I worked in New York once, for three months, or so, for Felix Dennis, designing a souvenir magazine of the film Dune. The flick was a bit dreary, despite David Lynch directing it, and not, I think, a big hit. You may know Felix from the 1960s, when he played a large part in the Oz debacle. He made his first fortune from a Bruce Lee poster magazine. Just one piece of A1, colour printed on both sides, folded, sold for £1 a copy, and whoosh, he made a lot of money. He lost it again, that time, via a dodgy business partner. I think.
I once said that I thought computers would change the world and he pooh poohed me, but he later made a new, far greater fortune, from computer magazines. I don’t mean I was an influence on that at all, but his business advice was to always employ people better than you and to pay them well. He spent the last years of his life writing poetry, drinking expensive wine, and helping reforest England, which, I’d say, is quite a way to go. He left £500 million in his will for the last of those, so his advice was effective for him, at least.
I didn’t have an address in New York. I moved from Y to Y, as you were only allowed to stay in one for a few weeks at a time. This was 1984, when Manhattan was a different place from the shiny, clean, model casting party it is now. There was a scruffy, dark, dodgy one on W23rd Street, opposite the Chelsea Hotel, itself hardly a beacon for genteel living. Another, the smartest Y I stayed in, was on, I think, E54th, E56th, that part of the city, anyway. I felt like Mary Tyler Moore walking to work every morning. I wanted to throw my hat into the air, with joy.
Anyway, the 54th St (for argument’s sake) YMCA was, in many ways, just like the Village People song, sung at every wedding disco since it had been a hit a few years earlier. Rooms overlooked a central courtyard, and people, men, would stand at their windows looking for the likeminded, and wink at them, or whatever, make some gesture, then leave their door ajar, ready for some, umm, social interaction. It was like a more efficient, analogue Grindr. And, ladies, don’t press me on why the communal showers were so busy at 11pm, or why men stood under them for hours at a time. Can never be too clean, maybe.
This all took place in the autumn Ronald Reagan won his second term. Oh, how everyone hated him and Nancy. We told jokes like: did you hear Nancy Reagan fell over and cracked her hair? Side splitting political insight, I’m sure you’ll agree. You could say “Ronald Ray-gun”, and people would think you witty. There was a popular graphic of Ronald snogging Leonid Brezhnev* that everyone had a postcard of blu-tacked to a wall.
We were terrified of a nuclear war. There were moving and scarifying tv dramas about the possibility of one. You know how it turned out, though; the world became, for a while, safer, at least for us. The Wall came down and house prices went up. We had to get through acid jazz and raves, but we survived those, too. Blur vs Oasis and Cool Britannia were only a few years away. Cool it was to be alive and to be young was very groovy.
Everything was copacetic, until that terrible morning in September 2001, on my birthday, which has no baring on anything at all, except I can wail, for comic effect, “They stole my birthday!” That morning changed everything, didn’t it.
Thirty five years after I worked in New York, we seem to have reached another unsettling moment. Apocalypse, a word you often heard in the 80s, is in the air again. I can only hope it ends as well, that in 2020 we worry over the same silly sort of things we worried over in 1990. If I remember correctly, there were as many articles then, after the Reagan years, and after the Cold War ended, trying to define the “New Age” as there are now debunking Clean Eating. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Donald Trump seems infinitely more dangerous than Ronald Reagan did, though. I think some of the problem we have with the Donald is style. I don’t mean we don’t violently disagree with every word he says, but he seems to have no regard for the arguments of people who oppose him, and uses a battering ram rather than tact or diplomacy. He is brash and unsubtle, which I think were snobby words said about Ronald and Nancy, too, with their fancy Hollywood ways. Ronald never seemed deranged the way Donald does, or as sinister. I don’t follow American politics too closely, but he’s made a worrying beginning, and it’s only been a week.
We can tweet opposition and sign online petitions, which we couldn’t in 1984, of course. I like the word “clicktivsm” more than I think the practice is effective. It makes everyone feel better, I guess. I’m always in favour of letting people say what they want, it makes it easier, at least, to identify your enemies.
Events will unfold. Things will be better or worse than you imagine or maybe turn out exactly as well or badly as you thought they would. Maybe something you couldn’t foresee will change everything in unpredictable ways. We will see, I hope, we will see. And that’s why I love 1984.
*I thought there was a picture of Ronalds kissing Leonid Brezhnev, but my extensive research (I didn’t even Google it, I searched Bing), tells me there was a painting on the Berlin wall, of Leonid snogging Erich Honecker, the leader of East Germany. Anyway, I’m sure someone must have plagiarised it and replaced Erich with Ronald.