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  • Writer's pictureDan Synge

Wake Up, It's The Eighties!

Updated: Oct 2, 2023

By the end of the decade I would be wearing structureless Commes des Garcons jackets while drinking bottled Mexican lager from the comfort of a Philippe Starck bar stool.

But this was 1982 and the landscape was a very different one...

Whatever I had been adequately prepared for on leaving those school gates one final time, the world beyond them could hardly have been in a sorrier state. A global recession had crippled the country’s once proud manufacturing industries – motor vehicles, steel, ship building and textiles – while workers’ wages had stalled and rising crude oil prices had continued to pick the pockets of the average consumer. Unemployment figures were reaching levels not seen since the darkest days of the 1930’s, and all the while the new Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher persevered with her rigid monetarist policies which, our Economics teacher had been at pains to explain, aimed to control the money supply and limit the rate of inflation. Yet, in these early days of her Tory government, had achieved only swift economic decline and mass job losses.

Although undoubtedly faring better than the industrial heartlands of the Midlands and the North, London had the look of a city whose time was up long ago. As the playwright Keith Waterhouse famously said about Brighton, it was town that looked as if it was 'helping police with their inquiries'.

Thick layer of soot at St James's Church, Piccadilly

Angry commuters

Our grand public buildings such as St Pancras Station, Big Ben and The Natural History Museum were covered in thick layers of soot. And from our local railway station in Greenwich, angry commuters like my dad were thrown together like refugees on lumbering suburban trains bound for Charing Cross. Stale cigarette smoke clung to sweaty Polyester suits and liveried grey British Rail seats, following you all the way to the office where clunky GPO telephones and heavy crystal glass ashtrays took pride of place on austere Mahogany desks. Sexist and racist tropes straight out of television sitcoms and the Carry On films came as standard.

Tea came from an urn wheeled around the office by a char lady while coffee was from a Styrofoam cup in the staff kitchen, made by pouring the contents of a plastic kettle onto a bitter-tasting heap of Maxwell House. A tug on a Rothmans would see you through until lunch, invariably a toasted cheese and Branston pickle sandwich, with obligatory sliced white bread, paid for with Luncheon Vouchers.

From Soho to the furthest reaches of the South Bank there were bomb sites and acres of empty urban spaces still left over from the Blitz. Meanwhile, over in Wapping near the old docks you could smell the pungent aroma of pepper and cumin from the redundant spice warehouses. The tube journey here from New Cross Gate to reach the appropriately named Sleazy’s rehearsal studio was like a scene from a David Lynch film – all echoing industrial shafts and passageways accompanied by dripping ceilings and flickering light bulbs. Wapping High Street with its imposing Victorian brick storehouses was as dark and unwelcoming as an East End alley from the time of Jack The Ripper.

Our creaking sports stadiums and knackered infrastructure would come back to haunt us in these not so bullish years of the decade. In 1985, scores of football fans were killed by accidents in both Bradford and Brussels. The latter incident, which occurred at Heysel Stadium before a European Cup Final clash between Liverpool and Juventus, led to a five-year ban for English clubs. Hooliganism, both on the terraces and in public areas around the grounds was such a concern that Prime Minister Thatcher set up a ‘war cabinet’ to tackle it.

Made in Chelsea. The Sloaney bob

The last hurrah

Meanwhile in the shires and in London’s more genteel boroughs, old money was having its last hurrah before the ‘Big Bang’, that seminal moment when deregulation drove the gentlemen from the Stock Exchange, to be replaced by ambitious young state educated traders with a taste for Rolex watches and some pithy Wall Street jargon.

But at least a blue-bloodied toff could cling onto the timeless fairy tale of Prince Charles’s recent marriage to Lady Diana Spencer, the nineteen-year-old nanny who spawned a bob hairstyle which appeared almost everywhere from the make-up counter of Peter Jones, Chelsea to the high streets of Walsall or Doncaster.

The so-called Sloanes and their more tech-savvy successors 'Yuppies' were, by some strange accident, spearheading a reactionary look that would be standard among upwardly mobile clerks and their girls in the suburbs. Forget padded shoulders, pixie boots and frizzy highlighted mullets, the 1980’s were a saviour indeed for those once anachronistic garments and accessories: the oxblood brogue, the waxed Barbour jacket, the woollen Argyll sock.

I, meanwhile, had segued seamlessly from reluctant sixth former to office junior at a solicitor’s chambers in Holborn. So while many of my school friends had begun BA degree courses in Geography or English Lit in sleepy provincial towns, I got to roam the ancient alleyways and squares around Chancery Lane carrying deeds, articles and affidavits, returning to the crammed Georgian town house which served as their office to operate the franking machine or restore to order thousands of files which were housed in a leaky garden shed at the back. Looking back, this juncture of my life was very much a lean period, but arguably the deserved result of not working hard enough to impress the exam boards a few months earlier. It was a job, pure and simple, paying me enough in adequate weekly wages to bide my time and move to a shared flat with horrible 1970’s flowery curtains in pre-gentrified Clapham North. “Why would anyone want to live off Clapham High Street?” I asked the rather terse agent in her a tiny office above Oxford Circus tube station. “Why wouldn’t you?” came the exasperated reply, “it’s only two minutes’ walk from the tube and the Northern Line gets you to the City or the West End in less than half an hour.” So that was it. I was officially connected to London’s nine to five grid.

Extract from the forthcoming music memoir 'You Really Got A Hold On Me', out soon

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