Sunday, March 13, 2022

On Atmosphere (IV): The Eighties

So, after waxing lyrical on the seventies-- the decade I just missed out on-- I'm going to turn to the eighties, the decade I grew up in. What was the atmosphere of the eighties?

It was a rather grim atmosphere. For most kids, this would be offset by the natural exuberance of childhood. Not for me. I wasn't an exuberant kid. I was a melancholy, gloomy kid, frequently inclined towards boredom and dejection. I was bored far more frequently as a child than I am as an adult. In fact, I am rarely bored as an adult.

In Ireland, the eighties were characterized by the Northern Irish Troubles, emigration, unemployment, and drugs. Later on, AIDS (as it was then spelled) would come along to join the fun. And, of course, imminent nuclear apocalypse was always looming in the background.

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were the leaders of Britain and America when I first became aware of the wider world. They were routinely pilloried by the press and entertainment industry, and in Ireland Margaret Thatcher was particularly hated for letting the 1981 hunger strikers die. (Never mind that there was almost universal support for this in Britain at the time, including among Labour voters, and that the Irish Free State had let hunger strikers die in its own history.)

(Actually, I had a massive crush on Margaret Thatcher, which I never would have told anyone. I've always had an attraction towards strong and forceful women, and there was an element of the thrill of the forbidden, too.)

Thatcherism and Reaganism were not particularly admirable ideologies, in my view. They encouraged the commercialization of society, and they did little if anything to hold social liberalism in check. (Thatcher, in fact, voted to legalize abortion in 1967.) In fact, it seems evident now that few parliamentary so-called conservatives, in Britain or Ireland or the USA, had much interest in social or cultural conservatism. They were focused almost entirely on free market economics. And yet, in the public imagination, the right were still committed to an alliance of social conservatism and economic liberalism. Like everybody else, I took this for granted.

In Ireland we had Charlie Haughey and Garrett Fitzgerald, the leaders of the two main parties. Fitzgerald was a crusading liberal and Haughey, though he posed as a social conservative, was a thoroughly corrupt adulterer. So there wasn't really anybody to root for there. Referenda on abortion and divorce were won by the conservative side, but I was hardly aware of these at the time.

The 1980's were also the "last hurrah" against degeneracy in entertainment and the arts. It was the era of an outcry against "video nasties", and "clean up TV" campaigner Mary Whitehouse was a frequent target of abuse in the media. I can vividly remember the "video nasties" controversy. I remember particularly one TV news report which showed a clip from one "video nasty": a scary-looking hand, which seemed to be half-decomposed, slowly opening a door into a dark room. It terrified me.

However, when it came to censorship, I swallowed the liberal case hook, line and sinker (whatever that means). Partly this was because my older brother and cousin (who were about the same age) were both big heavy metal fans. Naturally, I became a heavy metal fan, too. The British Iron Maiden were our biggest heroes. Actually, I still like Iron Maiden, and I still listen to them.

My father strongly disapproved of heavy metal in general, and Iron Maiden in particular. "What kind of a name is that for a bunch of fellahs?", he once asked, and he was not much consoled to hear that an iron maiden was an instrument of torture. The irony was that Iron Maiden were surprisingly wholesome, even educational-- instead of sex and drugs, their songs were more likely to be about Greek mythology, ancient history, or even classic poetry.

However, like all heavy metal bands, they were fully committed to the anti-censorship cause, and they particularly had their guns aimed at the religious right in America. So, inevitably, I went along with this.

At some point in these years, the Evening Herald (a Dublin newspaper) printed the story of a boy who was sent home from a Christian Brothers school for wearing his hair too long, by one Brother O'Connell. Naturally, we were all outraged, and Brother O'Connell became a hate figure.

I remember my father coming across an "article" I wrote, aged about eleven or twelve, lambasting censorship and particularly critics of heavy metal. (I was always writing "magazines" and "newspapers", not to mention comics and poems and the first chapter of innumerable novels. I was a veritable publishing house.) He took me to task for this, gently enough, and I remember feeling genuinely ashamed that I had taken such a clich├ęd line.

Later on, as I grew more assertive of my own identity, I reacted against the idolization of my brother and cousin, and of heavy metal. I went in quite the opposite direction, and began to mock heavy metal and its attendant culture. In fact, I can remember provocatively drawing a cartoon of Brother O'Connell (as I imagined him) on one of my brother's copy-books, with his hands clasped above his head as if in triumph. The caption read: "Brother O'Connell: Hero!". But that was probably in the nineties.

I'm always bemused when I hear my contemporaries wax nostalgic about the eighties, particularly the absence of mobile phones and social media. There's nothing surer than that they would have used such contraptions if they had them. There was no more resistance to technology in the eighties than there is today, and computers were very much an object of fascination. (There was even a "computer-generated" TV host called Max Headroom, who wasn't actually computer-generated as the technology was not yet sufficiently advanced.) My own family didn't acquire a computer until 1994, but my cousin (the heavy metal fan, who was an only child and had all the best stuff) had a Spectrum. I can remember watching him and my brother playing War of the Worlds and Back to Skool (the latter game really captured my imagination, for some reason). The games seemed to take longer to load than to play. I even have a faint memory of watching somebody play computer table-tennis, or Pong.

Kids in my class had computer games, and talked about them all the time. I didn't, but one of my favourite stories in the Eagle comic, which I read every week, was "Bobby Patterson: Computer Warrior". This was a story about a kid who would regularly get sucked into the world of his computer, and had to play the games for real.

The story was used to promote various real-life computer games, and this was a sad feature of kid's culture in the eighties. This was the decade when cartoons, comics and films were heavily geared towards promoting merchandise. (Ronald Reagan's deregulation of advertising was a precursor of this.)

I was myself a Transformers nut. I watched the Transformers cartoon, I avidly read the Transformers comic, and I asked Transformers at every Christmas and birthday. Because Transformers were primarily a collectible toy (and an excellent one). The same was true of most of the cartoons and comics of the time; He-Man, M.A.S.K., and any number of others.

It was a period of commercialization and franchising. In Ireland, this was particularly notable when it came to crisps and sweets. Irish eighties kids like to reminisce about snacks which cashed in on various crazes of the day, such as A-Team crisps or-- bizarrely-- Barry mcGuigan crisps, which celebrated an Irish boxer who was very successful at the time.

It was a very tacky time. When I look back on the eighties, tackiness is what I remember. There even seemed to be a cult of ugliness, which can be seen in things such as the Garbage Pail Kids toys, or the odious puppets on the Spitting Image satirical TV show. The British sit-com The Young Ones, which followed a group of odious students who belonged to different sub-cultures, was all-too-typical. "Alternative comedy" was one of the worst aspects of the decade.

Back in the eighties, I always seemed to know what was number on in the music charts. Chart shows were a staple of television. And yet, I don't think I ever much liked the music of the eighties, and I certainly don't rate it very highly now. Of course there are great exceptions, like "Eye of the Tiger" by Survivor. But just looking down the Wikipedia list of number one hits reminds me of how depressing and, yes, tacky, so many of those hits were-- "Caravan of Love", "Respectable", "The Only Way Is Up", "Spirit in the Sky", tinny catchy jingles with no soul or depth. (There were some eighties number ones I really liked, however, and still do: for instance, "Eternal Flame" by the Bangles.)

Television was trashy, too. I was ashamed of watching so much television, and yet I sat through so many shows that I didn't even like at the time. Shows like Miami Vice, T.J. Hooker, The A-Team (which I actually enjoyed more when I saw it recently), Knight Rider, Chips, all utterly disposable garbage. Actually, a lot of the time, I think I was only half-watching these shows, or that they happened to be on while I was in the living room. They were all high-concept, formulaic, and full of tawdry glamour. (I'm ashamed to say I loved one of the worst examples, a cartoon called Beverley Hills Teens.)

There were always exceptions, of course: the dubbed French-Japanese cartoon Ulysses 31 was a science-fiction updating of ancient Greek mythology, and was actually my first exposure to some of the Greek myths.

I can't leave the subject of eighties TV without mentioning my other great eighties crush-- on Diana, the leader of the Visitors in V. V was so scary that I used to watch it from behind the couch, so I could duck behind at the strategic moments. The Visitors were aliens with wicked designs on earth. Their human faces were only disguises, and they could be torn off to reveal the reptilian face beneath. This didn't turn me off Diana at all. I like a woman with hidden depths.

Cinema was another matter. I think the eighties were, in fact, a wonderful time for cinema. The Breakfast Club, Crocodile Dundee, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, Die Hard,The Karate Kid, Trading Places, Brewster's Millions, Rocky-- well, the list could go on and on. I've often asked myself why eighties films are so good, and I come back to the same answer again and again-- streamlining. The most notable thing about classic eighties films is that they all have a solid, tight, well-constructed plot. Back to the Future might be the most perfect example of this: famously, every single shot of the movie advances the story. But other eighties films are notable for this, too. The more I watch Crocodile Dundee, the more impressed I am to see how every scene is a vignette in its own right, but one that builds and develops the characters and the story. There is very little fat in eighties films. Characters, too, tend to be simple but vivid.

Another reason that eighties cinema is infinitely superior to eighties TV is the strange morally improving effect of the big screen. For some reason, movies tend to be much less cynical than television. Perhaps it is because a movie is so much more compressed and intense an experience than a TV show-- if you don't end on some kind of a high, you risk alienating your audience. At any rate, whereas eighties TV had a tendency towards cynicism, eighties cinema preferred to celebrate underdogs, true love, and old-fashioned values in general. 

I've written a whole blog post about the things that frightened me in the eighties. I've also written a (qualified) lament for the "hippie Catholicism" that was hegemonic in Ireland in the eighties.

In Dublin, we had a celebration of the city's (supposed) millennium in 1988, which (it seems to be generally agreed) was put on to distract people from how bad things were. If so, it was a welcome distraction. There's a fairly good summary of it here. (I thought I'd written an account of it on this blog, but I must have deleted it when I submitted an article on the same subject to Ireland's Own, which was published.)

And there is so much more that could be written. Because, of course, despite everything I've written here, I am nostalgic for the eighties. I was a child, after all. Nostalgia is inevitable. But it's nostalgia despite the "atmosphere" of the times, rather than because of it.

Last word: it was a trashy, tacky, commercialized, dispiriting decade. It had some redeeming features, such as lots of good films, and the Dublin Millennium celebrations. But not many. Political correctness and liberalism were already triumphant, even if they hadn't progressed as far as they have today. People were every bit as keen on technology as they are today; in fact, there is probably more of a reaction against it today. Christianity was more visible than it is today, but was already treated as a laughing stock by elites.

Well, reader, are you depressed by all that? If you are, the good news is that I'm going to be considerably more positive about the nineties. But I probably won't get to writing that post for a while, since I have other things to write in the meantime.


  1. You are the same age as my children and I can relate to your memories. It was a grim time, I remember watching V with my children,bwe all loved it. Everything I see Croke Park from the North Strand Road I think of the mother ship in V .

    1. I can remember a lot of my family watched it but I forget who exactly! Perhaps it fit the zeitgeist. It never occurred to me to see Croke Park as the V mother ship, but I bet I will next time!