Sunday 10 November 2013

The Middle Classes in the 80s


The middle-class Upwards loved the 80s. Socialism and feminism were a club they could join. Everyone else was a Sloane Ranger, a Yuppie or on the dole. Thatcher was in power, destroying industry and starting wars. The world had got to change. The Upwards thought they were spearheading a revolution, and soon everybody in the world would copy their earnestness, drab clothes and woolly thinking. They had a lovely time bossing everybody about and telling them off for being ideologically unsound. Like any cult, they were keen to recruit you, and then persuade you to give up your personal life and spend all your spare time working for the cause.

Unfortunately they were the last group you’d want running the world – they couldn’t even run a women’s centre. They got funding for enterprises that did nothing but hold meetings (probably about “this group’s attitude to Nicaragua”).

Some time in the 80s a working-class woman wrote an article in the Guardian urging us to “go for what’s winnable”. Upwards were puzzled. It was a totally new idea. Their plan was to go for nothing less than complete equality, worldwide. This excused them from actually achieving anything, like deciding where to keep the stapler. More silly ideas: they thought science was “hubristic”, logic a male conspiracy, and knitting anti-feminist. Show them a party line and they toed it. Instead of science, they believed in magic – they loved Freud and Jung.

They couldn’t say someone was pretty – it was “conventionally good-looking”. They chose plain girl/boyfriends as a political statement. Female pop stars wore long baggy overcoats and danced clumsily to prevent women being seen as “sex objects”.

We couldn’t be girly. Upwards always like being puritanical and ascetic: they enjoyed banning hairstyles, fashion, makeup – and sex with men. They wore cheap, practical, hardwearing dungarees and parrot earrings, and cut each other’s hair. They didn’t read chicklit but Virago reissues of women novelists, or books of boring essays. We couldn’t go to the movies but had to go to political cabaret, pretentious French “cirques” and miners’ benefits. We listened to U2 and Mary Black (PC messages), not Duran Duran or Gary Numan (tunes).

Stoke Newington used to be a hangout for girls with white legs and short hair who wore summer dresses made out of 50s curtains (and were accompanied by stooping, weedy boyfriends). Stokeys have become much more normal, but maybe that’s because many of their obsessions have become mainstream and commercialised (health food, modern antiques, vintage clothes, cappuccino, sitting in cafes, baby slings, massage, yoga, visiting the third world). Also bus services improved and we're no longer so cut off from the rest of the city.

They gave sons dolls and daughters plumbing sets. A writer in The Independent (May 12, 2004) calls the idea that gender is a product of nurture, not nature, “an idea that was briefly fashionable in the 60s and 70s”. It was all a fashion? Unthinkable!

Being Upwards, they worked the system like mad, getting a grant to do up a five-bedroom house in Hackney, or blagging a council flat in Westminster, living on the dole and getting their mortgage paid but still making money at a creative skill that they didn't “declare” (ie you lied or kept quiet about it). They then boasted about their cleverness and creativity in a quiet way. And their friends flourished them in front of their other friends to make them feel small.

The wider world paid them little attention, and 20 years on, high streets are full of tanning salons, nail bars and waxing parlours. Female pop stars went back to being sexy and glamorous in a few years. (OK, some important laws were passed, and society became less authoritarian and unfair. The liberal project is still going – we've got women bishops at last!)

When the party was over, people who had wasted years of their lives in a travelling circus with a political message dusted themselves down, got a teaching qualification and ended up running something, buying a house and joining a pension scheme. They were never much bothered by contradictions.

I even wrote a novel about it all called The Fourth Door.


  1. And at the time, you couldn't point out any of this.

  2. Update: Well, at least we've got women bishops.