Eighties Reject?

The other day (as I a joke, I must say) my girlfriend referred my dress sense as being that of an 'eighties reject'. To be fair I was wearing my green army jacket bought from Camden market, with an Oi Polloi badge pinned to it. My jeans were turned up and I was wearing my Doc Martens. I may have been listening to Billy Bragg.

This got me thinking, as I really am not fond of the idea of being stuck in the past, afraid of change or worst of all, unwilling to change my haircut. Bear in mind I was only born in 1983, and so was the grand old age of seven when the nineties hit, but looking back at my childhood I concede that I inherited a great deal of my ideas that one would associate with that strange decade from my parents and the events that shaped it. I have distinct memories of my father telling me about why Thatcher was 'a bitch' and laying out the details of the miners strike in child friendly terms. I was played a lot of Madness, The Specials, Black Uhuru and Billy Bragg as a young boy. I think it soaked in at a near-subliminal level. So ‘eighties influenced’ definitely.

Of course it is impossible to be indicative an entire time period – I don’t look back to the rampant consumerism and Reagan-Thatcherite as a good thing, and the negative legacies from that time that morphed into the New Labour years don’t need to be gone into here. So, I think what was meant by the term ‘eighties reject’ was that I looked like someone who wouldn’t have been out of place at a political demo, punk gig or Islington squat. I take that as a compliment, of sorts.

The truth is only much later in my life did I become much more interested in the eighties phenomenon of the ever-inspiring, murky world of anarcho punk. Bands such as Conflict, Subhumans, Icons of Filth, Zounds, The Mob and Oi Polloi changed my life for the better, no question about it. This was no exercise in pointless nostalgia or thinking - discovering all of this music formed the crucial missing link for me between the well documented world of seventies punk rock and eighties ska to the scene that I myself have been a part of and contributed to for years. The timelines now made sense. Sad or trite though it may sound, bands like Conflict helped me give up eating meat for good and thinking about Britain in a very different way.

As I got older, my interest in the decade that framed my formative years increased. Increasing political awareness meant necessarily looking back to the Thatcher years to understand the position we find ourselves in. Tie this in to a bit of personal biography, a love of music from the era and I developed a greater appreciation of the time period than the standard 'wasn't Thundercats a funny cartoon' conversation.

And now, this period of time seems to be all over British television. Shane Meadows has revisited characters from his excellent ‘This Is England’ with ‘This Is England ‘86’, and received much deserved acclaim. 

However, of more interest to me was a recent documentary, presented by Alan Davies, entitled 'Alan Davies' Teenage Revolution'; it was a lightweight if engaging trip through the more left-wing, bohemian aspects of the period. It worried me, however, that the show had the air of nostalgic reminiscence even whilst examining political issues whose impacts can still be felt. The stuff about squatting, the women's movement, the miners strike, gay rights - all are fascinating subjects probably in need of entire programmes devoted to them, yet the talking heads appeared to be viewing the events they described as mere follies of youth. 

Familiar, and dare I say it, safe faces are interviewed. I love Billy Bragg, but he is not the sole face of British left wing music. Ian McKellen is not that interesting a figure to interview about the Gay Rights movement. There was no mention of Derek Jarman, a far more pertinent figure in that battle, which was sorely disappointing. Any tricky issues that were associated with animal rights, squatters and the punk movement were glided over with faint amusement. Once again, a safe packaged version of history was trotted out for the sake of woozy nostalgia.

Admittedly, I enjoyed the fact that the story oddly encompassed areas from my own life – Whitstable and Stoke Newington, mainly – but I can’t shake the feeling that real, important social movements and events get consigned to the nostalgic entertainment bin. 

In some ways, then, I am an eighties reject. I look to a number of movements from the period that inspire my actions now; I try to know my own history, especially the half-hidden histories of the politics I claim to have and the beliefs that I hold – this applies to all of history. But I am not looking back and wishing then was now; we move forward by knowing that we are part of a timeline, part of history. I’m happy to be a man out of time if necessary; if moving with the times means forsaking belief for irony, sculpting my hair and living in Shoreditch, then I don’t want it. Those people will be forgotten, laughed about on future nostalgia shows. 

And on that note, here’s a great eighties punk rock song: