John Peel has no idea what e-mail is
The belle epoque 1990s
The writer Stefan Zweig experienced far too many cataclysmic historical events. Born in 1881 to a Jewish family in Vienna, he lived through the First World War, the collapse of the ancient Habsburg Empire, the rise of fascism, the annexation of his homeland by Nazi Germany, the beginnings of the Holocaust, and the start of the Second World War.
Zweig and his wife Lotte took their own lives in Brazil in 1942. Just before they did so, Zweig sent off the manuscript of his final book. The World of Yesterday describes his experience of growing up in belle epoque Vienna, as the First World War thundered down the track. The Viennese middle classes of the early 1900s were settled, prosperous and confident. They had become accustomed to rapid technological changes: electrification, telegraphic communication, radio, photography, automobiles. But none of these would turn out to be the defining features of their era. They were just setting the scene for what came next.
Which brings us to Simon Garfield’s The Nation’s Favourite (1998), a book about the reorganisation of Radio 1 in the 1990s. (I know it’s a bit tasteless to drag Zweig into the same sphere as Bruno Brookes, but I am going somewhere with this, I promise.) The Nation’s Favourite covers the five-year tenure of Radio 1 controller Matthew Bannister, whose arrival in 1993 hastened the departures of Simon Bates, Dave Lee Travis and various other Smashies and Niceys and sent Radio 1’s listening figures plunging through the floor.
Bannister’s strategy to attract new listeners was to bring in dangerously sexy and unpredictable young DJs such as Chris Evans, Zoe Ball, Jo Whiley and Mark Radcliffe. Throughout the mid-’90s their arrivals, audience numbers, hangovers, marriages, unscripted on-air obscenities and ensuing swift departures made the national news headlines, day after mindless day.
There are no tragedies here, although you may feel that Radio 1 management treated Mark Radcliffe a little roughly. Garfield had brilliant access to candid subjects during a period of significant workplace upheaval, and the book is funny and interesting. Nevertheless, it describes a silly and almost entirely forgotten series of events. It goes large on the decor in BBC offices and the career of Kevin Greening. Zweig writes about ‘the millions of tedious hours’ that precede sudden, world-changing events, and this phrase also describes the sensation of listening to Chris Moyles.
These are small things; unless you worked at Radio 1, they were small things even at the time. But they were small things that somehow, in the ‘90s, became very big, sucking up enormous amounts of public attention in a mass media culture that was vicious and trivial, cash-rich and tripping balls. At its stupid peak in 1996 the drama of Chris Evans’s increasingly unwilling tenure at Radio 1 became entirely hysterical, as Evans and his ‘crew’ used the tabloids to fight noisily for their profound and inalienable rights to leave work early on Fridays and call Bannister ‘the Fat Controller’ on air.
Although this was not Garfield’s intention, the book has become a vivid portrait of the insignificant Before Times, a belle epoque vignette. Given that it is stuffed full of enjoyable nonsense about Piers Morgan and Peter Powell, as I was reading it I couldn’t pin down why it all felt so poignant. And then, right at the end, Garfield transcribes an all-hands staff meeting called in 1998 by Andy Parfitt, who was taking over from Bannister as Radio 1’s controller.
This meeting was Parfitt’s blue-sky pitch to his new staff, a glimpse into the medium-term future of BBC radio delivered by one of its most senior strategic leaders. It covered threats and opportunities, big ideas and grand ambitions; he spoke about audience sectors, the significance of Radio 1’s FM frequency (not like those crackly MW losers!) and the new wave of fancy-dan digital stations.
And you keep reading, and turning the pages - it’s quite a long transcript - and by the end of it you realise: it’s 1998, and he’s not going to mention the internet.
He didn’t mention the internet for the very good reason that in 1998, most of us - even people in positions such as Parfitt’s - had absolutely no idea of the scale and scope of what was about to hit us. Like Zweig’s bourgeois Viennese friends reading reports of Russian troop movements over frühstück, we weren’t entirely oblivious: we knew that there was something called ‘online’; we even had Hotmail accounts. A friend of mine was working on what would become ‘Guardian Unlimited’, The Guardian’s first comprehensive website. As Parfitt was speaking to his new staff that day it wasn’t unusual to laboriously connect to the web (usually in your workplace), type in an enormous URL that you had carefully written onto a piece of paper, and then go away for an hour while the page loaded.
But it was all so obscure and slow, so fiddly and ugly and fundamentally difficult. In a meeting about the delicate arrangements for the Radio 1 Christmas party (these events were stunningly acrimonious, because most of the DJs hated each other and they all hated the managers) Garfield quotes a staffer saying that everyone had been emailed, but not many had responded: ‘John Peel still has no idea what e-mail is.’ Ah, that hyphen. This quality of blithe misdirection, of attention being focused in all the wrong places, is what makes the mid-to-late ‘90s so captivating in retrospect, so particularly sad and sweet if you were there at the time.
I remember, in 1997, sliding slowly down in my office chair while my colleague Frances tried to explain cookies to me. Specifically, I remember thinking that if I stayed very quiet and still until Frances stopped talking, and displayed neither interest nor aptitude, I would be able to live the rest of my life without ever having to think about cookies again. If you’d told us then about the profound changes that the internet was about to bring, we would have laughed at you from underneath a pile of unsold CD-ROMs.
You know what email is, so why not subscribe to the Metropolitan for essays like this free to your inbox every Saturday morning?
The Nation’s Favourite summons a shock of nostalgia that is entirely disproportionate to the ludicrous subject matter. This is partly because Garfield did a very good job, but it’s also partly because the stakes are so tiny and silly. The triviality of the story allows you to take a step back and think: wow. That was big, wasn’t it? That thing that happened; it was incredible.
After I put the book down I realised that this was the first time I had really thought, in a focused way, about the extraordinary impact of the internet. I’d ruminated over individual bits of it: I’d had thoughts such as ‘Facebook ads are politically powerful’ or ‘There are many unhinged people on Twitter’ or ‘how exactly is this publication going to survive when I can read it for free’ or ‘why are all the men on OKCupid holding freshly caught fish’. But, oddly, I hadn’t thought much about the totality of it. We have lived through an epochal change, analogous to the Industrial Revolution or the popularisation of printing. And because of the speed of the digital revolution and the longterm increase in life expectancy, Generation X is - I think - the first generation to go through such a dramatic, essentially peaceful transition with decades of life experience on each side. We were working-age adults in the late ‘90s and we are still working-age adults now; we are rare in having first-hand, grown-up, plugged-in experience of both sides, before and after.
I think this means that at some level we wonder what our lives would have been like if it hadn’t happened. Your 30s and 40s are usually the ‘prime’ decades, when experience, knowledge, energy and resources come together most impactfully. But for Gen Xers these decades co-occurred with a rolling revolutionary torrent that reshaped not only the form and content of culture, but the way we conceptualise relationships, power and influence; even, perhaps, the way we conceptualise ourselves. I think it’s fair to say that as a cohort, we have not coped terribly well. Certainly, the values we tried to impose on the early internet - radical free speech, anti-profit, open rights, flat hierarchies, dispersed power, total anonymity - are now marked mostly by their absence.
In 1998 we thought we were working towards the zenith of our influence. We were confidently climbing into the driver’s seat, but the chassis was propped up on bricks in a junkyard, while some teenagers outside were building a fully-functioning rocket ship. The 1990s has become our belle epoque, an average decade - a solid six out of ten - that has gathered intensity simply because the lives we lived then, and the futures we imagined for ourselves, have been so irretrievably lost. It was by no means a decade of peace and plenty; there was poverty and violence and upheaval, genocide in the centre of Europe and Baudrillard’s imaginary Gulf War. But in Britain these were things we tuned into at 9pm if we watched the national TV news, or a day later as we read the newspaper over our tea. (Coffee had only just been invented.)
The Nation’s Favourite is a vivid reminder of a time when a Radio 1 DJ could get a tabloid front page by staging a ‘secret’ meeting with a radio boss. It’s a reminder of a time when what happened at BBC Radio was truly noteworthy. It’s a reminder of a time when the front pages of tabloids steered the news agenda. Hell, it’s a reminder of a time when everyone - and I do mean everyone - knew what a tabloid was. This is an irrecoverable landscape. As Zweig wrote in The World of Yesterday:
Whenever, in conversations with younger friends, I mention something that happened before the First World War, their startled questions make me realise how much of what I still take for granted as reality has become either past history or entirely unimaginable to them… I look up again and again to the ancient constellations that shone on my childhood, comforting myself with inherited confidence.
For more on the unheralded dawning of the Internet in the ‘90s: