New Times

By Matt Jordan

Politics and culture, naïvete and cynicism among ’80s radicals, ’90s Blairites and beyond, from Manchester to London to the verges of Putin's Russia

Chapter 1

March 1988


When John Somerville Beaumont, an architect not yet to be found in the annals of Wikipedia, built Manchester University Students Union - a freestanding rectangular block of red brick with a facade of grey concrete which might have served one of the more routine divisions of a secret police for headquarters - he wasnt mucking about, and he didn't mind if you knew it. Much the same went, a few decades later, for the leather-jacketed Marxist-Leninist engaged in ad hoc enforcement of ideological discipline with the help of one of the building’s second-floor windows. From it, he was dangling a scrawny youth who, with considerable presence of mind, was threatening legal action in emphatic Lancashire tones.

Bewildered, but at least on the correct side of the glass, sat Brian Harper, over whose left shoulder most of the young man had left the building, first a gaping, whitened, soundless face, then saggy light blue polo shirt and jeans. It remained to be seen whether greying trainers, available for Brian’s inspection some 18 inches northwest of his nose, would follow. Having chosen to sit right at the back of the room the better to surveil proceedings, it seemed the thick of things, indifferent to his wishes, had sought him out just the same. He had previously sounded impressive to himself as he expressed doubts as to whether student politics was serious enough to be worth bothering with, but all of a sudden at this, his first meeting of Manchester University Labour Club, it was looking as though they might be a matter of life and death.

Not before time, a female voice cut through the confusion.

‘Sean!! Put Alan down!!’

Started from his befuddlement, Brian rose and turned and wrestled himself a half-share of Alan, which proved enough to prevail over the slackening hold of Alan’s putative defenestrator.

‘Alan! What do you expect if you will be so silly?’

Brian allowed himself a full glance at the source of the voice, despite the roomful of faces looking in his general direction. A statuesque woman with golden blonde hair and large dark eyes, she had her arm round the shoulders of a shorter girl.

‘And you shouldn’t go around scaring young women. Look at poor Colleen!’

- the young woman whose long dark hair she was now stroking –

‘…and in any case, what on earth do you know about Ireland?’

 Pausing for a moment to accept a proffered can of Diet Coke, take a sip, and hand it back with a ‘Thanks, hon,’ she proceeded to restore order.

‘Alan, you sit down there’ – she pointed at a seat in the corner next to Brian – ‘and Sean, you come and sit here, next to me.’

Sean needed no second asking, but Alan replied, in a voice of complaint,


His resistance lasted no longer than it took him to register the admonitory look that was its reward. He slumped into the chair next to Brian. Brian had received one piece of paternal advice about university - as he and his father drove through the streets of East Manchester and his father remarked, in a tone which suggested he was reassuring himself rather than his son, ‘Well, you can still tell it’s England, can’t you?’ – and that had been: ‘Don’t get into arguments about Ireland, whatever anyone says to you.’ Now he was further discomfited.

‘’Ere mate’ – the fellow called Alan had leant slightly toward him – ‘what do you reckon to the girl at the front? Do you think she’s horny?’

Brian, who blushed easily, supposed that he was doing so as he spoke, but managed an ‘I suppose’ before his new companion made a musing sound and remarked,

‘I suppose I just haven’t objectified her enough yet. She might keep me off the boys, though.’

Brian was all at once mustering the courage to aver that you shouldn’t objectify women, trying to square this with the fact that his interlocutor seemed to be homosexual, and taking in the commanding countenance – aquiline nose, haughty cheekbones - of the woman his new friend informed him was

‘Maria Rafferty. Big lesbian. The one woman I want ‘ere I don’t reckon I can ‘ave.’

Finally Brian managed to remonstrate: ‘You can’t call someone a lesbian just because they don’t want to have sex with you!’


Alan was amused. ‘I bloody well can! And anyway, she is a big lesbian. Lesbian and Gay Rights Officer on the Students’ Union Executive, in fact.’

Now Brian looked at her the longer for his sudden wistfulness. It may be some consolation, how poetic stymied lust can feel.


The chief business, amid the grey curtains and grey-green institutional paint of MR (Meeting Room) 7, was a motion to condemn the recent shootings of IRA suspects in Gibraltar. Brian shrank into his chair, sank further yet into himself, tried to pay no mind to the new friend sitting next to him. Maria Rafferty, meantime, sat and lolled, waggling her leg and from time to time seeming to fix a pointily booted toe in some definite direction, without Brian being able to determine her aim. As the discussion and dispute wore on, her silence seemed a lodestone, to the point at which the laws of the physics in operation reversed and anything she might have said would only have exerted an enhanced magnetism. Still she said nothing. Then she swiftly but sufficiently gave Brian a look which he would have taken as unmistakable had he not thought he knew of her proclivities. As it was, all he registered was the aspect of appraisal in her eyes, an assessment he only dimly realized he was determined to pass.


At meeting’s end, Alan wasted no time on pleasantries, but made straight for a woman across the room. Contemplating this pigeonishly purposeful pursuit, Brian realized Maria Rafferty, too, was moving - and moving was the word - in his direction, dressed in black that was exactly tight enough. He made up his mind to leave, but took so long about it that he was still sitting down when she reached him.

‘Friend of Alan’s, are you?’ In her voice were challenge and amusement and something else, which Brian had only just then repressed the faculty to detect.

‘Er, no; he was just sent to sit next to me. Remember?’

‘So who are you, then?’

‘Oh, I’m no-one. That is to say, I’m Brian,’ he said, with a slight apologetic nod.

‘Brian! That’s not a name for these times, is it?’

‘I suppose not, no,’ he acceded.

‘I’m Maria Rafferty,’ declared Maria Rafferty, shifting her weight from one hip to the other, tilting one foot back on its heel in such a manner as make a beholder wonder whether she did so to inspect the line of her boot or to serve notice of her intention to be satisfied in her investigations. ‘So why’d’they call you that then?’ she inquired, and Brian tried to stop himself from trying to determine whether her eyes really were purple.

‘Oh, I don’t know really. It’s quite funny really.’ Brian felt the desire to impress and its futility, as well as a pang for the parental wonderment, oblivious to fashions in naming, that had inspired it. ‘It means ‘high’, or ‘noble’. It was the name of a great king of Ireland.’

‘Oh, I wouldn’t know about that,’ said Rafferty.


Brian was suddenly aware she was poking her breasts at him, and almost, despite himself, took exception to it, but before he could she asked ‘Anyway, what brought you here?’

‘Oh,’ shrugged Brian, ‘just thought I’d see what was going on, you know.’

In fact, to a considerable degree, Historical Forces had brought him there, just like anyone. But to allow ourselves no more latitude, though rather franker and less modest content, than he would allow himself when he began telling Rafferty his life story a few minutes later in the Serpent Bar, we might say that: having graduated, during a long holiday in France to celebrate his ‘O’-Levels, from a generalized, Paul Weller-idolizing moddish radicalism, to the workerist rigours of Lutte Ouvrière (‘Workers’ Struggle’) – due to the intercession of an elfin provocatrice by the name of Aurelle) -  he had nonetheless balked at the Trotskyist group’s insistence that he move to Bolton and get a job in a bleach factory, there to foment revolution: his intelligence had won him considerable esteem already, and he was fond of reading besides, and he wanted to go to university to study English. Innoculated against the charms of Oxbridge by trailers, in the early 1980s, for Brideshead Revisited, and, moreover smarting from Lutte Ouvrière’s firm judgement that he was ‘not a cadre,’ the most likely place to find him just then was right where he was, in Manchester, the spiritual home of the English-born radical. The strictures of Lutte Ouvrière had weighed sufficiently on his youthful conscience to deter him from Halls of Residence and student politics but, untempted by the intellectual mediocrity and crypto-adolescent ire of the Socialist Workers’ Party, he had discovered to his dismay that, wherever the revolution was, it wasn’t in Cheetham Hill Labour Party. Disappointed politically though not sexually, he had taken to reading Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization while having his cock and balls sucked by a gamine hairdresser’s assistant named Sam, in an attempt to justify the punctiliousness of his attendance at the Hacienda. But however gleefully he thrilled to the posturing affirmation that ‘The Hacienda Must Be Built!’ he nonetheless felt that there should be more to political commitment than his fledgling attempts to ‘theorize’ whether the scenes in the club reminded him more of the liberation of desire or of the enslavement to the machine in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.


Over half a dozen drinks in the Serpent (Brian trying Sapporo, Rafferty insisting on drinking Sol with a twist of lime in the neck in a way which made him feel leaden-footed), Brian told her a version of this life-story and she warned him off Socialist Organiser, the main Trotskyist group operative within the Labour Club (‘very dodgy on the Soviet Union and, despite what the mainstream says, there’s no drugs and while there may be sex there’s nobody attractive at all’). Brian told her that despite the lack of action in the north Manchester Labour Party, he wasn’t sure that student politics was for him.

‘God no!’ was Rafferty’s response. ‘I wouldn’t call them wankers, exactly; it’s more that I’m not sure they’re even doing that properly. I’m only in it as a way of educating the young and inexperienced in the course of my official duties, naturally in a manner as far removed as possible from that approved by Clause 28. You want to come in with my lot in Moss Side, Socialist Campaigner. Very sound on Yugoslavia.’

‘But I don’t live in Moss Side! And I’ve already paid my rent up to the summer,’ Brian lamented. Rafferty’s hand had offered to rest on Brian’s thigh a number of times in the course of their little tete-a-tete, but only now did it alight. In the half-light of the Serpent, with its grey-blue airport-lounge banquettes, she was ever more a Lady of flashing eyes.

‘Darling, neither do I! I live in Whitworth Park. It’s much more sanitary. And besides, Engels used to live there when he made the English working class. Now there’s history and a sense of tradition for you.’

Brian was pretty sure it wasn’t just this invocation of tradition that stirred him. ‘So how do I go about moving into Moss Side?

‘You don’t. You just register round my mate’s. Matt. Only comes in to the Union for parties and gigs. 446 Moss Lane East. Big place. Servants’ quarters and all that.’

‘They’ve got servants?’ Brian asked, incredulous.

‘No, of course not; but the Victorian upper-middle class did. Middle-class, come to that, probably.’ Rafferty’s eyes seemed to mist a little. ‘I’d have been good at servants…Still, I have my kittens.’


‘My girls. They do like to look after me. Didn’t you notice them either side of me – one red, one dark brown, to set me off; both rather petite, but then I tend to the imposing.’ Brian blushed, annoyed with himself, both for his ignorance of the ways of lesbians – though he was pretty sure Rafferty was not a typical lesbian – and at exposing himself to sexual disappointment again. Was she doing it deliberately? consciously? Were they different? The same?

‘Right then; we should go out properly….Now, I can’t be doing with the Hass: I’ve always prided myself on being counter-cyclical. We can go to the Playpen.’ Brian looked puzzled, which Rafferty took for dissent, and hastily clarified. ‘Don’t worry – we can still neck some E’s.’


‘Oh, it’s not that – though I’m definitely up for some. Just never heard of the Playpen, that’s all.’

‘Ah, the Playpen, my dear, is Manchester at its finest, because least pure. We should stop drinking, get there early, get stoned, then drop a couple about ten, see us through to right about when it’s time to get stoned to work up an appetite for breakfast.’

Brian was impressed: ‘Sounds like a plan.’ Rafferty looked shocked. ‘Oh, it’s not a plan! That’s far too a prioristic, far too rationalist for our times; it’s a probabilistic prediction based on extensive, not to say intensive, prior research.’ She didn’t look sincere.

‘Is that bollocks, philosophy-girl?’ Brian challenged.

‘It is tonight. Anyway, I’ll just get the girls up. We’ll look like we’re on a date if just us two go.’ She touched his knee firmly and briefly with the tips of her fingers, a gesture more discursive than flirtatious. ‘Not that we’re not on a date. I’ll just get the barman to call down.’

‘Well, I’m just going to the loo, then,’ said Brian, politely.

Rafferty smiled. ‘If you hurry up I’ll wait for you.’

With its repetition over the years, Brian would have ample occasion to ponder this apparently thowaway phrase.


The Playpen was quite light for a club, and so far just full enough for a sociable atmosphere. Brian got some water and they all sat on the ground near the dancefloor. Suddenly there was a sharp electronic intake of breath and the ‘Voodoo Ray’ at once established what it was going to do with the diaphragm of every last person in the room. It had compelled Brian from the first, seeming to speak of a new age. There had been electro before, but this seemed to come from a strange and alien dimension that was also grounded in the body; the familiar strange that one forgets, making one feel not at sea, but newly at home.

It was not yet Brian’s place to urge his new friends to dance, so he simply went over and leant back against the speakers. He always lamented, before it happened, the passing of the time when what he thought of as electronic tom-toms would cease to occupy his abdomen, and he didn’t want to waste it. Simultaneously he contemplated the arrangement of sounds, sparse enough for each strand to gain attention, to boggling effect, fades up and down drawing his mind into the mix. Female voices, archaic yet thrillingly present, sensual and dreamy, calling to the listener while singing to themselves, were almost a vision of eternity. Then the proclamation, ‘Voodoo Ray,’ stark and enigmatic, but emphatically assertive: enjoining and resisting interpretation.

When Brian got back Rafferty had cadged a giant spliff, the product of a rolling mat, off one of the hippies sitting near them (‘It’s alright, I told him I was a lesbian.’) For some unknown reason there was an unofficial amnesty on getting stoned. ‘So you like ‘Voodoo Ray’, then?’ Rafferty deadpanned.

‘Oh yes. It’s like electronic tom-toms,’ Brian enthused.

Rafferty was both amused and in agreement. ‘Electronic tom-toms from outer space.’

Brian expanded: ‘Like pulses emanating from a dark star.’

Rafferty pounced with her hands: ‘A black star. A voodoo ray of black light.’

Brian, floundering, grabbed for scholarly knowledge: ‘Like the song says, ‘back to modern times’.’

Rafferty looked over Brian’s shoulder: ‘And to think it was made in a bedroom not half a mile from where I live.’

They settled back, watching hippychicks dancing to ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’ then ‘Transmission.’ It was quite a mix. Rafferty nudged him to look at a girl with a smiley face on each of her buttocks: ‘I’d like to take that one home with the girls and bite my way through those grins.’

Brian responded gravely: ‘Don’t bite her, darling; leave her be. And anyway, what about me?’ Rafferty’s expression made it clear he was going to have to let the night take its course, and equally evident that this would be Rafferty’s. His equanimity was enhanced by an already considerably developed tacit awareness of the typical effects of Ecstasy. Not to put too fine a point on it, it makes people who are attracted to each other much more likely to have sex. Indeed, it makes everyone more likely to have sex, which is by no means to say it necessarily makes it likely.

Brian had felt himself becoming less dense for some time before his comrade rose to her feet, flashed her eyes in an arc that took them all in, and announced ‘Going up!’ before starting to move. They joined her, and soon the cry had gone up of ‘Acieeed! Acieeed!’ - the sign that from here on in it would be bass and 4/4 beats - and she was already striding for the filling dancefloor.

Many have waxed lyrical about Ecstasy, which can subject consciousness to a collectivization that is an enhancement not an abnegation of self. Brian was as yet at the speedier end of the experience - their pills contained some amphetamine, as well as some LSD - but as he danced the rhythm caught him, and for a while his sense of the others was diffuse as he became aware of the synchronization of his impulses with the movement of the small, intense crowd. Then he caught the eye of an acolyte and smiled without thinking. She smiled back. He smiled at the others. They smiled back. They danced, from time to time picking out a rhythm with their hands and smiling. Rafferty was shouting something, and he noticed he was getting some visual distortion as he moved over to find out what. He didn’t have to get too close to hear her roaring  ‘Dance it up! Dance it up!’ They exchanged smiles and got on with doing exactly that.

What you breathe is lighter yet stronger than air.  You dance until it runs your veins and will not be resisted. It may take you through the top of your head, dragging you till your lungs collapse with the speed of  ascent and the rarefied stuff at its peak. Or its rhythms may drown you briefly for joy, coursing peacefully. Sometimes you flow more easily than breathing, your limbs the shapes of the surging inside, each movement an eddy in a larger tide which creeps over your skin like an infinite caress. Dispersed, you contain multitudes. A haven in a world from which the heart had been retracting, contracting, in the middle of the economically frozen North.

Rafferty raised her arms, free, a wild angel, dripping drops of coloured light, and Brian’s last coalescent thought for some time was ‘birdgirl.’ She was light like dust, an excitation of molecules as she wheeled and turned. Hanging about her was the promise of a softness, yet at moments she was lone as a piece of stone. As they danced, gazing, Brian felt the energy of the crowd course through him. And he felt close to Rafferty, and scarcely less so to her friends, and solicitous of them, and felt sure without quite realizing it that these feelings would be the saving of humanity; and so they danced, and dissolved into embraces, and danced, and dissolved, though all he would remember for some time was a man with bulging eyes embracing him, shouting ‘I'm a hyper-sybaritic fuck-face, that's me!’, and the collective joy of ‘We are Family,’ and people fetching water from the bar to throw over the grateful crowd.

Clubs in those days closed at two, so they had not yet entered that condition where you cannot remember anything but dancing, see nothing but dancing before you, when they had to clear out. They careened back to Rafferty’s small room and all sat on the bed, legs outstretched, and talked and embraced and nodded to Rafferty’s tunes, and got stoned and had breakfast and went to the pub and had first a couple of sharpeners, and then a couple ‘to take the edge off.’ It was early afternoon before the group separated to sleep in the small beds of Whitworth Hall and, though they held each other and kissed as they dozed, it was evening before Rafferty turned to Brian and said, just think, you’re on the same spot as Engels wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England, and there’s a fair bet he didn’t get what you’re about to, at least not for free, and certainly not as good.

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