Tortured innocence: The year was 1984

We emigrated to Perth, Western Australia, in July, 1983. We left the UK, four of us (mum, dad, brother and me), plus my uncle, who was tagging along for an extended holiday, on Bastille Day, July 14, and flew over Paris as the city exploded in colour and smoke, like a pyrotechnic hydrangea bush.

It was a Qantas flight, and on the Qantas Top 40 playlist for the month of July in 1983 was Dire Straits’ Telegraph Road, which, throughout the 24-hour flight across half the globe, I listened to dozens of times. It was my very own soundtrack to my very own sad and bewilderingly hopeful journey.

I owned many records at the age of 15. They had been packed in a tea chest back in our home in the coalmining town of Golborne near Manchester in the north of England. The tea chest, along with a mere fraction of the things we had been able to afford to ship across to the new world, wouldn’t join us in Perth for months after our arrival. So I was denied my music at a time I needed it most, and in a way that left me more bereft and isolated than I had ever felt before. Music was a massive part of my identity. My record collection defined me as much as anything else did, perhaps too much so, since my conservative, fundamentalist religious upbringing had restricted many of the ways other kids my age were expressing who they were. I was turning 16 in four months. I was innocent, but innocent in a land where innocence is mocked. I’d been popular, once, now had no friends. Not even acquaintances. 

I needed my records to remind myself who I was, but they weren’t there.

I was enrolled in a private boys school south of the Swan River. We lived north of the river, where thousands of expatriate Poms before us had settled, including my two aunties and a grandma. To get to school I had to take three buses. The divide between north and south in Perth is vast, not just geographically, but culturally, and economically. I didn’t belong to the south, I discovered quickly. I knew it the moment I realised they were listening to music I had never heard. The Cure. Joy Division. Bands I should have known, but didn’t. Much of the music they followed was British, but it was also alternative. Listening to Pink Floyd and Queen in the context of my church community was bad enough—listening to The Cure would have been tantamount to denial of the living Christ.

I took a part-time job as a storeman in the company for which my mum was a bookkeeper. It was simple work, and terrible. Terribly boring and terribly hot. The boss was a Rumpelstiltskin fellow, suspicious and irritable, with quick movements and narrow eyes and too many stories, about women, and drink, and more women. And a daughter who came in from time to time. He was obsessed with one particular radio station, 6IX, which played Australian commercial hits of the 80s on (extremely) high rotation. 

Original Sin, by INXS. A dozen or more times a day.

Come Said the Boy, by Mondo Rock. Over and over again. 

Heaven (Must Be There) by the Eurogliders, a Perth band. 

Other Australian classics, like Restless, by Australian Crawl. 

And, of course, the international commercial hits of that year.

Bruce Springsteen, Dancing in the Dark; Stevie Wonder, I Just Called to Say I loved You; Kenny Loggins, Footloose; Cyndi Lauper, Girls Just Want to Have Fun; Prince, When Doves Cry; Pat Benatar, Love Is a Battlefield.

It was torture.

These songs haunted my nights as well as my days. I watched Rage every weekend to keep up with the music videos of the day, but all I saw were these same songs, in the same order in the chart, week after week after week. I had grown up on a weekly diet of Radio 1, whose charts changed more dramatically than the British weather, such was the energy of the UK music scene. Not in Perth, where the heat was so bad not even the singles chart moved if it didn’t need to.

I hated that time. Nothing made me feel more homesick than those songs, in the presence of that man, working in the backroom of that warehouse.

And yet … it’s the time I think about from my early years more than any other, the period pre-marriage and family that I most “miss”. When I hear those songs these days, I’m torn back to a time I now think of fondly—not with the bitterness that I know I felt at the time.

What’s changed?

I don’t know. But something about those songs evokes new horizons for me. Whatever else was going on in those days, the cultural canvas was blank, the outback landscape was vast, the options for exploration were pretty limitless. And I wonder if that’s what I miss, and why I hear those songs with more sentimentality than I would have expected. When I heard them in 1983/84, I didn’t yet know how life would turn out. I didn’t yet know why life had been what it was. 

I didn’t yet know very much at all.

If Telegraph Road was the soundtrack of my migration, those songs were the soundtrack of the very innocence that I had brought with me to that new frontier, an innocence that I experienced with bitterness in the moment, but which in reflection I recall with heartache and loss.