NightingalesThe senile old man, the young idiot, and the pompous fool – that was the template Jimmy Perry confessed he seized upon when putting together the genesis of ‘Dad’s Army’ in his head over 50 years ago. He’d drawn inspiration from an old Will Hay movie, the kind that was once a staple diet of Saturday afternoon cinematic interludes on BBC2, and the kind that has now sadly been largely forgotten. Will Hay was one of Britain’s most popular comic actors between the wars and his 1937 film, ‘Oh! Mr Porter’, set in a rural railway station, established the three-way dynamic of the archetypes mentioned in the opening sentence that proved so influential on the formulation of the nation’s favourite TV sitcom. Hay had played the pompous fool that could be seen as a prototype for Arthur Lowe’s Captain Mainwaring, and it was the amusing interaction between his character and his old and young subordinates respectively that has continued to echo down the years as comedy alchemy, perhaps reaching its comic peak with ‘Father Ted’ in the 1990s.

However, five years before the priests of Craggy Island debuted on the one-time risk-taking innovator known as Channel 4 in 1995, the same station had aired a sitcom that utilised the same basic formula of the archetypal trio in a completely different (albeit similarly restrictive) setting – and one that remained far more under the radar than Ted, Dougal and Jack. ‘Nightingales’ first appeared at the beginning of 1990, hidden away well after the watershed, which was apt scheduling for a series based around the activities of three nocturnal security guards stationed at a dreary city centre office block. Entirely studio-based, ‘Nightingales’ never saw daylight and was perhaps the last TV sitcom to have the look and feel of a stage-play, eschewing location filming and relying instead upon the inventively funny storylines, the well-drawn characters, and the comic charisma of the small cast to deliver the laughs in the same way ‘Steptoe and Son’ often did in the 60s and 70s. As with Galton & Simpson’s creation, the simple premise of characters trapped in a depressive, claustrophobic environment with no escape is a classic trope of the best British sitcoms, and ‘Nightingales’ is no exception.

The titular head of the ‘Nightingales’ trio was the old man character known only as ‘Sarge’; he was played by ‘Z Cars’ veteran and acclaimed dramatic actor James Ellis. The young idiot character was ‘Ding Dong’ Bell, played by David Threlfall, who later went on to achieve cult status as Frank Gallagher in ‘Shameless’; and the pompous fool was Carter, played by Robert Lindsay, whose sitcom CV stretched back to the 70s with ‘Citizen Smith’. Although there were a handful of minor characters that appeared periodically, the main focus of the series was this three-headed acting powerhouse. Given the soul-destroying boredom of the setting, it was perhaps no surprise that the series routinely ventured into the surreal and the strange, almost as though it was accessing the imaginations of the characters by blurring the lines between the uninspired reality of such a workplace and the fantasy reality its workforce must regularly inhabit simply to endure working there.

James Ellis’s Sarge is a passive, pliable and rather naive avuncular figure, the kind that sees the good in everyone and consciously evokes ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ characteristics when delivering the occasional end-of-show summary, even concluding with an ‘evenin’ all’; it seems too coincidental that the writers didn’t play upon this even further once the former Sgt Bert Lynch from rival cop drama ‘Z Cars’ had been cast in the part. David Threlfall’s Ding Dong is an aggressively childish, thuggish dimwit whose stupidity forms the basis of numerous gags throughout the series, and though he enjoys winding-up and mocking the pretensions of his colleague Carter, Ding Dong simultaneously admires Robert Lindsay’s character in the same way a relentlessly teasing little brother sees in his elder sibling everything he himself secretly wishes he could be. Carter has echoes of Hancock or Harold Steptoe in that he evidently regards himself as far superior to both his surroundings and those surrounding him, forever hankering after a higher aesthetic existence – ‘I wonder what Harold Pinter’s doing tonight?’ is the kind of yearning question he has a habit of posing without receiving a reply. At the same time, his awareness of his actual limitations is exposed whenever promotion within the security business presents itself to him. In fact, Carter’s real dream job is to be a security guard at Heathrow Airport, which he regards as the pinnacle of the profession.

Although it has the conventional look of all the old sitcoms played before a live audience that would be rendered antiquated overnight once the likes of ‘The Royle Family’ and ‘The Office’ changed the game, the magic-realism elements of ‘Nightingales’ don’t take long to show themselves. In the very first episode, a medical student joins the team for one night only, failing to last the course on account of it being a full moon and him being a werewolf. He returns a few episodes later to perform a heart bypass operation on Sarge in the workplace, with Carter and Ding Dong vying for the honour of being able to pass instruments to the amateur surgeon during the procedure. The surreal boat is pushed out even further in an episode in which another addition to the workforce turns out to be a gorilla who wins over the initially hostile team to the point whereby they christen him Terence and are crestfallen when he leaves to accept a position as a security guard at Heathrow.

The Heathrow factor resurfaces again in an episode that sees Carter and Ding Dong competing against each other in the hope of winning a prestigious post at the airport; in order to scoop the prize, they first have to undergo a written examination of the kind we all endured at school (which Carter smugly sails through), followed by the building of a dry stone wall, which the far more hands-on Ding Dong has no problem with. The writing and staging of a one-act play completes the test – and all three sections of the exam are completed in one evening. My own personal favourite episode is one in which Sarge and Carter discover Ding Dong has been up in court for having sex with a horse; a shrink visits the premises as part of his psychiatric assessment and proceeds to hypnotise all three members of the workforce, uncovering several buried secrets along the way. Another classic is an episode in which Peter Vaughan guest stars as a sadistic inspector whose persona is so Captain Bligh-like that the story mutates into a pastiche of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’. If that sounds weird, by the time the episode comes around such flights of fancy are well-established.

In the best sitcom tradition, there’s even a Christmas-themed episode. A pregnant woman by the name of Mary turns up and begs to have her baby on the premises; despite signing a contract drawn up by the suspicious team to swear she’s not an allegory, she then proceeds to give birth to a succession of consumer goods. It’s quite unlike any other Christmas episode of any other sitcom you’ve ever seen. I did actually catch a small handful of ‘Nightingales’ episodes in the early 90s (it only ran for two series), and though I found it funny I’d all-but forgotten about it until a friend bought me it on DVD three or four years back. Not having any idea of my past acquaintance with the series, she figured it might be something I’d like. Revisiting it 30 years after the event, I was pleasantly surprised at how much funnier and innovative it seemed than first time round. I now place it high in my own personal list of favourite sitcoms, even though so few are aware of it. If you’ve never seen it, check it out and join a very small albeit passionate fan-club for an overlooked and underrated gem capable of brightening-up the kind of nights that can make anyone feel as trapped as a nocturnal security guard in a dreary city centre office block.

© The Editor




The spectre of the Poll Tax Riots tends to shadow any civil disobedience that spills onto the streets of London to this day, but anyone old enough to have a good memory of events that took place in the capital 30 years ago will know few since have matched them in terms of anarchic ferocity. As ever, context counts for a great deal, and the riots that took place on 31 March 1990 were another chapter in a lengthy sequence that stretched back to the Grosvenor Square shindig of 1968. The ugly collision between police and protestors in the aftermath of an anti-Vietnam War march as demonstrators massed outside the US Embassy came as a shock to the general public at the time; although London in particular has quite a history when it comes to ‘the mob’ – encompassing everything from the Gordon Riots of 1780 to the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 – the immediate post-war period had been relatively quiet when it came to outbreaks of public disorder with a political or ideological bent.

Even though the phrase ‘reading the Riot Act’ refuses to go away, the actual Riot Act itself had been repealed in the UK just the year before the Grosvenor Square incident of 1968, presumably because it was felt society as a whole was less prone to erupt into spontaneous public violence than it had been at the time of the Act’s introduction in 1714. By and large, it was. Yes, there had been serious racial trouble in Notting Hill in 1958 as well as clashes between police and ‘ban the bomb’ demonstrators in Trafalgar Square in 1961, but the kind of widespread anarchy that led to troops shooting dead around 285 members of the public during the Gordon Riots was seen very much as past tense. The Riot Act hadn’t been literally read in England since 1919, and the need to issue a vocal warning to twelve or more who were ‘unlawfully assembled’ was deemed irrelevant to the modern age. Ironically, it was only after the repeal of the Riot Act in 1967 that the kind of civil disorder familiar to 18th century Britain resurfaced.

The upsurge in industrial disputes that came to characterise the 1970s often led to volatile picket-line incidents – with the worst being at the height of the Grunwick Strike in 1977; but there was also football hooliganism, National Front marches, the 1976 ‘race riot’ during the Notting Hill Carnival, and not forgetting the virtually daily battles between the British Army and the citizens of Belfast and Londonderry. Within a decade, the sight of battalions of Bobbies wading in with truncheons and then progressing onto full riot gear with shields became a commonplace image on news broadcasts; the 1980s merely continued the trend, with the inner-city riots of 1981 and the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 being amongst the most memorably incendiary. Therefore, the Poll Tax Riots appear perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the times. As most of the more serious examples during this period were sparked by grievances centring on social, racial and financial inequality, it was no surprise that rioters spilling out of Trafalgar Square in 1990 smashed the windows of and set ablaze various symbols of the great divide such as car showrooms, wine bars and night-clubs. After all, the Poll Tax itself was seen as the legislative manifestation of this divide.

Even before she became Conservative Party leader, Margaret Thatcher appeared in a party political broadcast during the October 1974 General Election and announced it was her intention to get rid of the rates. As a system of taxation for funding local government, the rates were a levy on property rather than people and were one of those obsessive subjects devoted Tory voters tend to fixate on with an almost autistic intensity. Mrs T took her time, though; the rates weren’t eventually superseded by the Community Charge until she’d been in power for a decade, and the new tax – which was no respecter of social circumstances, with the same fixed rate for everyone, regardless of income – proved to be the first nail in her coffin. Scotland was used as a guinea pig for what became colloquially known as ‘the Poll Tax’ the year before its introduction in England and Wales, further cementing the Tories as the enemies north of the border. There were widespread refusals to pay and by the time the Poll Tax was UK-wide in 1990, an opinion poll revealed 78% were opposed to it. Although the likes of the Miners’ Strike had been an early example of Government and media colluding to generate polarisation that would aid the desired outcome, there was a substantial consensus on the Poll Tax that placed its supporters very much in the minority. When most of a Prime Minister’s Cabinet are amongst the opposition to an unpopular policy, chances are it ain’t gonna work.

Mrs Thatcher was deposed by her own party within eight months of the Poll Tax Riots and her successor as PM John Major announced his intention to scrap the tax in his inaugural speech. Even if the riots of 31 March hadn’t happened, the tax was so universally reviled that it was destined to be put out of its misery, anyway. However, it was telling that, although many who took part in the riots were those that always turn up at a demo with aggro in mind (and continue to do so), the anger directed towards the police that day seemed fairly general amongst all present. The notorious Special Patrol Group had opened eyes at Grunwick in 1977, but when Thatcher had cynically bussed in Met reinforcements to bolster the local constabularies struggling on the picket-lines at Orgreave, it was a disastrous PR exercise for the police that considerably altered the way in which the wider public saw their law enforcers. The view of the police long held by the country’s immigrant communities – that of them being a de facto government private army, which was precisely the concern of Brits that delayed the introduction of a police force for centuries – now became the default setting for many; events this year appear to have solidified such a view of the boys in blue.

There were shades of the Poll Tax Riots back in the summer, which was ironic considering the humiliating and nauseating deference shown by the police towards the BLM protestors, creating an atmosphere that laid bare officers’ political leanings and gave the green light to Antifa to deface and desecrate their surroundings in a famously ‘peaceful protest’. But even if the BLM event couldn’t quite match the Poll Tax Riots in scale (as neither could Saturday’s anti-lockdown protest in the same location), the potential for something comparable is certainly in the air – and the police aren’t helping matters. Their blatant favouritism, taking the knee on one cause and putting the boot in on the other, is something they don’t even try and hide anymore. Along with the petty, Jobsworth elements that the pandemic has brought to the fore, and the ‘check your thinking’ cyber division, the image of the police as a Gestapo Woke militia actively avoiding fighting actual crime is stoking as much resentment as the Government’s latest hapless measures to combat Covid-19.

What distinguishes this year’s incidents from 1990 is the polarisation of opinion that owes more to the unholy marriage of media and Government characteristic of the Miners’ Strike than it does to the orthodoxy of opinion on the Poll Tax. Government can play on fears they deliberately engineered to ensure compliance, using crass and immoral threats of overwhelmed hospitals or dying grannies dropping like blue-rinsed bluebottles after a five-second hug from a grandchild; this divide-and-rule tactic is working along Remainer/Leaver lines in that the population is split, but the diminishing trust in our leaders to get us out of this almighty mess is undoubtedly on the rise, and another six months like the last will probably break the patience of even the most law-abiding saints. One doesn’t have to be a conspiracy devotee of Piers Corbyn or David Icke to regard the brutal removal of civil liberties as an outrage that cannot be indefinitely tolerated; and when the people feel powerless, they will grab any semblance of power they can; history has shown us if that means rioting, they’ll do it. It’s probably safe to say we ain’t seen nothing yet.

© The Editor


Today should have been May Day Bank Holiday, but it was postponed – not for the obvious reason, but because it’s been rescheduled to coincide with the 75th anniversary of VE Day on Friday. Still, one can’t help but feel that a delay of four days isn’t long enough. It’s a bit like being one of those unfortunate kids born in the second half of December, those whose aunties hand them a present and say ‘This is for your birthday AND Christmas’. Most people are off work, and a Bank Holiday is a day when workers are given a treat by being given…a day off work. Surely it would’ve made more sense to have simply shifted the Bank Holidays that appeared smack bang in the middle of the lockdown to a later point in the year? But, one can’t really blame those whose job it is to plan public holidays for failing to anticipate a situation few saw coming; this situation is too strange for that. And it also continues to place the months, weeks and even days leading up to where we are now in a weird fabrication of immense distance.

However, history has taught us that this ‘optical illusion’ of memory has a habit of recurring whenever a life-changing event occurs and the world on the other side of the event suddenly feels much further away than it actually is. Think of how the last summer on the eve of the outbreak of the First World War is often portrayed as the golden swansong of an Edwardian age that was instantly plunged into luminous amber by those finding themselves on the Western Front. Of course what they’d left behind must have suddenly seemed magical. Certainly a conflict that began on horseback and ended in tanks did indeed serve as a watershed between one era of warfare and another, but this can feasibly be expanded to encompass a wider contrast between the world of 1914 and the world of 1918, one that stretches way beyond the battlefield. It’s no wonder the Edwardian age remains bathed in an alluring glow – though one perhaps viewed from the perspective of the officer class; war stopped play of a cricket match in which all the players were gentlemen.

Across the Atlantic, the three major bombshells that had the greatest impact on the American psyche between World War II and the present day were Pearl Harbor, the assassination of President Kennedy and 9/11. The first was undoubtedly a shock to the American public; it brought a policy of isolationism to a dramatic end overnight, though Roosevelt had hardly been detached from events in Europe behind the scenes; what the Japanese attack on the US Navy in Hawaii did was to curtail the facade of non-engagement. But the US officially entering WWII didn’t necessarily worsen life for Americans who weren’t drafted; compared to here, the home-front in the States was probably better than it had been before 1941, so there wasn’t much yearning for the lost world that existed prior to Pearl Harbor. If anything, looking back to the Great Depression from the perspective of an economy energised anew by the war effort negated the kind of nostalgic longing for the recent past that the British experienced during the First World War.

JFK’s assassination is another matter altogether. Today, it tends to be viewed through the prism of the conspiracy theory industry; had David Icke been around at the time, he’d no doubt have got in early – though his removal from YouTube over the weekend says more about the Google Thought Police and the intolerance of the Silicon Valley worldview than it does about a man that anyone with half-a-brain recognises as an irrelevant fruitcake. Anyway, as for the President who bit the bullet on 22 November 1963, the trauma that hit the US over the death of a man who represented far more than he ever delivered instantly mythologized the Kennedy Camelot in a way that has proven remarkably resistant to no end of damaging revelations ever since. The orphaned youth of America may have been coaxed out of mourning by The Beatles – whose landmark debut on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ took place just two-and-a-half months later; but as the decade unfolded with the black hole of Vietnam and further traumatising assassinations, looking back to the perceived innocence and optimism of the early 60s and harbouring a grievance that the nation was robbed of a hope it has never regained was a comforting illusion that endures.

With 9/11 – an event that dragged more than just the one nation into its toxic orbit – the rapid realisation that the world had become a less nice place gradually shone a more benign light on the 20th century’s last decade. All those truly horrible elements of the 1990s – from bloodshed in the Balkans to genocide in Rwanda – were overshadowed in reminiscences that airbrushed the worst from the picture, and the 90s was refashioned as the Indian summer of a safe, peaceful planet in which things could only get better. The end of the Cold War, the Kyoto Protocol, Gazza’s tears, Bill Clinton receiving blowjobs in the Oval Office – hell, we’d never had it so good. By 12 September 2001, it already seemed like a hundred years ago – a fun and frivolous era when all we had to concern ourselves with was whether or not Blur would beat Oasis to the No.1 spot.

The dawn of a new age’s first task is to instantly distinguish itself from what immediately preceded it; but when that new age is a dark one, what immediately preceded it inevitably appears shiny and bright – and better – by comparison. Naturally, the Edwardian era seemed preferable to the carnage of WWI; naturally, the young President cut down in his prime felt like the murder of the American Dream he’d embodied; and naturally, the 1990s came across as a less bleak and far more hopeful period because it was a brief bridge between one Cold War and another. And now we find ourselves in a fresh time of uncertainty and unease that is painting the normal we knew before Covid-19 decided to extend its influence beyond China’s borders as not only eminently desirable, but as something we lost a long time ago – far longer ago than is actually the case.

It may well be that the only thing in 2020 that we have to fear is fear itself; but the abrupt loss of so much we invariably took for granted and the sudden change to the majority of lifestyles has had the effect of making many feel as though where we were pre-lockdown was some dim, distant Golden Age we can never get back to. It’s amazing how quickly one becomes accustomed to the changes, too. Just in the way a scene from a movie barely a decade old might already seem strange should it feature characters smoking indoors, I’m starting to marvel at the absence of social distancing in any drama I watch and have to remind myself that this situation hasn’t always been the case. It just feels like it has. To claim that the past is beautiful and the present is beastly (nice turn of phrase to justify the title, eh?) might be stretching the truth; but if it were in my power to turn back the clock, I probably wouldn’t say no.

© The Editor


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


Adolescence may well be a transitional phase for both body and mind, but there’s also a uniquely sartorial chameleon element to this odd interlude between childhood and adulthood that is crucial to finding who you are; it’s as though you need to sample a series of brands on the shelves of the cultural supermarket before you eventually find the one that fits, the one you’ll most probably stick with for the rest of your life (most usually pick their favourite at some point of their 20s). Of course, some remain admirably restless and resist ‘settling down’ with the same pair of trousers, whereas others – from the geriatric biker to the retired stockbroker – located their comfort zone forty or fifty years ago and have stayed there.

As a teenager, the swift shift from one social group to another – gravitating towards those with shared interests and passions – is marked by the taking-on of each new clique’s appearance with unconscious ease. It’s very much a natural adolescent habit for teenagers to instinctively tailor their look to match the crowd they’re with; and for all the adolescent claims of ‘individuality’, the pack mentality inculcated in the playground creates a craving for like-minds and the desire for a tribe to belong to outside of the school gates. It also helps if the new hair colour or item of clothing that earns membership of said crowd meets with parental disapproval; all part of the necessary severance of the apron strings, even if the economic climate of this particular century means the ever-changing wardrobe is usually funded by the Bank of Mum & Dad.

Looking back, I think I wore around half-a-dozen completely contrasting hairstyles (of various lengths and colour) between the ages of 13 and 23, all of them usually prompted by falling in love with a band or youth subculture; unfortunately, my own personal experience was of a constant failure to find anyone else who shared a love of whatever prompted the annual visual regeneration, but most are lucky and locate a ‘set’. Even so, I do recall certain acquaintances I had in the 80s who I’d bump into maybe once or twice a year, and every time I saw them they’d changed radically from our previous encounter just a few months before. That doesn’t really happen at any other time of life.

It goes without saying that the longer you live, the lengthier can become the gaps between bumping into acquaintances; and if there has been a radical change in their appearance when your paths cross again, it’s usually not one they’ve chosen (unlike during adolescence). Once you reach your 40s – or 50s – the main differences you notice when reuniting with people you knew 20 or 30 years before are the wrinkles, the waistline and the grey hairs (if there’s any hair left). Perhaps one reason why some recall their teenage years with fondness is that it was the one time of their lives when they felt in control of their destinies, a time when they had yet to succumb to hopeless defeatism via the demands of the workplace, they hadn’t been worn-out and wearied by children, and they remained a long way from being at the mercy of the aches and pains that accumulate with the passing decades.

Nonetheless, such chameleon traits are not the exclusive province of adolescents. Some continue to utilise this ability to blend into their constantly changing surroundings when it comes to relationships, so that each new partner has a different version of the same person that their predecessor had. Sensing the kind of man, woman or non-binary individual one’s latest other half is subconsciously searching for can result in a subtle alteration from what the previous partner required. We often notice it in the recently-divorced when arm-in-arm with their post-‘decree absolute’ lover, looking distinctly different from the way they dressed when alongside their ex. A change of image can therefore result in both partners visually complementing one another for the duration of their relationship, settling into items of clothing they’d never before worn or expressed a preference for. Not necessarily ‘they look just like two gurus in drag’, but John & Yoko understood – as indeed did the first wife in the Lennon marital bed; Cynthia admitted adopting a ‘peroxide Parisian’ look in the early days of her relationship with John mainly because she was aware of his lustful yearnings for Brigitte Bardot.

This strange way in which lovers or spouses can suppress their own identities in order to keep their other half happy was brought home to me when I was researching my book about a dear departed friend name of Alison (veteran readers may recall the story). Her son told me of a point in the 1990s when she’d hooked-up with a bit of a flash twat who lived somewhere in the Little Venice neighbourhood of London; he noticed his mother seemed to be adopting this guy’s taste for material goods in a way that had never been a hallmark of her personality before. He recalled her sudden interest in ‘designer gear’ with both bemusement and amusement, for it appeared so out of character with the woman he knew.

Alison’s experience makes me aware that – if they’re not careful – some risk being solely defined by their other half, as if they were unwittingly conditioned into sacrificing personal development in favour of constant companionship from too young an age, forever refashioning themselves to suit whoever they happened to be with. Should their voluntary role as an appendage come to an end, perhaps the fear of trying to survive without that clear definition – and being suddenly confronted by the unnerving absence of a personal identity outside of a relationship – propels them straight into ill-advised dalliances with unsuitable successors. Alison was a parent too, another factor by which women in particular can be exclusively defined in denial of who they might actually be. The Alison I knew seemed to be very much her own person, but she had lived alone for a number of years by this stage, so that might have helped her become the unique and original individual I remember. Anyway, I digress once again.

As I was saying, the cliché of time moving at a slower speed when younger could probably account for the breathless pace of the constant changes of image and tastes that can characterise adolescence; so much is crammed into a relatively short space that the memory tends to recall months as years and years as decades. I know from my own experience how the period from around 1983 up to roundabout 1993 (which retrospectively feels like a quarter-of-a-century) saw so many alterations in appearance that it’s just as well I never had a passport. Chances are I’d have confused more than one customs official when switching his gaze from photo to person.

At about 40, I felt as if I’d found the character I’d been putting together for 25 years, albeit one who remains a work-in-progress; there’s always room for improvement, though I have my sartorial side sorted now. If Fenella Fielding had managed to persuade Peter Wyngarde to have a crack at batting for the other side just for one night of passion, I’d probably have been the product of that fantastically louche liaison. Who says dreams die when you turn 21?

© The Editor


No other artistic medium can evoke past people and places with the speed and precision of music. Old songs are often intensely personal time capsules that, once unlocked years or even decades after they ceased to provide life with its soundtrack, can resurface as defining documents of who we were, where we were, and who were with when our ears last heard them. A few bars out-of-the-blue can put you back where you were in an instant, as though the moment is so deeply engrained in the grooves of the record that the moment is as intrinsic to the recording as the instrumentation; it can be impossible to separate the song from the moment.

For me, many works of favourite musicians and singers are so bound-up with the first time I was exposed to them that music and moment are genuinely inseparable; this is particularly potent if my affair with the artists in question was encapsulated in a brief burst of passion and I subsequently haven’t kept in touch. Nirvana are a case in point, so associated with a precise period of my life that it’s only because today marks 25 years since Kurt Cobain pointed a shotgun at his head that I’ve dug out ‘Nevermind’ and ‘In Utero’ and dusted them down (literally – the vinyl was filthy) to properly listen for the first time this century. The short ‘n’ sweet career of Nirvana – and the suicide of Kurt Cobain, which casts quite an ominous shadow over that career – makes me think of a friend of mine I haven’t thought about for some time. For the purposes of this post, I shall call her Layla.

In 1994, Layla was my only friend in the neighbourhood, living a few doors away; she was seventeen and had just found out she was pregnant by a ‘bad boy’ that her parents (rightly, as it turned out) didn’t approve of. Suddenly finding herself out of favour with the rather conservative mindset of that neighbourhood, I sensed she needed a friend who had long found that mindset as oppressive as she now did, and I was right. I’d known her for a few years as a neighbour, but we forged a close friendship as we began to spend more time in each other’s company during what was a fairly traumatic year for her. A virtual pinball between boyfriend and family, she found refuge at my place as we stuck Nirvana on the turntable, chatted, consumed cup-after-cup of coffee, and chain-smoked for hours (yes, pregnant women still did in the early 90s).

Being a little older than Layla, it was refreshing to discover she was a Nirvana fan. Last time I’d asked her about music (when she was around 14), she’d been into New Kids on the Block. It reminded me how tastes change radically – and rapidly – in one’s teens, but it meant I had the chance to provide her with some background, lending her LPs by The Stooges, New York Dolls, Sex Pistols et al. I’d spent a while immersed in the Rave scene, finding guitar bands as irrelevant as Trad Jazz once the 90s dawned. Then there was that memorable performance of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ on TOTP, when Kurt sang live and plummeted all the way down the scale to an Andrew Eldritch baritone-from-Hell as what had been safely secluded in the Indie ghetto abruptly gate-crashed the mainstream.

For a band stripped down to the (hard) core of a trio, Nirvana generated an immensely intense noise, but one punctuated by melodic passages that exposed pop sensibilities. Born the same year as me, Kurt Cobain shared my appetite for the pre-Punk rock that the 80s concept of ‘cool’ had told us we weren’t allowed to like whilst the 80s simultaneously inflicted upon our ears the worst music imaginable, whether Bon Jovi or Rick Astley. Then those nice people at the music press did what they always did by coining a hideous name – ‘Grunge’ – to attach to Nirvana and the bands that charged through the doors Kurt and friends had inadvertently kicked down. Yes, the ‘scene’ (for what it was) quickly took on the shape of a bandwagon and burned out within a couple of years, but its most articulate practitioners at least gave us a welcome breather from what had gone immediately before.

I followed the soap opera of Kurt’s marriage to Courtney Love of Hole in the music papers, but it was an amusing diversion from the good work being done – bringing the best rhetoric from the ‘alternative’ side of the tracks to a wider audience and in turn calling time on the embarrassingly antiquated attitudes and clichés of Guns ‘n’ Roses and their ilk. I doubted Axl Rose would have a clue who Sylvia Plath was, but I had a feeling Kurt Cobain knew. Yet, as with the late Mrs Hughes, there were numerous indications his time in the spotlight was destined to be short.

There was a kind of grim fatality to those lumbered with the ‘Gen X’ label, one that made the ending Kurt Cobain brought upon himself somehow inevitable. It radiated a resigned slacker surrender to the narrative that said everything important had been done in the 60s and 70s. ‘Okay,’ said Gen X, ‘well I won’t try then. I’ll smoke dope, wear the same clothes for a week and grow my hair without bothering to wash it. And I’ll listen to Black Sabbath as well as Black Flag.’ What was adopted as the Grunge ‘look’ was merely a regional equivalent of my own adolescent anti-fashion, native to Seattle. Once ‘Nevermind’ established Nirvana as unlikely radio-friendly unit-shifters, it was of course co-opted by opportunistic designers, and the lumberjack shirt became as much of a dead-end uniform as Sid Vicious’ leather jacket had been a few years before. Alas, nobody in 1994 foresaw Nirvana would one day join The Ramones in being reduced to a T-shirt.

Kurt Cobain’s suicide – something heroin undoubtedly played a depressingly familiar part in – meant a great deal at the time because he was the first famous person of my generation to die. We’d grown up with all the legends of the so-called ’27 Club’, but they were historical figures to us – even if the death of the most recent (Jim Morrison) wasn’t as far back in time then as Cobain’s death is in 2019, scarily. News broke three days after the date of his demise; it was a Saturday. Radio 1’s ‘Evening Session’ paid tribute a couple of days later; I still have an audiotape recording of it somewhere; I remember listening to it with Layla. We were subdued by the shocking passing of someone who mattered to us right at the moment when Layla herself was carrying a new life inside her. And the cycle goes on.

A few months after Kurt Cobain’s messy exit, Layla gave birth to a little girl as Nirvana’s morbidly beautiful ‘Unplugged’ LP was effortlessly sailing to the top of the charts. A few months after that, the cultural goalposts were shifted once again as Blur and Oasis prepared to lock horns; meanwhile, Layla was changing nappies, and I was getting ready to relocate elsewhere. Layla’s mother thanked me for being a good friend to her daughter during the most difficult months; ‘I don’t know how she’d have managed without you,’ she said, which was kind of her. I don’t know how I’d have managed without Layla.

Years passed. Layla and I saw each other periodically as we both moved around with the restlessness of gypsies for a good decade, and then we did what so many once-close friends do – we lost touch. But whenever I recall Nirvana – which isn’t, I admit, very often now – I recall Layla and a lovely friendship that grew out of alienation from our shared surroundings, one that had its perfect poet laureate in Kurt Cobain.

© The Editor


Whilst that odious Jabba Tom Watson weeps crocodile tears over the suicide of Carl Sargeant, seemingly oblivious to the blood on his own hands, the excuse for an administration perched on the opposing benches could have done without what passes for a ‘sex scandal’ in 2017, certainly on top of everything else. But whilst rolling news channels prefer the ridiculous spectacle of helicopters trailing a returning member of the Cabinet en route from Heathrow to No.10 as though she was OJ Simpson being chased by the LAPD, there’s nothing the tabloid end of Fleet Street loves more than what happens, as Peter Wyngarde once said, ‘when sex leers its inquisitive head’. Parallels with John Major’s similarly shambolic Cabinet have come thicker and faster in recent weeks, though it’s no great surprise. One has to go back 25 years to find the nearest comparison of a governing party so viciously divided over Europe and simultaneously saddled with wandering hands.

When the disaster of Black Wednesday hit and Britain was forced to leave the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, a move that cost the Treasury £3.3 billion as desperate attempts to defend sterling’s value proved futile, the same week saw the resignation of high-profile Major Minister David Mellor, following a proper sex scandal. The fact Major dithered over replacing Norman Lamont, his Chancellor during Black Wednesday also suggested the PM was weak and indecisive; even though the economy was slowly improving and unemployment was beginning to fall, confidence in the nation’s leader had plummeted. The inauguration of Back to Basics, unveiled at the 1993 Conservative Party Conference, was seen by many as an attempt by Major to salvage his dwindling reputation and appeal to the right-wing tabloids that had begun to waver in their support.

In retrospect, Back to Basics can be held responsible for the public perception of the Tories as the ‘nasty party’ as much as any of the divisive policies pursued by Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s. Hallmarks of Tory policy that have continued into this century via the likes of IDS were key to this horrible, desperate gamble by Major, singling out a small section of society as the cause of society’s ills, safe in the knowledge that this small section were powerless to fight back.

Along with single mothers, there were criticisms of soft sentencing on the part of the justice system, painting a picture of Britain’s inner cities as lawless hotbeds of unchecked criminality; illegal raves were also held up as a further example of the country’s lapse into immoral anarchy. The blame game is always a sure sign that an administration has run out of ideas, and whilst Major’s accusations chimed with editorials in some of Fleet Street’s more reactionary publications, the vast majority of the press and public found the whole Back to Basics project utterly ludicrous. And, as luck would have it, within a few months of Back to Basics being unveiled, a steady stream of scandals emanating from the Tory party undermined Major’s credibility and highlighted the hypocrisy at the heart of this most ill-advised of political projects.

In 1990, Tory MP Tim Yeo had made a speech in which he declared – ‘It is in everyone’s interest to reduce broken families and the numbers of single parents. I have seen from my own constituency the consequences of marital breakdown’. Just three months after the launch of Back to Basics, the man John Major had appointed Minister for the Environment and Countryside was forced to resign when the press revealed Yeo had fathered a ‘love child’ with a Tory councillor. The same month as Tim Yeo quit the Cabinet, John Major’s Government also lost its leading Peer when the Earl of Caithness resigned following the suicide of his wife, who had shot herself upon discovering her husband’s affair with another woman. The following month, Stephen Milligan – MP for Eastleigh, a former journalist and ‘rising star’ of the Tory Party – was found dead in his flat from apparent autoerotic asphyxiation, strangled by an electrical cord with an orange stuffed in his mouth; elements of cross-dressing and self-bondage made this bizarre, lurid tragedy a gift for the more sensationalist corners of Fleet Street. It also triggered a by-election that was won by the Liberal Democrats, dealing a further humiliating blow to John Major’s shaky administration.

But these weren’t the only scandals to affect the Conservatives in the middle of the 90s. There was also was the Cash-for-questions affair, involving ‘The Egyptian Grocer’ and Neil Hamilton – Minister for Deregulation and Corporate Affairs, no less – not to mention the dramatic downfall of Jonathan Aitken, Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Aitken’s libel proceedings against allegations by both the Guardian and ITV’s ‘World in Action’ dragged on for two years, but resulted in him being charged with perjury and perverting the course of justice and receiving a sentence of eighteen months behind bars. His cell wouldn’t be vacant for long, however.

Jeffrey Archer, one of the most public advocates of Back to Basics, was brought back into the Tory frontline by John Major, who elevated him to the peerage. Archer had evaded prosecution over the Anglia Television ‘shares affair’ in 1994, but when he was selected as Tory candidate for the London Mayoral Election five years later, Rupert Murdoch’s newfound love-in with Labour saw the News of the World dredge up Archer’s 1987 libel case against the Daily Star, when he had been found not guilty of paying a prostitute for her services, and was awarded £50,000 in damages. The new allegations that emerged in 1999 presented strong evidence that Archer had committed perjury during the 1987 libel trial by fabricating an alibi. The Tory Party immediately dropped him as their Mayoral candidate and expelled him from the party for five years. Archer was charged with perjury and perverting the course of justice in September 2000 and when the case came to trial in the summer of 2001, Archer was found guilty of the offence and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment, of which he served half.

Even though there was a gap of four years between Major’s Government being thrown out of office and Jeffrey Archer’s imprisonment, the fact that notable players in that administration were still being subjected to the long arm of the law underlined how the malodorous odour of corruption and sleaze continued to hover around the Tory Party like the scent of unwashed feet on a Twister mat. When former gaffe-prone Major Minister Edwina Currie later revealed she and Major were engaged in a four-year affair during the 1980s, it was the belated icing on an especially unappetising cake. As things currently stand, Theresa May has yet to bake an equivalent confection; but the stench emanating from the Downing Street kitchen is beginning to linger.

© The Editor


Who is the Prime Minister? Apparently, that’s one of the opening questions doctors use as a test for dementia amongst their patients, though most of the country would probably have struggled to answer it following the last General Election, to be honest. Anyway, I don’t know if my grandmother was asked that particular question during her last illness, but I do recall being told she couldn’t correctly say what year it was when asked. The ongoing debate over care for the elderly is, I’ve no doubt, largely motivated (on the public side, at least) by genuine concern that senior citizens are almost discarded as an expensive embarrassment; but I think it also reflects a consensus of fear over the fate that awaits us.

Larkin’s notorious poem, ‘The Old Fools’ is – as with his other most infamous offering, ‘This Be The Verse’ – often misconstrued; sometimes perceived as revulsion when confronted by the elderly, it couples lines such as ‘Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines’ with ‘Do they suppose it’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools, and you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember who called this morning?’ As with much of Larkin’s output, it is devoid of sentimentality and looks at an uncomfortable aspect of life with brutal honesty. The chilling closing line, when after having posed a series of questions on the topic of ageing, Larkin says ‘Well, we shall find out’, is a more accurate barometer of what the poem is actually saying.

A man not known for celebrating the joy of life, Larkin’s melancholic pessimism was present when he remained a relatively young man, something fairly unusual outside of Goth and Emo subculture; then again, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters was aged just 29 when he wrote the wistfully bleak Larkin-esque line in ‘Time’ on ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ – ‘Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way’. Both Ray Davies and Morrissey have, at different times, contradicted the eternal adolescence that has been a hallmark of the genre they sprang from by shining a light on the neglected perspective of the elderly outsider, something Paul McCartney did even more successfully with ‘Eleanor Rigby’ before addressing ageing in a lighter tone with ‘When I’m 64’. He was in his mid-20s at the time.

At its most extreme, fear of growing old – at least manifested in its physical form – has led to the horrific cosmetic surgery industry and Hollywood’s plastic parade of deluded veterans that battle against the ageing process to extend their acting careers. Conversely, renowned actresses that have resisted the surgeon’s knife – such as Charlotte Rampling or Helen Mirren – tend to be celebrated for the fact their beauty has matured like fine wine and has been allowed to mature free from visible vanity courtesy of the same medical men who butchered the face of Michael Jackson.

Speaking to a friend the other day, she commented on some programme she’d seen on TV about a murder case in the 1990s; the documentary was accompanied by archive footage of the time, and even though the 90s feels extremely recent if you were actually there, she was still struck by how different things looked on said footage. The way in which technology has transformed all our lives in such a short space of time post-1999 has relegated certain sights that had always been commonplace on our streets to the same cultural landfill as gas lamps and public toilets, and I suspect those streets as represented by news archive of the time in this programme perhaps showed what already appears to be a different world.

I only have to cast my mind back twenty years to recall one of the numerous downsides to living in a neighbourhood with a sizeable student population was when the fresh intake of scholars needed to ring home after a week or so in their new homes. A queue of a good four or five people would be a familiar sight outside a telephone box in early September; but this is one of those ‘numerous downsides’ that has now completely vanished from the landscape – along with most of the phone boxes. Of course, to say ‘casting my mind back twenty years’ is in itself an admission of ageing that bears little relevance to the majority of the same university’s current crop, few of whom were a twinkle in the milkman’s eye twenty years ago – when we probably still had a few milkmen left.

In a sense, that’s part of the problem. I have been an official legal adult now for almost 32 years, and I find in my memory that everything I recall from that point onwards still doesn’t seem like that long ago. By contrast, anything from my childhood decade of the 70s feels incredibly distant and may as well be a hundred years ago for all the bearing it has had on my lengthy spell as an adult. At times, 1987, 1997 and 2007 appear almost interchangeable despite the superficial changes in fashion, music, pop culture et al that separate those years; I was an adult during all the years listed, and whilst I’d like to think a little acquired wisdom separates the person I was in 1987, 1997 or 2007, the core composition of the time-stream I inhabit doesn’t seem to have altered. It all feels ‘present tense’.

When we have family or friends we don’t see that often who sire offspring, we recall said offspring being babies; then we maybe see them again as toddlers or little kids; and the next occasion in which they’re mentioned, we learn they’re at high school or in higher education. In our heads, they remain frozen as children, but the rapid maturity that takes place elsewhere can remind us how time is passing more than what the mirror on the wall might tell us. Sometimes, it’s easier to measure time by the change in others than the change in our ourselves, which can be as difficult to observe as the movement of hands on a clock-face.

Four months from now I hit one of those ‘landmark birthdays’ that we all, whether we care to admit it or not, dread the arrival of. I guess we each have our own different take on what they do or don’t mean and if they hold any significance at all. For me personally it’s not a question of wanting to cling to a youth I didn’t especially enjoy or revel in, more a question of inevitable summarising of the story so far, the kind of self-assessment I’d rather avoid due to the fact that on paper I appear to have achieved nothing and have become everything I hate. Despite the anticipated bombardment of reminders I’ll receive from well-meaning well-wishers, the only real element worth celebrating is that I’ve actually made it this far. Being English, I expect I shall hang on, though I suspect the desperation won’t be so quiet; I remain determined to rage against that dying light. Thank God for a little bit of Celtic blood.

© The Editor


A few weeks ago I marked the half-century of ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ in a post intended as a little nostalgic interlude from the contemporary doom ‘n’ gloom that has invariably continued to dominate posts ever since. Although I’m not adhering to precise dates, another landmark album – albeit one that characterised the ‘post-Rock’ age we still reside in – also appeared in the month of June, thirty years after The Beatles’ magnum opus and twenty years away from today, Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’. The media may have neglected to mark the occasion, but in many respects, ‘OK Computer’ is the landmark album the media doesn’t like to talk about. I’d almost forgotten two decades had elapsed since its release, for it still sounds like the soundtrack to the here and now.

Where ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ marked the optimistic maturity of a new musical form that had come on in adventurous leaps and bounds over a brief period of four years, ‘OK Computer’ carried the history of the generation raised in the shadow of the 60s on its weary shoulders and tried to look forward in the process; what it saw ahead of it wasn’t exactly cause for celebration. Yet, appearing as it did at the fag-end of ‘Cool Britannia’ and barely a month after New Labour were elected into office, the album marked the decisive end of a period of false hope by anticipating not only the corrupt charade of Blair and the mass hysteria of Diana’s death, but essentially the mood of the century we’re lumbered with.

The two years leading up to the release of ‘OK Computer’ had been a curious albeit conscious diversion from the grim alternative of Grunge, which had culminated in the suicide of its most articulate and charismatic spokesman. Oasis wanted to ‘Live Forever’ and Blur wanted to escape into an imaginary musical universe where Madness starred in ‘Help!’ instead of the Fab Four. It was fun, frivolous and a breath of fresh air whereby bands once destined for the Indie ghetto temporarily usurped the tedious test-tube boy-bands at the top of the charts. Yet even when Britpop was dominant, Radiohead were striking a more dissonant chord with 1995’s ‘The Bends’, a stunningly brilliant album that had combined critical acclaim with commercial success without conceding to the prevailing trends. Two years later, when Liam, Noel, Damon and Jarvis were unlikely tabloid darlings, Radiohead re-emerged with a record that both caught the mood of the moment and predicted what was to come.

I purchased ‘OK Computer’ on the day of its release, given an inkling of what to expect by the trailer of ‘Paranoid Android’, a bizarre beast of a single that bore more relation to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ than ‘Wonderwall’, though the LP still surprised me when the needle touched down on the vinyl. At the time, I was living in a crack-den-cum-brothel that wasn’t exactly the ‘Country House’ Blur had sarcastically sung the praises of in a promo video reminiscent of a Benny Hill sketch; if ever an album said (to turn Morrissey’s lyrical quote on its head) something to me about my life, ‘OK Computer’ seemed to more than any other in 1997. Things couldn’t only get better – not for the moment, anyhow.

Whilst the mass media’s eyes were focused on the narcissistic vacuum of Oasis’ ‘Be Here Now’, Radiohead sneaked under the mainstream radar with a record that was less about wallowing in a self-indulgent, coke-fuelled cul-de-sac as it was about the morning after the Britpop party. It pre-dated the NME’s calling out of Blair with its ‘Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?’ cover and mirrored the sudden change in mood heralded by Blur’s inspired retreat into lo-fi darkness with their eponymous fifth album and then reiterated by the bleak grandiosity of The Verve’s ‘Urban Hymns’. Greeted with more or less unanimous critical praise upon release, ‘OK Computer’ shot straight to the top of the UK LP charts and soundtracked what proved to be a strange summer.

Lazy summaries of Radiohead as a band (ones that continue to dog them) appear to have their foundations in ‘OK Computer’, which is perceived as a depressing album in a late Pink Floyd vein, usually by those who haven’t actually heard it. Most of the music on it is staggeringly beautiful, but in a challenging manner that demands the listener re-evaluates their concept of beauty. ‘No Surprises’ echoes the sweetness and light of The Beach Boys’ ‘Wouldn’t it Be Nice’ but retains the melancholic undercurrent that runs through the album, whereas ‘Karma Police’ borrows a chord sequence from The Beatles’ ‘Sexy Sadie’, reinforcing the fact that the British music scene of the mid-90s had bypassed a revival of Psychedelia and had gone straight to the less joyous landscape of ‘the White Album’.

The overriding theme of ‘OK Computer’ is one of disillusionment, something that registered as much with me while I staggered through the dying months of my 20s as it did the generation behind me, who were about to be dropped like a stone by the new government they’d been wooed by that spring. It taps into the paranoia and fear of the future that surfaced as the Millennium edged closer on the horizon and does so with a musical tapestry that is rooted in the familiar whilst simultaneously stretching to develop a new narrative for a form weighed down by its illustrious past. The cold detachment of the Stephen Hawkin-like electronic vocal on ‘Fitter Happier’ chimes with the lyrical content of the record, which seems to second-guess the isolating impact of the internet as well as the impending collapse of corporate globalisation. ‘OK Computer’ may have been of its time, but it was also ahead of its time; it’s arguable no act since its release has commented on the present as effectively as Radiohead managed before that present had even arrived.

Radiohead’s performance at Glastonbury the summer of the album’s release was probably one of the last occasions in which the festival was headlined by a band at the peak of their creative powers, marking the end of an era in more ways than one. One could even go as far as to say ‘OK Computer’ was the last time a contemporary band turned a cracked mirror on its era and reflected that era back at its audience. Like The Beatles and Bowie before them, Radiohead looked beyond the limitations of their peers operating in the same genre and tried to incorporate elements of other genres, in Radiohead’s case the electronica of DJ Shadow and the trip-hop of Portishead. The end result may have sounded like neither influence, but ended up as a unique hybrid of both blended with more formulaic Rock insignias. Who has even attempted that since?

It wasn’t twenty years ago today that Sgt Yorke told his band to play, but it’s near enough; at the same time, it’s a long time ago. And I find that fact increasingly hard to believe; but then, I’m old enough to have been there. And it amazes me more that I’m still here to state that fact, for I certainly didn’t think I would be in 1997. But I doubt Sgt Yorke thought his band would be either. It turns out there were surprises, after all.

© The Editor


Not that long since, I switched on the TV and BBC2 was showing a Dara O’Briain gig; it was only when the credits rolled at the end that I realised the programme was a repeat from five years previously. There was nothing visually on display to suggest it was that old; the appearance of the members of the audience and the star of the show himself implied it could have been recorded last week. I momentarily imagined it was 1981 and I was viewing a Jasper Carrott gig from 1976; the difference in the hairstyles and clothes would have been so glaring that it would have been instantly obvious this was five years old.

If we were to study photographs of street scenes taken over the last twenty years, I surmise it would probably be difficult to discern which images were oldest and which were most recent; the members of the public caught on camera wouldn’t look much different in any of them. Compare a street scene between, say, 1964 and 1974 or 1974 and 1984, however, and it would be instantly identifiable as to which decade the photos belonged in. Whenever ‘Starsky & Hutch’ was re-run in the mid-1980s, the dated dress-sense of the two lead characters marked it out from another era as much as the sleeve of the ‘Saturday Night Fever’ soundtrack LP did, yet both were from less than ten years before.

Anyone who lived through the 60s, 70s and 80s was given something of a false impression that popular culture was built on shifting sands, a fluid, ever-changing creature that existed in a permanent state of transition – or at least the impression given was that this would always be the case. It hadn’t been before, though. Compare (if you can) family photos from before and after the war; the men have regulation short-back-and-sides and are wearing suits on either side of the conflict; there’s little to distinguish the male figures in the images from the 30s and the 50s. With the women, there are subtle differences in their hairstyles and the height of their hemlines, but it’s not that dramatic. What would soon become ‘teenagers’ resemble Mini-Me versions of their parents; by the beginning of the 70s, it would be the parents looking to their children for tips on how to dress.

From the 60s onwards, the people mirrored the trend-setters in a way that was new. The death of haut-couture that was brought about by the likes of Mary Quant and Barbara Hulanicki took fashion from the exclusive houses of Paris and Rome and passed it down to the high-street – affordable for the masses because the masses had produced the trend-setters, whether Twiggy or Brian Jones. The growth of mass-media via television also brought this into living rooms and out of the pages of ‘Vogue’, no longer elite or expensive. It was social mobility’s sartorial incarnation and what had once been seen as the province of the ‘poofy’ and effeminate eventually reached defiantly masculine professions such as mining or football – all in the space of less than a decade.

From the dandified poseurs of 1968 to the scruffy hippie hobos of 1971, from the platform-heeled Glam wannabes of 1973 to the spiky-haired and safety-pinned Punks of 1977, and from the floppy-haired New Romantics of 1981 to the football hooligan sportswear chic of 1985’s Casuals, the pace of life as lived through its fashions was breathless. The soundtrack to this frenetic rummaging in the dressing-up-box was no less speedy. At the end of the 70s and into the 80s, it went from Punk, New Wave and Two-Tone to Synth-Pop in the space of around three years, with a figure such as Gary Numan acting as an effective bridge between the two decades, with one foot in both of them without really belonging to either as they have come to be retrospectively remembered. This wasn’t destined to last. It couldn’t.

The Acid House scene that went over-ground in 1988 was the grand finale of the era that had begun with the moral panic of Rock ‘n’ Roll thirty years previously. The whole Rave culture remained the cutting-edge until around 1992, when The Shamen’s chart-topping ‘Ebeneezer Goode’ signalled it was essentially over as a subversive sound, despite the controversy surrounding the single’s drug wordplay. Running parallel with the Dance dominance as the 80s gave way to the 90s was the mainstream breakthrough of Hip Hop, something that had slowly grown in influence throughout the decade. In a sartorial sense, the Hip Hop look proved to be the blueprint for the street-wear that has been the default style of youth for the last twenty-five years.

As their circulation figures plummeted in the face of online competition, the old music papers struggled to invent cults in the established traditions as the twenty-first century staggered into a cultural cul-de-sac. ‘Hoodies’ were not comparable to Mods and Rockers, as a hoodie is simply an item of clothing that can be worn by anyone under a certain age and is not tribally specific. Similarly, what is held up as an example of a contemporary cutting-edge sound such as Grime is not necessarily doing anything that the likes of So Solid Crew weren’t doing fifteen years ago. When a product-placement multi-millionaire showbiz businessman like Jay-Z is a role model (basically Victor Kiam with a break-beat) where be the Revolution?

Now that a quarter-of-a-century has passed since the last old-school youth-quake that was Acid House ended and the evidence that pop culture has entered an era of suspended animation is right there in the world outside your window with every passer-by, perhaps it’s time to admit an epoch is over and we are living in musical and sartorial stasis. The age of constant change that characterised the 50s up until the 90s now feels like an aberration in cultural terms; the world has reverted to type, a world in which every development is merely an exercise in recycling and therefore takes us round in ever-decreasing circles. For those of us who were either in the thick of it or caught the coat-tails of it, we should count ourselves lucky.

© The Editor