Observing the 80s
February 27, 2013 4:49 AM   Subscribe

Joe Moran reflects on the 1980s: "We like to give decades a uniform character as they retreat into history, safely burying the past by turning it into retro kitsch. The Observing the 1980s project is valuable because it does not treat the decade like this, as a story we already know the ending to. Instead it becomes an era of still-to-be-decided tensions and possibilities - one in which people sincerely people that David Steel might be prime minister (“my pin-up!” says one Mass Observer), that Margaret Thatcher might lose an election, or that the neo-liberal economic revolution might still be reversed. How I miss that sense of earnestness – and I mean that without a trace of irony."

The University of Sussex has produced a website dedicated to memories of the 1980s. brings together voices from the Mass Observation Project & British Library Oral History Collections alongside ephemera from the University of Sussex Library.

Observing the 80s offers insight into the lives and opinions of British people from a range of social classes and regions, combined with publications dealing with contemporary issues such as the Poll Tax, AIDS and the Falklands Conflict

There is also a great playlist.
posted by Gilgongo (7 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Very interesting indeed. This is a profoundly misunderstood era that I for one feel is a kind of Totem for defining one's own time against. Much like the Edwardians looking at their Victorian forebears. In fact - there are other parallels too. Victorians acted on conviction, often embarrassingly or wrongly - but action was key. Edwardians were more interested in the theatre of correct feelings, in terms of concern and display.

One can also detect the fetish of the British media for the lost authenticity of Back the Miners badges, and other right on-ery. To my mind, this is another unrepresentative minority position - a binary of the rah rah yuppies. Of course the real tragedy is that the Left in the West largely abandoned its traditional focus on universal progress and equality in favour of a smorgasbord of marginal, lifestyle and identity based issues. So while the 1979 Labour manifesto was manifestly lacking in the radicalism needed to break the back of a grey, discredited and dishonest Postwar Consensus, had they stuck to its simple, sensible fusion of economic growth, equality of opportunity and basic social solidarity in 1982 rather than got lost in space, the world may have been a different place.
posted by The Salaryman at 6:10 AM on February 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Thorn’s book is in part an alternative history of the 1980s: one populated by political rallies, “Meat Is Murder” and “Dig Deep for the Miners” badges, benefit gigs and literate musicians with an Indie DIY aesthetic like herself worrying perpetually about not “selling out”.


And there's another alternative history - and we see it every single time someone mentions one of the Cold-war Nuclear-apocalypse-scenario movies in here; an outpouring of people talking about the fear and defeatism they felt growing up in that whole decade because they expected to be vaporized out of existence at any minute.

I actually was going to start my own oral history blog about that subject; I wanted to post it in Projects when I had enough contributors, but not found any takers yet. (But if anyone wants in, memail me and I"ll tell you what I'm looking for.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:41 AM on February 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Here, in place of yuppyish hedonism, we find a moral and political earnestness that is alternately funny and touching.

I lived through that decade (part of it in the UK) and it wasn't really all that "funny" or "touching" at all. And in retrospect, especially not. It's not funny that so many people died of AIDS during that decade and were ignored, marginalized, and turned into pariahs by a US administration that couldn't be bothered. Thatcher's Section 28 wasn't really funny, either. It's not touching that Reagan and Thatcher unleashed a tide of revanchism that is still reverberating 30 years later. More to the point, the "moral and political earnestness" that this writer ascribes to the 1980s is something that was very real -- and that "earnestness," or sincerity, or passion, whatever you want to call it -- is something that's sorely lacking in the post-Internet age. And when it's not lacking, it's couched in irony or else smothered under an avalanche of ridicule and mockery before it has a chance to bloom. There's something to be said for vulnerability and wearing your heart on your sleeve and calling out wrong when it's wrong. The 1980s contained everything that Tracey Thorn describes as despicable but the mirror side of that somehow found a way to thrive too.
posted by blucevalo at 9:50 AM on February 27, 2013

Periodizing the present and the recent past is always a thorny issue — probably it's entirely the wrong move to start from received ideas from the mass media and package decades basically as fashion trends, like '80s Night at the bar or whatever, assuming that decades have some kind of meaningful autonomous existence. Even if this kind of thinking is so pervasive that it's probably unavoidable anyhow, we should probably remember that it's incumbent on us to try to provide better reasons for our ways of periodizing than just the turning over of another digit on the calendar, especially when the recent past is concerned and our feeling of historical distance may be an illusion. It often seems to me that the only distance we really have, in the West, from the '80s is a matter of fashion, rather than political-economic-cultural substance. The politics of austerity (and the attendant rearguard battle to preserve some fragment of social democracy) haven't changed, the neo-militarism and covert wars haven't changed, the divide-and-conquer identity politics hasn't changed, the ongoing collapse of the Left hasn't been reversed more than momentarily. If you ask me, even considering 1989 and the rise of the Internet as the two potential other epochal dividing-lines, we're still living in the Long 1980s in most of the ways that matter.
posted by RogerB at 10:09 AM on February 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

Thel 80's was the beginning of the End.

Reagan, Disco....crikey, what else could go wrong?
posted by mule98J at 11:05 AM on February 27, 2013

disco was in the 70's, it was pretty much finished by 1980. That's what Nile Rodgers says anyway.
posted by thelonius at 11:21 AM on February 27, 2013

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