As referenced in a recent post, less than a month from now we will apparently be in a new decade. This used to be cause for both reflection and celebration, but any attempt at it now might come across as somewhat forced. Television viewers became accustomed to the ten-year review on or around New Year’s Eve whenever we reached the end of such a cycle. I can remember watching those shows in 1979 and 1989, whereas 1999 had an excuse to cast its nostalgic net far wider – stretching over both the twentieth century and the previous thousand years. The 1990s were somewhat short-changed as a result; but that in itself was probably about right. Before the 90s ended, we were already entering a more homogenised world in which the old custom of each decade being distinctive from its predecessor was becoming redundant as a cultural touchstone.
If the 1990s had any lasting cultural impact, it was through both building on what had been developed during the decade before and laying the ground for what was to come. The manufacturing of, say, The Spice Girls, echoed the way in which Madonna had packaged herself in the 80s, but was done so with more clinical cynicism; the difference between the pop star and the tin of baked beans was even less evident. Once Ginger, Sporty and the rest were split into separate acts, the limitations of talent that gluing them together had just about masked was laid bare. No wonder they now seem to be engaged in perpetual reunion tours. However, the lesson of how they had been so spectacularly marketed as a triumph of energetic enthusiasm and grasping hunger for fame and fortune over having something to say was not lost on Simon Cowell. And if the way in which he has ruthlessly reduced a once-viable and valuable art form into a commodity indistinguishable from a packet of fish fingers defines this decade, so be it.
I suppose, from a British perspective, certain moments jump out from murky memory if one is asked to sum up the last ten years. The ‘I agree with Nick’ General Election of 2010 that opened the decade, and the Coalition and Austerity that kept its first five years on a tight, miserable leash; the 2012 London Olympics that momentarily restored a fragile equilibrium following the previous summer’s riots; the shock result of the 2016 EU Referendum that has more or less dictated discourse and discontent ever since – certainly, if pressed for an instant response, I guess all of these would loom fairly large. But – bar the odd euphoric moment in the Olympics – it’s not like recalling Beatlemania or Mods & Rockers or Psychedelia or Glam Rock or Punk Rock or anything else that still has the power to energise and inspire.
If anyone who didn’t actually live through the 1960s thinks of the 1960s, the instant imagery that appears has essentially been shaped by documentaries produced after the event; as has always been the case with the Second World War for those who didn’t fight it, the 60s has been kept alive by documentation in the shape of film and sound recording in a way that past centuries miss out on. How wonderful it would be to see and hear the likes of Dickens or Napoleon or – if we travel further back in time – Shakespeare or Elizabeth I; but their images exist solely as either faded photographs or oil paintings – something that undoubtedly distances them further and places them in a different realm to the one we inhabit. We can’t see them move or hear their voices, and I often think the mediums that really came into their own in the second half of the last century played their part in keeping the genuinely transformative decades present tense – and if you stand those decades alongside this century’s efforts, the 2000s and 2010s inevitably pale.
When it comes to the popular culture that always seemed to push things forward, we also have to now acknowledge that the 60s, 70s and 80s were anomalies in which a pace of change previously spread over a century was condensed into not much more than thirty years. Talk of decades as individual entities with their own unique look, sound and style is an entirely relevant approach when describing that trio; but it doesn’t fit now. This decade that’s poised to conk out in a few weeks has felt like an extension of everywhere the world has been since 9/11 – and it appears to grow more depressing with each passing twelve months. And this isn’t an ‘old man’ wistfully looking back on his youth either; I probably hated living through the 80s more than I’ve hated living through the 2010s. If anything, all the happiest moments of my adult life have taken place this decade; but that doesn’t alter the fact that it still doesn’t feel like one in the tradition of the decades I grew up in.
Whichever political party is sworn-in as the Government in just over a week from now – and, bar some unforeseen sensational development or the dreaded Hung Parliament, I think we can safely guess which one it will be – the decade to come will open under the same black cloud that has hung over this one; and it’s difficult to discern when, or if, it will clear and the sun will come out again. Of course, life has a habit of springing surprises on us when we’re not expecting them, so something could happen that might hold this post up in five years’ time as woefully inaccurate in its pessimistic predictions. But most of the surprises life has sprung on us recently haven’t really been that great, and unless World President Thunberg discovers gold flowing through Antarctica in 2025 and we all receive our equal fair share, the 2020s may well turn out to be just like the 2010s – only not as good.
BOB WILLIS (1949-2019)
Stanley Matthews, forever endearingly modest when it came to his own outstanding talent on the football field, always visibly winced whenever the 1953 FA Cup Final was referred to as ‘The Matthews Final’; his assertion was that it should be known as ‘The Mortensen Final’, as Blackpool’s centre forward scored a hat-trick to bring his team from 3-1 down to beat Bolton Wanderers 4-3. But it was the dazzling skill of the Wizard of the Wing that played a vital role in Blackpool’s memorable comeback and rewarded Matthews with his only medal in a remarkable career that spanned the era from the Great Depression to the Swinging 60s.
What this shows is how an individual with star presence can stamp his name on a sporting occasion that grows in stature the further away we travel from it, even if it tends to overshadow equally important roles played by team-mates. Such was the position Bob Willis – whose death at the age of 70 has been announced – tended to find himself in ever since the legendary Ashes series of 1981. The Surrey, Warwickshire and England bowler played an immensely significant part in reversing an anticipated whitewash by the Aussies at Headingley. Known both at the time and ever since as ‘Botham’s Ashes’ in recognition of the undoubted impact of England’s great all-rounder, Willis nevertheless made an important contribution.
He took eight wickets for 43 runs during that Test, a career-best performance that helped England wrench victory from the jaws of defeat. By his own admission, the lanky Tom Baker lookalike was often secretly listening to his musical hero Bob Dylan on his Walkman during team talks in the dressing room; but that didn’t affect his determined focus as he charged towards the Aussie batsmen during that match at Headingley, something Ian Botham himself often remarks upon whenever 1981 is mentioned; and when it comes to Ian Botham, 1981 does get mentioned rather a lot. But the part Bob Willis played in one of the all-time great sporting comebacks means his name should never be far from the retrospective scorecard either.
© The Editor