Individual

Songs in the key of self

The mix tape of me is the sound of self-invention

Words & images © Paul Ransom

Warning: This piece is all about me and – fascinating though that sounds on this side of keyboard – it may be of limited interest to you. That said, it does touch on experiences with which many of you will be familiar. However, should you not wish to wade through the yawnsome personal bits there are links to the ten songs in question.

You hear a song, read a book or watch a film and it’s like…wow, that’s how it feels to be me. This person knows. The occasional sense of deep connection we have with musicians, writers or performers can be deeply affecting. It can feel profound – spooky even – and sometimes it has a lasting impact; as though somehow we discover ourselves in the swell of a chorus or the turn of a page.

Of course, the phenomenon of feeling super-connected to distant strangers (artists, gurus, etc) is perfectly understandable in a social species that has elevated mimicry into a proliferation of cultural forms. The ‘social construction of identity’ is no mere catchphrase; we learn who we are through interaction. We constantly look to one another for clues and cues. Indeed, Self and Other are co-entailed – they are the existential twins of our identity. As such, our heroes offer us nothing less than a vision of how to be; or rather, they show us what is allowable. Possible.

Although the term ‘role model’ is overused it is apt, if only because we are all playing a role, all engaged in the rolling improv of self.

Over the decades music has been both provocateur and mirror, an emotional and intellectual force in the process of my self-making. Without wishing to overstate it, what I found in certain songs was a gateway – not just an escape but a form of permission, a promise. They reflected me back at myself. Their narratives were mine in stereo. And then, when I saw the videos, there I was in glamour pants; better looking, more outrageous, defying suburban restriction.

Naturally, there were similar mirrors in books and on silver screens, but the visceral immediacy of music was (and remains) catalytic. Even in my fifties, I am swept up and away by songs old and new. More than that, they still alter and confirm. Shatter and mend.

If Tubeway Army could top the charts there was hope for boys like me; boys who didn’t want to confine themselves to vulgarity and violence, boys who wanted more than blues riffs and cheap piss – whose idea of cool didn’t include predating on girls or choking to death on their own vomit.   

Thus, when asked separately by a couple of friends to nominate the records that had affected me most, I scrolled through the candidates – and, in doing so, it occurred to me that although the emerging playlist didn’t represent my current favourites, all ten nominated songs were once powerful triggers. In fact, they each played their part in my developing drama of self, connecting with deep seams of longing and realisation.

If forced to boil it down, I would say their message was clear: it’s okay to be you, you are not alone in this; and anyway, the boxes weren’t made for people like us.          

Of course, narratives of exceptionalism are quite normal and although, intellectually, we know we are not as ‘unique’ as we like to believe, we still feel different and act as if we were. Therein lies the attraction of music and of the rockstar/artist motif generally. While art speaks to the culture from which it springs, and provides the bigger story of ‘us’, the singer nearly always sings for an audience of one. Our relationship to a song is personal and, while it plays, we are the singer.

  • Self as other, other as self, reinforcing and reinventing.

But of course, that wasn’t what I was thinking at the time – let alone feeling. In fact, it sounded more like this:

1: The Sweet: The Six Teens (1974/75)

LISTEN

I must have been nine when I first heard The Six Teens on AM radio; and though I would never say it changed my life, it certainly flicked a switch. As a child growing up in a non-musical household, (no record player until I was 18), l developed a love affair with furtive late night radio and had nurtured fan crushes on Suzi Quatro, T Rex and The Sweet. I was an ace on the tennis racket guitar and had been known to lip-sync Elvis tunes, complete with hip swivels, to loungeroom audiences of chuckling grown-ups.

But this song? Something about it touched me like nothing previous. It wasn’t just that it made me cry, it filled me with a kind of fire. In retrospect, it’s as though lead singer Brian Connolly was reaching out to specifically acknowledge and personally anoint me. He was saying ‘you will escape this, they will never contain you’ and with every fibre of my boyish, fantasist being I just knew it was true. Because now I was chosen.

From the vantage of fifty plus, The Six Teens is undiluted adolescent melodrama. Clichéd, camp and ridiculous. The kind of ‘us against them, we’re so special’ teen rebel thing that now seems pedestrian at best. Yet to a skinny, short sighted nine year old migrant kid already beginning to sense that he didn’t quite fit, it was more than mere recognition. It was liberation. It was mission. And all the while it played in my head, I was much more than a scrawny pommie dork getting jostled on the bus by bigger, stronger boys. I was the beautiful one.

They could use their fists and their force, their rules and their roughhouse ways – but they would never touch me.

Cognisant as I am of imperfect memory, and wary of over-dramatising, it’s safe to say The Six Teens distilled and magnified something in me. That I wrote my first ‘book’ in 1975 (a ten page pamphlet about a boy and a talking chimp) and vaulted to the top of my Grade 4 class, despite not being able to see anything Miss Woods wrote on the blackboard, seemed to underline in the real world what was happening in fantasy. The deal was sealed: I really was special.

The dramas of exceptionalism and noble struggle so cornily expressed by The Sweet in four minutes of glam hyperbole became one of the dominant emotional motifs of my emerging self-image. I soon outgrew the song but, hello, here I am…still writing, still working to transform ordinariness into beauty. Acting still, as the greying man, on a hunch from the blonde kid.       

2: The Sex Pistols: Anarchy In The UK (1976)

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Some old punks still rant about the lost spirit of 76 but curiously – despite never thinking of myself as a punk or being particularly in love with the music – the art prank instincts of Malcolm McClaren and Vivienne Westwood have lived with me ever since I first heard about The Sex Pistols on a Sunday night in 1976. Of course, as a ten year old I was far less interested in clever Situationist culture bombs than I was in the pure thrill of incendiary noise and swagger. Indeed, so compelling was Anarchy In The UK that I didn’t even need to hear the whole song to know it was the best thing ever.

My epiphany came via a show called Weekend Magazine (a 15 minute filler slot between the news and whatever was on next). It was the scandalous story of a loud and nasty new breed of rock band and their equally raucous fans. There was plenty of swearing, torn clothing and lefty politics. I was captivated. But what I really loved was how much these punks irritated people. When crusty old newsmen and dreary middle class hippies said ‘this isn’t even music’ I wanted to know more. The few snippets of Anarchy they showed stayed in my head, playing on repeat. That I did not hear the entire song for another three years, nor have any real idea what an anarchist was, did nothing to diminish its impact. Anarchy showed me there was another way, that sensible adults could be wrong and, moreover, that their pre-approved music wasn’t compulsory listening. In short, it was the thrill of disobedience.   

Clearly, the Sex Pistols explosion occurred at just the right psychological moment. Even at ten I was largely underwhelmed by modern music and most of what got aired on TV shows like Countdown1. Things like Bohemian Rhapsody and Piano Man bored me senseless, and beardy MOR nonsense like The Eagles or the high fructose pop of Abba felt more like torture than classics.

By the time I finally got to hear all 3:32 of Anarchy In The UK on a borrowed cassette, I had just about lost interest in radio music. Marooned in the burbs, with no idea that import record stores, indie rock bands or music mags like NME even existed, I was getting more out of The Ronettes than ever I got from the hokey sing-a-long nostalgia of Don McClean or the supposedly divine duopoly of Beatles & Stones. There may well have been no future in England’s dreaming (let alone outer suburban Adelaide’s) but thanks to The Sex Pistols there was still plenty in mine.

3: Tubeway Army: Are Friends Electric? (1979)

LISTEN

Punk was the spark – but electro finally burned the boring boy-rock castle to the ground. What Johnny Rotten hinted at, Gary Numan confirmed. That he did it in such a cool, aloof fashion – that he was mysterious – made it all the more appealing.

It was late one sleepless night when the radio man announced a new song. He said it was number one in the UK. He said something about it being ‘futuristic’ and made with ‘synthesisers’. And then, Numan’s voice, as though from a novel. There’s a man outside, in a long coat, grey hair, smoking a cigarette. It was evocative, sombre and totally inspiring for a thirteen year old beginning to slide into adolescent self-drama.

Later, when I saw the video, I was converted. Here was this androgynous guy with piercing eyes. He wasn’t leaping around, he wasn’t singing about his girl or his car, he was just standing there. Talking. Being weird. Seeing Numan in his icy blacks was like finding a lighted path. Here was another way to be a boy. If Tubeway Army could top the charts there was hope for boys like me; boys who didn’t want to confine themselves to vulgarity and violence, boys who wanted more than blues riffs and cheap piss – whose idea of cool didn’t include predating on girls or choking to death on their own vomit.   

Are Friends Electric? tapped directly into the emerging teenage narratives of literary despair and elitist scorn. It chimed perfectly with a lately acquired taste for ‘proper’ sci-fi and armchair profundity. Numan’s intelligent sang froid confirmed my desire for a complete separation from what I took to be the tasteless, idiotic mainstream. Here again, the myth of exceptionalism was working its seductive magic.

In hindsight, I can see how Isaac Asimov, Tubeway Army and Tom Baker afforded me a kind of retreat. Theirs was a universe where cleverness won out, where the hero was the non-conformist. It seemed like a far better world than the gruesome, post-hippy brown-out of late 70s suburbia – so I hitched up my juvenile snobbery, found the nearest crossing point and promptly sought asylum.     

4: New Order: Blue Monday (1983)

LISTEN

It was ominous, like a storm front rolling in. Dark and defiant. Relentless and austere. And it sounded great loud. To a moody seventeen year old, Blue Monday was the ideal electro-disco of drama and despair. The tragic back story of the song only made it more real2.  But really, it was the dancing. Intense and euphoric. As close to sex as a virgin came.

By the time I had stumbled across Joy Division and the re-incarnated New Order, I was already practised in the self-righteous pose of the clever rebel aesthete, strutting through the beige coloured mall like a cut price dandy. A scruffy Wilde wannabe from the arse end of Nowhere City. The straight A guy who looked weird and was probably a fag. The cocky little shit who’d figured out how to provoke and utilise outrage for his own benefit. Yet, I had also survived my first serious encounters with violence – the standard risk of standing out – and I had learnt under direct physical threat that the only viable defence was fearlessness. Or rather, its approximation.      

Meanwhile, with Blue Monday pounding and the stroboscope blinking, the inner sanctum of dance was breathlessly revealed. The body in flight. No ego; just instinct, trust and flow. It was classic ‘in the moment’ stuff. And in that fluid deluge of movement my virginal despair unveiled its secret twin – the ecstasy of falling. Dancing was like beautiful gravity. It was a euphoria I had never even guessed at; but now I knew for sure. Not so much in my head, in words, but in my body. It was primitive and true, and it went rather well with my post-Brideshead3 pose of aristocratic bohemia.        

But I soon learnt that dancing could double as defiance. As provocation. It marked me out from the other boys. Their girlfriends had started noticing. It was a kind of power, and it afforded me a veil of protection. Because the bullies wanted fear, not dance moves.

How seamlessly it all blended with the official myth of self – that story of fearless individuality and saintly disposition, of messianic grandeur. Blue Monday was gym for state fantasy. Heroic, poetic, beautiful; yet still sufficiently dark. If teenage melancholy was looking to legitimise itself, its prayers were answered in the beautiful euphoric sadness of dancing. How does it feel? the song asked; and my answer took the form of character development. As though I were an actor learning a part.           

5: Japan: Nightporter (1983)

LISTEN

He was not my first hero – but the blonde and beautiful lead singer of the UK art-pop outfit Japan rocketed to number one with a bullet during my final year at school. I had previously fashioned poses in the likeness of Adam Ant and Duran Duran, and had fancied myself as an Oxbridge lord in the mould of Charles and Sebastian from Brideshead. I also maintained well-manicured obsessions with T.E. Lawrence and Joan of Arc and had arrogantly sought to compare myself to both Christ and Caesar. Yet none could hold a candle to The Dave. David Sylvian, that is. Who was everything I aspired to be. 

I had read about him first in music mags; marvelled at his perfect 80s haircut, at how good looking he was. Then I saw a video for a song called Ghosts. He just sat there quietly, gazing into the distance, so at odds with the chart show aesthetic. His tailored melancholy hauteur was intoxicating. My naive sobriety was followed thereafter by a blissful drunken stagger into the self-aggrandising drama of the young artiste.

And then, Nightporter. Seven minutes of Satie-esque, nocturnal piano. It was the soundtrack to the arthouse movie of my life. Sad, philosophical, textured. Vulnerable, yet magnificent because of it. With Sylvian, melancholy was the highest artform. So I listened on repeat, not wanting to a miss a tear. For a while I lived in the ‘quiet town’ he sang about. I walked its cobbled streets at night, smoking exotic cigarettes and dreaming of angels who never came down.            

Having spent most of high school trying not to be like other boys, David Sylvian gave me something more than reflex opposition. His literary, avant-sadness may well have been a pretence, but it was one I could believe. It explained why I was the way I was. I was an auteur, a philosopher and a deep feeling servant of truth, beauty and love. (Oh, the crushing weight of virginal nobility.) Surely this qualified me as special. After all, I now had the power to embrace suffering and re-imagine it as universal salvation. Thus, while the poetic trinity reigned in their abstract heaven, down here on Earth I was their teenage messiah and Dave was my Baptist.

I laugh about it now but, looking back, it was a nigh toxic delusion, a textbook case of illusory superiority bias. As a fantasy it was not simply an escape but a denial, and an excuse for poor behaviour and appalling selfishness. I cannot vouch for Mr Sylvian but I can see now that it wasn’t until after I had wrenched myself through the standard mid-life, single male meltdown that I came anywhere near being even remotely like The Dave.

But sometimes we need to live the lie in order to know that the truth is at hand.

6: The Smiths: Back To The Old House (1985/86)

LISTEN

By the time twenty came around I had experienced just enough ‘real world shit’ to know that life was not going to proceed as I had dreamt it. Sure, the saviour pose was still in effect, but I knew then that it would most likely end with nails. In hindsight, this realisation was an opportunity to work towards mature pragmatism – or perhaps just grow up – but instead it simply added ‘doomed’ to my checklist of glamorous clichés.

But then there was Steven Patrick Morrissey, the working class, bedroom poet who had defied the gods of corporate taste-making and made records that spoke with sensitivity to people like me. However, The Smiths were more realist urban drama, as opposed to Sylvian’s metaphysical musing. They made the ordinary grind of the world and the human frailty it evoked seem both inevitable and beautiful – and in doing so they proved that the mid-80s mainstream was little more than complacent Disney pop. A downright lie packaged as famine ending chant rock for a ‘lighter waving’ herd.

Meanwhile, Morrissey’s lyrics sat well with the emerging cynicism of an undergraduate leftist; and my fandom would have remained a neatly intellectual badge of sub-cultural cool had events not intervened.

In the spring of 1985 my then girlfriend was raped by a classmate while other boys stood guard. The impact was seismic. Yet, after the initial storm of righteous rage and helpless fury, what was left, nestled deep, was a strain of self-loathing that affected me for decades. I won’t say the rapist put it there, nor the girl, but her rape was ugly proof, and the feminism I had imbibed from my mother and read about in books like Sexual Politics morphed into an emasculating guilt. When I looked around I saw no reason to admire the standard maleness. And yet I was one of them.

Then, into this frankly selfish froth of guilt and angst, lobbed a friend’s vinyl copy of Hatful Of Hollow, The Smiths 1984 compilation of BBC radio recordings (Peel Sessions, etc). On it there was a simple, acoustic version of Back To The Old House that seemed to reach into a hidden corner of my being. In particular, this line: when you cycled by, here began all my dreams.

Morrissey’s genius was to have you believe that he understood; and Old House perfectly described how I felt. After the rape crisis blew the girl and I apart, my (now guilt ridden) attentions had refocused on the dark eyed ingénue I had been quietly obsessing over for three years. There was something about her. I felt I knew her. Recognised something essential. Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t – but like the guy in the song, I never took the risk of testing the intuition.

Though I am told she still has a love letter from me, I don’t remember writing it, and while I hesitated life moved on, and I never walked past her house again. 

7: My Bloody Valentine: Sometimes (1993)

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As far as anyone could tell, I was a functioning adult. Married, employed and mortgaged. I was a published writer and part of a small, artsy clique of similarly twenty-something inner urban sorts. We raved, we gazed at our shoes, we ate meals off huge white plates. The early 90s suited us just fine.

However, my self-critical voices had also grown up. They were more relentless, their attacks better targeted. I carried on with the cool guy act, yet in my private thoughts I knew I was a fraud. Selfish, gutless, dishonest. Only now I had a wife – and she had the kind of demons that made mine seem cuddly. In their shadow I was forever unworthy; always the liberator turned captor. Even my awareness of this was part of my fundamental, hypocritical failing. A betrayal of her and of myself. Everything was artifice. Even who I thought I was.

Oddly, only art, and the feelings it provoked, seemed genuine; and in the song Sometimes I stumbled across an experience, a recognition, which would later prove life-altering. On the face of it, the song is a simple, fuzzed out, mid-tempo ditty. Even if you can decipher the lyrics they aren’t exactly startling or profound and the ‘playing’ is basic. Yet, in that hazy space, I was in the presence of something immense. It wasn’t the chords or the words or Kevin Shields’ voice, it was the sound itself. Sometimes was the sound of pure longing. Of loving. Of surrender. 

I did not have such concise language at the time; I simply had a succession of bewildering, liberating experiences that I couldn’t quite wrap my clever analysis around. I knew it was something. I felt it in my body, as I did with dancing a decade earlier. To this day, when I play it loud, the sound and vibration of Sometimes can drill right through the clutter. It reaches a part of me that cannot be expressed through haircuts, cool person poses or smart sounding explanations like this.

Although my relationship with this song remains a kind of secret – like an affair – I see now that my initial response to it was also a rehash of teenage purity/authenticity narratives, and a reminder of how exceptional I thought was. In a way, this lingering delusion was the counter argument to the more derisory realisations that were inexorably dawning. It was the love/truth/beauty trinity all over again, still whispering in code to their chosen one. 

8: Suede: The Wild Ones (1994)

LISTEN

Predictably, time has shown my angsty twenty-something dramas to be run-o-the-mill – but of course, not many of us know this while the storms are raging, and so we invest heavily in the turmoil. It’s all so powerfully symbolic, so achingly meaningful. I was sure I was on the brink of something astounding. In hindsight, I was simply, if begrudgingly, coming to terms with my staggering ordinariness; with the realisation that dreams of glory would likely remain just that. Increasingly absurd fantasies.

Yet, even amid the late twenties tempest, I was aware that my obsession with Suede, and lead singer Brett Anderson in particular, hinged on more than their gorgeous, glam-tinged tales of suburban dreaming. It wasn’t just that I loved their first two albums, or even that I wished I was as sexy as Brett, it was that their records underscored the idea that beauty and nobility could exist in the most mundane circumstances. Sure, they were full of self-drama (to which I was addicted) but Anderson’s lyrics had the same ‘connection impact’ as Morrissey’s. Working class, teasingly ambiguous, idealist and realist at once. (And just a little bit vampish.) 

No wonder I took flight whenever I heard The Wild Ones. It was a lush, honey toned swoon of a song. It seemed to sum up all my restless pining in its simple refrain: oh, if you stay …

Both Sometimes and The Wild Ones steered me towards a form of escape that ultimately morphed into deep acceptance. They reiterated and encapsulated the despair/euphoria axis. For all my smart thinking and grown-up reading, it was the emotion (so physical) and the tears (so blissful) that earned these songs their place on this list. My response to Suede and My Bloody Valentine, like the ecstasy of dancing, resisted easy reduction; and whilst they were still fodder for dreaming, they helped to nudge me towards something approaching reality.

9: Sigur Rós: Andvari (2008)

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I confess; I am still not sure this song belongs in this top ten. It’s not that it didn’t move me – make me sigh, cry, etcetera – it’s that it’s inextricably linked to a person and the tsunami she triggered. To disentangle them would be dishonest. To speak of Andvari without her, without reference to the oceanic immensity that followed, would be a denial. Like Sometimes before it, Andvari was sonic surrender. It’s just that the latter coincided with a conscious act of surrender.

Those of you familiar with Iceland’s ethereal marvel Sigur Rós will know that their sweeping, dreamy soundscapes lend themselves readily to emotion and introspection. The girl and I adopted their 2005 album Takk as one of ‘our’ records. We used to play Andvari late at night. Often we would lay in silence, naked and close, peering into some kind of mystery, indulging in our outsiders’ melodrama of doomed romance. The special ones; going to the wall together. Beautiful and damned.

By 2008, I was divorced, forty-something and ready. Finally ready to stop doing the same old self-destructive shit over and over. My solution – or rather, the risk I took – was that one last act of self-obliteration was required. But this time, no half measures, no neat middle class minimisations, no denial. And no safety net.

So, when I saw her coming, and instinctively understood the danger of our connection, I let it happen. Knowing full well it would be a fire.

And yet Andvari was more like drowning. The way the song concludes, slowly, drifting like smoke in a room, seemed to magnify the torment and offer the simultaneous promise of its end. If you fear the sea, it said, swim.

The ‘surrender process’ was the culmination, the denouement. Contradictory narratives of exceptionalism and self-loathing were unwound and the incessant drama was dissolved. My lifelong search for connection and the manifold addictions it drove (behavioural and otherwise) came to an end, and my deepest fears were finally revealed to be the very keys to a mid-life liberation.   

Andvari lives on the border between former and present chapters of self. When I listen to it now, I am transported to that tumultuous moment, and am reminded to give thanks and to honour myself for having chosen the path of surrender. It has, after all, led to this.     

10: The xx: I Dare You (2017)

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Give that much of what connected me to the preceding songs and artists was juvenile – self piteous, vain, needy, deluded and denialist – the irony of I Dare You is that my love of it has the pure, unadulterated buzz of youthful optimism. The song’s wilful headiness and its ecstatic call to action are the stuff of undergraduate love fantasy, yet still I am touched by its tender sunshine and unfurled by its promise of spring.        

My intense emotional and physical response to this song – and my ‘not very fifty-something’ fanboy love of The xx in general – remind me that although habitual narratives and ideas remain, things really have changed. The 42 year old self-dramatising misery freak who nailed himself to the cross of Andvari seems like a completely different person. The 53 year old guy writing this still swoons at beauty, still cries in cinemas, still wants to smash the fascists and defy commonplace notions of maleness, but he is no longer a prisoner. He has stopped being his own gaoler. Stopped arrogantly trying liberate others and instead set the fire to his own cell.

  • Tears are streaming as I type this – but now it is a river of joy.

Though I am thirty years older than the kids who wrote I Dare You, I see myself reflected in their bittersweet, romantic vignettes. They tap into something deep and abidingly real, something that no amount of wisdom or ennui can obscure. If I was an ideologue, the contradictions my xx geekery illustrate would be an issue, but now I embrace them. Old head/young heart. Desire/acceptance. Passion/ambivalence. Liberty/surrender. (The list goes on.)

The xx are not so much a mirror as an invitation. Or a dare. Go on, be whoever you feel like being. Be intense. Be sparse. Be foolish for three minutes. Whereas I used to render these things as weighty and profound, now I prefer to sing along and dance. Because it doesn’t mean anything now. It doesn’t have to. It is just is. And what happens next is simply the full stop at the end of this sentence.

Coda:

Partly, what all this makes clear to me is that the self is a feedback loop, an ongoing, iterative construction built on memory and habit, underscored by heredity and parenting and reinforced by culture and circumstance. I am as much the spectacle of I as anything else.

In this light, it is little wonder that motifs repeat, dramas replay themselves, and adult dreams are a rehash of childhood ones. No surprise too that music and other forms of art are so pervasive and powerful in our lives. We are, after all, the storytelling animal, and the principal tale we tell is the story of self; which in turn is the thread we recognise as our life.

The ten songs above are literally and figuratively part of my life – songs in the key of self. Doubtless you will have your own ‘mix tape of me’ but it isn’t really about the songs. Rather, it’s the action they stimulate.

  • Detect
  • Connect
  • Reflect
  • Perfect
  • (Repeat to fade.)

And when the song has ended – then what?     

1: Countdown was a nationally aired, weekly chart show that was an institution in Australia. In the era before MTV, and in a small domestic market, its influence was magnified, and it therefore shaped and narrowed many people’s perceptions of what contemporary music had to offer.  

2: New Order was founded by the surviving members of Joy Division, whose lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide two days before they were due to leave for their first US tour. The song Love Will Tear Us Apart became an instant cult classic in the weeks after his death. As a teenager I was entranced by Curtis’ tragedy, and so took to both Joy Division and New Order with relish. I am still a huge fan of both.

3: Based on the novel by Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited was a massive TV hit in the early 80s, reaching Australian screens in the winter of 1982. Its beautiful language, crafted melancholy and aristocratic aesthetic was tailor made for a sixteen year old seeking self-definition and to demarcate himself from the high school herd.

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