How very Eighties

With his eye for detail and smooth turn of phrase Peter York, social voyeur, could have come out of the commentary box and become a player. Instead he decided to make lots of money...
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Peter York is the Delia Smith of cultural studies. Under his real name of Peter Wallis, at his management consultancy company SRU, he prepares great banquets of data and research for trend-hungry corporate clients. This, you could say, is the silver-service side of his operation. As Peter York, the former style editor of Harpers & Queen and best-selling author of The Sloane Ranger's Handbook, Style Wars and Modern Times, he whisks up clever dishes of Zeitgeist analysis and pop-culture assessment, pleasing epicurean palates with his deft decodings of urban type and their vanities.

Like Delia Smith, Peter York is a professional with the popular touch, articulating the grand and the complex in a language that we can all understand and try out at home on our friends. And, like Smith, York has a major new book and television series to his name: Peter York's Eighties - the Winter Collection of the negative equity set.

More than any other British writer, York was responsible for inventing what became known in the early Eighties as "style journalism". As defined in his essays for Harpers & Queen, York's new school of journalism was a mock-heroic exercise in understanding society by reading its surface - a brilliant cat's cradle of conceits and counter-conceits in which seemingly petty details were the clues to entire social shifts and witty tag-lines became anthropological equations. All those "Carolines" and "neurotic boy outsiders" (to use a couple of York's terms) could be held in the aspic of pop structuralism and studied at our leisure, either as aspirational types or pitiable examples of chronic self-delusion. York - a master of his art - was always extremely careful not to taint the game with moral judgements or political opinions: he left us to work it out for ourselves. Now in his late forties, Peter York appears to have grown into his ambiguously magisterial position.

"I cling to the basic set of tenets laid out in Tom Wolfe's New Journalism - to get out there like the great French novelists of the 19th century and study life. I am a Tom Wolfe fan of the first order. When you get inside a literary novel you feel that the author, more often than not, just doesn't know enough about things. They haven't been around enough - novelists never go anywhere. Once I discovered true books about real things - books like How To Run a Company - I stopped reading novels. I loved the idea of Money by Martin Amis because it had such a wonderful title. I assumed that it must be about money, and what money does to people's lives. But then I read the book and it wasn't about money at all! And I thought, 'What a bloody con! This person doesn't understand money; the whole thing is a complete... shower.' "

With his gloriously plummy accent (Sebastian Flyte meets Terry Thomas) and his immaculate City suits, Peter York took his essays on style to the TV screen in a series called Hey Good Looking!, in which he appeared to play Mephistopheles to a generation of Fausts who were determined to make a contract with Style. Later on, in a mid-Eighties folly of a television drama entitled Lygmalion, this Mephistophelean role was intensified when York played himself, explaining to Sting (from a High Place not a kiwi fruit's throw from the Institute of Contemporary Art) the plate tectonics of metropolitan society and the perilous topography of the capital's road to glamour. It was a Bildungsroman for Thatcher's first children - a Pilgrim's Progress for redundant New Romantics. York, you could say, is a Dickens who has never written a novel and an Andy Warhol who has never picked up a paintbrush, the embodied conclusion of Oscar Wilde's pronouncement that "all art is quite useless". Why bother to make art when real life can be so absorbing? Far better, surely, to make money. And Peter York has made loads of money.

With the instinct for realism that relates him to the novelists of the 19th century, and the penchant for nouveau Bohemia and millionaires that links him to Warhol, York should have done something fairly significant in the arts. The fact that he hasn't, but has taken an artist's psychology and applied it to management consultancy, makes him a fairly easy target for cynics and detractors. But he is sure, not to say proud, of his elusive identity. The labeller, after all, should not be labelled. "In 1987," he says, "I did the South Bank Lecture - 'Punk and Pageant'. I thought that was quite extraordinary. You know, up until then they'd had real intellectuals and then they had me - which was rather curious. I think the year before they'd had George Steiner; what came over them I'll never know. With regards to being an intellectual, that's me out now. Because I find myself starting a lot of books and never finishing them. I used to read a lot of books. Now, I mean, I just get things... For instance, my way of dealing with the entire Brat Pack oeuvres was, as they emerged - Brett [Easton Ellis], Tama [Janowitz], Jay [McInerny] - to go out, buy them, put them in a box and think that I'd dealt with the problem. Did I really read them? No, not really. Somebody sent me a copy of American Psycho and I thought, 'What's wrong with this person? I don't want to read it; I know it's a disgusting book.' I was deeply shocked. I'm Sir Herbert Gusset about things like that - 'Disgusting book? Well, if it's a disgusting book I won't read it!' What is your attitude, incidentally, to gangsta rap music? What is your feeling on the matter?"

This is a typical Yorkian speech: the slightly bullish tones of a man impersonating a Daily Telegraph reader give way to the italicised exclamations of a man impersonating an off-duty equerry; then, just when you think you've got the measure of the character, a question about the most subversive developments in black street culture comes winging in to catch you off your guard. It is a technique that York has honed in his writing and broadcasting to wed Dandyism to demographics and got away with it.

"I think that most cultural studies people are most likely to want to be some latter-day Dick Hebdige, because he's a standard text on their... things. I am not a standard text on their things, which is rather annoying because you get a lot of money if you're a standard text. There's so many cult studies courses nowadays, you see.

"But I'm certainly not a person who spends their every waking moment soaking themselves in signs and signals of the sort that cult studies people study; and it's partly, I suppose, because some of those signs and signals aren't worth bothering about. You have to be selective about these things. This may sound insulting to some of my cult studies friends, but there's a lot of cult studies people who ignore, shall we say, the wider canvas - because they simply don't know about its existence or they don't know how it operates... "

And there's the rub - or one of the rubs, at least. York is the King of the Style Watchers almost despite himself. It's as though he knows the essential uselessness of that particular art unless its soft white bands are dirtied in the name of big business. Which brings us to SRU, the company that York founded in 1973, when his sort of thinking just wasn't being done. After all, it was one thing entertaining the readers of Harpers & Queen with what Ezra Pound had defined in 1920 as "the age demanded an image of its accelerated grimace", and quite another being 10 years into your own company and being paid huge fees to tell the age why its grimace was accelerating. No mere poet of the pundits, Peter York could entertain the youngsters while playing big business with the grown- ups - but he was telling them both the same things.

"After doing bad A-levels at a progressive school in Hampstead, I wandered around a bit and sold things in the Portobello Road. Dealership appealed to me but I didn't know how to do it. Then I did a little stint trying as an advertising trainee; this was in the late Sixties and advertising seemed insanely glamorous. It was a completely new art and a rather un- English thing to do, and I thought it was absolutely wonderful.

"But through that, I met a man called Conrad Jameson who was kind enough to employ me. He was really very interesting and he taught me most of what I know, I think. I've been thinking about this recently: he was a kind of proto-Peter York. He did strategic research, but his real love - and he got on telly about it - was architecture. He also wrote for the Sunday Times on architecture, and he was an altogether inspirational employer. I worked for him from 1969 through to when we founded SRU in 1973, and he taught me lots."

At SRU, the Peter Wallis side of Peter York is applying the serious (grown- up) findings of his spectrographic ability to read the blips and squeaks in the Zeitgeist to research for companies who want to understand more about their markets. And, to judge from his elegant and well-appointed office, he's clearly very good at it. It is this aspect of his work, one suspects, that has positioned him so well to have a theory about the Eighties. "Most of our work here is concerned with 'the Big Picture' - What To Do. This makes it sound as though I'm down on the lovely marketing profession, which I'm not. But they're in the business of making things happen, and we're in the business of strategising the things that they make happen. So typical problems will be in the order of: should we be in Europe? If so, in what way? How do we pin together a business made out of separate acquisitions to make it a coherent whole? And so on. Quite a lot of it is based on our own bit of fancy language - a concept that we call the 'Human Agenda', which is all to do with understanding the set of relationships that make a company work."

York's professional concept of the Human Agenda could be seen to be the basis of his new television series and book about the Eighties. Peter York's Eighties, appearing in a massive phase of national denial of that most complex and febrile of decades, is a hugely risky undertaking. After all, we are still looking for someone to blame for the Eighties and, having tried to pin it all on Duran Duran, we might set our sights on Peter York. The series is divided into six alliteratively titled sections: Pioneers, Property, Pushers, Paradise, Plutocrats and Post. York, often filmed in the style of a pop video, gives his theory of the last decade while interviewing a selection of Tory intellectuals who skulk in anonymous rooms like war criminals and former advertising and Soho types who look rather lost - like so many Bryan Ferrys with the batteries taken out.

"In the series, when we look at the profit and loss account of the Eighties, we come to the conclusion that the economic agenda would almost have to have been done by almost any government of any colour that wished to survive. In other words, if the Labour Party had been in office, it would have had to have invented Tony Blair and his agenda. But what they left out of count was the cultural agenda; there was this fascinating combination of a radical economic agenda with an amazingly conservative social agenda. The radical economic agenda worked and the conservative social agenda simply didn't. They were tearing in absolutely opposite directions.

"So to say, on the one hand, that we want 'the market will decide', and on the other 'warm beer and village greens', is completely impossible. And they didn't recognise the impossibility of those things; the poverty of the imagination was that it didn't begin to grapple with the social consequences of the agenda or plan in any way for them. So now, in the Nineties, the basic economic job is done but the social and cultural job is crying out to be done. But don't go away with the idea that this is the Newsnight Annual..."

But the series does make fascinating viewing, whether you love or loathe its subject, and it does raise an interesting conundrum of moral and social perception. Also, it is forced to tackle the question of social responsibility in relation to "style journalism" and the somewhat soulless practice of ironic mediation.

"What the series is designed to do is to get to grips with people's complicated feelings about the Eighties. And the more clever and complicated the people, I found, the more complicated their feelings. The contrast between people bad-mouthing the Eighties, for whatever reason, and the oral history that said 'this was great', led me to think that somehow this had to be resolved - this is one of those absurd contradictions. People would ring me up at the beginning of the Nineties and say, 'It's the Nineties. Can you perceive a trend?' And my answer was, 'You may say it's the Nineties, but all I can see is a lack of Eighties-ness - a massive set of defaults. And that's what provoked me to want to explore those sets of Eighties' feelings."

In some ways, Peter York's Eighties takes his concept of the Human Agenda, as conceived at SRU, and employs it to make a 19th-century novel out of the decade that was, after all, "the best of times and the worst of times". Even the term "Human Agenda", calls up the Flaubertian "Human Condition" and the Balzacian "Human Comedy". And yet there is something not quite right about all of this. There is almost a sense that Peter York is comprised of two performance artists, York and Wallis, who can slip in and out of one another's characters to suggest a third, invisible persona - a Peter X. Peter X can wear either the mask of the sober business man or the mask of the dandyish style guru; Peter X, whether behind his desk at SRU or in front of the cameras at the BBC, can sub-contract aspects of his personae to an army of researchers and assistants, applying Warhol's Factory technique to the maintenance of his compelling and lucrative identity; Peter X, as Wallis and York, can play the audiences for his two roles off against one another. Peter X, I suspect, is at heart a punk, making cash out of chaos by mixing subversion with comedy.

When I explain this theory to Peter York, he bursts out in a glorious and endearing shout of laughter. "Don't tell anyone," he murmurs. "Subversion, like creativity, is not a word to use in mixed company."

'Peter York's Eighties' starts on Saturday 6 Jan, BBC2; published by BBC Books 11 Jan, pounds 12.99