Me First

Andrew O’Hagan

In the mid-Eighties, my family felt everything would be fine if I could just get something with a shirt and tie. My three elder brothers wore nailbags, overalls and aprons – the respective black robes of time-served apprenticeship – but even that world was going by the time it got to be my turn, and it was hoped that I might be found fit for the crisp shirt and tie of the clerical elect. I had stayed on at school, bringing home the first family O-Level, and after the celebrations were over – a bottle of Merrydown cider in the garage of an epileptic pal ready for the dole – I thought about what it might mean to start thinking about the future. We sat on blue Calor-gas bottles, not quite ourselves, doing our thinking about the future as we looked out through the garage mouth. There wasn’t a great deal to look at: cars without tyres in the car park, a load of council fencing stretching up and away. My pal Tam made a joke about the state we were in, slugged the last of the cider, then fell to the floor and started wriggling about.

I failed in my first bid for Eighties office-boy superstardom. It was, as it happens, a job as office aide to the local brute responsible for most of the fencing around the estate. He didn’t really have an office – it was a sort of Portakabin – but even so I jogged down the road to meet him in a fluffy grey suit (punitively old-fashioned: my brother’s) and a new shirt and tie that were entirely fashionable (I thought) and mine. The cabin was tight up against the railway line; the yard was muddy and full of band-saws and scrap. I went into the cabin to meet the boss and, safe to say, his bulldog face fairly crumpled as I rambled on. He let me talk for some time about numeric filing systems and letterheads and ways of answering the phone, then he stopped me: ‘Look, son, am jeest lookin’ furra wee lassie tae mak the tea.’ I sat up, softly stroking my tie, pulling my face into the very picture of accommodation and swift comprehension. ‘Tea?’ I said, nodding all the while, the lonesome whirr of back-peddling sounding in my ears, ‘I’m very good at tea.’ My guts were in agony; they positively burned with the shame of it all.

‘Whitz that in yer pocket?’ he growled. (I knew I was done for.) ‘Just a book,’ I mumbled by way of reply. (The shame.) I handed it over. ‘Na ... Nya ... Now ... Nay.’

‘Nausea,’ I interjected, sinking into my shirt. ‘It’s Existentialist. By a French author.’

‘Oh awa you and read books!’ he said, getting a bit red in the face. ‘Awa tae university or somethin’. It’s a wee lassie am lookin’ fur.’

We thought he was probably quite mad, and not at all attuned to the new way of doing things. So it was with refreshed vigour that I made my way to the Jobcentre a few days on, where they hired me themselves, in the noble position of clerical assistant. I was to sit at the front desk, giving out information to ex-miners and steel-workers, to people looking for any sort of job. They were men in their forties and fifties, girls and boys like me just out of school, women laidoff from hosiery factories or from council-work recently privatised. I soon found that there was little to offer them. Halfway through the Eighties, they were calling our part of Ayrshire an unemployment black spot, and you could see things darkening, growing more and more hopeless, and people got a bit fearful.

My box was full of dud jobs: Youth Training Scheme ‘opportunities’ with no guaranteed employment at the end; stints in community service for a tenner more than your dole money; fairly dodgy places on government schemes to relieve the unemployed, or the unemployment figures; and a handful of greatly-contested jobs glueing circuit boards together on a production line. The same people came back each day, and I came to hate that box, with its fetid stack of cards, its excruciating pile of non-jobs. My colleagues, as I was encouraged to call them, were not government plants, ideologues or Thatcherite subalterns: they were local folk, sons and daughters of people pleased to see them spending their days in a shirt and tie, or in a blouse and nice skirt – not in overalls, like they were.

Most of those who came in – men who used to be cheerful and all right – would sink into the chair with a handful of notices from the board: much-handled notices offering security jobs to those with ‘experience and qualifications’, or line work in non-unionised pulp mills recently arrived from Finland. They would talk of their experience in defunct heavy industries or manufacturing – fifteen years here, fifteen years there – and outline their skills, their professional qualifications, their history, the things they’d done in life. You wouldn’t wonder why some of them took a pint. The jobs on the cards paid nothing; the chances of even getting an interview were next to none. You’d go half-mad talking to employers on the phone; half-mad watching the faces across from you darken. They had to sit by and watch a 17-year-old nit in a new tie trying to argue their case with some invisible personnel honcho enjoying his moment; the men watched you lose it for them, and sometimes they’d be gone from the seat before you came up for air.

The Britain of 1985 had a lot of this. Jobcentres and dole offices were full of people at the very edge of their tolerance. Families were cracking with it, young folk were losing their way, former workers were losing the place. I watched the woman at the desk next to mine offering grown men ‘positions’ in something called the Job Club, where they could learn how to fill in an application form or make a telephone call; people who’d been unemployed for more than six months were called in for a Restart interview – where they would be offered pottery courses or ‘mechanical skills’ traineeships, with the silent threat of having their Benefit withdrawn if they persistently refused.

The Equal Opportunities rule – every job had to be advertised for a man or a woman – was never really adhered to. People working for the Manpower Services Commission increasingly had the feeling that the Jobcentres were to be run like businesses: statistics were the thing, each local Jobcentre had to show a return, a success-rate in ‘lowering’ unemployment figures, in finding new training opportunities, in covering up. Like everything else in the Eighties, their efforts were subject to competition, with employment agencies sprouting up everywhere, looking to meet employers’ every need. So the Jobcentres began to treat local employers like customers: they gave them what they wanted, and everything was done to accommodate them. It was a buyer’s market. If they wanted a ‘wee lassie’ to make the tea or a ‘reliable, quiet man’ to drive a forklift, that’s just what they’d get, and ways would be found to keep undesired candidates out of it. Jobcentre staff – shiny-faced school-leavers included – were encouraged to ‘grade’ applicants according to guidelines supplied by an Executive Officer. Put 1 for excellent (‘young’, ‘clean’, ‘a wee lassie’, if that’s what was needed, ‘nice way of speaking’, ‘enthusiastic’, ‘keen’, ‘good reasons for wanting the job’, ‘a few exams passed’, ‘clearly looking for work’); a 2 meant they were okay, but less than perfect in all these areas; a 3 meant they were not so presentable, deficient, older, troublesome, or the wrong sex. Many firms looking for workers would not stand for any union nonsense, so people with any signs of that were to get a 3 automatically.

‘On Yer Bike’ was all the rage – memoranda would arrive daily from central government to provincial Jobcentres (seen as the front line) – and the assumption was that people who were out of work were lazy, or not trying, though documents of that sort wouldn’t say so directly. The people working in those offices couldn’t speak up; they were under the control of something they could barely understand. And, besides all that, they couldn’t afford to lose their jobs. I sat at the desk giving colour-blind tests to women and men who could easily have been my grandparents. The local computer firms demanded it (though it had no bearing on the job they might do). My eyes were opening in a very old-fashioned sort of way, and I think this life of a clerk, this manpower disservicing business, forced me to grow up a bit quicker than I would have. ‘Eight,’ I’d whisper to the woman in front of me with the screwed-up eyes. She really needed the computer job. ‘Write down eight for that one.’

My last day was the worst. They sent me round to the dole office in Ballot Road with a bunch of leaflets for the Enterprise Allowance Scheme. I stood next to the iron grille watching a quiet flow of people come in and sign on. Sleepy-eyed, depressed, most of them walked up to the booth, signed their name, and walked out without a word. Some of them looked drugged, but most just looked unhappy. It was the most dispiriting sort of place – no windows, old heaters, people behind glass, feelings of paranoia and disgust everywhere. ‘You Could Run Your Own Business!’ the leaflets said. I tried to hand them only to people who looked like they’d a sense of humour, or who seemed sympathetic. A woman came in with a babe-in-arms. I was about to give her one of my horrible pamphlets hot off the heater, then I saw her shout at the man through the glass. Her Giro had been stopped; she was screaming; she couldn’t feed her baby. They were all bastards: what were they trying to do to people? She bawled on and on, and shook her baby at them. When I got outside I saw that the whole of Ballot Road was covered in scraps of ripped-up paper. There was no one around, nothing except these Enterprise missives and some barking dogs. I hadn’t finished my day – there were loads of leaflets left to give out – but I went instead to a bit of the river under the shopping mall and threw the leaflets into the water. I was glad to see them spreading out and floating away towards the Firth of Clyde. And I took the tie off and stuffed it into my back pocket.

Peter York’s Eighties happened elsewhere. Little bits of it were no doubt happening in the shopping mall over my head that morning, but most of it was well out of reach, and nothing to do with our world at all. He had a lovely time, he tells us. The Eighties were the decade in which everything was possible, everybody could do well, ‘everyone wanted to go to the ball. Everyone wanted everything.’ The people not at the ball, those who just wanted a job, were, for Peter York, people who more than anything lacked imagination. And he may after all be right about that: somewhere in the air of the Eighties imagination became tied to money, a lot of it, and individualism was to do with the having and getting of it, the spending of it; personality was about how you expressed yourself as a consumer. Those without money, the army of the unemployed, in Eighties terms, had no personality. Those doing well in the Eighties, mostly in the South-East of England, even expressed their understanding and their fear of the underclass in consumerist terms: they invested heavily in home security.

York’s good fairy – the one with the magic wand, or the dividing rod – was of course Margaret Thatcher. In a little bit of trickery quite dazzling in its confusions, York sets out to equate the Thatcher ‘peasant revolt’ – the revolt against high-table paternalism by a winsome band of ‘clever outsiders’ – with the rise of a certain kind of pop star at the beginning of the Eighties. It was the fate of cultural demi-gods like Spandau Ballet (fat boys in tartan loons and white socks) and the likes of Adam Ant (a Post-Modern highwayman with a strange mark on his face) to herald the new mix of ‘fantasy, style yearning, preciousness and entrepreneurial zeal’. For a boy like York, this pop world – ‘so transfixed by the surface of things that it became deep’ – could seem to encapsulate everything you were dangerous and daft enough to dream of. These New Wave pop heroes, these Boy Georges, Steve Stranges, those randy, dandy highwaymen and New Romantic fops, might have seemed to any other punter to be indulging a healthy English passion for donning women’s gear and overdoing it on the blusher, but to Peter York – style guru and social commentator of note – they were utterly contemporary in the manner of their ‘wanting’, defining in their need to have everything, and quite unforgettable for their Eighties lead on the flowerings of greed.

A cuddly sort of idiocy this, and surprisingly abundant in certain excited quarters. For some years now – at least since cultural studies first boomed out of the cave – there has been a tendency to find the key to the universe in the curl of a teenager’s lip, in David Bowie’s lipstick or Janis Joplin’s hair. The shapings of history, the contours of time and place, are to be found in the stirrings of drum and guitar; or, deep as dimples, high as a quiff, on the heads of King and Queen Rockers from this time and that. This has given rise to some champion moments in recent writing; some excellent, warm-hearted excursions to the centre of our listening and imagining worlds – see Greil Marcus, Nik Cohn – and yet it has also given rise to some of the laziest and most puerile garbage currently available in print. The worlds of pop music are accessible and real – to do with bought product – and they are also dreams and places in the mind. So it is no surprise to find old-fashioned élitists like Peter York sniffing about the portals of pop, looking for some mass endorsement or vindication of his favourite politicians and economists. The pop world can look like a purescale model of capitalist aspiration, the industry a fine example of consumer entrapment, but the makers and takers of pop music are not York’s foot soldiers. They are kids, and they have no idea what he is talking about. Pop is a delinquent art, all contradiction and chaos – or it should be. The individualism of Eighties pop had nothing to do with Milton Friedman. It had to do with what it’s always had to do with – the fear of going unnoticed, the spotty yearning after love and sex.

York has been around for a while now; he’s one of the more familiar freaks. He’s widely encouraged to tell people – usually money-spinning people – about what’s what with the here and now. He has his own style consultancy firm, where he is said to answer to the less something name of Peter Wallace. He’s a zeitgeistmeister, a style-bibber, sternly in love with the New. It might not be unhelpful, when looking at the York phenomenon, to consider how he might have been invented, how he might have been conjured in a sour moment out of the ether, had he not arrived when he did, full of his new wisdoms. He used to be something called the Style Editor of that excellent magazine Harpers & Queen, and he first struck a note with his comical musings on those daft girls from Chelsea who wore Hermes scarves, carried Gucci bags, and tossed their silly hair, shouting ‘how spastic’ in crowded restaurants. His interest in Sloane Rangers was half-ironic, half-earnest, and this is the tone which carried him through his books – Style Wars (1980), the Sloane Rangers Handbook (1982) and some other things. The Eighties is the ‘tie-in’ (nice Eighties idea that) of a television series York has recently presented for the BBC.

In Peter York’s Eighties everything was fine. Keith Joseph, prompted by Alfred Sherman, told us we needed more millionaires, ‘more inequality’, and Margaret Thatcher gave us just that. York considers himself to be ‘doing a bit of national therapy’, restoring our appreciation of a much-maligned decade. He enjoys the notion that, in the Eighties, there was a door policy: not everyone was invited really. Those who were – property-developers, admen in Charlotte Street and Soho, marketing and promotional time-wasters, style gurus – had never been so pleased. With money piled high on the altar – and scraps of a new liturgy making its way onto the high street or into the minds of council-house owners – a certain sort of Eighties banged into being. ‘We were all just a bunch of Viv Nicholsons between 1982 and 1990,’ says York: ‘Spend, Spend, Spend.’

The media answered the call. The boom in soft journalism began. The buzzword was ‘lifestyle’. Soft supplements were everywhere. (Forget Toxteth: are you getting enough of this new Australian Chardonnay?) Everywhere you looked, there was advice about how to spend and improve: shouldn’t you be thinking about a conservatory? What about a pair of Levi 501s? York admits, and no doubt others will see what he means, that one of the pivotal moments of the decade was buying your first Chicken Kiev from Marks and Spencer. ‘With a how-to book and a little cash,’ he writes, ‘aspirants could escape the Human Condition, could play-act, be someone entirely new.’ Hard news and current affairs were trifling: advertorial was the main thing.

It would not be right to say that Peter York’s good times were simply other people’s bad ones: the message spread a little wider than that. People did buy council houses; they did try their hand at business; and many unlikely sorts in places throughout the country felt they were doing well for a while. Yet many people slid into the corners. They continue there, in a place where crime and drugs and emptiness are not unrelated to Peter York’s fullest, happiest days.

So people had different sorts of Eighties. I can only say that I was happier at the end of them than I was at the beginning. Halfway through them, sitting in that Jobcentre, I came to think that something poisonous had crept in, something sad was going on: but by the end, and on my way to another place, I’d begun to feel that things were better – if only for myself. By 1990, I was onto something new, and the world of before was a little behind me. I had all the self-absorption that was common, and I settled on a plan (in a very Eighties way, I guess) to make my way towards a point at some distance from my childhood. And for all the Eighties were in some ways terrible in my eyes, for all they looked like a decade that lacked every kind of decency, it was nevertheless the decade that made me the monster I am myself.

Whatever else – and there was much else, which is all I can say to Peter York – it was a decade when some of us were teenagers, and we didn’t fail to respond to the spirit of the times. Much of what York speaks about was unknown round our way, but some of it must have affected us. We were selfish enough in our turn, and we took our chances, and I suppose, looking on it now, that some of those chances (to go to university, to get away, to start up on your own, as they said) would perhaps not have reached my house in the Seventies. I’ll never know the real answer to that one. I’d like to say that the Eighties had nothing to do with me; that whatever happened to me had little to do with the Eighties thing. But of course it did. I’m as much a child of the Eighties, in this way and that, as some of those other goons who delighted in the fact that they’d never had it so good. But some people had it bad, and things were closing down for them, just as they might have been opening up for others. I watched the closing, looked for the opening, and maybe that is what the Eighties were about.