Signs of impending doom

2009-04-24 00:00

A lot of people who live in Hilton are fixated on the quaint notion that Hilton is still a village. An English village. You see a lot of people who look like Katharine Hepburn living in Hilton. Yes I know she was American but you know the type — straw hat and a large basket. They take to the roads (Hilton people like to call them lanes) either at the crack of dawn or late afternoon, with an assortment of excitable yapper-type pooches intent on setting off all the real dogs that are safely behind fences.

Anyway, a large number of Hiltonians believe they live in England in one of those soft-focus villages you see on television in feel-good crime series like Midsomer Murders and Morse. Such villages don’t really exist anymore in England, they’re just part of the communal mythology that Britons like to hold on to. Only the British could love their murder mysteries so much, and not surprisingly so. There is an illustrious literary tradition of heinous crime in England that is so well executed and elegantly done. Old British if you like. Agatha Christie as opposed to Linda la Plante. New British TV crime is different. It’s gritty and dirty, populated with unsavoury-looking cops and nasty pockmarked criminals with unfathomable accents. Not the kind of crime the straw-hat-and-basket brigade would approve of.

So against the idyllic background I have just described, you can imagine the furore that erupted when the first set of traffic lights was installed (we don’t call them robots) in Hilton in 1984. It was a cataclysmic event that rocked the village to its core. It split the community straight down the middle. There were heated debates at the Spar, the Hilton Library, the post office, the Health Committee hall, Crossways Country Inn and the Hilton Salon. As far as I know, it never got violent but I can assure you it was a watershed moment in Hilton — a time when we had to re-examine our village ethos and collective identity. Someone from the Hilton Bowling Club, in a gesture of conciliation, suggested that a roundabout (traffic circle for those living outside the mist belt) might be a happy compromise. Now we are talking about the intersection at Crossways here, and for those of you who don’t know it, it is a place shrouded in mist 364 days a year, coping with some of the worst driving on Earth. Fortunately, logic prevailed and the traffic lights were duly erected.

So to the point of my story. Not so long ago two billboards were put up in Hilton. They came in the night in secret and when the mists parted there they were reaching to the skies, bright and new. Wow! What a wondrous and fantastic sight to behold. Wondrous and fantastic because in the body of this village girl beats the aspiring heart of a big-city dweller. I am happy that Hilton has a dream and delighted that it wants to be a great metropolis.

These modest beginnings herald the emergence of a cityscape that will soon, I fervently hope, boast skyscrapers, double-lane highways and state-of-the art shopping malls with trendy new boutiques and restaurants. Won’t that be wonderful? I can finally be that city girl in a redefined new-age village. Hilton’s billboards, for me, are the ultimate signifier of this society’s advancement and I have gazed upon progress with delight and awe.

Over the past few months, the billboards have offered great things, things that I want, things that I need: a flawless skin, riches beyond measure, great service and cheap rates from Telkom, the Kouros guy with the fabulous six-pack and chakalaka. Who would not be seduced by such things?

Not surprisingly, there is a downside to this story as I find myself once again on the margins of popular sentiment. There is a significant and vigorous chapter of the old guard who would have the billboards taken down, removed from sight and thus keep us everlastingly in the consumer wilderness. Doomed to our old ways. Like disgruntled Amish wives forever yearning for a washing machine.

• Tracy Stark holds a PhD in media and communication from Wits University. She lectured in the media and communication programme at UKZN Pietermaritzburg, specialising in the field of new media in everyday life.

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