Last time out I was reflecting on some recent disappointing fiction reading. Maybe it’s something about the season, but that feeling of underwhelmed disappointment filters through into the first piece of non-fiction I’ve turned to recently. Rob Young’s ‘Magic Box’ had been sitting on my shelves for some months before I finally got around to it, and that delay itself could be read in a number of ways. Was it really a case of savouring the expectation of something fine? Young’s ‘Electric Eden’ after all is something of a masterpiece of English Folk (music ) exploration, as enjoyable as it is exhaustingly informative and detailed. Would ‘Magic Box’ be its equivalent in the context of film and television? Perhaps. Or was my extended period of delay in opening the pages something of a tacit acknowledgement that fundamentally I was just not all that bothered? Perhaps both are true.
It is clear that Young is both emotionally invested in and informed about the media he examines, whether that be music, literature, film or television. The episodes of personal memoir that punctuate the book are never less than hugely evocative and conjure specific time and place with a lightness of touch that is enviable. We are right there with him in front of the flickering black and white telly in his bedroom or with his English teacher challenging him to write an essay about film for the first time. These episodes are supremely effective in drawing us into the rest of the book, where Young gives an aficionado’s description of numerous films and shows whilst ruminating intelligently on the context of those pieces of media within time and place. Connections weave back and forward through time as Young explores a history of England from the 1950s to the 1980s, with the occasional thread thrown forward to our contemporary age for good measure. It’s all very convincing and clearly extensively researched, but for me, well, I just can’t get excited about it.
This says more about me than it does about Young and his book. Of course it does. We each bring our personal context to the media and the history around us. And the truth is that I don’t have much memory of any of the films and television shows that Young writes about. I think I might have seen some episodes of ‘The Changes’ and ‘Children Of The Stones’ when I was a kid, but I can’t really be sure. My relationship with television and books in my younger years is complicated. I’ve watched those shows since though, mostly because I feel I ought to, and, as with ‘The Owl Service’, have enjoyed them well enough. Yet like much television and film from the period it often now seems slow and clumsy. Old is not always better, after all. Similarly, all the sci-fi and horror films that Young waxes lyrical about have always seemed to me (in the small amounts I have seen) to be interminably dull and tedious. I’ll be honest: I think I understand why others do love those genres, but frankly, I also just don’t get it.
With ‘Electric Eden’ I was pretty much always going to buy into whatever Young had to say because I had a shared interest in much of the music. ‘Magic Box’ severs that connection, like pulling the aerial out of the socket to leave us us in a world of white noise snow. That’s a pleasant enough environment to be for a short period, as the mind creates patterns and images that may or may not actually be there. A whole book is a bit much though. So in truth whilst I persevered with ‘Magic Box’, I did so in increasingly short bursts. A chapter here, a paragraph there. In the end I was glad I’d read it, partly for the nostalgic trip to mediated worlds that linger in generational perception, but mostly just because I’d reached the end.
Another possibility as to why I was pleased to have finished ‘Magic Box’ might be that the book routinely made me acutely aware of my intellectual deficiencies. This is not an uncommon occurrence, it must be said, and in truth I have lurched through life from one crisis of self-doubt to the next, endlessly asking myself ‘why didn’t I know about this?’ and ‘why wasn’t I taught about that?’ I blame schools and teachers.
It was perhaps then not a great idea to launch straight from ‘Magic Box’ into Johnny Rodger’s ‘Glasgow Cool of Art: 13 books of fire at the Mackintosh Library’. In the parlance of the city in question, large swathes of this book make me feel ‘thick as mince’ but that’s okay because it is also book that is by turns humorous, playful, and philosophically engaging. The emotional connection to the subject matter that was largely lacking for me in ‘Magic Box’ is, however, present and correct in ‘Glasgow Cool of Art’, as I’m certain it will be for any former alumni of the Mackintosh school. That personal connection is heightened further, perhaps, by Rodger’s observation early in the book that for many years he had the best office location in Glasgow. Looking out from the brutalist Bourdon building across Scott Street, Rodger must have had much the same view as I did in my final year at GSA: the magical west facade of the Mackintosh building housing the fabled library.
‘Glasgow Cool of Art’ is necessarily then an emotional read, yet it is to Rodger’s immense credit that he balances this out with a great deal of considered research and philosophical reflection. Naturally a great deal of this reflection hinges on the fundamental question about What To Do With The Mackintosh Building, with the focus on the Library being a symbolic and functional vehicle for doing this. So there is much philosophical exploration about the nature of the physical and the ephemeral, about the nature of (architectural) drawing and where reality exists within (or without) that context. There is also consideration of the fundamental question of what we might mean by ‘ruin’, where Rodger uses a Graham Greene story about the demolition of a Wren house from inside by a gang of boys. I’m only intermittently convinced by Greene (and less and less as time goes by), so don’t feel compelled to read the text in question, but the questions that Rodger uses the story to frame within the context of the GSA are certainly interesting.
The whole book is one that treads the tightrope between academia and accessibility to great effect. Its structure is framed around the fact that only 13 books from the ‘original’ fire in 2014 were deemed to have survived, and this is a gratifyingly appropriate concept, arcing as it does between the worlds of architecture and fine art, academic exposition and entertaining literature. So whilst enjoyment of the book might inevitably be increased by a reader’s emotional connection to the specific physical spaces in question, it’s hardly a pre-requisite, for ‘Glasgow Cool of Art’ is a rich and rewarding exploration of thinking regardless. I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed being made to feel quite so stupid quite so much as when reading it.