|PK, complete with 1980s gear and beer, enjoying a day off|
Everyone’s stuck in the rut of making trivial jokes about shoulder pads, Dallas and Kylie Minogue … and I may have worn shoulder pads, but I didn’t watch Dallas and I loathed Kylie’s early saccharine style. They don’t sum up the 1980s for me. Not at all.
A new show purports to probe deeper: the blurb for ‘The ’80s: The Decade that Made Us’ claims that every political, technological, cultural and social revolution began in the United States and went on to dominate the world. Oh, please. The UK version has been re-narrated by Richard E Grant, replacing Rob Lowe to gain some British street-cred, but it’s still nostalgic hokum.
So, before you get all misty-eyed about the Thatcher years, let me tell you what I remember about the 1980s.
Getting my first grown-up job
I’d done languages at University and managed, to my shock, wangle a job as a translator at an expanding Consulting Engineers. Spanish, French, bit of Portuguese. Things went downhill in 1982 with the Falklands War – it was no longer possible to work in Argentina. I got out before I was pushed.
Surviving my first office flood
During my time at the engineering firm, one of the chaps noticed some cracks in the building. It turned out to be concrete cancer, a plague of the 1980s. Rather embarrassing, what? Workmen arrived in hordes and started to drill and break up the roof. That night during a storm, the tarpaulins blew off. Rain poured through and drowned the top floor. No computers died – we didn’t have any in those days – but all the typewriters filled up like fish tanks. The plastic ceiling fittings were full of gunky water as well. It was hilarious. (A building-full of engineers, yet guess who suggested the best way to sort the lighting was to syphon off the water into a waste paper bin? Well, I do wine-making as a hobby.)
New technology for old …
Mid-1980s, I worked in Perth in Western Australia. It was the time of the infamous rivalry between magnates Alan Bond and Robert Holmes à Court. I worked for the latter in the plushest office money could buy. It had a rooftop swimming pool overlooking the Swan River, a weights room (which no-one could use because there was a problem with the insurance) and hallways lined in Sardinian marble. And such posh computers! I’d never even laid hands one, so I needed three days’ training. I got the hang of them eventually, and the Coyote system was a dream. I still miss it. But the ’80s were a time of boom and bust. We bust.
|Yes, me again, looking over shoulder,|
hard at work in our brand new WA office,
banging away at the keyboard of a Coyote machine
Talking of crashes …
Black Monday was the first big economic crash I remembered. It shocked our generation to the core. Do you remember where you were in October 1987? It was the Monday after the Great Storm so mispredicted by Michael Fish. Interest rates went up so much that my husband and I kept joint accounts for our salaries. The monthly mortgage payment was more than either of us earned, so we alternated.
Battling with money
From then on, we lived a precarious existence, constantly worried about money in vs money out. I was a features editor and my husband a lecturer – and we found it tough. I can’t even begin to think how hard it was for those with less well-paid jobs, families, elderly relatives and so forth. To fight off an uncertain future, we were persuaded into purchasing an endowment policy. Hollow laughter. We’ve had 25 years of anxiety watching its worth dwindle. And yes, our first house sold for half as much again (in nine months), but when we moved again in the mid-1990s, the value actually went down.
With a seesaw economy, jobs come and go. Even in universities, staff became nervous with the loss of tenure as the Government started to meddle with academia. Lecturers could simply be made redundant. It was shocking. People joined unions, but which one? Some were too active, others inadequate.
The feminist lie
And finally, I recall the difficulties of being a professional woman in what was still ostensibly a male-dominated profession. But wait? Surely with a strong female role model in power, this was a post-feminist era, offering opportunities to women with the right skills? Piffle. Many men I worked with were nervous of strong women so tended to be on the defensive. If you swore, you were considered unprofessional. If you didn’t, you weren’t up to the job. I always made sure I walked around the office with a large A4 file held in front of my chest to stop the oglers. You also had to laugh at their jokes and they wouldn’t laugh at yours. A favourite trick of the 1980s macho guy was to pretend not to hear your quip, then repeat it in a loud voice until everybody else laughed. You can’t fight that, but I did power-dress. It's vital when you’re five foot one and a bit. I also wore steel-tipped court shoes so they could hear me coming.
So, the 1980s.
Huge technological changes, mingled with dreadful disasters such as the capsizing of the Herald of Free Enterprise and the King’s Cross Fire. There were great movies, apart from Octopussy (obviously), and superb music, with stonking anthems from the likes of Tears for Fears, Simply Minds and the Eurythmics. And it did end with perestroika and fall of the Berlin Wall. So, some good stuff. But let’s not forget what it was really like for most of us.
Just don’t mention Kylie Minogue, all right?
By Pamela Kelt, alias A. J. Monkton