Side 1, Track 1 (Intro)
Welcome to The Metropolitan, a collective of British Gen-Xers diving into the lost world of our cultural past: the analogue, the not-on-demand-ever, the never repeated and the endlessly repeated.
We grew up acquiring things in roundabout ways. As with school dinners, if you stayed put, you got what you were given. So you had to go out hunter-gatherer-style and track things down. Sometimes it has taken years – decades – to understand what we have seen, read, heard or experienced, but that’s part of the joy, and that’s what The Metropolitan celebrates and explores. You can find out more about us on our ‘About’ page here.
No hot takes, no dunking, no false nostalgia.
At the heart of the weekend, there is a tiny replica of Christmas. Friday is all exhilarated anticipation, like a little Christmas Eve; joyful Saturday is replete and hectic; Sunday is a downbeat Boxing Day, tainted by foreboding of the school or working week. But in Britain in the 1970s and 80s, Sunday was specifically accursed in a way that anyone under 40 will find difficult to comprehend.
Deliberately empty, the sabbath day was a doughy wasteland of listlessness and door-slamming boredom. By the time Thatcher’s government took office in 1979 the conventional expectation of active Christian observance was in full retreat, but the structure of the day facilitated nothing but religion and rest. It was near-impossible to buy anything, go anywhere or have anything approaching a good time. An irritating coalition of church-goers, trades unions and professional harrumphers beat the bounds of Sundays, yelping angrily at any suggestions of change.
The three available TV channels featured a repellent sludge of religious programming, Open University lectures, war films and bad sports; the shops - well, the shops were closed. (As with rationing, Britons can be meaningfully divided into those who remember the Sunday trading laws, and those who don’t.) Coffee shops didn’t really exist unless you lived in Soho, which you didn’t because you weren’t in the Style Council. It didn’t matter, because they wouldn’t have been open anyway. Entertainment options were limited to whatever you already had in the way of books, records and home-recorded video cassettes, most of which you had already consumed at least five times. There was you, your family members, the contents of your bedroom and the whistling sound of the inside of your head. Entire cohorts of seventeen year olds were reduced to going to the swings.
This experience - relative cultural abundance punctuated by featureless Sundays - is peculiar to people who were young in Britain in the 1970s and 80s. For our parents, 70s Sundays seemed like a carnival of riotous good times. Their cultural markers were even more desolately spaced: space Christian Dan Dare in The Eagle, a weekly chance to see The Lone Ranger doing dashing cultural appropriation at the Saturday morning matinee, a battered copy of Black Beauty proceeding ceremonially around all the children in a family.
They grew up, but options remained limited. There was Out, at the theatre or the dance hall, or In, with the radio and the newspaper. Almost all were tightly controlled by bodies whose explicit function was to maintain standards of ‘public decency’; the BBC ran all the channels and the Lord Chamberlain licensed the West End theatres.
Theses young people rebelled into excess: pirate radio, the 1968 Theatre Act, angry young men, Oz newspaper, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Elvis’s hips and Mick Jagger’s lips. The world was consumed, and exploded: everything was permitted, as long as you were young (and a man). The freedom to be heard, to be a person in the world, untrammelled. The freedom to be you and, more importantly, me.
By the 1970s and 1980s these people, forged in the explosion of the preceding decades, were running TV and radio stations, commissioning books and writing magazines. Fresh from chaos and liberation, they gave the young Generation X their honest best efforts at intelligent, altruistic curation. Oliver Postgate, Biddy Baxter and Kaye Webb; David Hepworth and Mark Ellen, Tony Wilson and Alan McGee; John Lloyd and Alex Cox, James Burke and John Peel. For the first time, there were some non-U voices at the top of the cultural waterfall - and also a certain public service altruism. At each step, a thoughtful adult offered a guiding hand: have you read this? Have you heard this? Have you seen this? Does this interest you? Does this make you laugh?
Those younger than us, conversely, have grown up with too much media. They have access to everything that has ever been made or thought about, an unrelenting hydra in which artefacts that are obscene, cruel or dangerous float weightlessly alongside those that are beautiful, clever or difficult. Nothing is under control, nothing is secret; there are few standards by which one can measure what is even true. It is a churning storm governed by the unconscious demons of algorithms. The generation that grew up in this world, understandably, has hurried to generate and enforce codes of conduct and content: they have rebelled into rules. They have had to puzzle out their own curation in the middle of a firestorm. They cling to their rules, which have become both their currency and capital, and their cruelty.
We - the infants and teenagers of the 70s and the 80s - were suspended between these twin generations: the one that cranked open the floodgates, and the one that is drowning.
We were gently introduced to quantum theory and French New Wave and Maya Angelou and electronica, but not to Two Girls One Cup or GTA or 4Chan. People who deliberately made you upset and ran away laughing were known as bullies, and we didn’t repeatedly invite them into our homes. Our formative experience of cultural suppression was Mike Read trying to ban Relax; the most obscene content we regularly saw was pitch invading streakers.
Our cultural tastes were formed in this unique environment. Curation by liberal revolutionaries meant that much of what we consumed - Czech animation, The Magic Roundabout, The Fall, Susan Cooper novels - was a little bit weird, but fundamentally intelligent and well done. Britain’s political heritage meant our TV and home-grown movies resisted the dictates of pure profit. The rationing of content meant that we tried whatever was available: Treasure Island, Sergeant Bilko, your dad’s Beethoven album. The cultural hegemony of the US and improving living standards meant that we also had ample helpings of enjoyably trashy nonsense that was nonetheless age-appropriate and largely benign.
The Metropolitan aims to explore this ground: the pop cultural and broader social experience of British Generation X. The idea grew out of a conversation about the Modern Review and its stiletto tagline ‘Low culture for highbrows’. We think there’s value in examining the culture and daily life of our generation in a specifically British way, and at the moment it’s a gap nobody else seems to be filling.
Politically and socially, Generation X has been a terrifying misfire, not least in our utter failure to create an online environment that enables creativity, honesty, vulnerability and joy. Some time around the Brexit referendum, we discovered that there are things we wholeheartedly care about, but that we had done almost nothing to protect them. We have not paid forward the cultural, social or political favours that were extended to us. Millennials - on social media at least - have revenged themselves very effectively by ignoring us. Newspapers and magazines, TV and radio commissioners seem to have genuinely forgotten that Gen X exists at all. It’s what we deserve: an appropriate rebuke to a group of people who performatively prize nihilism, indolence and irony. When we absented ourselves, we didn’t actually expect you to carry on without us. Emerging from our bedrooms after a thirty-year sulk, we find that nobody noticed we had gone. Happily, we still find ourselves extremely interesting. We always did.
We won’t be doing instant reviews and hot takes, which means no articles about Russell T Davies’s feminism or the new Sally Rooney - not because these things aren’t worthy of serious interrogation, but because the world is already teeming with opinions about them. We won’t be doing hit jobs; they’re fun to write, but they’re less fun to live with. It feels like what the world needs from us - if it needs anything at all - is an honest-to-god focus on things that are interesting, resonant and true. We would like to tell you, unironically, about the world we briefly inhabited: the world that flared and guttered between Playschool and Facebook.
Before Spotify, before MP3s, before minidiscs and CDs, Generation X relied on audio cassette players. In the land of the ghetto blaster, the most personal present you could give was a mixtape: a homemade selection of hand-picked songs. They were fiddly and taxing (and illegal) to create, a little labour of love - the sort of thing that could use up a drab Sunday afternoon. They usually included songs that meant something to both the giver and the recipient. Each one fastened a moment in time: passions, passing enthusiasms, shared anthems.
They were probably the most authentic, heartfelt artefacts that the young Generation X produced en masse, pieces of thoughtful curation that aimed to create a shared experience and sense of meaning.
This is ours.