xxxvi

So what happened in the 80s? Ben Elton. Alternative comedy. The Young Ones. Thatcher. Strikes. The collapse of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet bloc. The fall of the Berlin Wall. The rapid financial growth of the free market and the western societies who flung themselves into it. Famine. War. The Falklands. Red Nose Day. Comic Relief.

Comic Relief. One of my earlier memories, perhaps long ingrained by my mother’s retelling of the story, is of that terrible lingering, unblinking, challenging shot of the Ethiopian child, belly distended and taut, eyes fly-picked and swollen, stood bow-legged in the hard dryness of the arid wasteland that surrounded him. I can see him so clearly now, so vividly. It brings tears to my eyes.

As barely a 5-year-old it’s hard to really believe that what I remember is that first vision, and not an imprint of the awful scene reinforced by repeated viewings over the many years since. Perhaps this wasn’t even that first 1985 Christmas launch. It makes far more sense for it to have been the first Red Nose Day in 1988. I really don’t know. But I never doubt the impact the image had on me, even as a small boy.

But the 80s were the era of my childhood, not my adolescence, my early adulthood. I see the Poll Tax Riots on TV and have no memory to connect, I remember Thatcher only as a distant idea and recall far more easily John Major slinging off his jacket and rolling up his sleeves, or Steve Bell’s classic Y-front caricature.

I don’t remember Live Aid, which puts further doubt on my recollection of the 1985 Comic Relief. I remember the Gulf War, not the Persian Gulf War. Tiananmen Square holds no memory, and the Iron Lady who wasn’t for turning is a history lesson, not personal knowledge. The conflicts which tinge my childhood memories were Rwanda, Kosovo, Bosnia. The personalities Mandela, Clinton, Blair, John Smith. Oh, John Smith. Poor John Smith.

The 90s then, are me. They are my cauldron. The final years of primary school, Friends on the TV after the paper round (during which my sister and I dumped our freesheets in the recycling bins at the local Somerfield). Italia ’90, which I can hardly visualise, yet the incredible intricately mown pitches of USA ’94 are indelibly marked on my inner eye. The France/Brazil ’98 final. Stuart Pearce’s penalty but without the full context of Stuart Pearce’s penalty.

My first mobile phone. My first job. My first kiss (far closer to 2000AD than I would have preferred). Passing my driving test, the second time. My first theft. My first crime. My first lung-punching mistake. Videogames, the Internet, D&D and WH40K and 221B Baker Street. Secondary school, sixth form, GCSEs and A-Levels and applying for university, and money, money, money.

I was born in the 80s, but surely I was born of the 90s. Men Behaving Badly and Game On, Joking Apart. Jesus, that one came dredged up from the hindbrain – the memory of the character with his dressing gown caught in the door clearer now than it could ever have been then on the 14″ badly tuned TV in my room. Ghost Watch.

This hasn’t been particularly exploratory stuff, or at least not in a structured, discussion way. But it’s interesting how easily you can forget so many things about your childhood years and attribute them earlier, later or not at all. I’ve journeyed back so often into my deeper childhood but have never sought the same clarity from my adolescent years, my coming of age years.

But it’s those years I need to reconnect with, to delve into and uncover, in order to write about what I want to write about. To find the truths I feel that I want to tell. The 80s aren’t real to me in the way the 90s are, so how could I ever write about them? I can – and I will – poke around that decade for interesting titbits but I think I’ll only find useful artefacts if I first deal with the decade of my awakening.

By the end of the 90s I’d developed a severely imposing inner critic, had honed a ceaseless self-examining nature and had channelled so much energy internally to both supress and question what was in there – it was this laying of foundation baggage which led to my 20s and the 00s being a stretch of at times insufferable self-doubt and personal loathing. But to understand my early adult years I need to submerge myself in those formative times.

At the beginning of the 90s I can remember my sense of bewilderment with the world, and how strongly I latched onto TV clips or news which I struggled to cope with or comprehend. Death, war, suffering, they fascinated and terrified me. I threw away all my diaries, but I only started them around ’97 and can remember that by then I had already crafted a self-restraint or an attempt at self-restraint which stymied my emotions and self worth.

What was I like, then, in 1990? In ’91? What are my memories? Where did that boy go, what was he looking for and what troubled him? What did he need, and did he get it? Why did I steal, 12 or 13 years old, and why did I continue to steal? Why did I get into fights, encourage them? Why such a temper? Why the feeling of rage? Why the fascination with death and terror?

Boys are boys, you can say. James Herbert was a favourite of many of my friends, and I wasn’t the only 14-year-old who had read Domain. But I might be among the minority who attempted a homage of Rats in my secondary English class so dedicated my worried teacher contacted my parents, and probably not because my plagarism was so blatant and outright.

That’s a culdesac conversation, however. I don’t want to run down the things I did, I want to remember how I came from the boy in 1990 to the troubled proto-adult in 2000. I want to remember who I was in 1990, how I felt and what I thought. What happened on my 10th birthday? What was my 11th Christmas like, and what did I ask for? What did I get? Did we go on holiday?

I’d begun to say I’ve written much here about nothing, but that is bullshit and a betrayal of how honest and close to the deepness I’ve been. How loudly I’ve heard the crashing of the seas and the whirling of the storms outside, how I’ve felt the strength of emotion undiluted by the years that have passed. I’ve begun something, something worthy and genuine and honest and human. I am becoming.

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About Ben Catley-Richardson

Writer, reader, husband. Father!
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