One of the most disturbing moments of my life occurred when I was about seven years old. The Goodies blew the world up. One minute I was in my jarmies, fresh out of the bath, steamily cosy and transfixed as usual by the weirdness on the screen. Then the Goodies said the world was about to end—then that, phew, it wasn’t—then Graeme said, “I put the clock forward: only about half a minute,” and the screen went blank white. Blank. White. There was the sound of an explosion. The Goodies did not come back on and say, ‘Ahah, got you!’ They did not jump out of a box brandishing black sausages and yelling ‘Ecky Thump!’ Nothing. The world simply ended, on the screen at least, and a small girl burst into tears.
To be honest, the Goodies always terrified me. Macabre face-pulling, Graeme’s nasty sideburns, Tim’s sweet/creepy smile, Bill Oddie going mad every ten minutes. They weren’t funny, they were insane. And the most appalling thing about the show is that the Goodies were the normal ones. In that world (which was, to a small child, as perpetual as the real one) the policemen were daft, the postman was loopy, the government ministers were babbling maniacs. It was frightening, in some subcutaneous, paradigm-setting way, to know that everything rested on these three blithering fools who sang songs that didn’t make any sense and hit each other over the head for no reason at all.
A generation of satire later, and my childhood dread that those in charge don’t know what they’re doing is only inflated. Obviously I’m not the only one who watched ‘The Thick of It’ or ‘The Hollowmen’ with that peculiar smug/unsettled sense of ‘my God, they’re not really joking.’ European ministers gaping as their financial world crumbles, corruption exposed in police forces here, the United States brought to the edge of defaulting on loans of money so gigantic there is hardly space for all the zeros on one line, and waves of protest against both legitimate governments and tyrannical regimes all over the world: I wouldn’t want to be an impressionable seven year old right now. Nor, really, a grown adult.
If I am haunted by the end of the world on a blank white tv screen in 1979, a whole planet saw a screen white with real destruction on September 11, 2001. The mightiest military power in the world hadn’t been able to prevent those attacks. Its solutions, in Iraq and Afghanistan, brought more destruction and grief. Who could believe now, after those atrocities—after years of mendacious fumbling to address climate change—after sex scandals in the Catholic Church—after the degeneration of politics in this country—after ‘core’ and ‘non-core’ promises—that the people in suits know what they’re doing?
We Australians enjoy a mythos of being larrikins, renegades, thumb-pullers to authority. But we’re also endemically docile. We comfortably like to think that someone in a department somewhere is listing, checking, double-checking, regulating, formulating and accounting for all things that need such attention. That budgets add up, that there is a policy or a law somewhere for every eventuality. Whole political doctrines debate the extent to which the state should administer civil life, but whichever side of politics you’re on, you probably imagine that the game is refereed. Our democracy is based on trust: we obey laws and mores in trust that these defences will be respected; that our authorities perform their jobs virtuously and competently.
It’s deeply disturbing to doubt this. I’m not pointing at any particular administration or government, organisation or commission: they all do their best. Just fingering the idea that we retain a lazy, childlike faith in ‘grown-ups’. We yelp for intervention when things fail. We cry for compensation and whinge when we’re denied. We howl ‘gotcha!’ at minor mistakes and wilfully forgive larger systemic catastrophes (hello, bankers); we beg for lollies but grizzle at homework and being told it’s bed-time. We throw tantrums and threaten to hold our breath til we turn blue. We don’t like mummy and daddy anymore. But we still want to be tucked in and sung a lullaby.
Funnily enough, the generation of authorities now in charge likely also watched ‘The Goodies’ and Monty Python when they were young. They probably thought they could do better. Maybe it’s time we all grew up.