Saturday, 19 January 2013

It was 30 years ago today...

Beginning an occasional series reminding me if no one else what I was up to in 1983.  University, Leiwsham, just moved into hall of residence.  Losing the girlfriend of two years, discovering new music.  Boldly not doing all those traditional university things.

January 1983 seems like an alien world now.  It was monochrome, all washed out semitones of minimal colour in the People's Republic of Greater London.  Walking round the streets and markets of Lewisham, Deptford, New Cross, Greenwich, all seemed somber, subdued and depressed.  Or maybe that was just how I felt.

For the first time in ages I had nothing planned to do on a Saturday.  I blew the time going into Lewisham and buying a Joan Baez album.  What a total waste of money that was.  Never found her voice anything other than grating so I'm not sure why I parted with the cash in the first place.  I wanted something more gritty (a few weeks later I did buy something a whole lot more gritty, Dylan's overlooked masterpiece Shot Of Love, although I didn't appreciate it at the time).
 I want something more gritty because the night before I had spent a frustrating twenty minutes trying to contact the woman I thought was my girlfriend.  She was, it seemed, nowhere to be found although he roommate was located and fronted up to me that she would pass on the message that I was trying to contact her and no doubt she would ring me the next day.  She did but it wasn't what I wanted to hear.  Dylan's song, "In The Summertime" on Shot Of Love has the melancholy edge of what I felt for the rest of that weekend.

Much has been made this week of the start of BBC breakfast television.  I first saw it on Thursday 20 January 1983 having stayed up the entire night.  I should have been reading my newly acquired copy of The Theory Of Evolution by John Maynard Smith, but I wasn't.  I was mourning the end of my relationship, talking to friends both old and new and trying not to consider what my next move might be in the great lottery of life.  Actually, it was to sit through two hours of Dr Robert Spicer on plant palaeontology, followed by a practical session in the afternoon.  Dr Spicer, now Professor Spicer of the Open University, I apologise profusely for being so tired and nearly falling asleep during your lectures.  It wasn't you.  Honest.
I stopped off on my way back to digs to go into the Lewisham Centre, the shopping mall in the centre of Lewisham.  My haunts there were HMV, Our Price, Smiths and a small record stall at what I knew as the far end of the mall.  I would check out the new releases every Monday, sometimes at excessive length.  On this Thursday, I selected The Best Of The Doors, which I duly took back, put on my cassette player and fell asleep to.  That has been pretty much my reaction to The Doors ever since.

I never did read Maynard Smith's book.  I dipped into it and read some chapters but every time I sat down to read it in its entirety, I just couldn't.  It is forever etched into my mind and associated with the day I bought it.  Wednesday 19 January 1983.  It was the afternoon and a group of us biology students took the walk from Deptford where the biology department at Goldsmiths was, to the main site in New Cross where there was a bookshop.  We all got Maynard Smith's book, it was on the reading list, and after a bit of a chat we went our separate ways.  In between buying the book and getting The Doors the next evening I didn't sleep a wink, lost my girlfriend, attended my one and only university disco and had my world collapse around me.  Nothing dramatic then, just traumatic.  And it was my mum's birthday.

Actually, there was a better book on the reading list, Colin Patterson's Evolution, the Natural History Museum's guide to Darwin's great theory.  I met him a few years later when I took some fish fossils to the BM(NH) to be identified.  One turned out to be a new species, probably a new genus.  It wasn't mine, sadly, and it has not been described as far as I know, but it should be sitting in the draws of the Greenwich Borough Museum (or whatever it is called these days), gathering dust and awaiting the next person willing to sort the classification of fish fossils of the English chalk deposits.  It hasn't been done since the days of the Beatles first LP.

For shorthand, I named the fish Homonotichthys debora.  I suspect the name will not stick.

One name I used to hear quite a lot when things started to get a little less formal in the biology department was Richard Dawkins.  The Selfish Gene was still an exciting new idea, one that hadn't been cliched to death, and one that evoked a certain amount of the politics of the day.  We are talking of the interregnum between the Falklands War and the 1983 General Election.  Politics of the day was quite extreme.  My landlady in Lewisham told me about the Anti-Fascist riot there a few years before when her window had been smashed.  Looking out of that window the next day she saw a face looking back at her.  It was Spike Milligan.

Anyway, The Selfish Gene came up a number of times and I wish I had read it then and not waited a number of years, somewhat frightened of the reputation it had. I wasn't sure if I would understand it but when I tackled it I was ready.  It made sense and it made me understand not just the idea of evolution more clearly but the motivations of living organisms.  I had already read much of Stephen Jay Gould's polished prose and now found another biologist who could clearly write well, better perhaps than many novelists and poets.  By the time I read Dawkins's first book, I had read The Blind Watchmaker too.

 The events surrounding this week in 1983 so cloud my memory of what was going on that I had to look up some of the other things.  For instance, I had forgotten some of the music that was in the charts, perhaps because I wasn't chasing top ten hits but was foraging more serious sounds.  The naughty pleasures of Bucks Fizz were, perhaps, not for announcing in the student union bar.  But was it really the month for "Up Where We Belong", "Too Shy", "You Can't Hurry Love" and "The Cutter" by Echo And The Bunnymen.  Out of the top forty for 22 January 1983, I ended up with sixteen in my collection.  Well, I already had "Please Please Me" (a reentry, obviously) but the rest came in the next 30 years.  The following week's chart is worse - I have 21 of those.  The album chart is better.  I only have seven of those. 

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