Whatever Happened to Counterculture
The Sex Pistols were cited as the voice of the underground: daring to swear on national TV, wearing safety pins and gobbing at the audience, they were the 70’s merry pranksters, hell-bent on pogo-ing their anger into our expletive-shocked consciousness: a reaction to the death of hippie free love and the shell-shocked dawn of Thatcherism. But look again, weren’t they styled to within an inch of their Westwood tees and Malcolm McLaren graphics; the World’s End refrain to punk’s politically angry throes: more boy band hype than voice of a generation? Perhaps their svengali, Malcolm McLaren was a precursor of Simon Cowell; perhaps the Pistols were nothing more than a manufactured by-product of a maestro on the make.
However, the vital difference is that they celebrated their teenage angst: a half-arsed career, spiralled by bad management and indolence, where shock was the common denominator, they didn’t care who realised how disgusted with the state of the nation they were, indeed I’d argue it’s this for which they are remembered more than their music; while the country waved Union Jacks to celebrate the Silver Jubilee, they dared to ask whether this really was a load of old bollocks…
A generation ago, in 1981, while the world was brimming with excitement over the romance of a Royal Wedding, in a parallel to today: Diana, a teenage virginal shy bride, who blushed into her fringe, the fascinating innocent, was held aloft with our expectations and collective gasps of adoration. We all bought into the myth, millions watched the spectacle and believed in the fairy tale. Sadly, like all fairy tales it had its dark flip side. Perhaps if we had been a little less naïve and more astute, we might have woken up from the fantasy earlier, to realise, that like all mythologised stories, there is always a rite of passage, a big bad wolf, a witch and a sacrifice. A virgin bride, an older, diffident man who loved another, the innocent, yet aristocratic nursery worker who was bound to grow up and ask questions, the institution of royalty; it is only now with hindsight perhaps that we can see what a recipe for disaster this truly was.
While most of us were fluttering flags at street parties, or watching fireworks explode in red, white and blue celebration, there were already the hints of the anger at Thatcherism’s divisiveness to come. That summer saw the Brixton riots: London literally was burning, people who had lived and worked in this country for over a generation, were no longer simply happy to bow down to institutionalised racism, they took to the streets and dared to answer back.
To come were the Miners’ Strike, the Poll Tax Riots, the St Pauls, Toxteth, Hansworth and Tottenham Riots. While it was the era of yuppy, meritocratic materialism: a glossy sense of grab-it-now excess, where we were told that we too could work hard and reap the benefits, that if our prime minister was a shop keeper’s daughter, we too could rise to the top of the pile through hard work and endurance and even buy our own council house at a heavy discount to gain entrance into the exalted realm of the home owning middle classes. There was the insistent drum beat of the angered anti-voice, those who questioned Tebbit and Thatcher’s political framework, the dawn of a time when Britain morphed from manufacturing global force to banking pleasure isle and dared to fight back.
So what has changed in the past 30 years?
Well, again we are about to celebrate the flag flutterings of another royal wedding: this time not to Diana the hunted, but to Kate the middle class, a proto-icon of discreet taste and astute acceptance, who, let’s hope, is more protected, loved and aware of precisely what the contract she has entered into is.
Again, too, we have a Conservative (albeit in coalition) government, again we are in recession and again we really ought to be angry. Ought to be…
But are we really? Personally I am furious! I am appalled that the cabinet is made up of the over-privileged and under-qualified; I am disgusted that they are closing schools, libraries, crèches, charities, hospitals and public sector jobs; I am shocked that they propose university fees which will prohibit the majority of students from leaving without a debt so epic they will never be able to pay it back. When Winston Churchill was asked to make cuts in the arts after WWII, his response was that the arts were what they fought for and if you cut these, what you had fought for was worthless.
I never thought that there would be a government worse than Thatcher. I loathed her with the venom of my youth: despising her glib, controlled platitudes. Where I too woke up from the seductive dream of the Blairite New Labour’s Cool Britannia, horrified at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, at least I felt that my sense of Britain was echoed back in the Labour government’s Thatcherism-lite appropriation of social conscience socialism. One where the state of the nation was tied into a world order of equality and democracy, however hard that might be to implement in reality.
Perhaps as one of the last of the meritocratic generations: a product of a grammar school and the first in my family to go to a university, I was a Thatcher’s child. Certainly I grew up believing that I too could and would do whatever I wanted, if I worked hard, possibly doubly hard than those from a more privileged background, who maintained their sense of collar-up entitlement, but against whom I knew I could play career poker and win the game.
The fashion industry I entered as an assistant stylist was a fascinating secret world and I was intoxicated by its perfume. I worked for the Fashion Editor Anna Cockburn, doyenne of a style called ‘grunge’ (but so much more), who challenged the style status quo, with work which allowed the raw, the beautiful and the damned their place; a fragile voice made strong, which meant fresh air, ruffling the feathers of fashion’s establishment (who else would call in Ann Summers which was then mistaken for Helmut Lang by colleagues at a Vogue shoot?), while we partied to Nirvana and rave and believed love was the way to break down the class barrier.
So here we are 30 years on from 1981 in 2011: another Royal Wedding about to entrance us with the dream of a good girl made good princess; another Tory government telling us they are in this too, while George Osborne, the trust fund tax exile, pushes through a budget so draconian, a generation of children will be tied into debt.
While the 1980’s had the Falkland’s War: a battle for a place which sounded Scottish, but which was actually closer to the South Pole; we have wars of so many fronts, that the war on terror seems an endless, expensive sacrifice.
While the 80’s had the poll tax riots, now they are about to make squatting illegal; while students then lost the right to claim benefits, now they are tied into a £60,000+ debt per BA degree; while then we had Section 28, last month Philip Sallon was seriously attacked while walking in Piccadilly, yet curiously there is no CCTV of the event; while then we saw the closure of mines and factories, of any possibility of Britain maintaining an industrial autonomy, now we sit back while the bankers foreclose on our debt, yet issue themselves with bonuses akin to Third World economies.
Am I alone in thinking the world has turned topsy-turvy???
Am I alone in thinking the world needs to wake up??
Am I alone in wondering why people aren’t taking to the streets?
Am I alone in wondering where is the voice of the counter-culture?
Am I alone in thinking that Lady Gaga and her glossy, veneered ilk are not enough of a reaction and wondering where fashion’s politically expletive voice is in all this?
Am I alone in disbelieving that what we have now is worse than what we had?
Am I alone?
Words by Tamara Cincik