It’s no easy task, writing a memoir of an era, constructing a narrative that your entire generation would even recognise, let alone sign up to. There are many people who would disagree on principle, of whom I think I am probably one. Tiffanie Darke’s Now We Are 40: Whatever Happened to Generation X? sets itself a bold and daunting task, with a central question that is preoccupying us all: “Democratic earthquakes … are undermining much of the progress we made and fought to achieve.” Or, even more straightforwardly: “The political denouement to all of this was starkly illustrated in the Brexit vote. The inclusive, liberal, multicultural society we thought we had built was rejected by just over half the country.”
It is, you have to admit, a head-scratcher: to find oneself having to argue, again, that grabbing women by the pussy is unbecoming behaviour for a head of state; that it is functionally impossible for Polish people to have caused the British housing crisis, or for Mexicans to all, or even predominantly, be rapists, or that Muslim children are no more dangerous than other children. How on earth were our values so poorly defended that we’d have to go back to square one and argue them all over again? And yet, of Darke’s diagnosis, I agree with almost none.
It’s a very tricky form in which to ask these questions, moving from chatty personal reminiscence – “I began to rebel against my mum’s choice of wardrobe for me; she loved all those 80s bright colours” – to large statements about society, interspersed with interviewees of varying relevance. Martha Lane Fox makes elegant observations. Eleanor Mills is good at distilling causation – for example, porn has changed the way young women see themselves – even if you don’t always agree. Ben Elliot, founder of the luxury concierge company Quintessentially, is less enlightening. They seem to have been chosen the way you would populate a newspaper feature: whoever will take your call when you’re on a deadline.
The social observations are made with the glibness of a futurologist, except they are about the past – so it would have been possible to interrogate them a bit more closely, and thereupon discover them to be incorrect. “We currently have a female prime minister,” Darke writes (leave aside for the time being that this was also true of the 80s). “The US voted a black president into the White House and narrowly missed voting in a woman; senior political party members, heads of business and church are now openly gay. Race, sexuality and gender politics have come a long way, thanks to us.”
Except no, it wasn’t thanks to us; these identity politics battles were fought by the generation before us, by the GLC and the Southall Black Sisters, by Peter Tatchell, by Stuart Hall, by second wave feminism. If Generation X had any defining ideology, it was a sort of hedonistic indolence, a puckish refusal to take anything seriously, the adoption of irony as a creed, an MO and a style statement. While Darke namechecks irony, there is no serious attempt to square these positions – that we were the pioneers of inclusivity and multiculturalism on the one hand, and we just wanted to get off our tits and dance to repetitive beat music on the other. Yet the only way to answer today’s sense of political homelessness (as Tony Blair described it) is to confront the fact that we didn’t build our political home. We thought the home was already built, and anyway, homes were for losers.
If Generation X had any defining ideology, it was a hedonistic indolence, a puckish refusal to take anything seriously
In a chapter entitled Clinton’s Cigar, Darke describes the process by which, via the internet, “restrictions around reporting on authority began to melt, power fell victim to the truth”. The US president was undermined, she says, by the new media (the Drudge Report), then the old media (the Washington Post), and was finally hoist on the petard of his own dishonesty. I agree that Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky marked a political turning point, but no further; the deeper relevance is that a billionaire, Richard Mellon Scaife, ploughed untold amounts of money into slinging mud at Clinton, some of which finally stuck.
This pattern has been repeated at key moments since, from the creation of Islamophobia by well-funded thinktanks in the US to the generation of a set of alternative truths about the EU by Arron Banks. Conceivably, it wouldn’t have been possible before the internet, but it is far more complex than the creation of transparency by a sudden rush of democratised news. It’s a story about wealth infiltrating politics in a completely new way, and might well tell us something about why we no longer recognise our civic terrain. “Power falling victim to the truth” this ain’t.
Sexual politics is perhaps the hardest thing of all to generalise about, and one could not, in good faith, ask of a single perspective that it do anything beyond starting a debate. However, lines such as “there is a consequence to casual sex, and any girl who thinks she can sleep with as many men as she likes and not beat herself up is lying” begin that debate in an unfortunate place, one that has never heard of sex-positive feminism, has no understanding of the importance of female sexuality in driving equality forward in the first place, and doesn’t even have the curiosity to ask why, in the 90s, we explicitly retook the words “slut” and “slag” as compliments.
When young women today are facing open misogyny unseen since the 1950s, Darke’s tepid half-morality is not enough
When young women today are facing open misogyny unseen since the 50s, this kind of tepid half-morality – sleep with whoever you like, so long as it’s not too many people, because that’s dirty – is just not robust enough. You need to allow for the possibility that not all girls are the same. As for “there always have been and always will be men who take more than is offered, who fail to decode the semantics of when no means no (and, you know what, it is complicated)”, it’s certainly complicated the way Darke tells it. “Someone goes further than the other person wants them to, allowing something to happen that is unwelcome at the very least.”
The syntax is wild. Nobody did anything, one person just allowed something to be done, although was it the person who went further or the person for whom that was too far? And the unwelcome thing, what was that? Did he sneeze in her handbag? “Either party, and it is normally the woman as she is usually physically inferior, cannot always be in full control of a physical experience.” Wait, what? Does that mean physical inferiority necessitates that one relinquish control? Is it just my triceps that are inferior, or could my reflexes use a little work? I can’t figure out whether the mangled language makes these assertions more or less difficult to stomach.
I still applaud the aplomb; aggregating a lifetime is hard enough on one’s own account, let alone on everyone else’s. But these sure as hell weren’t the 90s I remember.
- Now We Are 40 by Tiffanie Darke (HarperCollins, £16.99). To order a copy for £14.44, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.