Niall Murphy reviews Brian McMahon’s visually engaging Brand New Retro.
Brand New Retro: A Visual Experience is an attic collection of old photographs, magazines and newspaper clippings taken from the author’s youth, as described in the preface. This humble beginning sets the tone for what follows and gives Brand New Retro an organic authenticity which is not easily imitated. At just over two hundred pages you might think that it was ambitious to try and cover a period from the 1950s through to the 1990s, but here it is done seamlessly. While most of the content is centred on the thirty years from the mid 60s until the mid 80s, these are the years that come to mind when you consider the word retro. In the Irish context, they represent a period of liberation and growth which is brilliantly captured here.
Instead of the material being arranged chronologically, McMahon has cleverly divided it into sections titled Fashion, Lifestyle, Music & Showbiz, Sport and Readers’ Lives. This allows readers of all interests to instantly enjoy the book, and observe the evolution of different facets of Irish life. The pages are full of all sorts of curious and often humorous titbits, such as Ronnie Drew modelling clothes in a fashion magazine. In the back section of the book, Readers’ Lives, you will find some particularly funny and telling agony aunt letters from the late 60’s. One reader asks, “I am a girl and I am nearly fourteen. I had French kissing [sic] with another girl just for fun. Could this lead to pregnancy?” to which the answer begins, “Straight answer to a crooked question: no. Now the pair of you would want to get wise to yourselves.”
There are also plenty of eyebrow-raising clippings, such as a full-page advertisement for the Irish Times in a 1971 edition of Women’s Choice which features a picture of a frightened young boy about to be slapped on the hand with a paddle, and the caption: “A bit of stick never did anyone harm, now did it?”
Brand New Retro is not just a trip down memory lane; it is a firm riposte to the notion of Ireland in the 70s and 80s as a place of doom and gloom. It is a nod to an Irish brand of pop culture in a pre-internet age that was full of vibrancy. It has particular relevance in Ireland today, where young people have adopted a reverence for all things retro. Likewise, the young reader can find resonance with the people of the 70s and 80s who were searching for their identity as the dust settled from a period of economic hardship.
McMahon has selected the most colourful and exciting images and his use of text is succinct and informative in a book that is all about a visual experience. This is a book that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages, and makes the perfect coffee table book.