Mad About the Lad

Alwyn Turner | September 28, 2013

As the nation awaits the return of nineties’ heroine Bridget Jones next month, Alwyn Turner, author of A Classless Society, takes a look at the writing that defined the decade…

Alwyn W Turner at the Millennium Dome

I’ve spent the last couple of years immersing myself in the 1990s, as part of the process of writing a history of the era, A Classless Society. Some of that experience was grim: being reminded of the recession at the start of the decade, complete with negative equity, interest rates at 14 per cent and inflation at 10 per cent. Some of it was depressing: being disillusioned all over again by Tony Blair’s failure to deliver on his promise. But much of it was really rather enjoyable: the early years of Britpop and Cool Britannia stand up remarkably well.

And then there was the popular fiction of the time. The terms “chick-lit” and “lad-lit” may have been uneasy coinages, and the books produced not always of the highest quality, but re-reading the novels of Helen Fielding and Nick Hornby, the founders of those genres, was a surprisingly pleasurable experience. It also whetted my appetite for the imminent arrival of the third volume in Fielding’s saga of Bridget Jones.

The new book, 
Mad About the Boy (October 2013), is an intriguing proposition. The first two novels, published in 1996 and 1999, are said to have sold somewhere around 15 million copies, aided by the very successful films starring Renée Zellweger. Fourteen years on from the last volume, nine years from the last movie, and seven years from the last newspaper column, there will be much interest in how Bridget is coping with the new Britain.

I say that the pleasure of revisiting Hornby and Fielding was surprising only because the novels seemed in my memory to be so firmly rooted in their era. And indeed they are. They remain funny, entertaining and insightful, but, despite their differing situations and concerns, Bridget and Rob Fleming – the narrator of Hornby’s 
High Fidelity (1995) – are very much a product of a specific generation.

Born in the early 1960s, they were part of the great demographic bulge in Britain that benefitted from the expanse of tertiary education and emerged from school and college into a country dominated by the figure of Margaret Thatcher. Inclined to the left, this was a generation that faced defeat after defeat in the 1980s. By the time we picked up their stories in the mid-1990s, the economy was in the early years of its long period of uninterrupted growth, but many felt left behind.


The lives of our fictional heroes, of course, are not overly concerned with politics, but there is an unmistakeable mood music playing in the background. Bridget is unsure of how she should view the public presence of the Union Jack, given her friends’ history of involvement in the Anti Nazi League, and she is deeply horrified when she discovers that her dream man, Mark Darcy, was a Conservative (“had never, ever in a million years suspected I might have been sleeping with a man who voted Tory”).

She does at least have a socially recognized job – this being the decade of 24-hour rolling news, Talk Radio and the “information superhighway”, Bridget works in the media. Rob Fleming, on the other hand, is coming to the painful realization that he’s made all the wrong decisions in his life. Unlike Bridget, he dropped out of college back in 1979, the year that Thatcher came to power, and has drifted away from the middle-class path that had been mapped out for him. Dissatisfied and disgruntled, he reflects on his apparent failure and concludes: “I want to go back to 1979 and start all over again.”

Will Freeman in Hornby’s second novel, 
About a Boy (1998), illustrates one of the other key themes of the generation: a fear of sincerity. Cynicism has become the new alternative. All that’s left of what had once been a thriving counter-culture, as far as he can see, is an increasingly irrelevant world of “music therapists and housing officers and health-food shops with noticeboards and aromatherapy oils and brightly coloured sweaters and difficult European novels and feelings.”

It was that sense of despair that Tony Blair promised to overcome. Bridget Jones is bowled over by “the first prime minister I can completely imagine having voluntary sex with”, while Labour’s landslide election victory in 1997 is greeted as “a great rising up of we, the nation”. The only thing that knocks a little of the gilt off the gingerbread is the fact that her Tory-voting mother is equally enthusiastic.

“A new dawn has broken, has it not?” proclaimed Blair in the heat of victory. He insisted he was “part of the rock and roll generation” and, for a moment, the real-life counterparts of Bridget and Rob were prepared to believe that, only a decade older than themselves, he represented a new era. The most revealing comment on election night in 1997, though, came from one of the prime minister’s young advisors. “I am sure we will all wake up in the morning and find that the Tories have won again,” said David Miliband.

It took a little while, but many in the generation chronicled by Fielding and Hornby came to the conclusion that Miliband had, inadvertently, been right. Within a year of Blair’s election, the NME was publishing disparaging comments from the likes of Jarvis CockerAlan McGee and Damon Albarn; dedicating its front cover to a picture of the new prime minister with the single-word headline: BETRAYED.

Those days of optimism and hope seem a long time ago now, and even the government of Gordon Brown is looking a little hazy. Bridget Jones herself was last heard of before the banking crisis of 2008 re-established the cycle of boom and bust. It’s hard not to feel a certain fascination about how she’ll find the new settlement.

Ten novels that capture the 90s

  1. The Vicar of SorrowsA.N. Wilson  (1993) – personal tragedy in a vicious but moving satire of the Church of England.

  2. The AnarchistTristan Hawkins (1996) – a frustrated suburban man decides to drop out of society in a Reggie Perrin for the 1990s.

  3. Hemingway’s ChairMichael Palin (1995) – a rumination on the possible privatisation of the Post Office, but more fun than that sounds.

  4. The Queen and ISue Townsend (1992) – a republican government comes to power and banishes the royal family to council accommodation.

  5. Bridget Jones’s DiaryHelen Fielding (1996) – the book that launched a thousand imitators, none of which matched up to the original.

  6. Whatever Love MeansDavid Baddiel (1999) – the spirit of 1980s cynicism runs up against the national mourning for Princess Diana.

  7. Camberwell BeautyJenny Eclair (2000) – every comedian seemed to want to write a novel, and this underrated debut was one of the very best.

  8. TherapyDavid Lodge (1995) – mid-life angst, popular television and Kierkegaardian theology collide in a crisis of confidence in modern society.

  9. East of WimbledonNigel Williams (1993) – a member of the lost generation of Thatcherism poses as a Muslim in order to find work.

  10. Jane and Her MasterStephen Rawlings (1996) – long before E.L. James, the 1990s saw the advent of high street erotica – an S&M rework of Jane Eyre.

Alwyn W. Turner, for