I was in Brighton a few of weeks ago at the height of the bin strike. There was rubbish in the streets, great piles of it on every corner: black sacks, cardboard boxes, plastic containers, and rotting food spilling out from seagull-ripped bags. In the air was a rank smell of decay, and in my head I could hear the voice-over from some TV punk-rock documentary, talking about the winter of discontent, and how all the pent-up frustration and fury was about to erupt into “Anarchy in the UK”.
I feel as though I’ve seen that version of the story many times, and yet when I remind myself that the actual winter of discontent occurred over the freezing cold months as 1978 turned into 1979, I realise that the narrative makes no sense, as punk was well and truly over by then. It was a period of political and social disruption in which there was strike after strike; graves were left undug and rubbish uncollected until it piled up in Leicester Square, attracting plagues of rats and leading to a media nickname of Fester Square. The newsreel footage demands an angry, shouty, punky musical soundtrack.
But looking at the singles charts for that period, I’m struck by their joyous and celebratory character. Musically, it was more of a winter of euphoria, the Top 40 and the country’s dance floors full of glories such as “Le Freak” and “September”, “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” and “Heart of Glass”, “YMCA” and “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”. Punk was represented by desperate last gasps such as Sham 69’s “Hurry up Harry”, and a cover of “Something Else” by the Sex Pistols.
All this goes through my head as I wander the Brighton streets in a howling gale, which helpfully distributes the litter into every corner. I’d come to the city to help our youngest deal with the damp problem in his new third-year student house. It’s on a terrace in the heart of Kemptown, tall and extremely narrow, and as I ascend from the basement kitchen to the top floor I realise they are living in a kind of chill, mouldering tower.
There’s even a roof terrace, of sorts, with a view, of sorts – the sea just visible way over there through a lattice of scaffolding. I’m reminded of the old music-hall number: “Wiv a ladder and some glasses, you could see to Hackney Marshes, if it wasn’t for the ’ouses in between.” Still, any outdoor space is not to be sniffed at, and so while the house seems to me, at my age and level of sensitivity, utterly repugnant – even more rubbish-strewn than the surrounding streets, the stairs filthy, the kitchen worktops filthy, every available surface occupied by a half full wine glass – I can see that it is probably “fun”.
If only it wasn’t so damp, and covered in actual mould. To cheer him up – or perhaps dry him out – we climb over the bikes in the hall and I take him out for dinner. It’s a joy to be able to sit and drink martinis with my boy, who is now a lovely and interesting young adult. I remark on the new facial hair he is sporting and he admits that it is only because their lack of a bathroom mirror has made shaving impossible. Of course.
We each walk home our separate ways, he to the dank tower and me to my snug hotel room – although a torrential downpour means that I arrive as drenched as if I had swum the 100 yards back, and I have to hang up my trousers to dry.
Anyway, we have come up with a plan. He orders a dehumidifier online, and within a few days it has started sucking water out of the atmosphere, and slowing down the onset of the mould, hopefully allowing some actual breathing space while he waits for someone to come and fix the problem. Meanwhile, the rubbish collection strike has come to an end, and the enormous clear-up operation has begun. Things are looking up. Brighton is on the mend.
I get a train back to London, and as I arrive home my phone rings. It is the youngest saying that their boiler has broken and they now have no hot water or central heating. It’s going to be a long winter, I think, possibly of discontent.
This article appears in the 03 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britannia Chained