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17 July 2014

Our Stalinist revision of the Eighties continues at my son’s school disco. The Nineties are next

Is it simply that history is written by the victors, so that those who seemingly “won” a decade get to determine what it was like, what it meant?

By Tracey Thorn

My son’s school is planning an end-of-term disco and the theme is “the Eighties”. What this means, of course, is that a teacher wants to put on a headband and play his Wham records – a perfectly reasonable desire, and I won’t condemn him for it – but how this is meant to appeal to a bunch of teenage schoolkids is anyone’s guess. Our boy was born in 2001: the Eighties are a decade more than ten years distant from him, mysterious and unknowable, signifying nothing. For me, born in 1962, it’s as if I’d been expected as a teenager to attend and enjoy a Forties disco, complete with demob suits and Glenn Miller records, gravy browning on my legs, let’s pretend we’re in an Anderson shelter.

Now, personally I wouldn’t mind going to an Eighties disco, all Smiths records and “Coal Not Dole” badges, Go-Betweens B-sides and Red Wedge banners. What’s that you say? You don’t think that’s what it would be like? No, you’re probably right. That was my Eighties, maybe yours, too, but it’s not the official version of the decade, is it? The official version is – yawn – spandex leggings and Duran Duran, puffball skirts and mullets, shoulder pads, Dynasty, yuppies and Tories, Tories, Tories.

Who decides these things? Is it simply that history is written by the victors, so that those who seemingly “won” a decade get to determine what it was like, what it meant? The airbrushing of entire eras has become almost Stalinist in its refusal to allow for complexities, alternatives, or the possibility that various things were happening at any one time. It’s apparently too difficult to understand that there was more than one point of view, one style of fashion, one type of record. Instead we simplify, and homogenise, and boil everything down to a few bullet points. Films and TV dramas are often guilty of this, representing the Sixties, for instance, in a house filled with Verner Panton chairs and Lucienne Day curtains. I grew up in the Sixties and, like most houses, ours was full of dark wooden furniture from the past sitting comfortably next to a recently bought, and therefore period-appropriate, coffee table.

My friend the writer Dave Haslam wrote a whole book (Not Abba) objecting to what he calls the “Abbafication of the Seventies”, in which he quite correctly points out how depressing and demeaning it is to have reduced that decade to a kind of fancy-dress parade of wigs and flares, platforms and glitter, averting our eyes from the vivid realities of “IRA bombs, PLO hijackings, overt racism, football hooliganism, Linda Lovelace, Mean Streets and Apocalypse Now . . .” Similarly I can see how the story of the Nineties is gradually shrinking and contracting, until pretty soon all that’ll be left will be Britpop, and a party that once happened at 10 Downing Street; everything else just a blur, or omitted completely.

Meanwhile, back at school there’s another event to attend: the end-of-term gala. And the theme for this one is The Great Gatsby, which I suppose really means the Twenties. As I don’t have a flapper dress or a long string of pearls I am simply in a frock, drinking white wine instead of a Gin Rickey, and hoping no one is going to suggest a parents’ Charleston competition. Up on stage a band of 12-year-old boys are attempting to play “Smoke on the Water”, and not for the first time I wonder what year I’m actually in.

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The boys are followed by a class of ten-year-old girls, who with perfect inevitability sing “Let It Go” from the movie Frozen, the song that will for ever remind them of this moment in their lives, which for them may even be one of the defining moments of this decade. I hope no one writes it out of history, or the girls will have to look back and wonder why the thing that meant so much to them apparently never happened at all.

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To end the evening there is a disco, shrill and loud, “Get Lucky” rubbing shoulders with “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough”, the years mixing and muddling as they always do. As I leave I glance back over my shoulder and see a dad in a suit doing the twist to this year’s hit, Clean Bandit’s “Rather Be”.