16 July 2009

One Small Step...

10:56:20PM 7/20/69 CBS News 1970

This is a weighty, large, almost square-format book bound in moody black boards with an extraordinary dustjacket that is embossed with crater-like depressions. There is a small colour photograph stuck on it that is a TV screen-shot of an astronaut standing clumsily in full cosmic regalia next to an unruffled stars and stripes. The title is printed in black along the spine of the dustjacket. It is also impressed into the texture of the black boards so that it gleams into legibility when the book is tilted to the light. It is a mysteriously precise title that echoes the truncated chatter of Mission Control during the launch of Apollo 11. It describes - literally - the moment that a human first set foot on another planet.

First thing on a random opening is a page of the italicised text that represents transcripts of broadcast interviews and commentary. The participants here are discussing the significance of the previous day's lunar landing and they include a theologian, a psychiatrist and the author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. They are anchored by someone you'd always want in a debate who is denoted simply by the name 'Reasoner'. This was Harry Reasoner who was famous as the co-host of the influential (and still running) news show 60 Minutes. And it's Reasoner who has the stand-out thought on this page when he says, presumably in reponse to some concern of the theologian, that "when we got there we found no tablets of Moses, or anything. We left a tablet signed by pesident Nixon". The transcript must be slightly less than verbatim as it doesn't spell out any spluttering or outright belly laughs at this point from the other speakers.

Leafthrough. Among the many mind-boggling features of the Apollo missions is the sheer organisation that went into them. Like great cathedrals and blockbuster movies, they were the outcomes of a million details. The CBS coverage of the occasion went to the very limits of broadcasting technology at the time and was similarly reliant on everyone from the tea boy to the star anchor man doing their bit. Leafing through, it's clear that this is, in its own way, an organisational triumph. It's less a book than a publishing project. Organised along the chronology of the event itself, it is really well designed and beautifully laid out. It's a very fine thing.

The front bits. Opening the book reveals that the inner flap of the embossed dustjacket reaches back inside the front board almost as far as the spine. After a free end paper that is made of black card is a page that simply states that the dustjacket represents areas of the lunar surface, including the Sea of Tranquility, where the astronauts walked. There follows a double-page spread on high-quality grey cartridge stock with a diagram of the route taken by Apollo 11 on its way to the moon. (Any instinct to check the equivalent pages at the back of the book is rewarded with a very similar diagram showing the route home.) And then there is the magnificently sparse title page with the figures, dots and letters sitting in dense black type above a subtitle in smaller, softer, italicised script - The historic conquest of the moon as reported to the American people by CBS News over the CBS Television Network. There's a restrained gravitas and understated pride about the thing that is really quite impressive. You can almost hear the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey rising to a crescendo as the pages turn.

Looking into it. It often takes an anniversary to remind us how blase we can become about extraordinary events. 40 years on from that one small step, I'm glibly sitting at home rattling out my thoughts about this and that on a 7-year old machine that I bought from an ordinary shop. It packs the kind of computing punch that I imagine, back in 1969, would have required a couple of high school gyms housing rows of cabinets stuffed with reel-to-reel tape machines attended by people in lab coats. But those people were no fools and the technology they were witnessing in action would have seemed to them every bit as miraculous as nanobots or the human genome do to us.

If by some hiatus in the order of things an iPhone had landed in Harry Reasoner's lap that day he would probably have turned it over in his hands and said something like, "it's the future, but not as I imagined it". The future for many in the post-war generations of the 50s and 60s, as they followed the epic tussle between Soyuz and Apollo, was on a grand scale. They would destroy the Earth under a mushroom cloud or they would take a shiny rocket and go and live on the stars. They might even do both.

Partly because it tells the story of how the story was told, rather than simply telling the story itself, this book has a real immediacy. In mixing a detailed and absorbing account of the mechanics and logistics of getting the event broadcast to America and the world with lots of transcripts of on-air dialogue, it re-generates the excitement, emotion and vital philosophical conjecture that ran through the whole event.

CBS had placed reporters all over the world, from Disneyland to Vietnam, who filed reaction and comment back to New York and Florida. As a television spectacle, the moon mission was as drawn out as a test match with long periods where nothing much was happening. And though this inevitably led to quite a bit of waffle and hyperbole from those reporters, there was also quite a bit of pondering on the meaning of what America was doing. The reporter in Disneyland was moved to the sentimental observation after the launch that the gaudy little tin rockets on the roundabouts were taking the children further in their imaginations than Buzz Aldrin and his crew could ever hope to go in Apollo 11. Another worried that, once printed by human boot, the moon would be stripped of nearly all its mystery and romance.

In some ways, the coverage could be seen as a way of America showing off and milking the applause while sticking its middle finger up at Brezhnev. But there was an acknowledgement of Russian achievements - Walter Cronkite reported that medals commemorating Vladimir Komarov and Yuri Gagarin were to be left on the moon, and an attempt to broadcast a dialogue between an American and a Soviet scientist from a Polar base was only cut short by a crackling disintegration of the signal.

Nor was any attempt made to hide or belittle the many dissenting voices. Although civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy, who led a march of his Poor People's Campaign to the launch site, told a reporter that he found the spectacle awe inspiring, he insisted that the money could have been better spent fighting poverty. Similar concerns were aired by Gloria Steinem in an interview with Cronkite, and in New York a mobile reporter was told by revellers at a soul festival that the money should have been spent in Harlem.

In fact, the debate about priorities was a constant motif throughout the coverage and CBS would not have got away with ignoring it. Apollo 11 was the culmination of a space project that had gobbled up public funds faster than a failing bank. The debate over whether it was worth it had been slugged out over the previous couple of years by politicians and writers, including Kurt Vonnegut who, only months before the launch, had written a magazine article laying into Arthur C. Clarke's almost unequivocal support for the programme. They were brought together to discuss their views during the coverage and, from the extracts in the book, it's a pretty even contest.

For Clarke, the Apollo mission was 'a down payment on the future of mankind'. In the years since 1969, plenty of further instalments have been paid and we've had Hubble and the Space Station to show for it. The economic roller-coaster and other claims on our attention (climate change looming into the picture for one) have meant that Vice President Agnew's confident insistence at the time of the moon landing that we would have set foot on Mars by the end of his century has proved way wide of the mark.

We may have become jaded with the moon landing and all its imagery, consigning it to the know-nothing past for its blurred pictures, retro fashions and the clunky monitors at Mission Control. But what those astronauts actually did still takes some imagining. If it were happening right now, I'm sure I wouldn't be the only one sending a text along the lines of "OMG - they're wlkng around on the mn ffs".

5 July 2009

Public Enemies

Pretty Boy, Baby Face - I Love You
by Lew Louderback 1969

This is a scruffy, standard format paperback with a cut-out from an old black and white photo of a young lady from the 1930s pasted onto a white, but yellowing, background. She is striking a beligerent pose with a gun and a cigar and she seems to back up what the cover blurb promises for the inside: 'Hick boys and girls...from the hard-luck hills...the carnage of death in their trail'. Phew!

First thing on a random opening is a small section of photos. Actually, it's not such a random opening in this case as the heavier gloss pages of the photo section always fall open first, with all the predictability of a loaded dice. The pictures have the grainy urgency of newspaper work and feature the key players of the Public Enemy era. Hoover, Dillinger, Ma Barker - some of them startled by a popping flashgun, others riddled and dead on a slab. It's a gruesome but uncomfortably fascinating little gallery.

Leafthrough: any leafing through this book is always interrupted by the photos in the middle (see above), the rest being pulp-quality pages that have turned a nicotine pale brown. It's the sort of paper that the ink bleeds into leaving blotchy strings of letters. The chapters are short and efficiently titled and it looks like a book that you could get through in about a couple of hours.

Looking into it. Pretty Boy, Baby Face – I Love You exists in a more approachably titled edition called The Bad Ones. Oddly enough, the author’s name also exists in another form. For Lew Louderback, far from being a position in American football that involves a lot of shouting, was also known to write under the house pseudonym Nick Carter.

Louderback’s book was first published in 1968, a year after Faye Dunnaway and Warren Beatty had shot to stardom in Bonnie and Clyde, the first film to use blood squibs to give a sickeningly real approximation of what bullets actually do to people. The book was released to feed the huge appetite that the film provoked for stories of America’s Public Enemy Era; that period of the 1930s when the modern FBI and a host of criminal legends were born.

The writing style is as clipped and rapid as Machine Gun Kelly’s Tommy gun. It packs in an incredible amount of detail and runs through the set piece hold-ups and shoot-outs with all the panache of Clyde Barrow executing one of his famed getaway U-turns.

From Robin Hood to Ronnie Biggs, the law-abiding masses have been fascinated by the lives of those who have lived outside the law. Louderback himself shows a real relish in retelling the stories of the great public enemies, sketching their lives with a kind of analytical empathy that can’t help but reveal his particular favourites.

Many of the characters of the era had their own heroes and were acutely aware of the exploits of the gunslingers of some half a century earlier; the Billy the kids and the Doc Hollidays. But where the Western outlaws exploited the fragile civilization of newly settled land, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson and the Barker boys burnt out brief and violent lives in a world made lawless by economic meltdown.

The crops failed in the dustbowl and the queues swelled outside the soup kitchens. But stories of Kathryn Kelly, covered in fox fur and Chanel originals, on the lam in her 16-cylinder roadster with her allegedly dangerous husband by her side were a welcome diversion. And the entertainment value was only enhanced by the antics of J Edgar Hoover and his bumbling G-Men.

Where today's keepers of public safety are regularly bamboozled by Sun hacks getting jobs as royal food testers, Hoover's men were always finding themselves turning up too late, netting small fry in expensively mounted trawling operations and, on a few, tragic occasions, shredding innocent citizens with badly researched bursts of gunfire.

The G-Men were on a hiding to nothing with a battered and desperate public who would have voted John Dillinger mayor of Chicago given half a chance. Dillinger was a particular favourite for his pure showmanship and the perception, credited by Louderback, that he never actually killed anyone. At one point, a petition was raised suggesting that Dillinger, on the run and Hoover's Public Rat Number One, should be granted a pardon if he gave himself up. "Many of the financial institutions of the States," it said, "have just as criminally robbed our citizens without any effort being made to punish the perpetrators."

Dillinger's escape from custody as he awaited trial after being triumphantly captured and sent to Crown Point, Indiana, threw Hoover into apoplexies. While he waited, Dillinger sat whittling away at an old washboard, making good his escape from Crown Point's new "escape-proof" unit with the aid of the wooden gun he had fashioned from it.

Inevitably, the outlaw gave way to the mobster, the small gang to the Organization, and Hoover and his men had new priorities. But it was a measure of just how irritating the Public Enemies had been to the authorities that J Edgar himself had insisted on being personally involved in the capture of the last of the Rats.

The arrest of Alvin Karpis, kidnapper, extortionist and bank robber, by a group of Feds led by Hoover gained the FBI the kind of headlines they had dreamed of ever since their inception.

But the public knew, then as now, what they wanted from their enemies. There is nothing quite like the humiliation of authority to put a smile on the workaday world. No matter how manfully Hoover and his men were portrayed in the papers, in the grocery store and on the street you would hear another side.

"Put the cuffs on him boys" J Edgar apparently said as he leapt onto the speeding running board of Karpis' getaway car. His men, who had scrambled on behind him, looked blankly at one another, patted their empty pockets and then started to take off their neck ties and use them to tie the rat's hands.

Above: Pretty Boy Floyd - or is it David Brent after another hard day at the office?