At the end of the 1970s and during the first year of the succeeding decade, I lived on a boat on the river Thames at Chelsea. It was scorching in summer, freezing in winter, somewhat basic by way of plumbing in all seasons, but undeniably romantic. The Thames is a tidal river and runs swiftly; although the boat was permanently moored, it rose and fell by twenty or so feet twice daily on the ebb and flow, lurching and creaking on the water. When I lay in bed at night, with only inches between me and the river, and the small boat straining against its fetters, it was easy to imagine taking off and heading out to the North Sea. There were estuarine scents on the air always: salt water, mud, and marshes; and water sounds mixed in with the city sounds of traffic, sirens, voices.
I didn’t see it at the time but now I think that boat, that home, which hovered somewhere between land and water, which had a postal address but no mains drainage, was an apt symbol of a stage that was transitional for me. I had recently graduated from university and was working in London; those were the years of learning to be adult, of trying to make my own way, of finding out about life, and falling in love. Only a few years later, love having swept the sensible alternatives out of the way, I left my job and London, not knowing that I would never return to live there.
Looking back, I also recognize that those years were a watershed for Britain too. It is only in hindsight that we see how and when things change; while we are in the midst of them, it’s hard to discern a pattern. The moments when the living know, absolutely and at the time, that their world has changed, are very rare. (In Britain we had one of those this year, when we woke to the result of the vote on leaving the European Union.) And of course, the past has multiple strands. To pluck one thread out of the complicated tangle and to say that it defines a time is to simplify absurdly. And yet, I think we can say that in Britain life did change as the ’70s became the ’80s.
Broadly speaking, postwar Britain chugged its way through the ’50s and ’60s without dramatic changes of direction and with a general consensus on such matters as the provision of public services, the value of a mixed economy, the role of trade unions, and defense. But the election in 1979 of a Conservative government, led by Margaret Thatcher, inaugurated a shift in societal attitudes. It was not immediately apparent, and it was not simply driven by politics. Yes, the free-market counterrevolution was part of it, with the privatization of industries that before had been state-owned, and the battles between government and workers, but there was something else, a sort of energy perhaps, that over the next decade transformed this country, for better, on the whole, although in some respects for worse.
My novel The Long Room is set in London in December 1981. I chose that year for several reasons: it was genuinely pivotal; there are certain parallels today; and because I remember it particularly clearly. There were riots that spring and summer in South London; angry people tearing through the streets, looting shops, setting fire to cars, and hurling petrol bombs at the police. In the mornings, the stench of scorched rubber, the shop windows boarded up, and everywhere an eerie quiet, after the rage of the night before.
There was a lot of anger, pent-up or released. The jobless figures soared. So did inflation. Mrs Thatcher authorized the use of water cannons, rubber bullets, and armored vehicles on Britain’s streets. The Yorkshire Ripper was found guilty of the murder of thirteen women and the attempted murder of seven more. A boy fired six blank cartridges at the Queen. And, month by month, through much of the year, IRA hunger strikers died in the Maze prison in Northern Ireland, ten of them in all.
That year, a bomb exploded outside the Chelsea Barracks, killing two and injuring fifty. It was a war, of sorts. Another war, the Cold War, was still being fought in the background of our lives; there were military citadels buried under London and “mutually assured destruction” remained a phrase on people’s lips. By then, it may have seemed that the gravest dangers of that war had already been averted, but it was an age pervaded by a constant level of anxiety nonetheless. As we now know, that anxiety was justified; as late as 1983 the Soviet leadership mistook a routine NATO exercise as cover for imminent nuclear attack.
But there were other things as well. A new party, the Social Democratic Party, was launched in 1981 and although it soon merged with the Liberals, it did introduce the possibility of fresh thinking into politics. The impending arrival of US nuclear cruise missiles on British soil prompted the establishment of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, which, although it failed to block the missiles, showed a whole generation how to protest, and gave women a public voice. Artists like David Bowie continued to inspire a sense that gender need not be binary, or sexual identity fixed. Slowly, homogenous Britain was becoming less prejudiced, less racist, more liberal, more accepting of different cultures. It was also arguably changing into a place where image was more important than substance, and money the supreme value; where it sometimes seemed that there were no higher goals than fame and wealth.
All of this is the backdrop to The Long Room. Stephen Donaldson, its hero, is a relatively young man in 1981, but not a fashionable one. He would not have danced to Spandau Ballet, worn Vivienne Westwood’s clothes, or outlined his eyes with kohl. But perhaps he would have liked to, if he had been brave enough. He is admiring of his school friend Giles, for whom music was the passport out of the old world and its antiquated class distinctions. Stephen, though, cannot quite shake off his desire to be part of that old world, whose (male) inhabitants inherit their fathers’ titles and their tweeds, not to mention their assumptions. In the dying certainties of empire, there was still just breath enough to keep one small but disproportionately powerful sector of society going.
1981 was the year in which Lady Diana Spencer married the Prince of Wales in a cloud of virginal white satin and romance. In the autumn of that year, ITV broadcast a brilliant adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, that supreme novel of yearning and nostalgia. At a time when Britain had only three television channels, and few households owned video recorders, programs could become national talking points. Brideshead was one. I remember friends arranging Brideshead parties, where we clustered together round tiny television sets, and no one ever made other plans on those Tuesday evenings.
Stephen watches Brideshead too, as do the other characters in the book. How interesting it now seems to me that we were all engrossed in that love letter to a vanishing aristocratic world at a time when our own world was changing too. The novel itself is much more than a story about decadence and privilege, and yet on the screen it was the languorous scenes of Oxford in the 1930s and life in an astonishingly grand and lovely house that took such lasting possession of our collective imaginations.
The final episode of Brideshead was aired three days before Christmas 1981. Less than four months later, the Falklands War began. La Guerra de las Malvinas. Even those in Britain who questioned the justification for it could hardly suppress a thrill at the sight of those gray warships setting off for the South Atlantic, to the cheers of crowds of people waving Union Jacks along the docks.
Seventy-four days of conflict. Briefly, we who were too young to remember either World War knew the terrible mixture of fear and excitement that comes from watching your own nation fighting. I know that no war should be seen as a cultural symbol: over nine hundred lives were lost between April and June 1982, the majority of them Argentinian. But it cannot be denied that the spectacle of that task force determinedly plowing its way over thousands of miles of ocean toward those little British islands, and eventual victory in the conflict, had a profound effect on the national mood. Britain was great again, it seemed.
Ironically, though, the Falklands War could now be seen as the last gasp of the old order. The Britain that was a major maritime power, a manufacturer of ships, where society was stratified, was changing very fast, under a government that had turned its back on the state-driven policies of the past. In December 1981 an opinion poll showed that Thatcher was the most unpopular postwar prime minister; in 1983 her government won the most decisive election victory since 1945.
Are there parallels today? Yes, although they should not be overlabored. Yet, here we are again, with Russia and the US facing off against each other in a fog of mutual misapprehension, bombs exploding on city streets, rioting in London, and the UK reexamining its place in the world following the act of self-harm that was the vote to leave the European Union…
“The past is a foreign country,” people often say, quoting from yet another novel that looks back to a remembered time. But is that always true? Sometimes the past is one’s own youth in one’s native country; seen through the prism of the intervening years, remembered, or misremembered maybe. And in that past are milestones. 1981 was one of these for me, and that is why I brought it back to life and into the present in The Long Room.
Francesca Kay’s first novel, An Equal Stillness, won the Orange Award for New Writers and was nominated for the Authors’ Club First Novel Award and for the Best First Book in the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Her second novel, The Translation of the Bones, was longlisted for the Orange Prize. She lives in Oxford.