I have nothing against a reboot or reimagining either. I think of these things as myths or folk tales that are mutable and responsive to changing times - after all, pop culture in its broadest and most high-budget sense only endures if it pulls in audiences, which means it speaks to something in a large number of people. So if you can put a fresh spin on a beloved classic or conceit, why not go for it?
Kat: Totally! This is how things survive. I played the Fairy of Happiness in Mother Goose many moons ago and I could wave my magic wand and delight another generation of children. That must be a very old story, still going strong.
Matt: Yes, I love the ancient and even the lost things from the recent history of pop culture. I also love super obscure things and even a kid I was dorky about old stuff (I mean, my PhD was technically in history so you know I'm a fan of past-ness)... I do like Tony Newley as Gurney Slade, for example, having a discussion with his own TV character once the show has been cancelled. It's one of the coolest things I've ever seen on TV:
Kat: That is very cool.
Matt: And in terms of music, I discovered Mina Mazzini's 'Se Telefonando' via the social media stream of film critic Anne Billson - this is one of the greatest TV performances I've ever seen, a kind of Italian Dusty Springfield singing a song about dumping her new love, over a stonking Ennio Morricone composition. That's pretty freaking obscure but it gives me the same thrill as some enduring memory from my childhood.
Kat: I do love an obscure connection. I was thrilled to find out a few years ago that the actor who played Gary in Maid Marian, Mark Billingham, is now a hugely successful crime novelist.
Matt: He was Gary!?!? Blimey!
Kat: In terms of rebooting, I remember when I was helping to run children’s holiday activities at my local museum one of the kids had brought his Womble with him and he was telling me that the Womble was called Stepney and I thought ‘that’s new’ but we carried on chatting. Later on I heard via the grapevine that the kid had told his mum that he liked me because I was kind to his Womble. So it’s nice to create connections across generations and see things evolve and develop.
Matt: It comes back to relationships, doesn't it? You entered into his world with kindness and respect. (And Stepney is an awesome name for a Womble).
Kat: I think they must have been a newer more gritty generation. Chatting to kids and engaging with their stories is so lovely and rewarding.
Matt: You know who writes really well on this from an academic perspective? Jackie Marsh at the University of Sheffield. Her piece on pretend play for the British Library site and her academic article 'Teletubby Tales' have been hugely influential on me.
Kat: Really interesting. I was also remembering playing Neighbours with friends down our road and that may be where we start to bridge over to and practice for a more adult world. It’s funny how so many people really struggle with doing role plays when they’re adults. How can we reconnect people to the idea that it’s okay to play and experiment? You do so much of that in your work, but people still struggle. And maybe we’re back to the idea of theatre and performance and escape.
Matt: Oh, I love the idea of playing Neighbours! It's exactly the point where we start modelling adult behaviours and interactions as children. A while back I wrote about Elect H. Mouse State Judge by Nellie Reifler, which tells a film noir story in a universe of Barbie dolls and children's toys - making exactly this point about the ways the "adult world" - including its darker or occluded aspects - is baked into the toys which our children come to play and know the world.
Kat: So performance and play can be as much about practicing for the real world as it is about escaping from it.
Thank you so much, Matt, for this great discussion that has been so thought provoking. It makes me realise that in some ways as adults we never put away ‘childish things’ so to speak, and if we do we perhaps cut ourselves off from something vital. And as ABBA once said, ‘without a song or a dance what are we?’ – so let’s sing and dance and play and emulate our childhoods when we get the chance.