London Swings  by Tim Noble and Sue Webster, 2017

London Swings by Tim Noble and Sue Webster, 2017

From Promised Land to Poundland, and all stops in between – in our Boy’s Own Keynote Christmas Address, David Dorrell discourses upon the three decades since the summer of love.

‘I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.’
Preface to A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas by Charles Dickens (1843)

It’s nearly Christmas. That time of the year when the world careens past you on a moped, grabs your iPhone and drives it across the annual border into a new year, as you stare on, mute and drunk in your office-party hat. Jerked out of your 45 degree hunch for a moment gives you the chance to look forward to the coming year and also back down the grimy road behind.

Sadly, we can’t see far into the future with any certainty. So making predictions is never wise. But you can be sure that 2018 will bring a glory-hole view of events thirty years before. How could you forget? Next year’s the anniversary of ‘that summer’ – the Summer of Love. 

Remember 1988? Maybe you can’t get it out of your mind. But what do you really remember? Do you remember when The Sun newspaper discovered Acid House, and made up Acid House Lingo – including the eerily predictive ‘Tweet – a young girl’?  Murdoch’s rag making stuff up – there’s nothing really new under the sun is there? Its ‘Bizarre’ column’s Acid tees sold for £5.50. How about the Mr Big of Acid Tony Colston-Hayter inventing Rave? Perhaps it was being dressed as a pantomime cow in this once green and pleasant land? Or, after all those dodgy service-station pasties on the M25 it’s harder to remember those halcyon days? Is that a CDJ or CJD you’re getting as a present?

But everything above did really happen in 1988 – whether you like it or not - and is just one of the readings available to us of that past now the world is chock-full of wonderful, alternative facts. We are all experts now. We all seem to want to be right now. We don’t want to see or hear anyone else’s opinion and our once persistent and shared ‘history’ is now as insubstantial and vaporous as a Michael Jackson hologram. There’s nothing of substance to cling to when things get Bad; there’s no there there anymore.

The number one record on 1 December 1988 was…don’t even bother guessing. S’Express? Royal House? No, there wasn’t one dance record in the Top Ten that week. First Time, sung by a Breakfast Club wannabe called Robin Beck was Top of the Pops, unsurprisingly a song born of a Coke ad (so not the first time at all). The yuppie years didn’t just Jack to Fleetwood Mac – they also ushered in the further corporatisation of pop culture.

This Shoom flyer is not actually real.

This Shoom flyer is not actually real.

(I should know. I gave a talk to a group of young ad-creatives about how Acid House was changing the public landscape at the dawn of the nineties. After that the sprinkling of Acieed and its odd psychedelic-flavour on to everything from breakfast cereal to the Royal Mail (‘get sorted’?) was only ever an ad-break away.)

And who could believe so much could happen in just three decades?  We witnessed the sun rising on ‘Love’ and it setting on Thatcherism. Poll Tax riots on TV, Police batons at Castlemorton, the rise of the mobile phone, the arrival of Blair, Oasis and Cool Britannia, the end of the century, the Y2K bug, 9/11, war in Afghanistan and Iraq, War on Terror, 7/7, the birth of social media and the selfie, the day of the iPhone, the Crash of 2008, Occupy, The End of the World (2012), the failure of folk politics and austerity, Brexit, the crowning of Corbyn, betrayal by May, the election of Trump and the evolution of ‘false memory syndrome’ into ‘fake news’.  Believe what you want to believe is the hidden message in every ‘comments’ section, tweet and post.

Were the musical youth of the eighties really just Thatcher’s zombie children, like Sunrise supremo Tony Colston-Hayter claimed? Or were they the social dissenters of popular myth, day-glo libertarians, ravers who wanted to be free and loaded at the same time? Of course you can pick your own facts if you don’t like them apples, though with all the cheap European fact-pickers leaving us you’ll soon be forced to pick a new reality. Dust off the charabanc, chaps. We’re orf down the Old Kent Road to pick some fresh facts!   

“In some ways it was a throwback to the 60s but it was very much something else — it was totally non-political. It was the ultimate hedonistic leisure activity.”

Tony Colston-Hayter quoted in The Guardian article Tony Colston-Hayter: the acid house fraudster by Damian Lynskey

"Don’t look back in anger," I hear you say. Though, equally, ‘Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are’. So maybe it’s all a matter of perspective.

The ‘truth’ is, things don’t just seem closer in the rear-view mirror. They also seem to be both disappearing from view and accelerating toward us at alarming speed. We are on the road to nowhere, about to hit a vanishing point. The Javan rhino just got added to the ‘extinct’ list. Nuclear war just got thirty seconds closer as the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the Doomsday Clock to two and a half minutes to ‘midnight’. That’s not good news. 

(You can find the 2017 BAS report here if you want something really scary to read over Christmas.) 

Let’s take a look into the mirror as we approach midnight and the turn of the year – try and scry the next twelve months. 

I’m not certain the future will be a million-suns bright, but I do know it will be Orange again next year and that’s making me feel more than a little nauseous. It’s that disconcerting feeling you get when you’re stopped at the traffic lights and the bus beside you slowly moves forward and it’s as if you’re moving in reverse (though you’re not, you’re absolutely stationary). The brain just gets seasick figuring it all out and you want to reach for the handbrake to make your non-moving car stop. That’s because everything is moving at once.

And how can you prove that we’re not going backwards? We live in a world where millions of people – including Freddie Flintoff, a man you’d imagine knew a thing or two about spherical objects – once again believe that the Earth is flat. Donald Trump is still President of the USA. These are statements of fact - not fantasy - in our strange new world. Try. And. Understand. That. How did we get here? Stuck in a USB driven emergency loop, where we are destined to forget what went before, doomed to keep repeating the past like a knocked-back, k-holed kid joining the queue again at Berghain.  

The Sun newspaper's famous 1988 acid house cartoon.

The Sun newspaper's famous 1988 acid house cartoon.

Increasingly we are looking like that sickly kid, Dicken’s Tiny Tim dressed at Sports Direct. Thirty-plus years ago, England was recovering from being the ‘Sick Man of Europe’. Yet here we are once again, sliding down the Brexit snake toward worst performance awards in all categories amongst our EU partners – employment, education, prison population, productivity. Tomorrow doesn’t look much like better days to me. Have we gone full circle? We were actually banned from playing football in Europe when Shoom snuck up on us in a south London street (do you think all the ‘epiphanied’ football fans were just looking for something to do with there spare time?). And now… who needs UEFA? We’ve banned ourselves from the most important European game of our lifetime. Did we go permanently radio-rental or are we simply a self-harming nation? “Do they mean us?” Derek Jameson used to ask back in the day.  Once again, sadly, they do. And this time it feels doubly embarrassing.

 Could it be it was all so different then? They sung ‘come together’ and we did. Dropping our prejudices, sharing our water, blithely obeying the spirit of the song. We all came together: black, white, brown, gay, straight, lesbian, east and west, north and south, estate agents, journalists, hairdressers and hooligans. Drenched in the light of the strobe we became – if only in that moment – stoned, immaculate; and the doors of our perception opened wide on to paradise. Was this the Promised Land, or simply a dark room adjoining Heaven? 

And what was the future we were dreaming? Were we dreaming of a full spectrum, one way beyond our monochrome set of boring realities? We wanted sunshine on a rainy day, gaudy ponchos against a grey London dawn, the Balearics on the banks of the Thames. But all that dreaming of Amnesia left us waking up with no memories of the night before and now, thirty years on from that Summer’s ecstatic high, we’re cradling a massive serotonin depletion in the collective system we call society.  Did all our e-dreams evaporate like dew hissing on a summer lawn somewhere along the way? 

Can You Feel It? Caaaan Youuuu Feeeeel It?’ That’s what you’d hear roaring from the PA. ‘CAN YOU FEEL IT?’ We could feel it all right – it entered your head and lodged in your stomach like a ball of chi. 

Maybe it was the first time a lot of people really could feel. The feeling was right there in the room/the field/the pack of people chanting by the police car’s flashing lights outside The Trip. We could feel it in our bodies, in our hearts, our ears, our feet. What we felt was our collective power (‘I’ve got the power!’), the promise of change, a future where “Little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” How we believed, as we threw our arms into the heavenly air. And how distant that all seems now, how long ago… a far-away field in England’s past dreaming.   

Though such a vision it was. I can still see the faces. All wreathed in a sheen, dilated pupils shining: black pearls in watermelon-smiles, faces frozen in time and the glamour of lights, arms aloft in unison, tee shirts’ sodden. Ce Ce Rogers’ glorious call for liberté, egalité et fraternité, Someday, burst from the speakers, a heavenly choir breaking through the shimmering of sweat, smoke and that ecstatic moment. Who could imagine a New Jerusalem built here, on the ruins of the Great Wen’s Satanic Mills’? But where Blake once wept for chimney sweeps, we had new gold dreams. 

‘Free from the pressure and the prejudice
We can change it all with tenderness
There’ll be no void between black and white
We’ll be able to walk the streets at night
I won’t be fooled while someone dies of starvation
The whole world will be my nation’

Someday (© 1987 Marshall Jefferson, Ce Ce Rogers, Marshall Jefferson Music)

So high on hope were we lucky few; high on hope with doves for wings; high on angelic harmonies and tribal electric beats; high on some kind of love and the immediacy of strangers. High on just being high. 

Do you think there could be a link between MDMA becoming an illegal drug in the US in the mid-eighties and the tidal wave of pills that washed up on our shores? First their lousy pop songs, then their unwanted pills, next their chlorinated chicken. We are not America’s special relationship – we’re their prison bitch.  

The ghosts of Dickens’ Christmas past, future and present, are all here at once in the digital now. But Marley’s chain-dragging spectre has no modern day equivalent. Silicon Valley billionaires and Russian oligarchs don’t feel guilt about their actions or their crimes. Everything is transparent now. 

Food banks didn’t even exist in 1988. Now they proliferate under the shadow of skyscrapers built on your stolen money. Today, though people of BAME backgrounds only constitute 14% of the UK’s population they represent up to 26% of the prison population, scarily close to America’s incarceration rate for young blacks. How’s that Someday working out for you? Was it much worse in the London of Fagin and Twist? I have no doubt it was. But we seem to be hurtling back there in a rickety DUP stickered DeLorean, to the poverty and debt-slavery of the pre-unionised, pre-universally educated, high childhood mortality-rate world of horror that the great Boz would recognise immediately. 

And are things worse today than they were in 1988, when the Tories under Thatcher began a third term in office? Considerably worse, I’d say. But let’s not forget what was ‘achieved’ under the Maggie’s rule: the deconstruction of the unions, the torpedoing of the Belgrano, the battle of Orgreave, tragedy at Hillsborough. The scything of society, of our common ground was set in motion under Thatcher’s watch, Blair and Cameron just polished its blade and kept it ‘swinging’.  The summer of love looks more and more like a bubble.

We can see now, in the rear view mirror, what was happening in the nineties. But it wasn’t so easy at the time, when champagne corks boomed and no one could look up from the mirror long enough to see that what they were been sold – from Britpop to Cool Britannia – was undeniably snide.

Sure it seemed innocent enough at the time. Ha! Mondeo Man. Ha! The Spice Girls. Ha! The advent of reality TV. Ha! Simon Cowell. The studio audience would carry-on-laughing! And we were all hitting such supernova heights that Gerri and Liam and Damian and the gang got a pass-card, culturally speaking. Tell me that never happened? Oh wait – of course it did. The cultural nadir of the century happened on our watch. Don’t say you weren’t warned. Joe Strummer told us, but how quickly we forgot – “Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust.” 

After the real thrills-pills-and-bellyaches of Acid House and the dizzying excitement of being part of the final British youth cult of the 20th Century, the mid 90s seemed like a second rate mash-up culture, where the previous nine decades became an ungodly megamix of our finest cultural moments. Let’s be honest, Jon. Britpop was as hollow as a rolled up tenner and as culturally enriching as your last wrap. The 9Ts were never the 6Ts they wanted to be and Vanity Fair was never ever rock ’n' roll.  

Clubbing meantime got pretty shit before giving a superannuated heave toward the new millennium. DJs and fluffy bras had somehow got impossibly HUGE. Oversized everything (particularly egos and vodka bottles) were all the rage. The bad taste you woke up with in your mouth was no longer the result of that cheeky dab the night before. It was the whole decade sick-burping back up. Compared to the end of the eighties the end of the nineties, for all of its glam, was as sad and confusing as discovering that Gary Glitter was your real dad. 

But by new year’s eve 1999, fortified by our party bags, we were ready for anything to happen, right? Anything that would break the monotony of anticipating the Year 2000. Aliens, Y2K-ed planes dropping from the sky, all bank computers resetting, even continuous playing of Prince’s 1999, anything would be tolerated if it allowed us to break through to our sci-fi-candy-coloured-Kubrick-directed World of Tomorrow. Fireworks exploded, the film skipped forward and the lights went out.  Planes did fall from the sky. And so did the Twin Towers. Then someone pressed ‘pause’.  

Since then the world appears to have been lurching, from frame to frame, emulating the World Trade Centre in its seemingly slow-mo but never coming collapse. The War of Terror dashed our high, and our hopes. Then it was Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Palestine, Syria, Daesh. Things aren’t better at home because of our perpetual war. Things have obviously not got better as D-Ream promised they would. I feel let down. D-Ream have left the cheaply clad building.

Europe is lost, America lost, London lost
Still we are clamouring victory
All that is meaningless rules
We have learned nothing from history
Europe is Lost by Kate Tempest

I still have hope that not all is lost. But England seems to be a damned ‘society’ now, one that must have Grantham’s granite-hearted shop-girl laughing in her grave. None of even Dickens most horrific parodies touch the hem of the Iron Lady. I suspect that on a full moon night, when clouds float as shrouds above the Westway, the skeletal claw of the milk-snatcher can still be seen breaking through the cinder-beds around Grenfell Tower. 

Dicken’s ghosts are transparent windows on what was, what could be and what is yet to come and today’s Zero hour contracts are no more a new invention than Uber. Those grubby faced chimney sweeps didn’t have health insurance scribbled in to their invisible contracts.

Sometimes it seems that the real ‘disruptive’ practices have been all those things – the welfare state, free education, care for the old and those that are challenged, universal suffrage, unions – that somehow managed to keep the light on in the darkest days of the century of blood. But it hasn’t all been bad. The moments of sanity that occurred in the 20th Century are the true high points of our attempts to ascend, to overcome or finish the apparently unending climb that is civilisation. Higher even than the peaks of the Renaissance. And while Michelangelo did a bang-up job on the pope’s ceiling and Da Vinci invented the helicopter, neither of them came up with something as miraculous as the NHS. Nothing hanging in Florence, Venice, Rome or Milan (with the exception of Mussolini in 1945) has done more for the good of the unwashed masses than these brief encounters with a society geared toward saving itself through helping others. We are at our best when we give to those in need. That is the lesson Scrooge learns via his visitations and his subsequent spiritual awakening.  

Commenting on A Christmas Carol, contemporary Dickens scholar Michael Slater wrote that it ‘Intended to open its readers' hearts towards those struggling to survive on the lower rungs of the economic ladder and to encourage practical benevolence, but also to warn of the terrible danger to society created by the toleration of widespread ignorance and actual want among the poor.’

That message and this motto should be in – and with – all our crackers this Christmas:

‘We’ll live as one family in perfect harmony
When we all pull together we will all be free’

Words: David Dorrell

Issue ThreeSteve Beale