And if it is an illusion I don’t want to wake up, I want to hang onto it, because the alternative is an abyss, just a hole, a darkness, a nothingness, and who wants that?
I had an Aunt who lived in Alexandra down south and we would sometimes visit her family in the holidays on the way to other places like ski fields, or my Gran. She lived there on a farm with her husband and their four kids. It was uncomfortable visiting them. They had two boys and two girls. The uncle treated the boys very harshly, and the girls could get away with murder. The oldest kid was from my Aunt’s previous relationship, the middle boy and girl were adopted. The last child, a girl, was their child. Complicated. On the outside though I guess it just looked like a man and a woman with four kids. Two boys and two girls living on a farm.
Near Alexandra was Clyde. In the 80s the main reason to visit Clyde was to see the Clyde Dam being built. You could drive up onto the side of the road into a viewing area and look down at the massive gash carved at an abrupt 90 degree angle through the rock and across the gorge at the footings of what slowly rose out of the ground: a huge concrete wall to hold back the Cromwell. It was a Think Big project. Maybe Muldoon’s last one. The Cromwell Gorge was beautiful. Even when I was a kid sitting in the car for hours on end and always slightly bored I could see it. The beauty. The kind of beauty I like. Hard. Something pretty like an orchard in blossom against the brutal, craggy mountains, and above the plunging depths of the gorge itself where the river tumbled and drawled it’s way to the sea.
The dam eradicated much of that. The mountains are still there. But not the orchards, or the windy road, or the tumble and drawl. The water backed up behind the dam and is now a wide, flat expanse. The road has been improved into long straight sweeps, and the town of Cromwell now utterly without character in its new location, with its new buildings and well-planned town centre.
Would you notice though if you drove there and didn’t know about the ghost land below the water? Would it be beautiful to innocent eyes? Is it just memory that makes it all seem worse?
I don’t want your freedom
Wham! were one of the biggest acts of 1984; a year that is one of the high watermarks of 80s pop.
It was a gay old year 1984. In the readers’ poll at the end of 1984 the Smash Hits voters selected these songs as the top ten singles of 1984:
- The Wild Boys – Duran Duran
- Careless Whisper – George Michael
- Two Tribes – Frankie Goes to Hollywood
- Freedom – Wham!
- Relax – Frankie Goes to Hollywood
- War Song – Culture Club
- Pride (In the Name of Love) – U2
- Wake Me Before You Go Go – Wham!
- Smalltown Boy – Bronski Beat
- Like to Get to Know You Well – Howard Jones
With the exception of U2 that is a solid line up of men in makeup, and a great many men (no women, it was a magazine for girls I think, but I didn’t notice at the time) who were “exploring” their sexuality.
When you look at a moment in the past like this you can feel like a cursed Greek prophet who can see the future but is unable to do anything about it, a Cassandra who is unable to warn Boy George of the ignominy ahead. Looking at that list of bands from 1984 I can see the demise of Culture Club, and Howard Jones. You can see George Michael’s solo career, and the huge rise of U2. Looking back at my photo album I can see the Clyde Dam rising out of the cracked, Biblical rocks of a gorge that would disappear. Looking back I can see the political architect of that scheme, Muldoon, announcing the 1984 snap election and the rise of David Lange.
My mother always voted for Muldoon. In the 90s I went through a period of being dismayed by this idea, but this was uninformed dismay. Voting for Rowling, who was the actual alternative in the late 70s and early 80s, was not really compelling. A decent man but not likely to sway people in the face of Muldoon’s intelligence and pugnacious wit. Muldoon did his level best to be a communist running a control and command economy to maintain a society he, and his voters, knew from the 50s and 60s. In 1984 I thought of Muldoon as bad and Lange as good. I remember watching Lange and his wife (were they already unhappy?) come out on the stage in Mangare and take the applause of the victor after the 1984 election. I was only 11 but it seemed a good thing. Undeniably better. It wasn’t.
It’s just a form of escapism that people love…. It’s like a dream. I regularly sit back and think, God! I can’t believe what I’m doing.
George Michael, in Smash Hits (May 1984)
George Michael slept with a lot of women in 1984. The implied women in the Wham! songs of 1983 and 1984 were not lies. Not completely. Anyway, don’t we want to believe the image if the image is exciting, and fresh and fun? The videos of Wham! captured me because they were invitations into other worlds. Better ones. Worlds that were not the abyss of nothingness, but improbable worlds of freedom, and fantasy. Sort of like the soundtrack for a big, brassy, heterosexual (with synthesizers) neo-liberalism. Well, that’s what it seemed like.
The truth though was always there staring us in the face. Do people remember that the song Freedom is about not wanting freedom? Do they know that every single song on Make It Big is about a relationship that is unhappy in some way? But we sing the songs at happy parties (if we’re a certain age), and think that Freedom must be about liberation.
Sometimes people don’t want liberation.
I was duped by George and Andrew. Maybe George knew he was duping himself at that time. I don’t mind. I can enjoy both the 80s pseudo heterosexual shimmer, and sympathise with the complicated feelings George was beginning to work out in his unhappy songs. I was also duped by the Muldoon and Lange story, and then the Douglas and Lange story. Those ones I do mind. The first allowed me to think of Lange as good, and then permitted the idea that if Lange would stand up and sign off the Douglas agenda then the Douglas agenda must be ok. But it wasn’t. Not really.
It’s not that simple. Lange was good, but he let things happen and fronted them long after he should have stopped. Long before he thought a cup of tea was a good idea. It was too late. We had freedom whether we wanted it or not.
That family in Alexandra moved. Then many years later the man and woman separated. There’s pictures of me at the ice skating rink just out of Alexandra with them back in 1984. Their older daughter was a bit younger than me. I think she had a crush on me. There is a picture of us standing carefully on our skates holding hands. The photo is unclear but I am unlikely to be smiling. Firstly because I would be thinking about falling over, and secondly because I found her attention awkward.
When she got older her life went very, very badly off the rails. Which thing was it? Not enough love? Too much anger? Loneliness? I haven’t seen her for about 30 years. At the skating rink there were big green tarps that formed the roof and kept the sun off the ice. They would suck in and blow out in the wind; the wind that blew down the gorge through the fruit trees, and the cranes on the dam. We looked happy enough, our group, like Lange wrenching his wife’s hand up into the air in triumph, or George and Andrew cavorting in little short shorts across a stage.
You can’t ever go back though. Just see the past in different ways. Just acknowledge how the past influences your present without understanding how exactly. Without understanding.