In 1977 when David Bowie was telling us “we could be heroes”, I heard The Stranglers tell me there were “no more heroes, anymore”. That year the Voyager space probes were launched.
I was 10. The year I write this, 2014, my daughter Isobel turned 10. 37 years have passed. Voyager has been flying away from me for 37 years. From when I was 10 to when my daughter reached 10.
Thirty seven years feels like a long time.
I wanted to tell my daughter that life for a 10 year old in 1977 was very different to that of a 10 year old in 2014. In 1977 my family moved from Blythe Bridge in the Potteries to North Wales. It was a hopeful time when my parents started up a business. Rhyl Hydraulics. The sort of start-up which is basically painting a sign on the side of a transit van, putting an advert in yellow pages and waiting for the phone to ring.
In a small way moving from Stoke to a small North Wales holiday town was our exodus. As Bob Marley sang that year, “A movement of my people”. We had moved many times before. First from Belfast to Canada, then back to Belfast, then to Stoke-on-Trent, and in 1977, when Bob Marley exclaimed “exodus!” we went to Wales.
Arriving in Wales in 1977 I felt like an alien. I thought I was Canadian anyway. I would have felt out of place anywhere, including Canada, but so much more so in insular Wales. In my street, a name I could barely pronounce, were kids I thought weird. I taunted them from behind garden walls and fences as they walked past. “Welsh rabbits” I shouted. It felt like they were a different species.
School, a place lost to the sea years ago in the town of Towyn, left some impression. I can remember being angry they didn’t have a coronation coin for me. 1977 was the 25th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation. A jubilee year. She celebrated by getting the Government to give away more stuff with her face on it. A silver coin. I had left my old school before they were handed out, and was not on the register at my new school in time to be allocated one. Someone, somewhere had my jubilee coin. I couldn’t understand why someone didn’t just get it for me. It was mine. The Queen gave it to me. It was big and it was heavy and it was cool, and everyone had one except me.
Coins feature more than once in my memory of 1977. I remember being introduced to the ubiquitous game at playtime. I don’t remember its name. It involved chucking coins near a wall, trying to get closer than your opponent. If you got closer you got to keep both coins. It was played with 10p coins. It could be quite lucrative, though I don’t remember losing big or winning anything either. Except maybe once and the boy who lost told a teacher and I had to give back the money.
I remember one lunch time a kid was eating bread with just margarine on it. He told me it was sandwich paste, but I knew it wasn’t. No one at my old school would eat margarine sandwiches.
When I was asked if I had a girlfriend back in Stoke I lied and made up a pre-pubescent romantic story about a blond girl who I kissed under a bridge near my school. The bridge over the Blythe in fact. It never happened. The girl in my story was real but, she had a name which I can’t remember and she would never have kissed me.
While I was confabulating my first kiss story, another kid, pushed two desks together dropped a coin between the narrow gap and said “that’s what girls have”. I didn’t know what he was talking about.
At Christmas that year I was given a telescope. I can’t remember wanting a telescope and I was a little disappointed when I first looked through it. All I could see was slightly bigger versions of what I could see with my own eyes. It felt like peering into a microscope, not a window on other worlds. Sometime that year I would have seen Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The town had two huge cinemas. The Plaza and the Apollo. I rather like to think I saw them at the Apollo, but I can’t remember.
Feeling like an alien, staring disappointedly through my telescope and watching stories of alien encounters and vast alien civilisations “in a galaxy far, far away” was enough to convince me that I would one day leave this planet and make my way to other stars. How lucky I thought, to be born in a generation that could explore beyond the earth. All I had to do was sit and wait for the trips to start. I would sign up and be on my way.
The first moon landing happened before I was born. Gene Cernan had already become the last man on the moon. In 1977 I don’t think the disappointment of finding nothing there had yet settled in. At least I wasn’t aware of it. Instead I avidly watched Space 1999 episodes on TV where the moon was used as a convenient nuclear waste dump. I knew one day that would be me up there. My favourite toy was a shuttle craft from Space 1999. My favourite character was Alan Carter, he was a pilot.
Then Voyager was launched. I don’t remember being aware of it. It wasn’t till many, many years later, that I was bitten by the Voyager bug. It’s occupied my thoughts a lot since then. Voyager was a bold undertaking. Using an unusual configuration of the planets, it was understood that having completed its grand tour of the outer planets, its trajectory would take it out of our solar system at great speed. As a result Carl Sagan convinced NASA to put a record of humanity on it. A golden record, full of images and music.
It’s this that I became so interested in. I bought my daughter David Attenborough’s BBC Life Box Collection in 2010. We watched some in a haphazard way. I’d always let her choose, and she went by the pictures on the disk. It was lovely watching those films, some of which I remembered from childhood, with my daughter.
In 2011 during a break-up, I decided to watch all the films in the series, some 60 hours in one go and blog about my experience. I planned to do it in a week. In the end it took three weeks and was exhausting. It was during this experience, feeling that all life was recorded here in that box, thinking what an amazing testament to our planet and lives it was, that my mind made the connection with Voyager. I think while I was blogging it occurred to me how useful it would be to put the box set on a rocket and send it to the stars. Then I remembered the Voyager golden record. I researched it and came to see it as thoroughly dismal and misleading record of life on earth. It wasn’t so much the technical constraints as the lack of vision. It seems odd to criticise a visionary like Carl Sagan for a lack of vision. But the combination of little time and a dismissive attitude by NASA created a product which, I felt, didn’t do our planet or humanity justice. I came to see it as an unworthy testament to life.
Like the moon landing, unless you were a planet geek, Voyager’s grand tour of our solar system was another disappointment. Whether it was realised at the time, I don’t know. So many dead and barren worlds. No life, save our own. No one to tell about us. No one to find out about. Just rocks, volcanoes, ice and gas.
Voyager keeps on going. One day it will be found. Thousands of years from now. By our descendants, if we last that long, or by an alien civilisation. That was really what Carl Sagan’s vision was about. He did the best he could but at least he dreamed big.
I thought this was the message I wanted to give my daughter when she was 10. There are plenty of disappointments and many people will be proved right by them. But it’s ok to be disappointed. It shows that you were willing to dream big to start with. Those who dream small may get what they want, but small dreams are not worth much.
Voyager will keep on going through space. Soon its batteries will run out but it will continue to carry the Golden Record. Though it’s not the testament it could have been, it’s better than nothing. So my message to my daughter was dream big, it won’t always be easy but don’t let that put you off. I’d rather you dreamed big and failed, than you dreamed small and succeeded.
And that was the message I gave to my daughter when she was 10. A message from when I was 10.
When I had delivered the message I felt like a fraud. I thought when she’s older I’ll have to explain that it’s a lie. A children’s lie. Or maybe I won’t be able to, and she will find out herself.
I would have to tell her that dreaming big isn’t enough. Carl Sagan didn’t dream of a Golden Record, he made one. I bet he dreamed about something else, something much bigger, more elegant, more fitting. What got stuck on the side of Voyager was a compromise. Where dreams meet reality.
Dreams don’t risk disappointment, it’s actions that do that. I felt I was encouraging my daughter to dream big, but not helping her understand big dreams almost always fail. Sometimes it’s not in our power to do things, no matter how big the dream.
It’s not in our power to make our solar system a more interesting place to live. It’s not in our power to make the voyager encounter anything in less than 40,000 years. It wasn’t in Carl Sagan’s power to convince NASA to put more effort into the Golden Record. If you don’t really have the power, then dreaming big is just a game we play with ourselves. A diversion. Realising that is a massive disappointment.
Then as I told the story again I realised that wasn’t it either.
It is hugely disappointing to find the universe so vast and our solar system so devoid of life. But it’s only disappointing because of expectations. Somehow I had adopted as my dream a really boring and obvious extension of our experience of life on earth. I dreamed of planet Earth extending into the Galaxy, rows of houses on the moon, roads that took me to Wales, extending to Mars. The associations of people, families, villages, towns, regions, nations, continents extending to families of alien civilisations.
But what is exciting, really exciting, is that life doesn’t follow such expectations. The new discoveries have happened in thinking about the origins of the universe, considering its vastness and what this means about time and the very, very small. It’s things like the web and the way in which we are being connected in new ways and connected with information and knowledge.
If you had told me when I was 10 that we would all live on the moon in rows of moon bases or we could look at the infinitely small and realise we’re not sure what stuff is made of, or there may be an infinite variety of universes, I would, have said give me the latter. Bring it on.
I realised the real lesson I have for my daughter is don’t be disappointed because what you are expecting doesn’t happen. You really had no reason to expect it. Instead look at what is happening and try to appreciate that instead. That means looking at the world a different way. It means looking with wonder.
It’s taken me a lifetime to realise that and it remains hard to hold on to.