It was, above all, a big decade, an era in which size became ever more important, when the people, events and debates of public life seemed to be written on a grand – if not always a glorious – scale.
It was a decade shaped by Murdoch and Maxwell, Schwarzenegger and Stallone, Heysel and Hillsborough, Live Aid and Lockerbie. Industrial conflict might have become less disruptive to the economy and to everyday life, but the strikes that did happen were epic in nature, with both the miners’ strike and the Wapping dispute lasting for a year apiece. Riots grew in both frequency and scale, as did demonstrations, some of which – on Greenham Common, at RAF Molesworth and outside the South African Embassy in London’s Trafalgar Square – became semi-permanent institutions. Union membership declined, but unions themselves began to amalgamate into larger entities, mimicking the mergers and takeovers that proliferated in the City of London.
Even the Falklands War, minor in comparison with 1940, was considerably more serious than the Cod War against Iceland had been in the 1970s, and the period ended with Saddam Hussein threatening ‘the mother of all battles’ if America, Britain and their allies continued with their attempt to remove Iraqi troops from Kuwait. For internationally too, it was a time of big, bold politics, a time for Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev to seek a resolution of the Cold War; it saw the rise of political Islam, the fall of the Soviet empire and, what was for some, the biggest story of all: the realization that human activity and industry might change the very climate of the planet, with uncertain but perhaps catastrophic consequences for the species.
Meanwhile, Dallas and Dynasty inspired the inflation of women’s fashions and hairstyles, tours by pop superstars became bigger and more lucrative and were individually branded to enhance their commercial potential, while London – having resisted for so long the vainglorious machismo of tall buildings – finally sacrificed its skyline to a series of massive office-blocks, from the NatWest Tower to Canary Wharf.
Models mutated into supermodels, supermarkets into superstores, cinemas into multiplexes. Building societies became banks and humble record shops developed delusions of grandeur, turning themselves into megastores. High streets were eclipsed by out-of-town shopping centres, and the number of television channels, newspapers and magazines simply grew and grew.
If something weren’t already big, then advertising – one of the great growth industries of the time – could make it seem so, or else the overblown price tag would suffice, as with the rise of nouvelle cuisine or the trend away from drinking pints in pubs towards bottled beers in bars.
And in Britain this swollen, steroid-pumped decade was dominated by the figure of Margaret Thatcher, the unlikeliest of Conservative Party leaders, who set a twentieth century record as the longest serving prime minister. ‘I was eighteen when she got in,’ wrote comedian Mark Steel, recalling Thatcher’s political demise in 1990, ‘and now I was thirty. All that time. All that time she’d strutted across my and millions of other lives, the symbol of every rotten selfish vindictive side of the human condition she could rake up and cultivate, like an evil scientist nurturing a test tube of greed and releasing it across the whole planet...’
published by Aurum Press
© Alwyn W Turner 2010