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A history of 1980s Britain that rings hollow

Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s - review.

Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s
Graham Stewart
Atlantic Books, 560pp, £25

In a New York bar on 1 September 1939 – or at least in his poem titled for that date – W H Auden wrote:

As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade . . .
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

It is arguable whether the 1970s were a “low dishonest decade”, but certainly the unmentionable odour of death hung in the air in parts of Britain in 1979, as corpses languished unburied during a gravediggers’ strike. Add the lorry drivers, the railwaymen, the nurses and many more, and you have a Winter of Discontent, which is where Graham Stewart’s account of the 1980s begins. It was a very different Britain then: a third of Britain’s houses were owned by the council and trade union leaders popped round to “Sunny Jim” Callaghan’s farm for dinner to advise on when he should call a general election.

Those union warhorses counselled sooner rather than later and Callaghan should have listened. He waited until May and his chances withered during that discontented winter; the rest is several volumes of popular history. Stewart’s addition to the literature is very much in the spirit and style of writers such as David Kynaston, Dominic Sandbrook and Andy Beckett, and follows two recent volumes that cover the same period –Alwyn Turner’s Rejoice! Rejoice!and Andy McSmith’s No Such Thing as Society. Stewart’s book lacks such a neat title, though. It is hard to discern the relevance of “Bang!” to the decade. Surely “Wham!” would have been better?

With Callaghan gone, Margaret Thatcher emerges as the main figure of the 1980s, for the duration of which she was prime minister. Not since Pitt the Younger had a prime minister held office for a whole decade. Stewart’s is a rounded portrait; he points out, for instance, that although she may have done away with free school milk as education secretary, she also saved the Open University against the wishes of most of her cabinet colleagues.

Such generosity is to be expected. Stewart is a former Times leader writer and assistant to the Tory roué Alan Clark and clearly a man of the right. You smell it in his analysis of the Northern Irish Troubles, where a distaste for the republicans simmers throughout, and in his glib claim that the union leader and Spanish civil war veteran Jack Jones was a paid-up Soviet agent, based on some tittletattle from Oleg Gordievsky in the Daily Telegraph (a similar slur about Michael Foot in the Sunday Times by the Russian double agent resulted in a large out-of-court settlement in Foot’s favour). In his chapter on the nuclear threat, Stewart spends more time discussing how many lesbians were at Greenham Common and how they were banned from local pubs for being whiffy than on analysing what life there may have been like. He is strong, however, on the Falklands conflict – “the last old-fashioned war”, in that both sides were evenly matched and used the same fairly primitive technology, and where Britain fought alone for its own cause.

While I was reading Bang!, documents pertaining to the Falklands war became available for the first time under the 30-year rule. Many commentators were shocked to discover how parlous the situation had been, how strong the Argentinian position was and how worried Thatcher was. Stewart shows that it was by no means a foregone conclusion to defeat a powerful, albeit conscripted, army thousands of miles from home with the shortest of windows before the South Atlantic winter made the thing unwinnable.

Yet Bang! isn’t all juntas and public-sector borrowing requirements. As you would expect, pop culture muscles its way in with padded shoulders. There is a long and generally sound résumé of synth-pop and Stewart is also surprisingly insightful on the Smiths, offering a far more sensitive and nuanced portrait than many specialist rock writers have managed. But it all unravels a little with the alternative comedy boom, where there’s a vague and rather antique objection to all this newfangled, “right-on” malarkey. The racist comedian Bernard Manning was not “deemed unfit” for television, with all the metropolitan condescension that implies. It simply and rightly became unacceptable for an “entertainer” to appear in the living rooms of a multicultural Britain and rail against “nignogs” and “Pakis”. Stewart also castigates the makers of Spitting Image for not lampooning the Politburo as savagely as they did Reagan and Thatcher. This, surely, is a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of satire – it’s meant to be funny, not fair, and its prime objective should be to humble our own leaders, not do their job for them.

So much of this has been the stuff of clipheavy, analysis-light television documentaries in recent years that it threatened to wash over me in a wave of red braces and Adam Ant videos. I found myself enjoying the less obviously attractive sections, such as the chapter on the economics of North Sea oil. Stewart explores how it affected us as compared to the similarly richly endowed Norwegians and concedes that better investment would have kept us buoyant.

By page 313, though, at least one reader’s patience was wearing thin. There is a long, hand-wringing, Jarndycean apology for Thatcher’s notorious remark “There is no such thing as society”. This elides into a highly partial account of the Toxteth, Brixton and Handsworth riots, which, apparently, had more to do with revolutionary communist agitators and the anarchists of Class War than with urban decay and bullying police tactics. After this comes worse: Hillsborough is dealt with in a cursory paragraph that boils down to “Well, what do you expect?” and in essence exonerates the police of wrongdoing. This is golf club punditry masquerading as history and it rings callously hollow today.

But even though Bang!’s presiding spirit of extended apology and strained decency can pall, it is a largely consuming book, crammed with detail, anecdote and juxtapositions, if hamstrung by that tic of conservative editorialising. Stewart writes well, too; only one clunker of a sentence leapt out: “Sir Ian Gil - mour and Christopher Soames struggled to conceal a de haut en bas disdain for the arriviste Thatcherites who, they believed, were upsetting a settled social order and ruling without recognising the duty of noblesse oblige toward those they stepped over.”

It is the little details recorded en passant (as Stewart might say) that fascinate. When, as controller of Channel 4, Jeremy Isaacs introduced a red triangle on screen and in listings to indicate adult content, it was intended to warn, not to entice. But why else, on its first use, did 2.4 million viewers stay up after midnight to watch Themroc, an avant-garde French film about modern cave-dwellers, with no dialogue? The idea was soon abandoned. The bracingly adult experiment called Thatcherism endured rather longer.

“Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone” is on BBC 6 Music (Sundays, 8pm)

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide