Tuesday, 6 November 2012

The 1990s: The Decade That Made Me

I've always thougt of myself as a child of the 80s. Love of The Smiths, hatred of Thatcher. That kind of thing. Looking back on half a decade of attempting to kick start a writing career, it's evident that is absolutely not the case. I am a child not of the 80s but the 90s. Pretty much every single influence on my work can be traced back to my immersion in 90s culture. Here's a whistle stop tour of the Art That Made Me. Those of you who know my work will see the points of contacts straightaway. Those who don't will maybe be piqued to go here and try it.

1. 1999 Turner Prize. Unlike many of the people who screamed and rent their garments about the end of the cultural world as personified in Tracey Emin's My Bed, I actually went to the 1999 Turner Prize exhibition. My Bed (just one part of an exhibit that included visceral drawings and video) had a power that left me speechless and converted me once and for all to the confessional in art. That year's prize winner of course was not Emin but Steve McQueen, for Deadpan, a looped video based on a Buster Keaton sketch. McQueen has since become a celebrated film director (Shame). His use of repetition in Deadpan has had me in its thrall ever since I saw it.

2. Monet at the Royal Academy, 1999. The exhibition that had queues stretching half way across London and a gallery staying open 24 hours a day.

3. Pharmacy. Damien Hirst's 1992 exhibition was the first time I was exposed in person to conceptual art.

4. Rachel Whiteread. House. 1993 was the year I first followed the Turner Prize, and fully explored Young British Art, opening up the world of Gillian Wearing, teh Chapmans, Sarah Lucas, the Wilson Twins and Tracey Emin.

5. Sensation. Still THE single most definitive moment in my artistic life, drawing me to it like a fly to the lamp. The mix of chutzpah, irreverence and that is it all on the surface or is it deeper or are we pretending it's deep or are we pretending it's shallow that still wraps me up in knots and makes me want to go and do likewise for literature.

 Skunk Anansie - Secretly. No one does pain and loss like Skin from Skunk Anansie, and few things occupy my writing like pain and loss
Radiohead - Planet Telex. Not the most important Radiohead song (Creep), or my favourite (changes every day), or even my favourite from their seminal album The Bends (Fake Plastic Trees), but like many others, when I put The Bends in the machine and pressed play, this was the song that introduced me to the band and created one of those true "things are never the same again" moments
REM- Ebow the Letter. The 90s was all about unique whiney voices - Brett Anderson, Thom Yorke, but Michael Stipe was top of the pile. And this was also the song that introduced me to Patti Smith.
Suede - Saturday Night - talking of Brett Anderson. If Radiohead are about inner angst, REM about inner political malcontent, and Nirvana about anger, Suede personify the fragility of beauty, which is the single most important theme in my writing. This song is pretty much the final word on the subject.

Garbage - You Look So Fine. And Garbage stand for pure sentimental manipulation, but of the very best kind

1. La Haine. Nearly two decades later, this remains the most searing social drama ever made. Brutal, brilliant, famous for its stunning set pieces - the swoop across Paris' Projects while Fuck the Police blares over the radio, and the bullet in the final shot - this is, at its heart, a deeply humane film that brings universal themes down to the intimate level of three rather hopeless lives in a forgotten part of France, and that use of the zoom of teh specific is something I have tried to capture ever since.

2. The Double Life of Veronique. It is hard to pick a favourite film by Polish master Krzystof Kieslowski, whose Dekalog was the most important piece of TV/cinema of the 80s. His later Three Colours trilogy is raw, exquisite, and emotionally deeply satisfying, but this piece of heart-stopping magical realism is his tour de force. As well as being the metaphor for post-communist Europe, it is, at its centre, an exploration of the attempt of the human spirit to soar above the prison of its surroundings, and ultimately fail in that attempt but to be more beautiful for having tried.

3. The Craft. The film that marked the start of the smart, slcik, campus-bound postmodern horror genre, The Craft, with its pivotal line "we are the weirdos", is the film that made it cool to be an outsider.

4. Man Bites Dog. Released almost at the same time as Reservoir Dogs (I saw them as a double bill at the seedy Penultimate Picture Palace) but to none of teh hype and acclaim, this is far the better of the two films. Following a TV documentary crew as they spend a month filming a serial killer at work, and anticipating many of the TV-centric themes of the really rather lame but much-lauded Wag the Dog it remains the seminal and most damning film on the complicit of the viewer in media excess. Deeply uncomfortable not so much for its stomach-churning content as the fact that it points the lens directly at us in a way the Leveson enquiry never will. It was the direct influence on the 1st person plural passages in my novel Tha Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes.

5. Se7en. Changed the way film and TV credits were done forever and introduced the disturbing industrial feel of Nine Inch Nails and Aphex Twin into mainstream culture.


1. Possession, A S Byatt. Yes, that's right! The only Booker Prize winner I've ever got to grips with,and one that left me with a deep love of intertwining storylines, feminist theory, and nostalgia.

2. Immortality, Milan Kundera. Having devoured, as everyone my age did, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I'll never forget the sense of excitement about the launch of Immortality - the first time I was waiting outside a bookstore (the then Dillons on Broad Street in Oxford) the morning a book was published. At the time I was deeply disappointed by the book. Looking back, it's the best Western book of the decade.

3. NP, Banana Yoshimoto. The perfect book. Heartbreaking, terse, still, beautiful. Deeply unsettling.

4. Hannibal, Thomas Harris. Lecter is an endlessly fascinating character. The blend of the revolting and the highest culture, the intelligent and the primal, strikes at something deep inside us. It was also the book that introduced me to the cemetery of Recoleta.

5. The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama. This book bestrides the 90s. Controversial, quixotic, celebrity-driven pop politics, it continues to cast its shadow.

1. Friends. Let's get it out of the way. I too was addicted to Friends, Frasier, Ally McBeal and Sex and the City. Smart American sitcoms brought sharop writing and cultural referencing to the fore of TV, and with it put TV in the cultural spotlight.

2. Cracker. The best thing on TV. Ever. Introduced me to Jimmy McGovern, the UK's greatest living writer.

3. The White Room. The best music show there's ever been.

4. Eurotrash. The 90s brought pop culture and kitsch to the fore. The Word and The Girlie Show may have been at the extreme and have given us the Lad and Ladette, but it was Eurotrash that introduced the UK to what, actually, was a vast, dazzling array of really rather important culture.

5. The Death of Yugoslavia. It's the subject I come back to again and again. And this is the definitive account of what happened, a genuinely groundbreaking documentary that features remarkable interview footage with all the major figures.

1. The collapse of Yugoslavia. The 80s ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and much of the 90s was an unfolding of that moment, but it was the implosion and cannibalisation of Yugoslavia that I come back to again and again. And the tragedy, years after Bosnia, of Kosovo that still stains the whole of the Western world's conscience.

2. Desert Storm
I may have followed the Falklands War on the news every night, but Desert Storm was the first time that war was truly televised. 24 hours a day. a hypnotic spectacle that implicated the viewer as much as its introduction to the world of "smart weapons" condemned the participants.

3. The death of Kurt Cobain. Each deacde has one defining musical death, it seems. In the 80s it was John Lennon, in our own decade it was Amy, and in the 90s it was Kurt Cobain. It turned him from rock god to Che-like icon. And made his diaries one of the most important books of the decade.

4. Sensation. So influential I'm listing it again.

5. New Labour. Think what you will, for those of my generation (and others) who stayed "up for Portillo" May 1st/2nd 1997 was a collective moment of release, albeit one overshadowedin retrospect by 1997's other "where were you?" moment, the death of Diana, arguably the most important "moment" of the 1990s.

So, what were the events that made you?


  1. Hi Dan - Respect for most of yours (with the exception of Friends (which I'll put down as a typo)... I was going to start with the Sex Pistols at Reading Art College May Ball, 1976 but then I thought, the start of 21st century was not so bad. So here are mine:

    Sparklehorse, UCL, 2002
    Magic Band (without the Captain), Shepherds Bush Empire Empire, 2003
    Groupe F (Firework performance), Victoria Park, 2004
    Johnny Vegas, Union Chapel 2004
    Shunt Theatre - Amato Saltone/Tropicana, Shunt Vaults, 2006
    Punchdrunk/Adam Curtis - It Felt Like A Kiss, Manchester 2009
    The Wire - TV - 2002-2008

  2. Is that Adam Curtis the documentary maker? I absolutely love the things he does

  3. Yes, Adam Curtis did this amazing collaborative work with Punchdrunk. I was very lucky to get to see it.

    I'm a huge Curtis fan - Century of Self/Power of Nightmares and all the rest are major works.

    He was also very nice about our new film http://www.miragemen.com/synopsis.html and said he woud give us whatever help he could so I like him even more now.

  4. Wow, that's marvellous. And yes, I first discovered him through Century of the Self. Thought the recent All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. He has a wonderful style that's engaging, original and incredibly sharp I wish we'd see more of in documentaries

  5. And the 2010 generation? iGen?


    Be sure to watch to the end.


  6. Oh, the sixties ... what I can remember of them. (They say that, when we are old, it is the music of our youth that we will bop to, clutching our zimmer frames. So, 'hey, hey, you, you, get off of my cloud ...')

  7. Sadly, I can remember all of the 90s. I don't think I really did wild :)