These occupiers are so 1990s
A novel about the anti-rat race, anti-roads protesters of the early 1990s reveals the origins of the radical snobbery behind today’s Occupy movement.
Perhaps it is the sound system currently sat outside St Paul’s Cathedral, pumping out muted sub-Back to the Planet dance choons. Perhaps it is the sight of a lot of tents offering meditation and tranquillity spaces. Or perhaps it is simply the slow-moving, directionless anti-capitalism that characterises the whole affair. Whatever it is, London’s Occupy protest is certainly redolent of all-too-recent protests past.
One thinks of the 2009 G20 protests, replete in music and horsemen-of-the-apocalypse ker-razee-ness, and before that of the carnivals against capital that waxed and waned at the turn of the millennium. But one thinks also of the anti-roads protests, of the once infamous New Age Travellers and of the so-called free-party scene of the early- to mid-1990s, where largely youthful protest, perhaps for the first time, started to take on the form now so prevalent at St Paul’s.
And this is why The Space Between Things, a first novel from Birmingham-based author Charlie Hill, has such unexpected resonance. Set between November 1990 and the implementation of the Criminal Justice Bill in 1994, it is ostensibly a love story between a young, affectionately portrayed Brummie bum called Arch and a sassier, sager woman called Vee for Verity (not, thank God, for Vendetta). However, because it is set not only against the background of, but within, the burgeoning rave‘n’protest movement of the early 1990s, The Space Between Things is not simply a love story; it’s a tale of naive political and emotional affirmation, of Arch ‘throwing himself into the world and its possibilities’. And, at the last, it is tale of disenchantment, of reckoning with the political and emotional commitments he has made.
As literature, there’s much to enjoy here, too. The dialogue is sharp and the patches of Beat-like prose are innervating rather than annoying. Plus, it’s often very funny, especially when it comes to the odd comedic inversion. So, of Arch’s difficulty of getting into posh bohemian parties when accompanied by his chemically-adjusted-reprobate-of-a-friend, Tom, Hill writes: ‘Tom looked too bohemian for bohemes and even people who wanted to lose all traces of privilege didn’t want all traces of privilege nicked.’
But it is with Hill’s portrait of a specific era that the novel’s value lies. This is largely down to Hill’s honesty, an attempt to write almost objectively about that outbreak of techno-fuelled anti-state sentiment, a sentiment which at the time a then-youthful Hill no doubt shared. That he refuses to succumb to nostalgia or self-indulgence is to be applauded. But it is not a surprise: he begins with the cautionary words of Francis Bacon that whatever the mind ‘seizes and dwells upon with peculiar satisfaction is to be held in suspicion, and that so much the more care is to be taken dealing with such questions to keep the understanding even and clear’.
And so Hill does. Beginning on the November day in 1990 when then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher stepped down, Hill’s narrative starts with the end. The end of old-style, left-vs-right politics, the end of seriousness, as Arch puts it. ‘And now the gorgon’s lost her head… [t]here’s no more politics because there’s no more political arguments to be had. Us, the Eastern bloc, the Boers, everyone.’ This view he attributes to someone called ‘numpty Frank’, a barely veiled allusion to the author of The End of History, Francis Fukuyama. But Arch soon discovers, spurred on by the critical Vee, that while old-style politics might be over, numpty Frank’s liberal democracy is far from triumphant.
Soundtracked by the Levellers lyric, ‘there’s only one way of life and that’s your own’, Arch’s moment of MDMA-stoked awakening comes at the Castlemorton free festival in May 1992. Here he’d found an alternative vision of life, or so he thought: ‘[I’d met] an underground of people, people with sound systems, electricity generators, fluorescent backdrops that glowed in ultra-violet light… people with practical can-do will-do cheek who didn’t need to be told what they could or couldn’t do but were getting on with it and creating their own community and making their own sense out of the world.’ And it wasn’t just the raves; in the form of such reliably named protagonists as Stripe or Ig, Arch is also partially drawn in to the anti-road-building movement, an environmentalist precursor to the more recent anti-air travel movements such as Plane Stupid.
In Hill’s observation of this free-party-loving, anti-roads, Traveller-fetishising political milieu, the historical echoes with the Occupied present are palpable. Not least in the extent to which the rejection and absence of the old politics is celebrated as a virtue. As deep-green militant Stripe explains: ‘It’s not about their way of doing things any more. Their politics. Their politics are finished. Knackered… We’re not trying to get into the future. We’re trying to get back to where we were before they fucked it all up. There’s so many of us out there, I tell you, just up for changing the world.’
And of what did this new politics consist? Well there was no party or organisation and certainly no leadership. As Arch tells Vee after she asks about how they’re going about changing the world: ‘How are we going about it? Well, it’s not about hierarchies or structures for a start. It’s a state of mind. It’s about doing it ourselves and getting on with living our lives the way we want to rather than the way we’re told we should.’
If the proudly non-hierarchical, non-structured nature of what passed for the protesters’ politics seems more than a little familiar to anyone with a passing interest in today’s jazz-handing occupiers, then the ideas themselves, such as Hill articulates them, seem almost uncanny: ‘It’s all to do with living our lives the way we want to, not the way that corporations, big businesses, the government, vested interests want us to. It’s about freedom. It’s about having control over our lives. And they don’t like any of it because they can’t control it, except through violence and repression.’ As for the actual roads protest itself, born of an ecologically framed opposition to the then Conservative government’s proposals to commence ‘the biggest road-building programme since the Romans’, the impulse was primarily anti-growth and fundamentally opposed to modernity – a striving, as Stripe put it, to ‘get back to where we were before they fucked it up’.
In this almost juvenile negation, this big fat ‘no’ to modern life, Hill conveys another related sentiment that remains all too palpable in the Occupy protests. That is, a barely concealed disdain for the mainstream, for those who live ‘straight’ lives, for those who really do constitute what today is known as the 99 per cent. So, while driving on the motorway with Vee, Arch is driven to reflect that ‘Other people work together, the people in the cars probably work together, on their weekaday weekends in their workaday worlds.’
The aloof perspective by which the rest of society is viewed is developed further on: ‘There are towns, small towns and villages of red brick and sandstone where drizzle should be falling. Burton, Belper, Matlock. Matlock Bath. Birchover. Enemy territory. Places where they haven’t heard of the things being done in their name or, more likely, they have and they don’t care. There is money here. The people aren’t Thatcher rich or Thatcher poor, they have Major money, just enough to get by, comfortably muted, complicit. Just enough to close the mind. They look down their noses at us, for being on the dole, for opting out of the mainstream. For not voting even. They probably vote, from Burton through Birchover, they’ll vote every time. But theirs is the real cynicism.’
The self-aggrandising assault on the mainstream, on the people who accept ‘lives in flat suburbs or Barrett-named crofts’, is writ large throughout The Space Between Things. It is a telling
observation. The snobbery-as-politics that was incipient in early 1990s protest chic, where it then took the form of opting out and embracing the Travelling lifestyle (or at least the look), has become a mainstay of contemporary so-called anti-capitalist protest. For these elitists in demotic clothing, the rest of society, their mushy minds addled and muted by the ‘MSM’ (mainstream media), is always viewed with one part pity, one part contempt.
But while the similarities between today’s protesters and their early 1990s antecedents are clear from Hill’s portrayal, there are also distinct differences between then and now, not least in the response of the authorities of the time. There was no indulgence, no legal niceties to be observed. ‘Society needs to condemn a little more, and understand a little less’, said the then prime minister John Major in response to the youthful partying and unrest of 1993. He was far from going against the political grain. The young shadow home secretary of the time, Tony Blair, was just about to make a speech in which he declared his party to be ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’. The Criminal Justice Bill of 1994, in which civil liberties were seriously restricted, was the result.
Today, the political class, the church, and the media are all too ready to embrace the occupiers, to condemn a little less, and understand a lot more. In its honesty and insight, Hill’s heartfelt novel unwittingly provides a critical counterpoint to the praise currently gushing the occupiers way.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.