Wednesday, November 27, 2002

Recently been reading an Aust-lit classic from that benighted decade, the eighties. I’d actually bought and read Alan Wearne’s verse-novel, The Nightmarkets when it was first published in the mid-eighties, but it failed to make an impression on me – probably because I was then an undergrad on an overly-specific quest for literary enlightenment; in search of a decent Proustian reverie with an ocker twist. In other words, The Nightmarkets served its purposes so well, and was so good, that I must have reverentially lent my copy on to a friend. And so not really thought about it for a whole decade and a half, until a copy caught my eye at the op-shop. [Extract online at: ]

This time round, there’s nothing Proustian, or otherwise fleetingly exquisite, about Wearne’s book. I’m only a few pages into The Nightmarkets when the reason for the verse-novel thing strikes me – Wearne is making a record. Not as in an authentic, historico-factual transcription, nor less as a self-consciously selected and sealed time capsule, but simply as something representative of an era – in the nude, as it were. Thus, the eight years The Nightmarkets took to write (1977-1985), do not make the book an “epic” (an awful word, which usually connotes the force-feeding of bad poetry to adolescents) – it’s eight years of real-time, more or less.

At a glance, this chrono-verite element is not immediately obvious. The book ranges in time from the mid-sixties through to the summer of 1979-1980, with most of the action and detail being in, or concerned with the latter, single summer. This apparently- compressed period – which was yet to happen when the book was begun, and took five years to write up after it did happen – nonetheless is startlingly plausible, all the more in 2002, as an eternal present. A la Baudrillard, the eighties (and nineties too, for that matter) did not really happen – they only just made it over the line and into 1980, before then being trapped in their own unending repetition. Like a locked, loaded spring, The Nightmarkets slowly winds up – through years of Vietnam protests, dope-hazes, and the sacking of Gough – and then – slam! – refuses to let go, so maintaining an insistent, pressurised expose of political traducery and corporatised feminism; in summary, a very specific era that has (paradoxically) not dated at all.

Of course, all this is my interpretation; my hindsight grafted on the a combination of Wearne’s imputed hindsight and foresight. Today, in 2002, the years 1979-1980 ring some bells – the three revolutions of Thatcher, Reagan and Khomeini, most obviously – but do not generally stand for a larger social watershed, in contrast to, say the sixties. Which is precisely the point – my point anyway, if not also Wearne’s – things that apparently do/did not have an end (and few would be willing to call the end of the sixties social revolution, even today), most emphatically did have an end; it just that you probably missed it, in that “blink of an eye” sense.

A hundred tropes and clichés about baby boomers’ coming-of-age could be extracted from The Nightmarkets – phrases such as “selling out” and “yuppie”, already familiar yet hardened by repetitious half-ironic use in the mid-eighties, my undergrad heyday.

Personally, I think that all the more obvious phrases and connotations miss what was the greatest sea change of all about 1979-1980 – the emergence of a First-World generation-without-war, for the first time in a century. Whatever may be said and thought about the “Vietnam generation”, the key, crucial fact is that, without a subsequent war to close-off their experience – to add a new tail to the parade, whether it be of veterans or protesters – something just stopped. It was long a semi-funny joke that the Peace Movement is obsolete, a victim of its own success. In fact, Peace never was (and cannot be) a Movement, and so in the continuing absence of a war(or peace)-to-trump-their-war(or peace), the baby boomers, about 1980, just threw in everything – movements, causes, ideologies, you name it.

And there (kind of) was a war about this time, to formalise this close-off. Appropriately enough, it was an old war, a looking-back war, not to mention a gesture towards parental rapprochement. Either born again, or perennially stuck, in 1980 (depending on how you want to see it) baby boomers soldiered on under a compromise conceit, one either laughable or culpable (again depending on how you want to see it) for its self-righteous indignation. The baby boomers were henceforth to be children of World War II survivors. And with that much going backwards, nothing could escape.

The “Baby boomer/Vietnam/WWII Oedipal throwback” theory is invented by me alone (as far as I know). If you want proof, here’s two items. First, a self-described “child of the WWII generation” in an angry letter to The Australian (“Bellicose baby boomers off to war”, 25 November 2002), criticising an Australian editorial (“Dealing with the new reality of terrorism”, 21 November 2002) for shining a harsh light on the relics of sixties peaceniks. According to the letter-writer (who I take it to be born between 1945 and 1962), it is not his generation who are being unduly pacifist, but the “baby boomers and their offspring” who are being unduly bellicose. Confused? Me too.

Finally, the other small item of proof I would like to adduce comes from a Pink Floyd album. In their creative output between 1967 and 1975 (prematurely climaxing with 1973’s “Dark Side Of The Moon”, Pink Floyd can fairly accurately – and reasonably. I think – be seen as a sort of baby boomers’ barometer. By 1979’s “The Wall”, the barometer must logically then be reading “all-over-the-shop” – and oh it was, and how.

No one seems to have questioned or doubted lead singer Roger Waters’ (b. 1944) apparent regression into WWII memories-from-the-cradle, in the Vera Lynn parts of “The Wall”. Although this may seem harsh (Roger Waters’ father died in WWII), and leaving aside the fact that Waters is not, therefore a baby boomer, his long delay in artistically claiming that war underscores my The Nightmarkets-inspired point. About 1980, the “Vietnam generation” simply flicked the switch – into reverse.

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