Anthony vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda

I turned seventeen in the spring of 1986. Days later Chernobyl’s nuclear power station huffed radiation across northern Europe, causing sheep to glow in the Scottish Highlands (subs: please check). At the time, the Soviet Union’s fresh, thrusting, young fifty-something leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was shouldering the tiller in an attempt to turn the supertanker USSR ninety degrees to starboard. Words like glasnost and perestroika were becoming commonplace on news bulletins.

Glasnost: openness

Perestroika: restructuring

Despite the pre-roasted lamb courtesy of an over-sugared Ukrainian microwave, it was an optimistic time in geopolitics (strokes beard). Like most of my generation, I’d assumed I would perish in a nuclear fireball, ash on the wind, not least because in those days we lived twenty minutes from a US air base housing several of “our” ICBMs. Gorbachev seemed to be leading us onto a different path.

And so it proved: for a while.

Aged seventeen, my own personal glasnost was stalled awaiting some cerebral perestroika. I was as closeted as a partially melted fuel rod under a hasty sarcophagus. And around us on the analogue eighties airwaves swirled HIV and AIDS, a geiger counter that ticked more urgently each week. Adverts, posters, leaflets, even school assemblies. Condoms on TV!

I honestly don’t know how my friends and family would’ve reacted had I come out then, all pimply and non-bald. I was in suffocating denial, even as I knew. Such is the plastic teen brain, such is the ability of humans to hold contradictory notions simultaneously. Crushes were crushed, neatly compartmentalised, boxed and ribboned and jettisoned and retrieved and reopened.

I’m sure one of my friends knew, or suspected. She wasn’t daft. I remember we skirted the subject once, a few years later at college. An idle have you ever wondered question, over student crumpets. Even then, I wasn’t ready. It would’ve been so easy, a couple of words. It would’ve changed nothing, and everything.

In 1986, there were no role models for a seventeen-year-old boy in my position. On TV, beyond the tumbling AIDS icebergs and red-faced ministers stammering through discussions of sexual practices, we had only high camp, sexless figures, and the inevitable haunted queer who coughs at the end of act one. Channel 4 showed the occasional late-night movie of a pink persuasion, barely audible above the braying and honking of faux-scandalised MPs and Mary Whitehouse. This was hardly a rainbow-rimmed invitation to come out over the Sunday beef (the lamb was off).

Newspapers? “EastBenders”. Say no more.

Movies? I wasn’t 18. And I’d never have had the courage.

Books? I remember looking. I’d never have bought anything: that would’ve collapsed the quantum unicorn wave function, Schrödinger’s Teen forced out of his box. Sometimes I’d stand in a bookshop, heart thumping, and read a page or two from something — I remember A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White.

Today’s seventeen year olds — in many countries, at least — inhabit a better world, if their parents and grandparents will let them keep it and survive it. This is a world of Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name, God’s Own Country. Of Drag Race, of the gender-blind First Dates. Of Noah Can’t Even, of Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda (Love, Simon in movie form). Even Trump’s America can’t stuff these back in the closet. The major corporations seem to have jumped on board the rainbow train, albeit with occasional jitters. That particular skirmish, though not the war, might be almost won.

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I wonder how the seventeen-year-old me would’ve reacted to Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda. Perhaps it would’ve given me the courage to come out, to take that risk even amongst the shoulder pads and approaching menace of Thatcher’s Section 28. The current me would disappear in a glittery pop, of course. Things would’ve progressed differently: other choices made, other universes forked. Even so.

Reading Simon now, aged approximately 104, the book filled me with joy. Sure, I’m a soppy middle-aged bloke wishing he could have his time again (minus: exams, three-eyed sheep; plus: self-confidence). Sure, there’s a heaped tablespoon of optimism and pink-washing of what it must actually be like as a closeted teen in the American South.

But the message of hope. The non-noxious radiation of love and warmth. Wonder, discovery, dreams, redemption. The relentless positivity and promise of Obama’s path to the future, rather than Trump’s crazy paving.

I could’ve read it in one sitting — if I were actually seventeen and could survive on no sleep. Rationed to a few chapters a night, the book kept worming into my thoughts during the day. I couldn’t wait to pick it up again. It made me grin, and gasp, and weep (see: soppy old man).

I wasn’t expecting this. I suspect I needed it.

One brief moment in a glorious exile from Trump/Brexit lunacy, spending time in the world I never dreamed could exist when Chernobyl melted into our vocabularies, but which now feels no more than a fingertip out of reach.

My fear is that it has begun to recede.

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A child of Thatcher

I am, I suppose, one of Thatcher’s children.

I came of age during the Thatcher years. I had just turned ten when she was elected in 1979, and by the time she left Downing Street in tears in 1990 I was in my final year at university. Those eleven years changed Britain and British politics, probably forever: Falklands, unions, IRA bombs, miners’ strike, Gorbachev, city deregulation, Section 28, Poll Tax.

But I’m not going to rehearse all that messy business. That road is well travelled and sprinkled with pot holes.

All of us who grew up during those tumultuous years are still affected by them — whichever side of her policies you were on. We remember the rise of what was then called alternative comedy, and is now called comedy: Not the Nine O’Clock News, Ben Elton, Alexei Sayle, Rik Mayall, French and Saunders, and the rest. We remember teachers’ strikes and bonus days off. We remember endless TV adverts for about-to-be-privatised businesses (“If you see Sid, tell him”) and the rise of the city boys flashing their cash and hefting their mobile phone bricks. We remember the god-awful fashion.

But this is nothing new. Every generation is shaped by its predecessor: vowing not to repeat its mistakes, vowing to preserve its legacy, and then becoming crippled by the tawdry compromises of reality.

Those born ten years before me were children of the seventies: flower power, power cuts, flared trousers, Ted Heath, Who Governs Britain?, two elections in a year, Harold Wilson’s surprise retirement, the Winter of Discontent. They became, more or less, in charge when Labour swept to power in 1997. Just as David Cameron and the Bullingdon club now run the country, recreating the eighties in their own Oxford image with one arm tied behind their backs by the Lib Dems. And just as those born in the late seventies whose politics are stamped by Major’s Britain, Back to Basics, sleaze, the first Gulf War, and then the inevitable Labour landslide and the death of Diana, will take power in another half-generation.

And so it goes.

I remember vividly when then-Mrs Thatcher resigned, finally. I was in my college room — less than a mile from where I’m writing this — sitting at my desk, my TV keeping me company. It was about 9.30am. There was a newsflash.

I felt a strange exhilaration: after months of commas and semi-colons there was at last a full stop. A new sentence.

Major, Hurd or Heseltine? What would it be like having a male prime minister?

I told the only person I could find: the bedder (Cambridge-speak for cleaner) hoovering outside my room. I wanted to watch the rolling news — a novelty then — but had an errand to run: I had to pay my poll tax.

I queued along with two dozen others in a sterile council office, snakes shuffling toward glass screens to pay obeisance. Inside, I buzzed. I wanted to shout it out: everything has changed! Back then there was no Twitter, no text messaging, few mobile phones, and I suspected only a small minority had heard the news. At least, they didn’t look like they’d heard the news. I said nothing.

I paid, knowing that whoever replaced Mrs Thatcher would replace the poll tax too.

Everything changed, but nothing changed.

And so it goes.