Time capsule tips

Photo of Colin Meads: Commons wiki/File:Colin_Meads_Sheep.jpg

From the misty annals of childhood comes a memory of the town fathers burying a time capsule, not to be opened for 100 years. They had asked the townsfolk for suggestions as to what the capsule should contain and our little urchin’s cabal suggested such items as an alarm clock (with two bells atop), a gob-stopper, that famous photo of All Black Colin Meads with a sheep under each arm, a train ticket and a can of pick-up-sticks. Somebody said we should get an episode of Life with Dexter and put that in too.

Digression alert: it is untrue that Meads (1960s rugby version of Paul Gallen), kept fit running up and down hills on his farm with a sheep under each arm.

Historians and archivists may scoff, but the practice of encapsulating the trivial lives of a cross-section of society for future generations is still in vogue. Time capsules are often buried beneath the foundations of a new building to mark a special occasion, a centenary, perhaps. The idea is to set a date in the future when they should be dug up and opened.

General interest in the concept increased after Westinghouse created one as part of its exhibit for the 1939 New York World Fair.

The 2.3 metre long, 360kg capsule, made of copper, chromium and silver alloy, contained items including a spool of thread and doll, a vial of food crop seeds, a microscope and a 15-minute newsreel. There were also microfilm spools containing such prosaic fare as a Sears Roebuck catalogue.

Wikipedia’s entry says Westinghouse buried a second capsule in 1965. Both are set to be opened in 6939, that is, 4,922 years from now.

Sometimes time capsules rise to the surface before the appointed time. When the statue of John Robert Godley, the founder of Christchurch, toppled to the ground during the 2011 earthquake, workers pawing through the rubble found two time capsules under the plinth. A glass bottle containing parchment and a long metal container were handed to the Christchurch museum.

Director Anthony Wright told the Daily Mail a third capsule was discovered beneath the base of the cross of the badly damaged Christchurch Cathedral. All three capsules were opened a month later and were found to contain items including old newspapers and photographs, a City of Christchurch handbook (1922-23), what appears to be a civic balance sheet, a few coins and a brass plate.

So what’s it all about, then? As self-confessed time capsule nerd Matt Novak writes, time capsules rarely reveal anything of historical value. In many ways, time capsules are like small private museums which are locked up for 100 years or more and nobody is allowed to visit.

Time capsule in Seattle containing seeds. Photo by Eli Duke (flickr)

The exemplar of the genre so far is the 200-year old Boston time capsule, discovered in January by construction crews. The capsule was set into the cornerstone of a building by one of the nation’s founding fathers, Samuel Adams, and patriot silversmith Paul Revere. The contents of the capsule (coins, newspapers, photographs and a silver plaque inscribed by Revere), now belong to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

The National Archives of Australia maintains a web page dedicated to serving people who are planning to bury a time capsule for posterity.

The NAA says careful choice of materials to be included in a time capsule will contribute to the longevity of both contents and capsule.

The latter is worth bearing in mind, given that witnesses to the Christchurch unearthing said one of the capsules ‘smelled like blue cheese.’

The International Time Capsule Society estimates there are between 10,000 and 15,000 time capsules worldwide.

The notion is popular with schools, particularly those with a strong sense of tradition. In celebration of its golden jubilee in 2007, Epping Boys High School of Sydney (whose alumni includes rock musician Iva Davies and barrister and TV presenter Geoffrey Robertson) invited Prime Minister John Howard to plant a new time capsule but also, as the Old Boys Union reported, open the one buried in 1982 (the silver jubilee). Alas, the school was closed for the holidays, so your intrepid reporter was unable to unearth a description of the capsule’s contents.

This set me to thinking just what should be inside a time capsule buried, for example, in the foundations of a massive new public housing eco village planned for, say, Wentworth.

It would have to be a big-arse capsule, because I’d be recommending items for posterity include the mechanical rabbit from Wentworth Park. If that is not possible, then at least include a Dapto Dogs racebook, so citizens 100 years hence can ponder the curious sport of dog racing.

The capsule should contain a large lump of brown coal (they won’t miss it, honest), so future generations can see why the planet went amiss.

She Who is Glass Half Full This Week says we ought to include some Aussie inventions: plastic money, the electronic pacemaker, the black box recorder, the cochlear implant…

Countering all this world-changing innovation, we need to show the substance abuse issues of the 21st century – a hemp shoulder bag filled with all the illicit drugs of the day, and for good measure a bottle of whatever young kids turn to when binge drinking, and a packet of fags, adorned with graphic images of tongue and lip cancer.

It might not work in a hundred years’ time, but we should include a smart phone, charger and spare battery, along with a hard-copy cheat sheet. And yes, what 2016 time capsule would be complete without a victorious Queensland State of Origin team photo, hunkering down, singing aye-yai-yippy-yippy in 17 different keys, making odd, triumphant finger gestures.

The NAA might warn us not to use ephemeral recording materials, but what else do we have? I’d suggest a special DVD edition of Q&A with Alan Jones, Steve Price, Andrew Bolt, Phillip Adams, John Pilger and Marcia Langton discussing indigenous land rights, refugees and free speech, with Tony Jones trying to keep them all on point.

One could have such fun filling a time capsule. Items bound to puzzle people in 2116 could include: a (new) disposable nappy, a coffee pod, a Go Card, a government-issue hearing aid, one of those ear-expanding discs some young people wear so they can look like primitive tribes from darkest Africa. We could employ a taxidermist to stuff a cane toad and a feral cat and include literature explaining their stories. I’d be tempted to Include copies of every newspaper editorial before (and after) the 2016 election, just to show that whatever passes for punditry 100 years from now was always thus.

It could be fun to somehow preserve a ‘best of Facebook photo album’ to show future generations what people did with their spare time. It would not take long to curate images of tattooed people, pierced people, nude bike riders, hipsters, cats and dogs doing odd but cute things, photos of what people had for lunch, independent bands nobody ever heard of (now or in 100 years’ time), absolute proof that the earth is flat, out of focus selfies, a video of a serious young dude performing a handfarting cover of a Pink Floyd song (this really is on YouTube. Ed) and 17 versions of the same sunset.

Oh, and let’s not forget to include a laminated copy of that Friday guy’s take on time capsules.




Eulogies and celebrities

Guest writer, music trivia buff Lyn Nuttall (aka Franky’s Dad), ponders the outpourings of grief when celebrities die.

Amy Winehouse
(Photo by Fionn Kidney https://flic.kr/p/54TiAC flickr creative commons).

Back in January, when Bob and I discussed how lavishly some musicians are eulogised, it was David Bowie’s death that was in the news. Then Prince died a couple of weeks ago and my Facebook timeline filled up with posts from shocked friends. Still trying to digest this, said one, I just… I just can’t believe it said another.

There were Prince videos, and mentions of purple rain, Paisley Park and raspberry berets. A few days later, a friend said he had been listening solidly to Prince’s music for the past few days. Even literary magazine The Paris Review posted twice about Prince to Facebook. When my digital copy of “The New Yorker” appeared during the week, its cover was given over to a simple depiction of… purple rain. At the weekend, somebody at our monthly book club meeting repeated the (unfounded) gossip about Prince having had AIDS.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Prince was soaring to the top of the album charts as mourning fans rush to remember the artist’s legacy through his music. This sounded like clumsy reporting. A fan doesn’t wait for the artist to die, they go ahead and access the music whenever it’s available, and in any case there didn’t seem to be a need for anyone to rush. A dignified saunter, perhaps.

As Bob said in his post following Bowie’s death, “some will grieve, others are just sad,” and on that occasion I was in the sad group, but I couldn’t say I was grieving. I remembered individual songs with affection, but the bottom didn’t fall out of my world.

In the case of Prince, I was on the footpath, watching the wild and colourful funeral procession of a stranger passing by. Many had urged Prince’s music on me over the years, and I had often followed their advice and listened, but I never became a fan. My response wasn’t callous, this was the death of a man of 57, too young in any walk of life, but I wasn’t shocked and I can’t say I was grieving.

The extent of the reaction took me by surprise, but as an outsider I’m not qualified to belittle it. No doubt there were outside observers who didn’t get it when we mourned the deaths of Buddy Holly and John Lennon, two examples when I was an insider and did get it.

Jack Shafer at Politico, wrote about the “mega-obituary” and suggested that Prince died when his prime fanbase, “Prince-loving Boomers and Gen-Xers”, are in a position to call the “editorial shots”. In The Guardian, Ian Jack commented tetchily on the voluminous David Bowie tributes, including 24 pages in The Guardian. He went to that paper’s archives and discovered its muted reporting of the deaths of Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley, a contrast that seems to support Shafer’s point.

Regardless of generational bias, I’ve never understood the impulse to go out and buy – or stay in and download – the works of an artist who has just died. If anything, my impulse has been to give their works a rest for a while. Later, I get back to them with the old enthusiasm.

No doubt, there are a lot of people who discover the artist through the publicity around their death; they like what they hear, and go ahead and buy some of it.

It is remarkable how people can genuinely grieve for a celebrity they’ve never met (Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston or B.B King). We are routinely saddened, even depressed, about the deaths of unknown people we’ve never met, victims of violence or epidemics. But the grief some people show for celebrities goes beyond that natural empathy for another human. When Steve Irwin died, the circumstances were shocking, and it was a wrench to see such a positive, larger-than-life figure suddenly taken. A teaching colleague and her students made tributes which she delivered to Australia Zoo. They clearly felt that they knew Steve as if he had been present, in person, in their lives. I read an online comment from a woman who said her three-year-old already missed Steve, a sentiment you often see: they miss the celebrity.

I can think of times when I’ve missed a celebrity. I still miss Jon Stewart (still alive, I hasten to add) hosting “The Daily Show”, because I used to enjoy watching him every day, and now I can’t do that. When Phil Hartman died in violent circumstances it was shocking, and I missed him when he was no longer in the next season of “Newsradio”, but his absence was in the nature of a cast change, not in the sense that I was used to having him around the place and then he was gone. I was a little sad and reflective when Groucho Marx died, but I couldn’t really say I missed him. I didn’t come down to breakfast and think, “Gee I miss seeing old Groucho there every morning, cracking his egg open and making wise-ass comments over the morning newspaper.”

There is a persistent illusion that we “know” an artist through their work. Of course we know that important aspect of them, but we don’t know them as we know people we see every day. I’m not convinced that we can confidently claim to know a person through their works, in spite of attempts by some scholars of Shakespeare or J.S. Bach to extrapolate biographical details from the works. This is partly because a work of art has a life of its own that is beyond the control of its creator, especially after it’s published and every member of the audience puts their own construction on it.

Note the surprise when a well-loved celebrity disgraces themselves. Bill Cosby? Surely not! We know him so well, it’s not possible. Rolf Harris? Nooo, not Rolf! Please! tweeted the twitterers. We forget that we know only their published work, a little gossip and second-hand reportage, and a carefully crafted public persona that may tell us nothing about them out of the public gaze. Forgetting that, it’s a small step to grieving for them as if we’ve lost a family member or close friend.

I wondered why the cause of Prince’s death was so important to the fans. Then I thought of an example of my own. I’m a fan of British singer-songwriter Nick Drake who died in 1974 aged 26 without achieving much recognition. By the 1990s, when I discovered his albums, musicians were citing him as an influence, his songs were being heard in films, and he was being championed by MOJO magazine.

Even long after the events, I read everything I could, and hung out for the bio-doco “A Skin Too Few”, made by his sister Gabrielle who disagreed with the coroner’s suicide finding. I was interested in a theory that his depression was down to the grey English winters, a known syndrome. I was fascinated by a video snippet of a young man walking away from the camera at a music festival, in what might or might not be the only existing footage of Nick Drake.

See how they weave a spell on us, when we connect with their work?

All in all, though, a minimalist approach would suit me. Report the news succinctly and without gushing, write a well-researched obituary, and leave the rest to the reader. My ideals are those concise obits in the British press that manage to cover the life and achievements of an artist in one page. As a bonus, they usually get the details right and don’t demand any mass emotional response.