The golden telescope


Hong Kong tramway. Video by .

Michael Dembinski over at W-wa Jeziorki regularly experiences feelings of deja vu. He puts on a WWII GI’s soldier’s helmet and it feels very familiar. He sees a great open field in the middle of the great Polish plain and is suddenly transported to the American West. I suffer from something altogether much weirder.

In 1980, I was standing in Basle near the railway station looking out on to the town. It was not a particularly stunning view: some characteristically European roofs and advertising hoardings in the background, shops with windows full of goods in the middle distance, busy modern trams in the foreground. Then the feeling hit me, this could have been Poland if the boundary between the Soviet region of influence and the West’s had been drawn a couple of thousand miles to the East.

Today, the greyness characteristic of Poland in the 1970s and 80s has gone and a similar view can be seen: in Poznan, Wroclaw, Warsaw or Gdansk. So was I looking into a Philip Pullman Dark Materials Trilogy parallel universe where the betrayals at Tehran and Yalta had never happened, or was I being granted a view of the future?

I certainly do seem to get the occasional ‘flash forwards’. I remember reading the August 1981 Byte magazine. The whole issue was devoted to the research that had been done at Xerox Parc in Palo Alto into object-oriented programming, graphical user interfaces (GUI) and ‘what you see is what you get’ computing. Although the systems had been developed on big computers I remember being hit by an overwhelming feeling that in the future all ‘personal computers’ (the term had just been invented by IBM) would work like this. The first successful personal computer with a GUI, the Apple Mac, was actually launched in January 1984.

So why do I react so strongly to this short film about the Hong Kong tramway, the largest operator of double deck trams in the world? Is it because British cities could have been like this, if pro motor car interests had not succeeded in wiping out virtually all of the UK’s tramways in the 1950s and 60s? Or is it a glimpse into what Britain’s tramways might yet be like in the future?

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2 Responses to “The golden telescope”

  1. John Says:

    Oh Dyspozytor, you do make me travel sick! There is something special about hurtling down the busy roads of Hong Kong island on these trams. How they do not roll over with their narrow bogies and double decks packed with passengers I do not know. Their varnished wood and steel framed bodies are a refreshing change from the petrochemical grey plastic of modern trams.

    Here is a top travel tip: if you have the pleasure of travelling on a Hong Kong tram, make sure you head to the top deck and get a seat at the front window – there is no air conditioning on these trams and the breeze through the front window is a welcome relief during summer.

    Also, if you are planning to explore the tram network, night time is a great time to do it, as the daytime commuters (and cars) have long dispersed and the trams still run as frequently as during the day. You can enjoy fast runs (up to 55km/hr), and Hong Kong hardly sleeps so the ‘scenery’ is great.

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