• Stephen Balogh

19 in '85


For teenage inhabitants of the Beatles era it may have been Number 9 (Number 9, Number 9 ...) but for those in the mid-1980s it was definitely 19 (n-n-n-n-nineteen).

With my older boy about to reach that age himself, I am reliving my own rite of passage from school to whatever was beyond. Through the doubtless rose-tinted time telescope it felt for me and close friends in my cohort generally quite a carefree summer of ’85. Though I didn’t live in the vicinity, I’d ended up attending secondary school in St. Albans in Hertfordshire and so the summer period in between A level exams and results was largely based at the pubs in the town, especially the Garibaldi and its bar billiards table, although occasionally flipping over to another venue, I forget which, that featured school-based band The CD People. (I still have their single Albion and a cassette tape somewhere.)

Against the backdrop of fiercely fought bar billiards contests as the tick-ticking stopped each round and the bar came down, enduring post-school friendships were wrought and it is one of that group in in particular who helped meld us during those primordial pre-internet times, long before the onset of social media, into a bunch that still meets up three and a half decades later.

As the baby of the group I still had almost a year to go before hitting the age of 19, though 18 was already scary enough. But the one-year uptick came to hold something of a mystical significance because it was the title of a catchy pop song by Paul Hardcastle that topped the charts in May and June and lingered the entire summer. It set sampled narration to a background disco beat and its premise was the statistic, as the lyrics themselves reveal, that the average age of a US combat soldier in the Vietnam War was 19. (That this number has since been disputed is entirely moot – it wouldn’t have sounded the same as tw-tw-tw-tw-twenty.)

I don’t really recall in-depth discussions about it with my friends – there were far more important things to discuss, I am sure – but I do remember being deeply affected by the inference that under certain circumstances *that could be me*. I did the mental arithmetic to establish after how many years I might be judged too old for active service and it seemed eons away in the twenty-first century.

But, in my naïvety, I do remember rationalising it somewhat as a good alternative to a nuclear war scenario in which battle troops would be pretty much redundant. Not 12 months earlier there had been a TV drama “Threads” that envisaged the consequences of a nuclear attack on Britain (the immortal script line “They’ve dropped a nuclear bomb on Crewe” was delivered with an entirely straight face). This programme was one of many of its time and merely reflecting a general jumpiness between the West and Warsaw Pact countries at the time. I can’t quite believe I used such ropey logic, but my thinking was this: if I’m called up for active service it must be that they are not expecting nuclear war because they wouldn’t send youngsters off to act as nuclear cannon fodder, would they? Such innocence.

Mind you, at least we also had Not The Nine O’Clock News, Depeche Mode and The Smiths to cheer us all up.

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