The Ghosts of 1979

They showed the 1979 Election Night broadcast again on BBC Parliament yesterday. I watched it with four friends on Facebook and Twitter, myself here in Scotland, the others in Camden, Sussex and Oxford, comments chucking back and forth.

I was trying to write at the same time, but little by little the programme dragged me in and took over.

There was even a moment , perhaps the one which David Butler used to tell the young David Dimbleby that “Scotland is voting differently from the rest of the country”, when I genuinely thought we were going to get another go at it all again.

Except that Dimbleby and his team gave no sign that this was a second run, no hint that they had any idea or foreknowledge of just what was coming to Britain. And didn’t we just have it coming? Instead, here was Bob McKenzie advancing the opinion that Thatcher had won an insufficient majority to provide her with a mandate for any real change. The British people, he said, had – as ever – calibrated the government’s wriggle-room nicely: a little more of this, a little less of that. The modern viewer wriggles  uncomfortably..

I bailed out after about seven hours of it. Long enough to see the frightful Pat Arrowsmith dragged off to a gulag of her own making, not long enough for the Franciscan nonsense outside Number Ten. Later, I realised how out of sorts it had all left me, as though it had shifted some kind of silt inside me best left alone.

Before BSE closed the footpaths, Karen and I used to tramp the North Downs every weekend. On one such occasion, we’d set off from Westhumble for Polesden Lacey, that odd 20s cruise-liner of a house near Dorking. The route takes you through a group of farm buildings beside a ruined chapel, then across a road and up the hill. At the top of the hill, we took a breather and looked back where we’d come.

Back where we’d come was the chapel, and the farm buildings, but this time also a kind of red brick kiln, a squat two stories high, covered in ivy. It hadn’t been there when we passed through a couple of minutes earlier. That wasn’t so bad: I commented on it to Karen; she agreed, and we contemplated it in the sunshine for a few minutes before the arrival of some other walkers broke the quiet and we moved on.

When we came back the same way, the kiln wasn’t there. Not there from the top of the hill, not there in among the farm buildings and chapel when we got down to them again.

I don’t believe in ghosts – not in the traditional sense anyway. But we’d clearly seen a ghost of a sort. It could scarcely have been less frightening or more harmless – a distant, friendly pile of old brick dozing in the sunshine.

Over the next couple of months, I tried to place my experience, identify it, and read around the whole subject of the supernatural. (Old maps showed no kilns, or any other suitable building, but they were bad maps, and few in number).  Of course, the field’s awash with the deluded, the fanatical and the sinister (latterly, there are the likes of Richard Wiseman and the Edinburgh Skeptics to redress the balance, but not so then). And there’s practically nothing there to impress anyone who presumes to hold themselves to any real standards of what constitutes knowledge.

But what there was there was profoundly soiling on the psychological level. In the absence of any evidence for afterlife, or divine intervention, or worlds hidden from our view, there was nevertheless a strong sense of something wrong about this territory. Whilst you’re in it, you have, always over your shoulder, the presence of the No Entry sign you hadn’t noticed you’d passed. It’s not warning you of demonic possession, or divine anger, or spectral revenge for the disturbance of the resting dead, but – nonetheless, there’s a sense that it’s not a good idea to be digging around in all this grave soil when you should be out living your life.

There’s something genuinely ugly in amongst all the stupid seances and unreliable testimony and attention-seeking and “ghost photographs” and creepy EVP recordings and Ghosts of Flight 401s. I found myself returning to Anglican communion again, in Winchester and London, in the hope that the ritual would wash the traces of it all out of my head. Time did that in the end.

The feeling returned yesterday evening after watching all that ’79 election stuff. Perhaps it was that long parade of the famous, familiar dead, alive again and with the illness and ageing you know will come absent from their younger, cleaner, earlier faces. Or the contrast between the sheer confidence and urbanity of the 1979 occasion, and the ultimately false sense of certainty and permanence it engenders, that dissonance.

Echoes of other Facebook 1979 parties were reaching me: the rightwingers raising glasses to what is clearly their Battle of Kosovo, the lefties slumping into the usual irresponsible miasma of thoughtless self-pity. There’s that bit in Barthes where he shows you a snap of one of Lincoln’s assassins in chains waiting for the hangman. He’s moody, handsome, young and muscled. He is alive, Barthes says; alive and yet dead. He is dead, and he is going to die. And so by extrapolation are Heath, Thorpe, Powell, the Mad Monk, Geoffrey Howe, Willie Whitelaw.

And so too Robert Trelford McKenzie, so full of bounce and laughter next to the still hand of his swingometer, who we know wouldn’t live to do any of it ever again.

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