Wed 22 September 2021

Writer and illustrator Joanna Walsh reflects on coming of age in the 1980s, the uneven distribution of progress, and the lasting impact of section 28, AIDs, queer iconography and silencing

In retrospect, any decade can seem easy to cross, from point to remembered point.

Did you ever see The Beatles? I asked my mother, a teenager in 1960s Liverpool, as a teenager myself in the 1980s. She hadn’t. Most people don’t encounter the high points of their decade: they’re too busy, too poor, they don’t have access, didn’t know about it, didn’t think it was ‘for them’ – they weren’t in the right place at the right time. 

Is it useful to think of history in terms of decades? Like my mother’s 1960s, my 1980s were different from other people’s, which depended not only on my age but where I spent them and who I spent them with, as well as how much I had to spend… 

Wrong Numbers

In the 1980s, it was harder to be in the right place at the right time than it is now because, pre-internet, immediate place was the only place we had, and the only way we could cross it was by spending time, which was not always ours to spend, and which could require spending money, which in our case we had not always got.

What the science fiction writer William Gibson said about the future applies, as aptly, to the past: it’s “just not very evenly distributed”. The most important difference between the 1980s and now was access to information, and differences in its distribution were controlled by two factors: the first was technology and the second was language. 

“How many movements does it take to dial a phone number?asked the French writer Georges Perec in his 1973 essay, Approaches to What?

Perec advised paying attention to the ‘infraordinary’: the very material material and habits of everyday life

The 1980s might have seen the introduction of mobile phones, but, like most people, I didn’t own one until the mid-’90s. The answer to Perec’s question is: too many. It took a long time to dial each number into the avocado phone that hung in my parent’s hallway. If I got one number wrong, I wouldn’t know which until a flat dial tone signalled that I’d have to begin again. I remember the strain of that weighted dial, its desire to spring back before a click confirmed the number had been registered. I remember the strain on the first joint of my finger after dialling a number of wrong numbers. I remember the time crossed before I could get through, and also the lack of privacy in that place where the phone hung, right by the front door, where the kitchen opened onto the sitting room.

But what I wanted to say was limited not only by technology but by words. What was it I wanted to say?

Section 28 and HIV

Sexuality, like technology, was just not very evenly distributed. In the place I was placed, you could be ‘gay’ or ‘straight’. Or rather, no one talked about being ‘straight’ because it was hardly a choice and being gay, in a small provincial town, didn’t happen to people like you, or not in a good way.

From 1980 on, you could watch queer films on Channel 4, and they told you about distance. Queerness happened in London, or on the continent. It happened in big cities. The movies told you how far queerness was, and that crossing this distance depended not only on place, but time and money spent. 

“Help me out here,” tweeted the writer, @Huwlemmey, earlier this year. “Are you gay and/or around in the 80s, and did you regard Freddie Mercury as a ‘gay icon’ at the time?”

“We didn’t see anyone as gay,” @Cleverestperson replied. “Not George Michael, John Inman, Larry Grayson… It was acknowledged enough to be funny but not enough to be true.”

I was 18 when section 28 came into force in the UK, prohibiting the “promotion of homosexuality” by UK schools and local authorities. I don’t mean during my 18th year but right on the day of my 18th birthday. I came of age into a country that restricted access to stories about people I would only later realise were ‘like me’.

Did it bother me then? Hardly at all. I ‘felt sorry’ for the people it would affect. I had little idea that I was one of them.

Section 28 lasted 15 years, and my first year of university saw widespread closure of support groups and information resources. In 1989, The Pink Paper was banned at Essex University; a school tour of Benjamin Britten’s opera, Death in Venice was cancelled because of homosexual content; lesbian and gay organisations were prohibited at higher education institutions including Leeds and Colchester.

This is only what could be documented: shaming, intimidation and mockery are difficult to quantify, and silence is hard to record. 

A section 28 protest. Photo: Gianni Muratore/Alamy

Besides the introduction of section 28, 1988 was a year of peak fear and paranoia. In 1987, the Government AIDS-response pamphlet, Don’t Die of Ignorance, was delivered to every UK household. The accompanying campaign by the advertising agency TBWA featured alarmingly vague symbols – glaciers, tombstones, lilies – rather than direct information about bodies or behaviour.

The original TV ad – vetoed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – began with nuclear attack sirens, recalling fears that still echoed from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and the 1980 Protect and Survive Government leaflet about living under nuclear attack, satirised in the title of the historian E P Thompson’s Protest and Survive, written for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the same year.

In June 1988, two years after the disease was first recognised, the Government announced a plan to slaughter cattle showing symptoms of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), a fatal infection transmissible to humans. Sex, eating, breathing, could lead to serious illness, even death. 

Building History

The long ’80s is buried inside me, as it is inside everyone who lived through that decade. It seeds in us like the diseased prions spread by BSE, entering the brain where it may have an invisible incubation period of years.

It lives in our bodies like caesium-134, a Chernobyl-scattered radionuclide that has a tendency to accumulate in vital organs, such as the heart. Who knows how long its half-life might be?

If the ignorance of the ’80s didn’t kill you, what did it do to you? What did it do to a generation? And how can we recover from it? 

Some of the distances of space and time that information crosses have been contracted by the internet. Information on the Coronavirus pandemic is comparatively detailed, varied, direct and available. And, now, even looking back across time looks easier: the music is on Spotify, the footage on YouTube.

But what about what wasn’t recorded because we lacked the technology, or because we lacked the language?

Can we build a history retrospectively? Not a history of icons but of ordinary people?  Not a history of overcoming, succeeding, but of equivocation, compromise, and sometimes failure?

In addition to histories structured around the drama of ‘coming out’, of being one thing or another, of silence, or half-gestures, of feelings buried but felt so persistently that, once words have been found, they can be recognised and claimed as vital, central to a life? And can these histories, allow, as well as mundanity, for pleasure? 

Georges Perec in Approaches to What? advised paying attention to the ‘infraordinary’: the very material material and habits of everyday life. Wallpaper, coffee spoons, dialling a number on an avocado telephone. By making infraordinary stories, we can break down the distances between numbers dialled, between words, and between lives, into increasingly tiny units, until each is easier to cross.

As 1989 drew to a close, the Berlin Wall came down – a note of hope in a decade dominated by fear. It is not too late to remove a personal brick from that decade’s walls, even now. 

Joanna Walsh’s novel, ‘Seed’, is set in 1988 and is published by No Alibis Press


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