A Top of the Pops fixated childhood

Tom Wheeler makes a decent fist of trying to justify bubble gum pop and Cheesy Wotsits

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I’ve been listening to a lot of Belinda Carlisle lately. And that’s far from the worst of it. She’s turning out to be something of a gateway drug to alarming quantities of T’Pau, Def Leppard and no small amount of Billy Joel. None of this is new behaviour; in fact, like the music itself, it’s almost as old as I am. But admitting to it to anyone outside a small and scrupulously discreet group of like-minded contemporaries: now that’s definitely new.

These artists are the obsessions of my Top of the Pops-fixated childhood; the ones whose records I still have on vinyl, bought shortly before I moved on to cutting-edge cassette tape technology. And I’ve returned to them frequently but furtively ever since. But the furtiveness ends here. (Well, most of it anyway – there’s the odd bit of double denim-era Status Quo that I might still hesitate to discuss at mixed gatherings.)

There are a few reasons why I’m no longer feeling guilty about these particular pleasures. It’s partly to do with the ageing process and the generally downward trajectory of shit-giving it brings, as the realisation dawns that you’ve very little credibility left to protect, in any case you’ll be dead before you know it.

But more than that, it’s a product of the times (sorry, I meant These Unprecedented Times). Guilt and fear – or, as I’ve come to know it, pre-guilt – have been near-constant companions for two years now. So I’m sorry Belinda: I just don’t have any left for you.

And nor should I. It’s curious that we tend to ascribe the term “guilty pleasure” to the most innocent activities: enjoying cheesy snacks or cheesier music rather than, say, drowning hamsters or slashing ambulance tyres. Meanwhile, we find ourselves at the distinctly limited mercy of a pernicious virus and equally pernicious individuals whose combined concept of guilt would appear, to put it generously, not to be particularly advanced.

But for the rest of us – well, for me at least, but I suspect not just me – the fear/guilt cycle has been whirling away since the pandemic began. The fear of catching the virus, and the consequential fear of passing it on, lurked constantly until the moment they were seamlessly replaced by guilt when those things eventually took place. Every supermarket trip, bus journey or social interaction brought with it a faint but ever-present sense of grim jeopardy, which over time can’t help but take a toll.

And just as we were preparing to take a few fractionally less tentative steps back into the wider world, up stepped a real life Bond villain to remind us just how helpless we all are. As the terrifying situation in Ukraine unfolds, fear and guilt show again what natural bedfellows they are. Fears for the victims in the present, and for whatever might come next, sit cosily alongside a sense of guilt at doing anything that might pass for fun while all this horror is going on.

There was something of a trend, in the very early stages of the pandemic, of people popping up on social media to tell the world all about the terrific things everybody ought to be achieving in lockdown, as if the only thing that had prevented us from reaching nirvana already was the constant expectation of human interaction. “Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine, you know.”

Well, that would certainly explain why it’s such a hilarious knockabout comedy (who doesn’t love a good eyeball extraction, after all?). And yes, we might have known that all this talk was vacuous nonsense; but that didn’t necessarily stop a little of it seeping in.

Two years into Covid times, in a world steeped in crises of security, inequality, climate and mental health, I’m belatedly starting to push back against this sort of bollocks. I don’t care what Shakespeare made of his plague lockdown, or whether a self-appointed online life coach thinks I should have learned four languages by this point.

I do care deeply about the suffering of others, but it does nobody any good for me to live it all the time. There’s no shame in treading water, or even regressing a little, when times are this dark. If there’s comfort to be found, it’s almost certainly worth grabbing, even if it’s shamelessly nostalgic and thoroughly naff.

So I’m inviting you to join me in something of a rebranding exercise and turn your guilty pleasures into guiltless ones. Put your ropiest records on at full blast (even Quo). Spend a day eating nothing but KP Skips.

And do it all without a shred of guilt – always assuming, that is, that your pleasures don’t involve relaxing on the superyacht you bought with the blood money of a murderous megalomaniac, or hosting lockdown-defying parties while your personal negligence costs thousands of lives and destroys so many more.

In those cases, please instead help yourself to all our surplus guilt and live out your days in constant misery.

Or better still, in a tank of cruelly undernourished piranhas. I can’t say for sure, but I’d like to think Belinda would approve. ■

Belinda Carlisle on December 4 1987, when Heaven is a Place on Earth reached No 1

We tend to ascribe the term guilty pleasure to cheesy snacks or cheesier music rather than drowning hamsters

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