Young Ones

Hugh Barnes

  • Damaged Gods by Julie Burchill
    Century, 152 pp, £8.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 7126 1140 1
  • Love it or shove it: The Best of Julie Burchill
    Century, 148 pp, £3.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 7126 0746 3
  • Girls on Film by Julie Burchill
    Virgin, 192 pp, £5.99, March 1986, ISBN 0 86369 134 X
  • Less than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis
    Picador, 208 pp, £2.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 330 29400 8

At the height of Punk I was still at school, which always seemed to me a rather melancholy fact – not least because one’s authority as a rebel was brought into question by having to attend lessons and the like. Out of hours, we worked hard to make good our sense of disadvantage, and a competition, which was incidental to following our favourite groups around London, started up among my circle of friends. At the end of each night out, we used to run amok, hoping to catch a glimpse of our idols. Fashions in idolatry change, whenever a purge takes place or the latest style is jettisoned, but even so I doubt whether the way we brushed with greatness will ever ‘come back’: we were surly and obnoxious, and we practised curling the lip. (The curled lip, rather like a masonic handshake, doubled as a greeting between initiates and a message in code.) We also vied with each other to incur our heroes’ displeasure, which was measured in rebukes. The practice of behaving discourteously towards people one actually looked up to derived, I suppose, from a misconceived notion of the egalitarian spirit of Punk, its élan vital. The best I ever managed was a warning not to be such a nuisance from someone who, for a brief period, played drums with The Clash: however hard I tried to be outlandish, I was generally ignored. But there was one lad who stood outside a recording studio for an afternoon in the rain because the Sex Pistols were known to be inside. At last Sid Vicious emerged, and our friend launched into his adoring volley of abuse. Sid took one look, snarled and told him to fuck off. Back at school the boy became an instant celebrity.

We acknowledged Julie Burchill as the archetypal punk. She was self-regarding, bolshy and judgmental, and we were her proselytes. Every Friday in the New Musical Express she meted out punishment to ideological offenders, and came to represent for us the biological energy of the movement. At the beginning of Damaged Gods, Burchill, whose taste for anthropology has become lavish in the intervening period, claims that the golden age of youth lay between two unconditional surrenders: Japan’s in 1945 and that of the British electorate to Mrs Thatcher 34 years later. Readers coming to Burchill for the first time will do well to prepare for hyperbole of this sort in her writing and for its quanta of unquantifiable prejudice. Another characteristic feature is the proliferation of categories (whenever sartorial trends or accessories are being discussed) and of ‘eras’ (when the subject is, more generally, ways of thinking). In this respect Burchill remains largely unreconstructed.

It will be pointed out that the days of Johnny Rotten and the Silver Jubilee appear heady by comparison with the present, and that even the last weeks of Mr Callaghan’s Government, and of the Lib-Lab Pact, now seem less like a winter of discontent than innocent and balmy spring. In recent months it has become possible, particularly if you happen to be a member of the Government, to speak of the yob society which is just around the corner; and one wonders what Julie Burchill, in her earlier incarnation, would have had to say about that. Doubts have been voiced in several quarters as to the wisdom of allowing an underclass of the unemployed and unemployable young to come into being, and as to the long-term feasibility of keeping its angry constituents in check. Burchill dismisses the threat to public order, but her reasons for doing so are not always easy to follow. It is true, of course, that teenagers have lost a certain amount of self-confidence in the last few years, but it seems harsh to attribute this, as Burchill does, to satiety and the thrall to consumerism. It appears more likely that the young have been subdued by other factors: by unemployment itself, perhaps, or by the prospect of nuclear extinction or by the bleak future outlined for them by Lord Young and Mr George Younger, the two responsible ministers. The irony of the nomenclature is unavoidable: it only remains for a superlatively youthful Minister for the Draft to be appointed, although it may be objected that after Lord Young has completed his overhaul of the YTS, such an appointment will be unnecessary. Another irony concerns the improved standing of Burchill herself, and her unmistakable debt to Mrs Thatcher. Indeed the punk whose existence once seemed adequate reproof of Tory arguments now embraces them enthusiastically. And one of the most surprising by-products of the Government’s assault on youth has been Burchill’s personal achievement of eminence and ubiquity as a writer of tracts. These are slick and customised pieces, but at times they display resourcefulness that can reconcile opposing tendencies of born-again Conservatism: post-punk cynicism and intractable nostalgia. Likewise Burchill’s xenophobia hardly ever slips, and each year she more closely resembles her political hero, Enoch Powell, from whose speeches she quotes liberally in her texts.

From the outset Burchill’s career described an upward curve. She arrived in London immediately after leaving school in the mid-Seventies. She won a contest for cub contributors to the NME and landed a job on the staff, since when she has not looked back – or at least only to reminisce about her childhood in Bristol. Her father, a stern Communist, loved the proletariat – something his daughter says she is unable to do: ‘The working class were my religion. And I have lost my faith.’ In this way the essays collected in Love it or shove it establish the vacuity of the modern world. Burchill then turns her attention to more exotic modes of social commentary: the ‘gonzo’ journalism pioneered by Hunter S. Thompson clearly prefigures Damaged Gods, and in Girls on Film she ventures into a Kenneth Anger world of gross. Each book boasts a vitriolic manifesto, as well as close-ups of the degeneration of the species. Damaged Gods is subtitled ‘Cults and Heroes Reappraised’, and comprises various essays about tribes of the 20th century. The choice of subjects seems a little arbitrary, however, taking in feminism and the Method school of acting, as well as Torvill and Dean who were invented, according to Burchill, because a Royal wedding every year was beyond reasonable expectations. Burchill’s stabs at wit are not wholly successful, and even her admirers will feel that the constant striving after aphorisms soon begins to pall. But because she writes out of a state of frenzy, her more alarming ideas often escape self-censorship, and that can be enjoyable; her waywardness, too, is exciting. She can veer from polemic to soap opera in the course of a single sentence, and back again. There is, for example, a memorable story about Raquel Welch and the astonishment she was responsible for during an appearance on Good Morning, America: Burchill describes Welch interrupting herself, in the middle of a puff about how to stay young and beautiful, in order to tell the nation at breakfast to leave Nicaragua alone.

Girls on Film, a glossy survey of heroines of the movies, contains rather less in the way of ideological broadsides – and more anecdotes – than is customary for Burchill. It is as a result by far the most readable of the three books: a re-working of the Hollywood Babylon myth, which is refracted through anti-American eyes. The first chapter explains how the American Girl was created out of necessity by D.W. Griffith in the early days of the silent screen. Succeeding chapters, as is Burchill’s way, describe her inexorable decline. The prose compares favourably with Babylon in terms of irascibility but there is in addition an angularity that is not present in the original, and an element of sexual politics. Jean Harlowe’s husband bled to death after trying to amputate his sex organ: he was ashamed of his impotence. It is a sad story, but Burchill tries to make it make sense: the American Girls in her book are uniformly unreal, but it is often American boys who suffer the consequences. There are other accounts of suicide in the book – some acts of philosophical determination, others born of more personal despair: Pier Angeli took an overdose of pills after she had auditioned for a part in The Godfather and been rejected on grounds of age. Despite gruesome stories the book retains a sentimentality about the movies. It is also defiant and rails against current macho fads in the cinema. Burchill discounts the work of auteur directors, like Cimino, Scorsese and Coppola, and makes the point that nobody wants to see over and over again the wonderfully rugged bonding of Italian Stallions and Viet Vets. Since Hollywood stopped making women’s films, cinema admissions worldwide have slumped from 1,500 million in 1946 to 86 million in 1980 – which is, again, roughly the period between surrenders.

The characters in Bret Easton Ellis’s precocious first novel are also getting used to life in a land of plenty of nothing, although they are relatively well-heeled nihilists – the sons and daughters of wealthy Californians, on college vacation. Clay, the narrator, travels back across the continent from New Hampshire, to re-discover the welcoming insularity of the West Coast. His girlfriend collects him from the airport – which enables Ellis to begin his story with a marvellous description of traffic merging on the motorway. Unfortunately Clay ends up treating the girl rather badly, and does no better with his family, whose members are scattered around the dissolute city of Los Angeles.

The brat-pack of Less than Zero leads a charmed existence but must contend with a dissociation of sensibility, which in turn makes it hard to criticise the accuracy of Ellis’s observation: Clay and his associates are uncommunicative. They are preoccupied much of the time with hedonistic activity: a mountain of cocaine gets snorted in the course of the novel; t-shirts, like sunglasses, are put on and thrown off; and each party or sexual encounter merges into the next. Yet, towards the end of Clay’s sojourn in Beverly Hills, he is able to say to his girlfriend, without recrimination, as if it did not matter: ‘Nothing makes me happy. I like nothing.’ Although Less than Zero speaks directly of, and to, American counterparts of Burchill’s post-punk generation, the novel is firmly situated within its own tradition, exploring male adolescence in a way that recalls earlier American fiction: Clay’s disaffection, and the ennui that surrounds him, harks back to Holden Caulfield. And Ellis’s less happy experimentation with a scene of gang rape owes a lot to a strain of masculine chauvinism inherited from Kerouac, who was known to get misty-eyed just thinking about violence. Many readers will feel reluctant to stay with Ellis for the duration of his morose recovery of the past, and will be sorry that, for the moment anyway, the literature available to teenagers is not made of sterner stuff.