You want me to tell you about 1996? Forgotten year of the forgotten decade. Nobody talks about the nineties; we talk about the eighties, because that was the last decade to have any quiddity. Since then, life has become liquid. They used to say it was to do with postmodernism, but we have become bored with that after thirty years. The modern was there and it was real. It was factories and trains and steel. It was, in the political arena, men of steel: proletarians and Aryans with steel-bound frames of muscle. By the nineties, this was all gone. We were definitely liquid; we were a splotch of presidential semen on Monica Lewinsky’s dress—or was it asparagus sauce? We will never have the truth. My uncle, early adopter of the Internet, would say that he had downloaded the Starr report, long before any newspaper published it. That was not 1996, though.
By common agreement, an agreement I divined by scanning the Internet, 1996 is the paradigmatic year of the nineties. The early nineties were all pastel coloured and change-colour™ approved. Children splashed each other with Super Soakers coloured in lime and lemon and the water changed the colours of their clothes. It all changed when Cobain died. He is not a significant figure now, but, at the time, only ten or so, I watched the candle-lit vigils and thought some saint had died. I did not realise that this spectacle would be enacted again and again, requiem for the saints of the cable news age.
1996. Diana is still alive. In Argentina, a woman calls her a whore in the street and I climb the stairs to tell my mother, still in bed, of this latest insult to the estranged branch of the British monarchy. “Oh, really,” she says. Diana, having, a few years before, made divorce fashionable for British housewives, just as Meghan and Harry market interracial relationships today, was at her ripest that year. Every other day the photos came in. She would be dead the next year, along with a Conservative government that had turned stale like a used up teabag.
1996. Blood on a primary school floor in Scotland. My mother puts a candle in the window to remember the little ones, shades of Cobain—and shades of Diana the next year. On television, after an eternity, I hold the cassette of Independence Day; this film of import, a cinematic event. The palpable sense is of invasion: on the small screen FBI agents rummage in trailer parks for evidence of contact. On the ground in the former Yugoslavia—a place known to my parents as a holiday location and to me as a perpetual war zone—bodies are dug up by a backhoe near some Croatian resort town. NATO will intervene: air strikes, air cover. We must act to stop ethnic cleansing: the decade’s contribution to political euphemism.
1996. An aircraft falls from the sky near New York. Television stations speculate that Islamist militants, sitting in a boat offshore, took it down with a shoulder-mounted missile. What happened to that speculation? Later, I travel to America for the first time and am directed by family friends to a local novelty called Starbucks, tripping over a giant cockroach squashed on the sidewalk nearby—and watch the raccoons, they have rabies!
The Internet begins to intrude, a novelty on a friend’s computer—his father an academic, expert in recondite equations. Timothy Leary dying live online, so he says. I did not notice, but in the darkness I listened to the BBC adaptation of Gatsby and heard about the great fridges of America. Yes, that summer I learned they have doughnuts for breakfast. A preacher’s son makes me listen to Gangsta’s Paradise and I play him Oasis—aural tourism for middle-class kids trying to slum it. Ten years later, he succeeds too well and falls to the needle. Heroin? That was another decade. This was 1996, peak of the nineties—my last innocent year.