To Chinese people living in country transforming itself at dizzying speed, the pace that Britain has changed over the past few decades seems glacial. Yet there have been profound social, economic and cultural shifts – and no one has explained them better than Peter York. Meet him in person, and you’re immediately struck by his sartorial elegance, softly spoken yet impeccable Queen’s English and natural grace.
Over the past few decades, Peter has chronicled how the United Kingdom emerged blinking from the shadow of World War II, and became the diverse, creative, eclectic culture it is today – transforming itself into one of the world’s foremost ‘soft power’ superpowers. His books, articles and television programmes have documented Britain’s very own ‘cultural revolution’ of the nineteen eighties, and how it moved from a country based on manufacturing things to selling culture.
At the epicentre of this is what Peter calls “the world’s supercity” – London – and here we are in the fashionable Soho district, discussing how it all happened. “Everything that matters in Britain, is in London – the film industry, the music industry, fantastic museums, the government – and it’s not zoned-off like New York. It has a real youth culture too, coming up from the grassroots of the working class. Yet the thing that really made it happen is what we call ‘The Big Bang’ – the deregulation of British banks in 1987. The Square Mile became the financial centre of Europe and nothing comes close. No other big town in the world has this together in one place.”
Whereas other countries spread their assets around, Peter argues that London is “a pressure-cooker environment”. In the United States for example, the creative industries are in California, banking in New York and politics in Washington. In London however, artists mingle with bankers and politicians, and it’s easier for things to get done. From music to art and film, styles are set here which keeping pushing out around the Western world. “Soft power is a very important way of talking about a complex idea,” he adds. “It suits Britain very well because since the end of our Empire we have punched far above our weight. Our creative sector is extremely developed, certainly the most developed in Europe by a mile, and the nineteen eighties was the beginning of the rise of London as the most important city in the world…”
Peter became a household name in Britain when The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook was published in 1982. Its name was a clever pun mixing the name of an old TV drama (The Lone Ranger) and Sloane Square – a highly affluent and fashionable area of London.It gave a forensically detailed yet funny account of a type of person that many people knew existed, but had never met. ‘Sloane Rangers’ were affluent, upper middle class people who had hitherto been quietly hiding deep within British culture, but were now breaking cover. It caught the cultural zeitgeist of the decade brilliantly, and while many people read it as comedy, others took it as an instruction manual on how to be posh. “When we did book signings in Harrods, it became obvious that people were treating it very seriously as a guide to life, and I had to keep a straight face. They would tell me they had enrolled their children in this or that public school, and look at me like they wanted me to say, ‘well done, they will do brilliantly in life and be happy for ever after!’”
“It began to feel like we were doing missionary work,” he adds. “We started to realise how seriously people were actually taking the book. In the eighties in Britain there was a lot of new money around and people wanted to assimilate, they wanted ‘in’. The book was a very detailed guide and entirely accurate, there was a lot of careful observation there. If you were the mother of a child of a certain age, you absolutely couldn’t go wrong, because the advice was for real.”
Along with his friend and co-writer Ann Barr he carefully documented the beautiful people of London’s Chelsea district – the women’s love of Hermès or Liberty silk head scarves and navy blue pleated skirts, and the men’s passion for preppy sweaters, wide collared shirts and Oxford brogue shoes. The young, rosy-cheeked Princess Diana became the Sloane Ranger’s international high priestess of style. "The Princess of Wales is the 1980s' Supersloane," the book announced, because she had, “virginity, marriage, love of the countryside and animals — in short, everything that Really Matters."
The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook was perfectly of its time, says Peter. “It was a quite extraordinary decade. Many people made their first million, got their first big house, I saw a generation grow prosperous. It was fantastic for those in the creative industries – Saatchi and Saatchi was an advertising agency that became bigger than many of its clients, listed on the London Stock Exchange, for example. The head of the company was close to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and became one of the world’s biggest contemporary art collectors. Big culture, big business, big politics. I was well aware that we were in a bubble, but it was very nice.”
Despite his gently professorial manner, Peter wasn’t a model pupil at school. He found a way of passing his examinations without – as he puts it – “excessive reading of the textbooks”. Indeed, he was more interested in reading, “all those lovely, sexy, nineteenth century poets.” On leaving school, he was lucky enough to meet a gifted market researcher. “He was a marvellous man who thought that market research could run the world. I had lots of fun and became rather good at it. He allowed me quite early on to carry his bag into meetings with big people and big brands. He was an inspirational employer who was fantastically interested in design, architecture, media, branding and luxury products, and all those things…”
It was this that gave him the tools to explain all the changes that happened around him. From pop music and advertising, to art, film and fashion, he found himself chronicling cultural developments as they happened – for everything from high end magazines to lowbrow youth TV shows. For many British people, Peter York was the first person they saw on the television talking intelligently about ‘lifestyle’, and the idea that a person’s identity could be expressed in the brands that they buy.
His entry into what he calls “luxuryland” was via the prestigious Harpers & Queen magazine. “There I was, writing about the things that interested me, in a magazine that pioneered luxury advertising. It went from a rather old nineteenth century high society journal to page-after-page of expensive global brands. Everyone was wearing different things, music was changing and suddenly lots of people were throwing money around. I was an analyst and also a fan, so I tried to combine the two and wrote about what I was star-struck about…”
To this day, Peter York is intrigued by the uniqueness of British style. “We are very good at fusing different eras together, and it’s partly because of the odd class relationships in Britain, which are unlike anywhere else”, he observes. “It’s the complex interweaving of the old and the new, and when they are done right they have a clever subtext. It is never completely an exercise in nostalgia, and never completely an exercise in the new.” Indeed, one might say the same about British culture in general, I muse? With that, he nods and heads off to his next appointment in this beloved ‘supercity’ of his.