OFTEN remembered only as the era of the miners’ strike and Maggie Thatcher, one historian argues that the 1980s was actually a revolutionary decade which changed the way we lived for ever.
In a new book he argues that 1979 to 1982 represents the most dramatic, colourful and controversial years in modern history. Here, he explains why…
TO anyone under the age of around 35, the lost world of the 1980s probably looks like a very strange place.
Indeed, to millennials the Falklands War, Greenham Common women, Les Dawson’s Blankety Blank, Ghostbusters and Michael J Fox on a hoverboard in Back To The Future 2 — the era must seem like ancient history.
But for those of us who are a bit older, these were our formative — and gloriously escapist — years. From the stirring old-fashioned patriotism of Chariots Of Fire to the tear-jerking alien melodrama of ET — though for my six-year-old self, nothing matched the jaw-dropping moment in The Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader tells Luke Skywalker: “I am your father.”
Perhaps only now, as the childhood memories begin to fade, can we see what the 1980s did for us, from the shops on the high street to the contents of the typical family fridge.
The first years of the decade, in particular, were a tipping point. The old industrial Britain, where men worked at the local factory, spent their evenings down the pub while women spent their days cooking, cleaning and looking after the kids, collapsed in ruins.
Meanwhile a conservative, inward-looking, old-fashioned society was rushing towards a new world of fast food, exotic holidays, outrageous clothes and gleaming new computers.
In the public imagination, the woman responsible for all this was Margaret Thatcher. And there’s no doubt that she changed the record after years of stagnation. Instead of flinching from change, as her male predecessors had done in the 1960s and 1970s, she threw open the doors, for both good and ill.
But did the Iron Lady really change Britain’ single-handedly? I don’t think so. Look around your home, your workplace or high street, and you realise many of the biggest changes had nothing to do with her at all.
Indeed, as Britain’s first female Prime Minister she was simply part of a trend. By the early 1980s, six out of ten British women were going out to work — a higher proportion than in almost every other European country — with businesswomen such as the Body Shop’s Anita Roddick capturing the national imagination.
But what would these new working women wear? Some dared to go to work in trousers, though not Mrs Thatcher, who told the papers that her Cabinet colleagues wouldn’t like it.
When nine women teachers turned up to their Reading comprehensive in trousers, the headmaster locked them in a classroom so their young pupils’ minds would remain unsullied. And in 1983, a memorial counsellor at Golders Green crematorium in North London was even sacked for wearing a “lady’s business trouser suit”, on the grounds it would offend grieving families.
But with so many women working — in trousers or not — who would do the cooking when they got home? The answer, it turned out, was the microwave. By the mid-80s there were more microwaves in Britain than in the rest of Europe combined.
Thanks partly to TV cooks including Delia Smith and Keith Floyd, the British kitchen was going through a revolution. Out went the steamed puddings and spotted dicks of old. In came pizzas, curries and the ground-breaking Marks & Spencer Chicken Kiev, which cost £1.99 for a pack of two, the equivalent of about £10 today.
The other big culinary winner of the decade was McDonald’s, which opened hundreds of British outlets during the decade. Like many 1980s kids, I remember my first visit — for my friend Robert Greenwood’s birthday party in about 1982 — as though it was yesterday.
We all had cheeseburgers, a grinning Ronald McDonald handed out balloons and afterwards we were given a guided tour of the kitchen. I found the whole thing almost intolerably exciting.
McDonald’s isn’t the only 1980s relic still standing on high streets across the country. Next and Waterstones opened in 1982 and Pret a Manger in 1985, all three aimed at young, upwardly mobile professionals, or yuppies.
Yet even at this early stage you could see the first shadows of the high street’s decline. In 1979 the most modern shopping centre ever seen in Britain opened in Milton Keynes, Bucks, a vision in steel and glass.
And three years later Sainsbury’s opened a pioneering, colossal new supermarket in Nine Elms, South London, with “50 varieties of fresh fish”, “60 different types of bread” and even “fresh orange juice . . . squeezed and bottled under customers’ eyes”.
The chain’s plan was to become “the country’s biggest wine merchant, biggest butcher, biggest greengrocer”, all under one roof. And if small, family-run shops went to the wall, that was just too bad.
What people were buying, too, was changing. Records, for example, gave way to cassettes, then cassettes to CDs.
In music, disco and punk were old hat. Thanks partly to the rise of the synthesizer — and also to a new vogue for dressing up and showing off — the baton had passed to the New Romantic generation, spearheaded by groups such as Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran and The Human League.
Not since the Sixties had British pop seemed so imaginative, so alive. Indeed, even today the great singles of the era, such as Enola Gay, Don’t You Want Me, Just Can’t Get Enough and Vienna, still have a thrilling sense of technological optimism, captured by their ground-breaking videos.
Older music critics hated the New Romantics. But most youngsters loved their new spirit of fun-loving ambition.
“I don’t feel guilty because I’ve made enough money to own my own home,” remarked Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp. “It’s only the middle classes who feel that kind of guilt.” And Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon made no secret of his materialistic aspirations. “We want to be substantially wealthy,” he said. “I mean ridiculously wealthy, rolling in it.”
There spoke the spirit of the 1980s. But the most dramatic musical innovation, launched in Britain in 1980, was the Sony Walkman, costing up to £125 (equivalent to £440 today).
Some people were horrified by the idea of a personal music player — yet Sony went on to sell millions. But the innovation that really changed things and for which the 1980s will always be remembered was the computer.
At the start of the decade most kids’ idea of fun was completing their Rubik’s Cubes. However, when the Cambridge entrepreneur Clive Sinclair unveiled the ZX80 in January 1980 — at £99.95 (£350 today), the world’s first cheap home computer — he unleashed a revolution.
By 1982 Mrs Thatcher had committed to putting computers into every school, while the BBC launched its own national computer project, focusing on the new BBC Micro.
Britain led the world in computer ownership by the mid-1980s, and youngsters were mad on games such as Elite, Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy. At the time, some people recognised that computers would bring a gigantic social and economic transformation.
Sinclair predicted the rise of driverless cars and “wireless devices that would allow us to telephone and be telephoned wherever we choose” — then blew his credibility with the C5 electric car in 1985.
Given that the early 1980s saw the worst recession in our post-war history, with unemployment at almost four million, how did people find the money for all this? They borrowed it. Since people felt entitled to the good life, their new microwaves, video recorders and ZX Spectrum computers invariably went on Access or Barclaycard.
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At the height of the recession in 1981, personal borrowing went up by a fifth. Over the decade, it went up seven times. Today, when we’re some of the worst savers and most enthusiastic borrowers in the Western world, I can’t help thinking this is one 1980s habit we really ought to break.
The Spectrum may have disappeared into the dustbin of history, but as millions of us know to our cost, those credit card bills never stop coming.
- Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979-1982, by Dominic Sandbrook, (Allen Lane) is out now RRP £35.
What this 1980s did for us
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