Friday, 1 October 2010

I Don't Love the 1980s

Back in July 2007, I did a posting which sought to counteract the popular television series 'I Love the '70s' (2000) and its follow-ups, 'I Love the '80s' (2001) and 'I Love the '90s' which I believe was broadcast in 2002 so with its final programme about 1999 was talking about events of only three years earlier.  These programmes looked back in particular at popular culture in one year of each of the decades.  Whilst they did cover some of the political issues of these years it was much more about the upbeat or quirky aspects of pop music and culture of the times and talking to the people involved, though even then selection was careful, for example, the paedophile Gary Glitter (real name Paul Gadd) who had been incredibly successful pop star in the mid-1970s, with twelve consecutive top ten hits in the charts 1972-5, was not featured at all due to his later convictions for abusing children.  Consequently these programmes tended to give a rose-tinted picture especially of the 1970s and 1980s.  As someone who lived through those years, I wanted to counter-balance that perspective.  My view of the 1970s can be seen at:

My intention then had been to follow it up with a 'I Don't Love the 1980s' focusing on the decade which in many ways was even worse than the 1970s and yet almost had instant nostalgia about it, and an 'air brushed' history which focused on the extreme fashions and lively if rather artificial music culture.  Back in 2007, however, I had no inkling that we would be thrust abruptly back into a replica of the 1980s, in fact, with many of its worst aspects compressed into months rather than years.  At the moment we have the cut-backs and privatisation, the unemployment and the racism which took some years to unfold in the 1980s.  Interestingly, I do not seem to have been the only person alert to this, anyone who lived through the 1980s recognises the similarities and knowing what we are going to face in the months and years ahead makes it worse than when we did not know quite what to expect and the full horror was only revealed as the months passed.  Just surfing the television channels in recent weeks I have seen the movie 'This is England' (2006) set in 1983, the follow-up series 'This is England '86' (2010) and the 3-part documentary series 'Alan Davies' Teenage Revolution' (2010).  All of these focus on the nastier side of the 1980s which tends to be forgotten in the nostalgia, especially when it emerges from the USA.

Alan Davies's programme is really an autobiography (which to some degree 'This is England' is for director Shane Meadows, though with more fictional elements included) as he looks back at his teenaged years and how he interacted with the cultural and political trends of the time.  Though Alan Davies is less than two years older than me he was two years ahead of me in terms of schooling so went to university in 1985 whereas I only got there in 1987.  Being older in the early to mid 1980s he was active politically at the time when nuclear weapons were a real issue and the Miners' Strike 1984-5 was a key aspect of British life.  Davies came from a far more privileged background than I did.  I grew up in the Surrey suburbs but our house could have fitted into his at least twice.  I went to a comprehensive school that had been a secondary modern school until  four years before I had attended it whereas Davies went to a public school (i.e. an elite fee-paying school).  However, to the people who faced the blunt end of Thatcherite Britain, for example miners and their families, I lived a privileged life.  My father was never made redundant and my mother found work throughout the period; we never had our house repossessed.  We did know people who suffered these things but were spared them.  I felt hard done by in the 1980s because I was marginalised with my parents treating me as if I was mentally disabled (though ironically not detecting the Asperger's Syndrome symptoms which now seem so apparent) and by friends who looked down upon my family because we lived in the 'wrong' part of town (still leafy suburban roads that most British people would love to live in) and we did not have the consumer items that they felt were necessary for happiness.  My family were also distinct in being Socialists at a time when that belief seemed to be dead or perversely a complete threat to personal liberty.  I was patronised terribly by people who told me that I 'had to accept the need' for Thatcherite policies as if one day I would 'see the light' of how good they were.  I saw them as simply selfish and greedy as I still do today.

It was later than I realised how privileged I had been, when I spoke to man none of whose family had worked since ten years in 1987 and the only people in his village in Scotland who had a job were the man who engraved the gravestones and a gangster.  He moved to Botswana because he could earn a better wage (he earned £7000 per year there, which was ten times the national average salary of Botswana and better than claiming the dole back in Scotland).  Another woman, a white Englishwoman whose family had moved to Scotland where she faced constant prejudice as her father tramped from town to town trying to find work as a teacher.  Even these people did not have their lives wrecked by heroin or had to live in bed and breakfast accommodation.  We all have 'referents', people we compare ourselves too.  Everyone in Britain knows we are better off than most people in Afghanistan or Ethiopia, but when we lose our job or our house, we do not think 'well, it could be worse, I could be starving to death', we look at our referents and see how much worse than them we are.  Thus, I accept that my life in the 1980s was far better than millions of people in the UK, but I felt that I was unfortunate and, anyway, I felt angry for all those without jobs and being hassled by the police.  I suppose that is what being a Socialist is about, having an affinity for other people and striving to make the lives of all people not luxurious but at least decent and importantly, secure.

The one thing I feel that most programmes about the 1980s neglect is how much fear there was.  I do not remember a time when I was not fearful that my father would lose his job, that we would lose our house and anyway that we would be destroyed by a nuclear explosion.  In terms of politics I lived in a very Conservative area, well, that is how most of Surrey is, so rarely found people around me who had even a marginally similar perspective on the world compared to me.  Friends who constantly anticipated a Soviet invasion (the conviction of the reality of this was incredible, even a teacher of ours seeing a group of helicopters flying over the school which was near a NATO base, for a few moments really believed the invasion had come), bragged about how they would fight a guerilla war as they had seen on trashy US movies.  I never expected it to come to that, I anticipated nuclear armageddon.  We knew we had our own Soviet missile as we were near the base and any loud bang at night made me wake thinking the first warheads had hit London some tens of miles away.  That terror was always with us, fuelled by teachers who seem to love showing you movies like 'Threads' (1983) about the outcome of a nuclear war and all the books you would see on the shelves of W.H. Smith outlining similar things.

Another fear towards the end of the 1980s was around AIDS.  It was presented to us not really as a Biblical plague but more as one of those manufactured viruses gone mad that had featured in books, series and movies in the 1970s.  It seemed unstoppable and it also seemed dangerous in the way that it allowed people to be prejudiced, against gays, against people from Africa, though US cities seemed to be the main breeding ground of the disease at the time.  Growing up in suburban England it did seem very much to be 'someone else's' problem and adults around us blamed others.  Schools were rather torn, not wanting to be seen to promote teenagers having sex and because of things such as Clause 28 of the Local Government Act (1986-2002/3) which banned the positive portrayal of homosexual relations in lessons talk around any sexual issues now seemed prescribed.  We were warned about the risks of drug addiction though, and I remember pretty graphic stories clearly aimed at pupils from the sort of context I lived in, about 'nice girls' getting hooked on drugs and ending up as prostitutes and HIV-infected.  The bulk of us not being drug users of any kind (and even under-age binge drinking had yet to be invented) it made AIDS seem still like something that Americans would suffer or homeless people in London.  In addition, the popular cultural coverage, movies like 'Long Term Companion' (1989) and later 'Philadelphia' (1993) seemed to suggest it was something that rich Americans suffered from.  AIDS was not featured in the grim British soap opera, 'Eastenders' until 1992 and in the similar children's series 'Grange Hill' until 1995.

Reaching university welfare officers of the Student's Union seemed to be fired up by the fact that they could not give demonstrations about the use of condoms.  I think it was a good step that condoms were now much more readily available.  However, the UK still has a long way to go before a teenager can by them from a dispensing machine on the street as I saw in West Germany in 1989 (ironically sold from a cigarette machine) or was to see in Belgium subsequently. 

I suppose there were students in the UK who were going in for promiscuous, dangerous sex, it was just that I never seemed to encounter any and AIDS remained simply a subject for people to cover in 'alternative' fiction anthologies that were popular in universities of the time, though the stories I remember were as lurid as those in the tabloid press the authors supposedly loathed.  I found out subsequently that 40% of students leave university without having sex and you have to bear in mind that many arrive already having had it (and when I was at university there was an increasing number of mature students in the mix who had children and even grandchildren).  I was lumped in with a very puritan crowd which might reflect where I went to university or just fate.  One man I knew, even once in bed with a woman turned to her and said he could not go threw with it because he did not believe in pre-marital sex.  Apparently she took it very calmly.  A woman living on my corridor would sleep on the floor of her room from Wednesday when the sheets were changed so that when her boyfriend arrived on Saturday he could sleep alone on clean sheets.  To me there seemed to be something going wrong with feminism let alone sex.  In such a context it appeared that even those in relationships were not having sex.  No wonder AIDS seemed to be very far away.

For me, I was very conscious that I had come to university as not only a virgin but a man who had not had a girlfriend since he was 10.  My parents had done a wonderful jump in utterly crushing my self-confidence by repeatedly portraying me as looking as if I was mentally disabled and I was self-conscious about getting naked from the bodged operation which had left me with a 12cm scar.  I did ask women out, nine in three years, but was always rebuffed, and in some cases, as when taking my 'A' levels I seemed to be always pursuing a disinterested woman when one who had some interest in me was growing impatient at my lack of response.  My understanding nature soon made me one of those men that women pour their hearts out to about how badly their boyfriend is treating them, when in fact, I wanted to be their boyfriend.  My parents, despite having stripped me of the confidence necessary to strike up an intimate relationship, now seemed bemused, at times even angry, that I was not having sexual encounters.  Having been young in the 1960s and in industries which saw quite a lot of promiscuity, but not actually having been to university, they did not understand the puritan environment I was living in and that no woman was in fact particularly interested in me as a sexual partner.  It was not to be until the following century, more than fifteen years later, that I actually had sex. Thus, seeing myself as a liberal Democratic Socialist, I supported safe sex campaigns and events to educate people about sexual health.  However, in terms of myself and how I lived my life it had as much impact as lesbian rights did.  As with the nuclear war issue, I did worry I would be one of the survivors of the post-apocalyptic environment when so many people had died of AIDS that society would break down.  Thus, while not worrying about how it would impact on my health, AIDS was another terrible aspect of the 1980s that added to my overall level of terror for the future.

Unlike Alan Davies, I had never been a great 'joiner' of clubs and societies.  I had been in a judo club for some months as a child and that was it.  Partly that was because of my condition, I see now.  I much preferred to stay in my room and design 'dungeons' for the game 'Dungeons & Dragons' or write fiction, the classic geek.  For me the inner world was the greatest escape.  I had friends, but would have to face up to lectures from their mothers and fathers about how deluded my politics were.  Perhaps if my parents had remained living in London, I would have met more people who thought like me.  I used to fantasise about meeting a radical girlfriend, but it never happened.  Partly because I was useless in social circles and because the only radicals in my district were those who felt that Margaret Thatcher was not going far enough in her policies and were not afraid to say it.  For some reason these were usually girls rather than boys who tended to stick to their post-armageddon fantasies.  Of course, when you are a teenager girls want older men anyway and given that I was patronised, looked as ugly as I do now, except with added acne and adhered to geeky hobbies, I was hardly an attractive proposition.

I did join the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), but almost immediately regretted it.  For some reason I had gone to a CND meeting, probably in 1984, in a neighbouring town and for the first time after numerous invitations the local (Conservative) MP decided to turn up and debate, in a pretty civilised way, with the local group.  Heady from that achievement and seeing some attractive girls from my school in the audience I agreed to join the local party and as a consequence received a newsletter on a green piece of A4 pushed through my letterbox every month or so.  Being fearful, however, I instantly anticipated that I had now wrecked my chances of ever getting a job.  I think this stemmed a great deal from my parents.  My mother had marched with the original CND in the 1960s and whilst pleased the movement had been reinvigorated in the 1980s instilled a real fear in me of the consequences of being involved in radical movements.  My father had been an active trade unionist in the 1970s and growing up I was used to hearing the tapping of our telephone, a fear my mother continued even into the 1990s when I imagine MI5 had long lost interest in my father and the equipment was far more sophisticated.  My mother, when not reminding me how much I looked like someone who was suffering from Down's Syndrome, told me the danger of being lured to join the Communist Party.  As a result, every time the CND letter arrived I was worried that the police would be close behind it.

It took me two attempts to get to university which I managed to do in 1987 after having retaken my 'A' levels and inexplicably the grades jumping far higher despite me writing much the same as I had the year before.  By that stage the Thatcher regime was so ensconced, that, being interested in history, I feared that to get into my chosen career (working for the civil service), I would have not only to disengage from any radical groups but also actually become a member of the Conservative Party.  I believed that democracy would soon be at an end and that as under the Nazi and Soviet regimes only party members would be permitted to have a career in public service.  I had never paid any fees to the CND group since that first evening and yet they had not stopped sending me the newsletter.  I was sure that meant I was on their list and so would be on MI5's.  I saw the only way was to break very clearly from the group and I wrote to then pretending that I had been foolish, having mistakenly believed they supported multilateral disarmament (which was supposedly the Thatcher government's line that they would get rid of nuclear weapons if everyone else did; I doubt their sincerity, I do not believe they ever intend(ed) to get rid of them) but to my horror had found out that they were unilateralists (the Labour Party's approach in the early 1980s, that the UK should get rid of nuclear weapons no matter what anyone else did) and felt I had been deluded by them and that they should not only stop sending me their newsletter but remove me from any list or I would take legal action against them.  I met the member who had signed me up originally at a party and he scowled at me, but that was it, fortunately, and I never saw him again.

By the time I reached university when I did begin to encounter people with similar views to me (in very small numbers and certainly very rare in my student hall which seemed to be full of Oxbridge failures who wanted to live 'Brideshead Revisited' at a modern university), I was afraid we would be doomed to a life of unemployment if we expressed political views not in accordance with the government.  I had intended to join the Conservative Party as I felt it would be the only way to secure a job, but ulitmately could not bring myself to do that.  Unlike Alan Davies, and many people I met myself, by 1987, I had no belief that any action by ordinary people could effect the course of the government's policies.  Having seen the miners broken in 1985, I felt we were on course for a full-blown dictatorship by the 1990s.  I did become a bit radical towards the end of my time at university, ironically, when Thatcher was running out of steam.  I joined the Anti-Apartheid Movement and helped arrange some events; I even occupied a university library.  I think my late found radicalism only came about after I found I had developed diabetes and, in a self-destructive spiral, was drinking far too much alcohol and eating tons of chocolate, assuming I would be dead by 1991 and so would not suffer the consequences of any youthful rebellion.  However, I missed out on the excitement of being radical, the heady rush of for some moments believing you could actually change things.  Maybe I am a natural cynic, but I had the worst of both worlds hating the system but having no faith that I could do anything about it.  Looking back, of course, the protest movements achieved nothing (maybe that is harsh: fortunately no nuclear war yet but still nuclear weapons in the UK; but no more apartheid; better rights for gay people, marginally better for women and disabled people; still policies damaging the environment; still Thatcherism), but I wish at least I had had sufficient hope to have tried, to have been among that number.  Instead, I have seen my expectations mainly realised and yet am burdened by the guilt of not helping those who fought for what I believe I believe in.

Looking back at the programmes of the 1980s, I still get a feeling of awe when I see Tony Benn, Michael Foot and Billy Bragg speaking/singing back then, but I feel I betrayed them.  I was untrue to my beliefs and in the fear or what damage it would do to me personally bottled out of demonstrating or becoming truly involved.  Part of the problem, I think was that my parents had been radical in the 1960s and seeing how little they had achieved and the cost it had imposed on their lives, I was very cynical that anything could be changed with a far harsher government, eager to use the police to suppress protest than had been the case in the 1960s.  My parents did not fill me with radical fervour just additional fear about how my life turned out.  Looking back I realise I feared the wrong things.  I should have been more active which would have relieved me of my current burden of guilt, but ironically should have studied to be a lawyer or an accountant, so would not be now facing losing my house because I am unemployable now that Thatcherism is back.

That was my 1980s: fear.  Fear of nuclear armageddon, fear of never working, fear of being arrested for my views.  Of course, though, in fact I was in a privileged position (in those days only 6% of 18-year olds went to university it is now 42%), those fears and realities affected millions of people.  Unemployment was around 3.4 million in 1986 and was, in reality, far higher.  Thousands of people lost their houses, thousands did not work for years.  Nuclear war was a constant shadow over everything.  No-one I knew, and probably only one person I ever me, ever lived the 1980s 'dream' of champagne, fast cars and jobs in The City and even he may not have got there.  The 1980s had some decent television dramas; it had the Goth movement the greatest gift to culture of the decade; it had the music of Billy Bragg and The Jam which remain timeless, it also had terrible television programmes and trashy pop music. 

More importantly, very deliberately in the 1980s, the last sense of community was destroyed by Margaret Thatcher's declarations that there was no such thing as society and that we were always under threat from those supposedly trying to undermine our way of life, whereas, in fact, it was her who was wrecking it from the foundations up.  Selfishness and greed became engrained into British society and we are still paying the price for that with massive imbalance in incomes, in insecure jobs and even reckless driving.  Thatcher made these things not only seem acceptable, in contrast to the striving for a more equitable society in previous decades, but almost something we should all be striving for if we did not wish to be tarred with the brush of being Socialists.  That is the reality of the 1980s.  I lived in well-off southern England, it bit far harder elsewhere in the UK wrecking millions of lives with poverty, crime and addiction.

I am glad some people are reminding they youth and older people how bad the 1980s were and how bad the 2010s are going to be.  Constant fears and being told you did not even deserve what you had worked for, were the reality of the 1980s and this is why I can only loathe that decade.  If you were too young to experience the 1980s, know it is coming to your street this very day.  Be afraid, be very afraid.


Rooksmoor said...

It seems television commentator Charlie Brooker, who is 4 years younger than me, suffered the same nightmares as me stimulated by the dramas about nuclear war. In his series 'How Television Ruined Your Life' currently running, his first episode is about fear. He features the UK drama 'Threads' and a science programme 'QED' that I also remember, that outlined the utter horror of a nuclear attack. That sense of futility in the face of things we had no control over, fortunately does not seem to be felt to be acceptable to hammer into children today, as it was felt to be in the 1980s, even in schools.

Anonymous said...

I actually remember being terrified of nuclear war in the 1970s and the Coronation Street character Gail Potter echoing my fears in a 1978 episode of the show. I have it on DVD. Thank God for Gorbachev in 1985! There was no "second Cold War" in 1979. Detente was never powerful enough to vanquish the FIRST Cold War fully. Also, we lived in a council house with a prefab kitchen and mould up the walls and old sash windows which had ice on the inside in cold weather in the '70s. It was a sink estate before the term was coined. Not that I liked Thatcher (would suggest that Reagan and America rather more led the way in defining the 1980s) but it's daft to go on cooked up statistics and the fact you can't remember them to pretend the '70s were so much better.