The 80s

The 80s80s-rockstar-costume-zoom

So who's this forgotten cheeseball rocker to the right? Was he backup to Dee Snyder in Twisted Sister? Briefly part of Def Leppard? A member of Ratt? No, of course not. This is a Halloween costume. You can see a girls' version below. Should I laugh or cry?

80s girl costumeCinnamon Toast and the End of the World is set in the 80s, with most of the action taking place during the spring and summer of 1987. (I didn't do this out of nostalgia, although I won't deny that I felt an irrational surge of joy whenever I had Stephen switch on an electric typewriter, or think something like 'I had to go home to use the phone.') If the novel were set in the present, it would be a very different story, almost certainly a happier one, though there's a good chance that most of it would have unfolded in front of a computer. But Stephen isn't wired up to anything. He spends a good part of the novel alone in a way that isn't possible anymore, in a dark and often frightening time.

Kids, don't buy those 80s Halloween costumes. Do you really think it was all about big hair and breakdancing? It wasn't. It was painful. The 90s and the 00's will always have their protective cover of irony to shield them from the future. The 80s meant every word. We watched the 'angry dancing' scene in Footloose and nobody laughed. I thought big hair equalled confidence, vitality, used to sit in class and dream of how my new beautiful puffy lion's mane would turn me into someone popular and charismatic, and all the boys would be so dazzled.

But how bad were the 80s? Really? Well, if you were there, you already know. Check itme in 1985 out: Exhibit A! It's me! Christmas morning, 1985. Look at this horror show. I'm leaning on my mother (holding the nice doggie), wearing a sweater my grandmother knit me, with my little sister taking the photo, and I am so profoundly uncomfortable in my own skin that I will not even look at the camera! I'm convinced that I have to try to act cool, just in case someone sees this family snap later. The misery! And, yes, I have really big hair.

Of course, I'm blurring the abomination of the 80s with the plain old horror of adolescence here, but to anyone born within spitting distance of 1970, the two are always going to be linked. And I believe that this was a particularly dispiriting time to be young. Let me count the ways.


When I was a little kid writing stories, my cop-out ending was never '...and then I woke up'. It was '...and then an atomic bomb exploded and everyone died. Tee-hee!' When I was old enough to realise what this really meant, I was horrified. Was a stalemate between two superpowers really all that was keeping the planet alive? And all the adults were so willing to accept this! Was everybody crazy?? Then in 1985 AIDS announced itself to the sleepy suburbs with the death of Rock Hudson, known to me at the time only from his guest stint on Dynasty. You could get it from a res-watchmen 2phone booth, kids were saying back then. You could get it from a kiss, from a dirty glass, from a mosquito. There were no Twin Towers falling on the 80s teenagers. Just threats, fear, waiting.

The past!

Here's how Alan Moore saw the era in Watchmen (published in instalments during 1986 and 1987): darkness, violence, every second taking us closer to doomsday, and watching over it all, billboards in sickly pink and purple, advertising a perfume called Nostalgia. Was he that far off? Every decade seems to want to burrow back into the past, but the 80s took this far too seriously. The light-hearted and mocking celebrations of the 70s (and the 80s) that followed were nothing gag mecompared to the full-on worship of the 1960s that took over the arse-end of the decade, as the anniversaries of the Summer of Love and Woodstock rolled around. Turn on the TV in 1988 and you'd get The Wonder Years and China Beach. Switch to the radio and you'd get The Beach Boys covering the Mamas and the Papas. Even Tom Cruise in Risky Business danced around in his underwear to a song called 'Old Time Rock and Roll', kicking his feet deliriously as Bob Seeger announced his plans to 'reminisce about the days of old'. I fell hard for it myself, raided my mother's wardrobe and rarely listened to anything recorded past 1974. It hardly made a difference anyway - every second song on the airwaves was a remake. It's all been done before, was the message, and better.

All so slick!

I know how it looks now, but back in the day, we thought we were pure class, the future that Michael J Fox was so desperate to get back to. The 80s were there to correct the goofy excesses of the 70s. (Those lapels! Those sideburns! Those liberal ideas!) It was all about smoothing down the rough edges and coating everything in gel and black plastic. The right wing was ascendant, Huey Lewis on the radio, bulldozer optimism the norm. Was it any wonder that the 18th century, another time of big hair and shameless spending, was such a hit? (Amadeus, Dangerous Liaisons. I even recall a girl in a powdered wig showing up in the background of a ZZ Top video.) Then, underneath it all, something would break through in protest - 'alternative' bands and heroes draping themselves in black and howling about torment and destruction: Rick Astley versus The Cure.

So why, all these years later, am I still nostalgic? Well, to paraphrase Robin Williams' character from Moscow on the Hudson (1984) talking about the Soviet home he'd left behind, 'Yes, I was miserable, but it was my misery!' I understand the 80s. Or at least I'm pretty sure it all happened. And it's the only time that I could imagine the events of Cinnamon Toast taking place.

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"...astonishingly good....a juicy coming-of-age story...also an important read." The Globe and Mail

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