As a child in the late seventies, watching my much older cousin push a brown cartridge that somehow contained Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon into the stereo of his two-tone, brown and gold Ford Capri, it occurred to me that the world was a very strange place. In the evenings, watching TV with my parents and my older brother was no more reassuring.
And yet, despite the angularities of the age – the dissonance between an excessive joyfulness in children’s television and the everyday, mundane brutality of working class childhood – there was a transatlantic optimism that sustained me (and my parents) and allowed us to believe that we were essentially free and that things were getting better (and indeed they were).
I remember watching episodes of ‘Entertainment USA’, in which Jonathan King (yes, Jonathan King) took us to Spook Hill, revealing to us a vulgar freedom of thought and deed alien to the little Englander I was and still am. America was a place of random joy, stocatto juxtapositions, jazz colours and superhuman imagination. I, a northern working-class boy, wanted desperately to be an American. My dad doubly, triply wanted to be so.
In the mid-eighties, he took us on a holiday of a lifetime – the itinerary seemingly based solely on episodes of Entertainment USA. We went to Spook Hill, our rental car meandering along snaking country roads to the sound of Fleetwood Mac. I went to Disneyland, Notts Berry Farm, Seaworld and Magic Mountain. I drank a carbonated chocolate drink. I exalted in a Randian freedom of customer satisfaction.
But then I got old. And the weight of new knowledge and revelation began to be hung about me like so many albatross.
Threads – a BBC dramatization of nuclear holocaust – depicted a woman giving birth to a mutated foetus. I watched this with my parents (I had even watched The Exorcist with my parents – at the age of twelve). I don’t understand this, as I type – how my parents could have done this to me; smiling, egging, glorying in the simulated horror (that never left me). Whether it was a different age, a different class or a different mindset, I can’t guess. All I know is that the world, if we let it be so, can be a very strange place.
The vibrant, low-definition colour of the eighties concealed much of its latent paranoia, but not well and not for long. The rictus smiles of children’s television presenters were often topped by tired, tired eyes.
We knew, we felt that something was wrong; something was going wrong. But we couldn’t put our fingers on it. No matter how many leather bracelets we worked about our wrists; no matter how many Grolsch bottle tops we thread into our shoelaces – nothing could stem the encroaching dawning that all of these day-glo freedoms rested upon a triple storm of a crisis in masculinity, a misplaced faith in technology, and a belief that humans could fall into systems that would free them from all need of genuine agency and empathy. Please ourselves, that’s all. And that’s what many, in a generation, did.
Time passed and no matter how we stretched the skin, lines began to impress themselves upon us. The more we painted youthful glow upon ourselves, the more grotesque we unknowingly became. Strangely, as layer upon layer of experience thickly daubed itself upon us, we became ever more revealed, more naked, visceral, unpleasant to the eye.
And here we are.
Here we are, playing the same games, only in more frayed suits and with failing eyesight and receding hair. We go through the motions of dreaming of progress – our science fictions push back at us, however, with more of a dystopian wariness than the bold, exploratory optimism of old.
But we remember hope.
And then we meet a monster. A cracked beast, skin daubed tribally, with a tongue quick like that of a frog or a salamander. This beast seems to be a rolling together of all that was cracking and wrong about the eighties before it all unravelled so. He is green-backed, greed-good and self-gratifying: Ayn Rand worships him.
But, we remember hope.
We remember that this beast lurks only in the shadow of a dream, like all monsters. His existence in fact validates, by contrast, and brightens the dream. Two days ago, this beast was slain by a woman. She reminded me of the random joy and jazz colour of a dream that promises togetherness on one condition: the condition that we accept our responsibility to keep ourselves decent. There is no system on Earth – no data-cruncher and no application – that will do our morality for us. Only we can keep ourselves right.
She spoke with such grace and optimism that I wanted, again and after so many years in the wilderness, to be an American. Only this time, I knew that I didn’t simply want to be an American. I was ready to accept my role in the making of things – to roll up my sleeves and stand, sister-brother, for not a technicolour dream, but an unpixelated, true colour dream that can only be realised, every day and in real-time, through effort, respect and good intention.
Michelle Obama: for your words, I love you unconditionally. On this, the light side of the Moon, the Sun is shining so brightly and the colours are so alive.