VICE UK is Fifteen

Why I Wish I Could Go Back to 2002, the Most Ordinary Year On Record

As VICE UK turns 15, we reflect on the year of its birth with some nostalgia for normality.
Brian May (Screengrab via Youtube, BBC)

This post is part of VICE's 15th anniversary series, presented by VANS

VICE UK turns 15 this week and I’ve been tasked with looking back at the year of our birth, to see what, if anything, can be gleaned from the United Kingdom as it was then. And it turns out 2002 was possibly the most unremarkable year on record.

It is 2002. Brian May stands, legs planted shoulder-width apart like a pylon, on the roof of Buckingham Palace. Coat-tails fluttering behind him like gossamer wings he raises a plectrum and begins to shred his way through the national anthem. The bruised clouds part and bright blue sky shines through. The crowd below bursts with joy.

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What makes a good year? Well for starters, when we say “good” we don’t actually mean good. Nobody remembers pleasant, mild-mannered years – the ones that drift past without so much as a rugby tournament or a global epidemic scare. We canonise the geopolitical big boys: the twelve-monthers that can be summed up in a single Time magazine cover. We catalogue the falling walls, the dissolved governments, the epoch defining albums. We tend to ignore the years during which the Lib Dems enjoy a mild boost in the polls and Cherie Blair has to formally apologise for buying a couple of flats.

It is 2002, and Roy Hudd has joined the cast of Coronation Street as an undertaker called Archie Shuttleworth.

Reviewed in the way we do all years – as a sequence of scandals, deaths and seasons – there is something incredibly reliable about 2002. It seems unassuming. Somehow friendly. There were a couple of dead royals and a jubilee. Will Young won Pop Idol and some bloke dressed as Elvis won Stars in Their Eyes. Paul Burrell was in the news. England got to the quarter-finals of the World Cup, which is, you know… alright. 2002 was fine. It arrived, About a Boy was released in cinemas, and then it went.

Politically the UK was knee deep in New Labour and Big Tone faced a few difficult conversations after his wife purchased two flats in Bristol with the negotiating help of convicted fraudster Peter Foster. Boris Johnson was presenting Have I Got News For You, rather than extending British citizen's prison sentences in Iran. Education secretary Estelle Morris resigned because she didn’t feel up to the job, and John Prescott failed to meet his road use targets. Not exactly the fall of Rome, is it? I mean really, 2002, have you ever had to weather a party-wide Westminster sexual harassment scandal while attempting to leave the European Union? No, I didn’t think so.

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It is 2002, and Iain Duncan-Smith is the leader of opposition.

In television, music and film, 2002 was more of the glorious status-quo. Cinemas were packed to the rafters with established characters, and high-earning franchises: Spiderman, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Die Another Day and Lord of the Rings. Men with spiky hair and beaded necklaces ruled the charts: Gareth Gates, Will Young, Darius, Daniel Beddingfield, Blue. Bargain Hunt was given a prime-time slot on BBC1. My mum wrote a letter of complaint to the Radio Times concerning the lyrical content of Ali G and Shaggy’s single “Julie”.

Alistair McGowan impersonating Sven Goran Eriksson, via Youtube

I guess you could argue that 2002 was a notable year for the Royal Family – the death of Princess Margaret was followed by the Queen Mother, both of which were followed by the Queen’s Brian May-featuring Golden Jubilee. But really, who actually remembers "where they were when the Queen Mother died"? News about the royal family is window-dressing in the shop-front of current affairs – really rich people marrying and shagging and dying in old houses. Nothing ever happened to the Royal Family that changed the course of the future, not really. Big news about the royal family is very 2002.

It is 2002, there’s been an earthquake in Dudley.

You can tell a lot about a year by the bad news – or rather, the news that was bad enough to be remembered. Re-reading roundups from 2002, the most reported tragedies were the disappearance of 13-year-old Milly Dowler in March, and the disappearance of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham (both 10-years-old) in August. Their bodies were eventually found later in the year; all of them murdered. That the news was dominated by these cases is in no way a happy thing, of course, but it points to a moment in our recent history when we had the breathing space to care about the stories of individuals. I vividly remember the Soham disappearances that summer – it felt like the minutiae of their murders were played out in country’s living rooms, night after night. Of course people are still going missing today – bodies are still being found – but it’s hard to imagine the ten o’clock news finding room for anything smaller than a ballistic missile.

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It is 2002, and David Sneddon has just won Fame Academy.

As much as anything, maybe 2002 appears so achingly ordinary because of the years that surrounded it. The year before was, and will forever be remembered for 9/11. Anxieties around the Iraq war were beginning to brew into something substantial in 2002, but it wasn't until 2003 that those feelings were fully realised in the UK. Sure, this small patch of time didn’t have any of that late-1990s optimism, but neither was it burdened by the gradual, creeping dread that spread through Western civilisation through the mid to late noughties. In 2002, the hope had ended but the real fear had yet to set in.

That’s why I’ve found reflecting on it – on its overwhelming ordinariness – so arresting. 2002 was everything 2017 isn’t: predictable, docile, suburban. It was an oasis, a blip – a mundane year for ordinary people. It was a year soundtracked by a JXL remix of an Elvis Presley song. The year Alistair McGowan was doing impressions of Jonathan Ross and Sven Goran-Eriksson.

It is 2002, and Arsenal have just beaten Chelsea 2-0 in the FA Cup final.

I guess looking back 15 years makes me nostalgic for normal: the pale warm glow of the barely remembered: Rio Ferdinand becoming the most expensive player in English football, Peter Kay making his first appearance on Parkinson.

I want to jump in a time machine and travel back to 2002. I want to grab everyone by the shoulders and tell them to savour it: savour the bland, tastelessness of it all. To drink in every forgettable night like a bottle of medium-range chardonnay; to chew every mouthful of every non-moment like a chicken breast wrapped in parma-ham; to soak the visions of mediocrity up like a never-ending episode of Changing Rooms. Enjoy your perfectly acceptable universe, I want to tell them. Life will never be this boring again.

It is 2002: Tony Blair, Queen Elizabeth II, Pierce Brosnan.

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