Since David Cameron claimed class war anthem “Eton Rifles” as one his Desert Island Discs, many political journalists seem to have bought the argument that they are “The Jam Generation”; the subject of a recent Radio 4 series. It seemed a good time re-post my piece for The Spectator arts blog writtten after they came to power last year about the cultural deadzone of the mid 80s. I should know. I was there.
They say your musical and cultural tastes are frozen by the time you’re in your early twenties. So what does it say for much of the new government that they hit that seminal moment in the mid-to-late 80s? The first thing you need to do is forget all their suspicious Estuary English and Tony Blair and David Cameron’s ‘you know’ blokeisms; and most of all, forget Dave’s choice of ‘Eton Rifles’ on Desert Island Discs. This was the era of Red Wedge and ‘Lady In Red’. ‘Oxford Blues’ inflicted Rob Lowe and a posse of poshies led by Julian Sands on our cinemas.
As someone who happened to be at Oxford at the same time, I have been lifting the repressed memories of what had been the crucial cultural influences around the group now running the country. Let me take you on a personal journey through the fashions, music and politics of a bygone age: a cultural history of the 80s in a dozen or so objects and a kind of criminal trial, hence the lettered pieces of evidence. It’s not a pretty story. Read it and give your verdict at the end.
And it begins with a dress.
Exhibit A: A Laura Ashley magenta brocade dress with leg o’mutton sleeves and big bow at the back. £33.50.
Bought to wear to THAT 1987 Union Valentine Ball at which David Cameron also made an appearance and was photographed for posterity in black tie.
The dress still lives – hidden – in the back of my wardrobe waiting to be worn as fancy dress when my daughter’s old enough, or turned into a pair of curtains. But it survives mostly as a chilling reminder that in fashion, as much as in print, TV and politics, the 80s were the last time that it was COOL, that many teenagers aspired to look as though they’d inherited money. The curtain theme was important. An alternative to the big meringue dress was the skin tight short ruched and often strapless number (to maximise coltish legs) made, apparently out of Austrian blinds. Mustard yellow was a popular colour at the Valentine Ball of ‘87.
Exhibit B: Athena print . Ideally of a large cocktail with an umbrella standing in front of a Venetian blind- as displayed on many student bedroom walls.
The print is notable for its total lack of visual depth or texture. It is brightly coloured and conveys 80s glamour and excitement: Wham’s ‘Club Tropicana’ transposed into ink and paper. You could drink such cocktails at Freud’s a bar in a deconsecrated chapel.
Exhibit C: Video box set (though I doubt it was then available) of award-winning ITV drama serial Brideshead Revisited.
Contemplate with horror that ITV’s Brideshead Revisited (only 5 years old) was apparently a lifestyle guide to many new undergraduates. I remember pudgy chaps in stripy blazers and flannels taking me and my girlfriends punting: Billy Bunters trying to channel Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews. The one accuracy, of course, was the broken glass and vomit-flecked antics of the Bullingdon and the sporting clubs that interrupted our Saturday nights with predictable regularity. The only sign of good taste and catering? The intense American Rhode Scholars heading for careers in high finance who put on proper English Mayday breakfasts with champagne, strawberries and scones and networked: ‘Where’d you go? Not-er Dayme. Good schoool!’
The 80s was also the Era of Two Tribes. Sloane Rangers v Red Wedge.
Exhibit D: Video of Series 2 Episode 1 of BBC Comedy Series The Young Ones (first TX 1984)
The ‘University Challenge’ episode of The Young Ones, though already a few years old, is probably your best visual snapshot of Oxford’s extremes of style and political stance. Opposing Scumbag College on University Challenge was an Oxbridge team encompassing debs, hoorays and Camden boy Ben Elton, whose dad ‘bought me the Social Workers’ Party for my birthday’.
Exhibit E: A pair of stripy boxer shorts
According to my copious scribbling from the spring of 1987, Magdalen College JCR hosts a ‘plebs not debs’ party. A posh, possibly Etonian fellow student at St Edmund Hall who is to eventually go into the City is running an ‘Oxbox’ boxer shorts company from his rooms (boxer shorts are, of course, a very 80s thing) and has taken to calling me ‘Sharon’ whenever he sees me (it is his idea of a joke about the lower orders). I look to widen my social circle. I note that ‘the Socialist Workers Party, Latin American Society and Third World First are supposed to be great places to meet new people’. I don’t know who told me this and, though never explained in the diary, I actually never try out any of them. There are Young Conservatives everywhere. Militancy is wreaking internal havoc in the large Labour party contingent and future Oxfordshire MP Evan Harris is a worryingly intense and organised presence in the Liberal-SDP alliance for the General election campaign that the Conservatives win comfortably.
I have also done my first political interview for the university paper – with Labour Student Union president Stephen ‘Were you up for Portillo?’ Twigg. As with the odd subsequent politicians the subject is rather miffed that it’s not entirely complimentary. And by Spring 1987 I’ve written my first policy feature for ISIS – on panic about ‘too many’ immigrants. The only difference? The immigrant campaigners I interviewed then all now have peerages.
Time for some music now. In my room I have a small radio cassette player. Record players are on the way out, and certainly too bulky to bring up to college. So…
Exhibit F: The mix tape, with its song titles written in capitals in fading biro and entitled, though the writing is too faded to be sure: ‘Oxford 1986’.
The format of the day. Pretty crappy quality. My first mix tape made on my sister’s stereo in the summer holiday after A-levels is dominated by the Communards with a single Dire Straits track: ‘Romeo and Juliet’. My contemporary Toby Litt confirms my memory of ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ as the anthem of ‘86 to ‘87. American Glamour, led by Prince, dominated the singles charts. Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, Duran Duran, Kim Wilde and Genesis are all in the top 40. Tinny anthems fill commercial radio. (‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop us Now’ – Starship; ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’ – Whitney Houston). It is surely no coincidence at this point that I discover Radio 4 and do not re-tune my radio for the rest of the decade.
At the Teddy Hall freshers’ party I remember dancing to The Bangles’ ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’ (a big hit that year). Then the DJ plays Abba and all us 18-year-olds laugh. How hilarious. How novel. Abba tracks in an ironic way. Just a few years after their last hit.
The rest of my mix tape features Kate Bush’s greatest hits (I’d kind of been too young in the 70s and am catching up). My favourite mix tape track is David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s ‘Forbidden Colours’ (there was a big mid-80s Japanese thing that fuelled a lifelong fascination with the country. I get to meet some lovely Japanese students through future Tory culture secretary Jeremy Hunt.)
I have also put a lot of my Great Composers’ Works LPs onto cassettes. Classical music is classy in the ‘80s. The opera-themed thriller Diva is always on at the rep Cinema, the Penultimate Picture Palace. It is also French, which is very classy. I put one of my Great Composers tapes on when new potential friends come up to my room for coffee. One night a young man from the Christian Union sniffily tells me my Great Composers recording of ‘The Moonlight Sonata’ is being performed much too fast. I hadn’t thought about different recordings of classical works being good or bad. He does not become a friend.
One day I am introduced to future advertising executive and friend, David Glass, who (it’s whispered in awe) has:
Exhibit G: CD sound system with speakers and stacking storage units.
An actual CD sound system in his rooms at Magdalen. Going to visit his room for the first time is like being invited to Cern to view the Large Hadron Collider. He also possesses a CD stacking system. He owns more than a hundred CDs. In 1987. I sit in awe as he clicks the little drawer open and explains how it plays by laser. He neatly shuffles the little clicking plastic cases. I am gobsmacked by all these tiny shining circles. In my head it’s like that bit in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I am the ape throwing my club up in the air. And David is in the Pan Am space ship. Interestingly, I remember absolutely NOTHING about what music was played. In Toby Young’s imagining for Channel 4, ‘When Boris Met Dave’, it shows David Cameron playing records. I wonder if he had a CD player?
By the end of the 80s, of course, the new Independent Newspaper is running regular headlines on the music industry’s CD price-fixing cartels and later it’s widely realised how rubbish the technology is, and how easily damaged. It is scientifically proven that Vinyl delivers better audio quality.
In the holidays before year 2, I go and make a new mix tape and dig out my Sony Walkman to bring back to college to play it on. The latest tape features ‘China in your Hand’ by T’Pau. I can remember almost nothing else. When I edit Isis, the university magazine, a young contributor heads off to a Red Wedge gig full of enthusiasm for meeting Paul Weller, Billy Bragg, Norman Cook and other Labour-supporting stars on the youth music tour. He comes back distraught after being kept waiting till 2am and then told everyone’s too drunk to talk to him, and writes a bitter review about being treated with disdain and arrogance by the PR man for the vanguard of the new young Left.
I ask my English tutorial partner (and future stand up comedian) Stewart Lee, as possibly the coolest person I know, and therefore possibly ‘into stuff like the Smiths’, to review some albums. He shows impressive depth of knowledge, referencing John Lee Hooker and the Bhundu Boys. I remember it because it was so rare. I have retreated almost altogether from contemporary music. Though I have a hazy memory (repressed for my own mental well being) of going to see Dire Straits at Wembley Arena. Incidentally, why are they still even now completely beyond the pale for acceptable musical taste? (Apart from by surgeons who play them during operations, according to a 2012 Radio 4 report. )
Toby says now: ‘I didn’t really watch much TV, apart from Top of the Pops, if I was around. I went to gigs… Talulah Gosh at the Jericho Tavern. That was the so-called “Cutie Scene”. You might want to look up Amelia Fletcher from the band, who is now a very high-powered economist.’
I was unaware of Cutie Scene. I watched TOTP only to confirm my fears, and repeats of The Water Margin when I could. The JCR TV was dominated by Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry videos chosen by the rugby players. I played the piano a lot and got a free double ticket to my college ball for entertaining diners with Chopin, Debussy and even ‘The Moonlight Sonata’. After playing, I could enjoy the other performers. The vogue at Oxford Balls and parties was for torch songs – Edith Piaf covers – and vocal jazz. Mari Wilson was the only famous name I remember seeing perform at university. By my second year I was dating an investment banker (it really was the 80s) who played a lot of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. I tried to find some jazz to love, not merely like or tolerate.
EXHIBIT H: Pimms Ad
Inspiration came via a trendy Pimm’s ad (note the product) featuring Sarah Vaughan’s version of ‘Summertime’. Unexpectedly, the 80s fashion for consuming posh drinks like landed gentry led me to discover Sarah, Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Dinah Washington. I chose a women’s studies option for my degree and wrote about Black American women’s fiction (a genre I still continue to explore with fascination). But I also ended up looking at women’s crime fiction and, somehow, the subset of lesbian crime fiction (not a genre with enough quality to justify a term’s study). I think this academic decision was a reaction to, and a retreat from, all the Brideshead culture around me. I was trying to find contemporary depth. But achingly pretentious literary theory was all the rage in the 80s and I fell victim to its pretentiousness, masquerading as substance. I wish now I’d opted for Hawthorne and Melville or old Icelandic or ANY of the many other options.
At my college there is by now both a women’s group (we all get free rape alarms) and a men’s group too. I write in my diary with delight about all the wonderful men who are feminists. But at night the rugger buggers still trash the front quads and yell ‘get your kit off’ at any female taking part in the comedy revues.
At the end of my second year I edit Isis. We commission a piece about student donors at Oxford’s famous sperm bank: an early recognition of the future importance of the fertility industry. It begins with the sentence: ‘No one ever shakes hands at the sperm bank.’ We invite Fleet Street journalists to give talks and take them to central Oxford’s most trendy restaurant: Baedekers. Baedeker’s is the perfect epitome of 80s food fashion. It is a concept restaurant. The menu is ‘international’ (hence the Guidebook name) and the food comes in very small portions on…
Exhibit I: octagonal black plates. Dishes that were widely used in upmarket restaurants, conveying to customers their sophistication.
It’s not very tasty either. It comes to £90 on my Visa card for 8 people, including the Fleet Street journo we are treating. This is a phenomenal amount of money. A couple of people never pay their share. I never go there again.
And then somehow I find myself agreeing to edit the magazine of the university debating society – the Oxford Union – with future novelist Toby Litt and for the new Union President, Michael Gove. Essentially he was exactly the same as he is today, except he seemed a lot older then: a 40-year-old trapped in a 20-year-old’s body. But very charming. Toby says now he thinks we were regarded with caution as ‘arty / newsy’ types. Toby had hair that was higher than mine and carefully sculpted and gelled. Toby now describes it as ‘Morrissey crossed with a pineapple’, which is pretty accurate. He was actually from Bedfordshire, but knows about Morrissey and possibly Manchester culture, which remain impenetrably male to me at this stage.
The two of us find ourselves regularly sitting in front of Michael Gove at his big old wooden desk in the Union President’s office, rich with Heritage. Rather impressively. Michael’s introduction in the front of the magazine reads like a speech he could deliver right now as Education Secretary, all about raising educational standards in the state sector so Oxford is not the preserve of the rich. The magazine has articles about inner city decay, unemployment and homophobia. On the cover Toby and I go for just three key words: Money, Fear, Sin. (A pretty concise summary of the mid-‘80s, I still think. The fear was about AIDS.)
A result of this creative partnership with Toby is that I got to see what genuinely arty types listen to. I think Toby had a record player. I imagined he listened to a lot of synth music like Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark. I had no evidence of this, other than his hair and his penchant for wearing black clothes including polo necks. One night I accidentally dropped my keys in the drain outside his lodgings and he very kindly went to huge effort to retrieve them for me on his knees, improvising with sticks and wires. This is proof that arty types could be very nice people and not the poseurs who hung out at Freud’s nightclub. In fact Toby says he was listening, like me, to older stuff, though not necessarily the same older stuff: Dylan, Van Morrison, the Velvet Underground. I identify a common theme of trying to find culture from the past because what’s on offer around us is not nutritious enough.
The next exhibit is the film that defines these years. Toby’s male perspective is fascinating. He says there was a thing about going to see Top Gun repeatedly and quoting scenes. My defining film of those years (and of at least one male Oxford friend, now a major New York media executive) is…
Exhibit J: The film Working Girl 1988 Directed by Mike Nichols (nominated for 6 Oscars: best film, best director best actress – Melanie Griffith, best supporting actress – Sigourney Weaver, Joan Cusack; wins best song – ‘Let the River Run’ Carly Simon)
It’s The Graduate for the corporate milk round generation. And I definitely went back to the Phoenix cinema on Walton Street for repeat screenings. Eminently quotable, shot with epic splendour from the first shot and almost entirely in Manhattan’s banking offices, bankers’ upscale apartments and costumed in suits, we find Han Solo playing second fiddle to a WASP ice maiden (Sigourney Weaver) and a blue collar lass of ambition (Melanie Griffith). In the original movie poster Harrison Ford is actually almost completely hidden, peeping out from between their power shoulders. Both about to turn 30; both with curly hair. If it’s one of the most influential movies in MY life, I believe it must have confirmed the career choices of hundreds of future bankers, management consultants, corporate lawyers and (Carlton) PR men.
The film’s romantic leads have their most passionate sex after closing a deal in mergers and acquisitions and its plot arc is notably short term (what happens when these 30-somethings want to have kids?) Kevin Spacey steals the show in a two- minute scene in the back of a limo as a coked-up, champagne-swilling porn-obsessed banker. But it captured the Conservative dream of making it on talent and ambition, and making money. As with curly haired Margaret Thatcher, the men are just the support. The two truly disappointing aspects? That our heroine, cheated of her credit on clinching the big deal, can only be rescued by the grand old man, the CEO of the corporation, granting his semi-divine favour, like the Duke in a Shakespeare comedy. (As if Maggie would ever have relied on a man to rescue her.) And ‘Lady in Red’ by Chris De Burgh marring an otherwise very decent soundtrack. (It went on to be one of the top 40 selling singles of 1987.)
By the summer of 1989, change was afoot. After finals I went backpacking through West Germany and Austria and found myself on the night train from Vienna to Cologne sharing a compartment with, and hearing the moving stories of, East German refugees who’d started a small flood seeking asylum via embassies in the West. November 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall was only three months away. My heart lifts as I remember this.
Fashion took a while to improve from its tropical candy colours and batwings. There were glimmers of great ‘80s culture, too, and of what it could achieve, if you looked carefully. The Pet Shop Boys’ superficially superficial pop, packed with dark fun. John Waters’ Hairspray hit mainstream pay dirt and he went on to liberate Johnny Depp from American TV teen idol status for a generation of women in CryBaby (1990) Thank-you, Mr Waters. John Hughes’ masterpiece of cheekiness with a contemporary/retro soundtrack, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (another film that saw plenty of repeat visits to the cinema) was eventually to help Barack Obama to the White House all those years later when Matthew Broderick reprised the role for a viral ad the day before the 2008 Presidential Election. A special exhibit for the defence, if you like:
Exhibit K: Matthew Broderick viral film for Obama presidential election campaign 2008
It is not, I think, a coincidence that most of these positive examples are American.
The ‘90s were better. Even with a terrible recession. Music got better. Though, judging from my own pineapple hair and shoulder pads in my BBC publicity photo, the ‘80s lasted till about 1994. Britpop arrived in time to mark the start of my relationship with my future husband, Brian Millar: a Manchester guy who knew all about Morrissey and had lived a parallel life at Oxford during those years.
Morrissey: Not my husband.
Mentally, I was able to join the 90s back to the New Wave that had made my preteen years in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s such a glorious time. The ‘80s were (like a bad Athena print) airbrushed out of my cultural history. I started going to gigs and buying loads of albums again. All on vinyl.
Toby Litt says now that the political scene and what he regarded as ‘Tory triumphalism’ were instrumental in his decision to leave Britain for Prague as the Iron Curtain fell.
As for me, well, there’s a postscript.
I had read Brideshead Revisited in one of my holidays before going up to Oxford. It’s a great but quite short read. I’d never watched the whole acclaimed ITV drama, which is, to this day, hailed as a gold standard of great TV. In September 1996, as I took up my posting as the BBC’s Los Angeles Correspondent. I found it being screened on the then-new delight of multichannel cable TV. After a long day covering the OJ Simpson civil trial, I sat down in the Land of the Free looking forward to catching up on a high point of ‘80s culture. I was stunned to find it (apart from the first Oxford episode) unwatchably ponderous, pretentious and dull. I never got beyond episode 2. The soundtrack is quite good, though. Though I mostly play vinyl nowadays, I still have it on cassette. I have never bought a CD player.