Saturday, 9 May 2009

The impermanence of images

18 years ago Craig Brown - at that point as good a younger wet Tory as Murdoch ever allowed in - commented in The Sunday Times about the ubiquity at that point of The Rubbish In Leicester Square.  As he pointed out, it was ever-present largely because it could be used as an instant, universally-understood signifier of the events which led to the collapse of British socialism and union power, the way it had charged over the top when the times were good and created the climate where much of the working class were willing to "vote Tory this time" as another Murdoch paper had told them (the most ubiquitous then-current image of the early 1990s - The McDonald's In Red Square - similarly reached its status because it was obviously the most instant shorthand imaginable for the collapse of communism and the triumph of American-led global capitalism).

But that was not the sole reason for the footage's constant appearance in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Until 1992/3, the 1970s were very widely viewed rather as the 1980s were during the Britpop era, as a time of horrific, empty pop-cultural nadir and worn-out politics which deserved to be destroyed (not that the worn-out politics of the 1980s ever actually were destroyed, alas, but Britpop - as we know - saw a mass delusion that they would and could be). There was also a continuing mass media desire, in the run-up to the 1992 election, to convince floating voters that the Labour Party was still essentially unchanged from what it had been in the 1970s, that if they were foolish enough to put it in power we'd see a return to strikes and shortages, and some (especially in the right-wing press, where images of early 1979 were often shown, and allusions to the period made, for no particular reason) may have thought that the more we saw these images, the more likely we'd be to give the Tories another chance. They may well have had some effect.  But very soon after the 1992 election the purely pop-cultural "70s revival" saw in a rewritten history where such things were now a boring diversion, and parallel to this the mass media in the mid-1990s became fervently determined to get New Labour into power, which meant hiding any signs of what the party had once been and how it had lost power in its earlier incarnation.  The Rubbish In Leicester Square began to fade in prominence.

Now the 1980s were the new dark age, both pop-culturally and (hypocritically) politically, and the most powerful and visceral images of the miners' strike, up to and including Orgreave, were more frequently shown, as a sort of reminder of everything we had escaped (although it was, as we know, a misleading fool's paradise).  This situation would remain for the last few years of the century, when '80s pop-cultural revivalism was still a contentious issue.  Nine years after Craig Brown commented on the ubiquity of The Rubbish In Leicester Square, I observed on a mailing list that it was now seen if anything less often, because of the dominant simplified pop-driven view of the '70s into which it simply couldn't fit (and also, of course, because Blair still ruled absolutely supreme at that moment).  But the worm was soon to turn, and nine further years on it has now not so much turned as rotated many grotesque times over.

The Rubbish In Leicester Square is now, decisively, back - back because the narrative of our times is that a Labour government is useless, played-out, exhausted, and probably sending us economically back to the 1970s while it's at it.  Tellingly, and fitting perfectly with this narrative, the 25th anniversary of the miners' strike this year has been notably played down.  There was some tokenistic coverage on BBC Four, but BBC2 and Channel 4 certainly did not repeat their strong 20th anniversary coverage for the 25th. It is hard to deny that this is not purely because pop-cultural '80s revivalism is now so big (it was already dominant five years ago), but in fact largely because the mass media generally, as was not the case in 2004, are now either determined to get the Tories back in power or sort of accepting that it probably won't be all that bad, and therefore the vast tensions and polarisations of the 1980s simply have to be hidden from retrospective view, with anything that doesn't fit into instant nostalgia being removed for the same reasons that led to the general disappearance of The Rubbish In Leicester Square a decade ago.  The only real sequel to The Rubbish In Leicester Square - that yuppie-in-braces-and-brick-sized-mobile-phone shot which had it not been for digitisation would probably have gone black and white with the overuse that probably began at some point in the mid-1990s - continues its recurrence, but now with a much less condemnatory and often almost celebratory tone than it originally had.

What does this tell us?  It tells us that time, and politics, are a vicious circle of amnesia.  But sometimes they really do get better, and sometimes they really do get worse.  I fear we are in for the latter.

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