How large was my wad

CULTURES OF CONSUMPTION by Frank Mort, Routledge pounds 11.99
Click to follow
In Tom Wolfe's wonderful "Me Generation" essay he noted the process whereby simply being a woman - a member of a "group" that made up something over half of the US population - became a heroic endeavour whose management was an occupation in itself rather than a fact of biological destiny.

It's only fair that men should have a go at this delicious self-consciousness, and "masculinities" has proved a good place to start. Television has been awash with this kind of men's stuff recently, from traditional male cultures to genital self-examination, following the Seventies women's pattern faithfully.

Mr Mort's book is not exactly in the mainstream of this flurry, however. Despite its smart Eighties matt- silver cover design with images from Next for Men and The Face, this is inescapably an academic text written in a language so particular that it should carry a warning for lay readers who don't know their way around the world of Cultural Studies. Certain words are crucial in this world - "discourse" is the one that sets the tone in practically every paragraph - and Mr Mort favours "aetiology" and "gendered privilege".

The preferences to Veblen and Foucault in the introduction make it clear where Cultures of Consumption is coming from: "Masculinities and Social Space in Late 20th-Century Britain", as the subtitle spells out. This language makes it harder going than it needs to be (though commercially it probably makes good sense, given the hordes of students engaged in Media and Gender Studies), but despite that Mr Mort has a strong theme going - the relationship between commerce, "creativity" and personal identity - and an interesting context: the cultural history of the Eighties and its short-lived boom.

At the heart is the notion that a set of new masculine identities came on offer in the Eighties marketplace through a variety of new and enterprising kinds of commerce; consumption meant more than just buying things, it meant a blessed sacrament based on ideas from the Style Press - The Face, Blitz and iD.

The big theme - the mutability of man - allows Mr Mort to explore a number of glamorous things that clearly engage him hugely. He goes Up West bravely from Hampshire (he is Reader in Cultural History at the University of Portsmouth) to pick over the history of the style press and the Eighties style elite, the arrival of the Eighties creative advertising agencies and the sharp end of the men's clothing business from Carnaby Street on. This in turn means spending a lot of time in Soho, thinking through the archaeology of its Bohemias.

Mr Mort has gathered a lot of material about the development of The Face, watched the careers of Julie Burchill, Robert Elms and Neville Brody with close attention and given them their due. Sometimes he's watched them rather too closely and the text becomes over-referenced, over-noted, the quotes become credulous and it slows the narrative (the Cult Studs' term for story). Sometimes I think I catch a touch of provincial academic naivety. Sometimes I sense - how exactly should one say this? - that Mr Mort wasn't himself propping up the Groucho bar in 1987, wasn't a Wag- Hag in 1983, though he might well have been up there on a visit.

But the central theme - that young men's ideas of how to be a man changed massively in the Eighties - is undeniable. My own view is that the Money Culture of the City was the key factor, creating a new definition of manhood built around competitive commercial success and big money. You could be rated by the size of your wad. A whole set of preoccupations formerly considered rather pouffy in England - sharp dressing, good grooming, connoisseurship - became the visible signs of that success.

But then we come to Mr Mort's sub-text (all Cultural Studies books have sub-texts) namely that the New Gay Lad of the Eighties was a central figure in all this change, and that when men's self-definitions were up for grabs, so too was sexuality. I don't really buy this; the new dominant City definition simply made sexuality less relevant and gave gay men some space to get on with it. Another factor was respect for the power of the Pink Pound and the new Queer Street retailing. Gays seemed to be just another part of the pluralist mission to get and spend, rather than the prototype for a new kind of man.

The cultural history of commerce is worthy of serious books, and the story of, say Next for Men, warrants a higher consciousness than George Davis's autobiography. I can't really mock Mr Mort; of course, I think his themes matter - many of them are my themes too - but I think he's got it all just that little bit cock-eyed.