When is a fad not a fad? When it’s a scientific and cultural breakthrough, that’s when.
I think I’ve always been a tad suspicious of passing trends. It’s a trait I learnt from my father, though it’s possible to miss some really good stuff by being over-cautious.
My dad was an electrician. He ran his own shop renting out televisions, radios (yes, radios) and all things electric. A stream of little old ladies would come into the shop each week to pay their three shillings or whatever it was for the weekly rental of their washing machine, their fridge or their electric iron. Some of the televisions had little slot machines on the back – the forefather of pay per view – and my dad would go round to his customers’ houses to empty the little money boxes from time to time. Those were days of sameness, of knowing what you wanted and needed in life, and it was my dad’s role to provide it.
It was not his job, as he saw it, to pander to passing fancies. Therefore, when colour television started rolling out of the factories and his customers muttered about maybe trying one of those new sets, just to see how the snooker looked, he wasn’t playing. “It’ll never catch on,“ he announced. “Too expensive. I shan’t be stocking any.”
Problem was, his competitors had a more flexible approach to customer satisfaction so it wasn’t long before my dad’s more adventurous clientele jumped ship. After a while he grudgingly accepted that perhaps colour was the way to go and he allowed the contraptions in his shop. For the most part, though, he and the little old ladies were happy with their slot machines and rented fridges and life trundled on.
Next came hi-fi. Another fad. Another flash in the pan. My dad was unimpressed. “Who listens to music anyway? Everyone watches the television, especially now it’s in colour.” So he ignored the advent of stereo speakers, ghetto blasters, music centres. Yet more customers with cash burning holes in their pockets drifted away to spend it elsewhere, though the little old ladies remained loyal. Mostly.
The age of home computing was upon us. Well, some of us. My dad’s customers, naturally, would not care for such nonsense. He was convinced of this so he turned his face away from the Sinclair ZX and its cronies. “Grown adults wasting their time on silly games. It’ll not last…”
My dad retired years ago. His business was sold off in bits, the stock to one competitor, the rental contracts, those that remained, to another. Some of his stuff was snapped up by the National Museum of Film and Television which just happened to be in the town where we lived. The shop premises themselves are now a hairdressers. My dad plied his trade through much of the twentieth century, a period which saw some of the most momentous advances in electronics as well as the cultural upheaval of the sixties and seventies yet he managed to benefit hardly at all from any of it. He was surrounded by people he went to college with who were making fortunes out of the passing fancies, the fads, the daft ideas that would never catch on. They saw opportunity where he saw only risk and unnecessary meddling with things that worked perfectly well as they were.
My dad was an entrepreneur, of sorts. He had to be to run his own business and make enough to bring up four children but I wonder if he might have been happier as the curator of a museum. Certainly he was never cut out to be at the forefront of a technological revolution.
Even as a child, I was convinced he was missing a trick. Colour television was wonderful. I loved to listen to music, to play computer games. I like change, thrive on newness and risk. I always have, which is probably just as well given the somewhat unpredictable fortunes of an author. I hope I have a healthy attitude to risk and opportunity because if I hadn’t been ready to stick my neck out, to try something new and unproven, I’d never have written my first book.
And then where would I be?