On Writing Recent History (What Was It Like In 1981, Daddy?)

Monday, 19 January 2015

The Sussex Devils is the story of Derry Mainwaring Knight and the Reverend John Baker. It’s also an analysis of the (now scarcely believeable) atmosphere surrounding the moral panic around Satanism in the late 1970’s and the early 1980’s. And of course, it’s also my story – at least insofar as it intersects with these events. My literary agent, Robert Dinsdale at AM Heath, prodded me to amplify this personal strand, to my initial embarrassment but to the eventual improvement of the book. A lot of this material won’t go in – it’s too far out of scope. But over the next few weeks I thought I might share some of it with you, partly because it will add colour if you are curious, partly because I’ve done the work anyway and you’ve signed up now, so tough, but mainly because I hope it might encourage you to reconsider the formative effects of your own adolescence.

I was sixteen in 1981 and so a lot of quotidian teenage stuff happened to me around then. I don’t suppose I’m particularly special in this regard but my timing was bad. Just as I was developing a typical suite of adolescent male problems (illusions of grandeur, the discovery of drugs and drink, issues with girls), my parents were embracing evangelical puritanism. But to wholly blame them for my ending up in the mental hospital would be lazy and unfair. I sometimes wonder whether I was looking for trouble: I certainly found it.

As I wrote about the period I realised that the timespan was now long enough for the story to be considered history. It was an odd sensation.  My grandfather died in 1999. He was 103. I can vividly remember talking to him about joining up to fight in 1914, seeing a car for the first time, the London docks at the peak of empire. To speak to my grandfather was to speak to a Victorian. That was history. Now suddenly I too felt old.  What was life "like" in 1981? How was it different?

The wars of the twentieth century were then still very much with us. This was not just Thatcher’s flag waving hoo-ha or the Falklands affair the following year: it is important to remember that the people who ran society in 1981 had fought in, or at least experienced the 1939-1945 war. Most senior politicians, bishops, head teachers and leaders of industry had seen action – they were used to command. It made a difference. Even the surliest hoodie might concede that a man who had once bayoneted a Nazi machine gunner to death is likely to be a tougher customer than today’s average gender equality officer. My own and my friends’ parents were too young to have actually held a weapon, but their formative experiences were of playing in bomb craters, evacuations, food rationing, air raids and Doodlebugs.

And in a sense, that war had never ended.  The borders of waking existence lay almost exactly at the high tide mark of the Red Army’s advance. Behind that iron curtain lay a dream world that was sinister, grey and forbidden. There were two Germanys, one Czechoslovakia. Portugal and Spain were still in the infancy of democracy. Poland was under martial law. The omnipresent threat of thermonuclear annihilation shaped psyches to an extent we forget today. As a sixteen year old I assessed my chances of dying in a nuclear holocaust against natural causes as about 50/50.

Politicians were still taken seriously because there was a good chance that a prime minister would be a war prime minister, by which I mean a nuclear war prime minister. So 1981 was a more serious time, but then things were more serious.

And relative to today, it was a violent time to be a young person, even in Sussex. It’s hard to appreciate the endemic anger and racism that seemed to run through society at the time. After the National Front peaked in influence in the late 1970’s there came the wildfire riots of the summer of 1981. Most had a racial flavour. There was no delicate talk of “curbing immigration”; the language commonly used was “Stick ‘em on the banana boats”, “Send ‘em back home”, that kind of thing. “Compulsory repatriation” was the official term. Of course, only a minority voted National Front, but the effects were pervasive; Terms like nigger, wog, coon and paki were in common use in the playground and street; distasteful perhaps but not unacceptable.

A more immediate issue was the violence between teen tribes. Of course NF infiltration of the second wave of Punk bands (especially Sham 69) made new wave gigs a dangerous place to be if you were black. But even among white kids, Punks fought Teds. Mods fought Rockers. Skins fought Mods. Serious aggravation was part of any lively gig in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. As the Brighton ska band The Piranhas sang, “I’m getting beaten up, I’m getting beaten up, it’s part of growing up – it’s part of life!

Violence, racism and casual abuse meant that it is not true to say that it was, “a more innocent time”, quite the opposite. But there were fundamental differences in sexual attitudes. Bondage, rubber, leather, PVC and S&M fetishes, piercing, tattoos and the like are perfectly mainstream today. All were considered very shocking in 1981. Perhaps that is simply part of the triumph of the moving image over the written word. Even by 1982, when the UK finally gained a fourth TV channel, only 10% of UK households owned a VCR. If you wanted to watch movies, dirty or otherwise, you had to go to the cinema, or buy an 8mm movie, projector and screen.

There has been no technological advance in transportation to rival the train or the jet. It takes longer now to fly to New York than it did in 1981. The most important change, and one that has a direct bearing on the story of The Sussex Devils is the speed of travel of information.

A few weeks ago I was necking Paracetamol freely (sore throat). I became nervous and curious about my dosage. So using my mobile phone, I researched the drug. There was everything I needed: opinions from the NHS and US medical associations, recent Australian legal changes, plus many individual testimonies from doctors, patients and regulatory bodies. Interestingly for such a ubiquitous painkiller, no one really understands why Paracetamol works. What was undeniable was the aggregated evidence that taken in large quantities, it turns your liver into something resembling cheap meat sandwich spread. Mixing Paracetamol with alcohol is particularly dangerous. It’s the most common form of overdose in the UK. I decided to take it easy.

Suppose I had asked the same question in 1981? I would have had to visited a library, found a medical textbook, waded through pages of jargon and even then I would still have had a very limited view on the subject. Of course the internet contains plenty that is trivial, scabrous or untrue, but if you have a connected digital device in your pocket, reliable information on practically any subject is available, instantly. Data is now fluid. It was considerably stickier in the early 1980’s.

At at least two points, this affected the storyline of The Sussex Devils in a way that might be hard for a young person to understand today,

The first occasion was when the Reverend John Baker was confronted by Derry Knight’s story that he was a member of Aleister Crowley’s eldritch organisation, the Ordo Templi Orientis, supposedly a secretive Satanic cabal whose claws pierced even highest levels of the Catholic Church and the British Establishment. The Reverend was a well-read man. He had taken a first class Theology degree at Oxford. But he was no occult expert. He had no immediate means of finding out about the organisation, short of delving into arcane specialist bookshops, or asking the opinions of genuine occultists. He would have been deeply averse to making such contacts. That information gap allowed superstition and suspicion to prosper for long enough for Derry to lead him to his doom.

The second point where better information might have changed things was my own mental condition - the panic attacks triggered by the claustrophobia of religious hysteria, which manifested themselves as increasingly severe paranoid hallucinations and eventually as blackouts and fits. Now I look back on it, my stupidity staggers me. My parents and their church would have diagnosed possession by evil spirits. As a young male (not a demographic renowned for emotional eloquence) my shame was absolute – I could not have “shared” with a friend. But why on earth did I not talk to a psychiatrist? Even a family doctor? One sensible discussion on the nature and causes of my condition might have averted disaster. Had it been available, a single Google search would I’m sure have saved me. Instead I aggravated my problems with alcohol, exhaustion and ignorance. But in 1985 I had no idea where to turn for help, or what was happening to me. I thought that at best I was losing my mind, at worst that I was in danger of being pulled in between separate forms of existence, drawn by powerful, unknowable forces, or spirits, or powers. Put like that, I’m impressed that I managed to hold on tio sanity as long as I did, but ultimately my ignorance also led me to disaster.  

But all that came later. In the next week or two I’ll flesh out what it was like to be young in the summer of 1981. Britain reached a turning point in those scorching weeks, with the images of the cities burning by night incongruously intercut with the Royal Wedding and Brideshead Revisited. It was around then that my parents were “born again” and despite my ineradicable acne, spectacles and teenaged paranoia, I decided to form a band.

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Publication date: October 2015
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