Jumping up and down
Most unexpectedly, Saturday Night Fever arrived in Taunton last week. Goodness knows what the Senior Citizens were supposed to make of the film which has taken America by storm, but I was warned to turn up at theibeginning of the whole programme if I wanted a seat. Unfortunately, when the bogus mid-Atlantic accent of the Seychelles tourist 139 movie gave way to the genuine Brooklyn accents of John Travolta I found myself unable to understand a word of what was happening. To judge from their anguished adjustments to various deaf aid systems, my companions had the same difficulty.
What little I did understand struck me as almost entirely meretricious. Travolta and his upwardly-mobile girl friend (whose name I did not catch) looked far too cute to represent the frustrated juvenile working class of any country. The film was designed for middle-class voyeurs. There may be a little vicarious excitement to be derived from contemplating these working-class youths who, stuck with a boring, ghastly job as befits their intelligence, aptitude, ambition and readiness to exert themselves, manage to let off steam by dancing on Saturday nights. Perhaps a few middle-class fans can take a little of the working classes' pleasure from these activities to add to their enormous battery of existing pleasures, and without experiencing any of the discomfort or frustration which give rise to the original Saturday night fever. I do not know. But the chief satisfaction which a middle-class audience seeks from it is surely the same as clients may seek from a massage parlour — to be soothed. Cute little John Travolta is perfectly happy, is he not?, with his ridiculous job, unpleasant environment and ludicrous recreation. Let us lie back and admire the robust vitality and honesty of the working-class culture, untroubled by such moral confusions as people the bourgeois mind. We'may even feel the additional thrill of compassion, that great show business mainstay which supports diversions as far apart as the Thalidomide Bonanza movement and the Spanish bull-fighting industry.
I am the last person to sneer at those who seek comfort in massage parlours, but my objection to this sociological massage is that the relief it affords is illusory. Real-life Travoltas are not cute and they are not content with their lot. With the advance of technology, those of them who are still employed will be in a position to demand that the world readjust itself to their liking. Those who are unemployed will be left on a scrap-heap whose worst features will be determined by their own intellectual, moral, cultural and educational limitations.
Which is why it seems to me that while Travolta is a phony show-biz projection, the English punks may have had something genuine to say. For all I know they may still be saying it, but it is in the nature of human society that nobody can go on saying the same thing for long. In either case, it does not discredit what they said or how they said it. Both contain an enduring truth about the human condition which transcends any momentary self-awareness among the lower working class.
In fact I have never seen a real-life punk, even on television, and have never been a particularly close student of the phenomenon, largely through a class antipathy which punks would undoubtedly reciprocate in no uncertain terms. Although a few middleclass trendies, drop-outs and other inadequates tried to latch on, it was noticeable how the genuine punks went out of their way to make themselves too disgusting for the dilettante, weekend or Travoltaist groupie to follow. They remained essentially and exclusively working-class although few, if any, of them worked. There were no thrills of compassion to be derived from watching them and very little reassurance, except of a rather disreputable kind. But a book to be published next week, In the Gutter (Quartet Books L1.95), describes their behaviour and .attitudes very well. It is written by a handsome if elderly (by punk standards) and inescapably middle-class journalist called Val Hennessy.
She traces the punk idea to the satirical invention of Private Eye's visionary show business correspondent, Ms Maureen Cleavage. In 1964 — twelve years before anyone applied the word 'punk' to music — the clairvoyante Ms Cleavage introduced the Turds: The Turds are something new. Irreverent, greedy, short and acned, there is a trendy look about them that sets a '60s pace, as up-to-date as next year's Courreges Underwear. . . The leader of the group, Spiggy Topes, explained: "Actually we don't have a leader. In our eyes, all Turds are equal". The Turds like everyone else in the world are classless and horrible .
This might form the prospectus of one of the better known Punk Groups today: Sex Pistols, Throbbing Gristle, Erect Nipples, Dirty Macs, Stinky Toys. The interesting thing is that the Turds, in 1964, were largely modelled on the Beatles and reveal how punk elements were discernible even in the early stages of the great proletarian musical culture. But where the major theme in 1964 was proletarian triumphalism, it is now proletarian defiance.
'Life stinks, I'm not talking about Devon
or the Isle of Wight, I'm talking about concrete jungle-land, council estates.' 'Our estates where we live are terrible. I tell yer, the Prime Minister came round our flats at Rotherhithe and all the old girls 05 out polishing their door-knockers and Nov' ing union jacks and making out they Os, happy . . . I want to be able to say when I was young NO ONE told me what to do.'
The interesting thing about Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten, Victor Vomit and the rest of them is that they would probably agree , with my thesis that one reason —not the 00 reason but possibly the main one — whY these council estates are so terrible Is because such horrible people inhabit the; 'We're ugly,' We're horrible,' We're
they cry, and their desolation is coin' pounded when former proletarian heroes" the Beatles, the Rolling Stones — belle them:
'This is what it was like, right? If Y011 wanted to see the Who, or Bowie, or Dylan you had to queue for days to get a ticke!. You'd go to the Isle of Wight and there s mud everywhere and no bogs and people pissing all over your sleeping bag and everyone's starving hungry and getting ripped off 50p for a hard-boiled egg • •,' Then, afterwards, the Stars zapp off in their Rolls-Royce with all their beautiful trendY pals while we have to hitch home. And it's us who've paid big money for the tickets and made them the rich, untouchable bastards they've become.' 'Can you see Princess Margaret shaking hands with Johnny Rotten?' asks one fan admiringly. 'Can you see ANYONE shaking hands with Johnny Rotten?' At times in Mrs Hennessy's admirable book one sees touches of a genuine philosophical nihilism, as when the magazine Sniffing Glue urges its readers to stop reading it — 'no, I'm not mucking about, I'm being honest and it hurts'. At others, one sees nothing more than cretinous On' `Sex? We ain't against it but we don't know what all the fuss is about, you've done it all between the ages of twelve and twenIY. What is it when you work it out, a innell dribble . . . ' At others, again, a touch °. pathos shines through the brittle defiance; `All punks are working-class and proud °' it, except we're not working any 083re' seeing as how there's no jobs and the ones we're offered are a load of shit.' When John Travolta ,dances his nimble feet tread the most elaborate measures' When the punk bands play, the fans pog°' This pogo is the punk dance. 'They leal3“,t1Pri and down yo-yo like, sweat pouring d°"',1 their faces, herded together and crushe! against the stage.' No doubt they give off very ancient and fish-like smell on die, se occasions. Perhaps the whole of Christian and liberal humanist philosophy Was elaborate curtain to give these Calibnil self-respect and prevent them from lookul in a mirror. Now the curtain has bee"ci removed, they might as well jump up an down.