Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The 'real' 1970s

Returned from holiday jaunting around England to a wedding in Liverpool, camping in Somerset, cottage in Braunton Devon and another in Mevagissey Cornwall - relieved to be home. I had officially the worst cup of coffee ever at Newport Pagnell services on our way north.

During that time I've been reading When the Lights Went Out, Andy Beckett's history of the 1970s. It's a refreshing change from the 'Spacehoppers and Spangles' tv history so prevalent these days, when stand-up comedians who weren't even alive at the time offer us 'humorous reminiscences' drawn not from their own experience but from what they've seen on telly or read in the papers. The Rock and Roll Years television series of a few years back was much more hard-hitting in its choice of material.

Fortunately Beckett redresses the balance by offering a weighty political history which at times made me seethe with anger at the behind-the-scenes machinations and manipulations of our class-dominated political system which has not changed appreciably since, if only for the worse (Old Etonian David Cameron as PM for example). Although it covers gay liberation and women's lib the book is not the 'definitive' history which a casual buyer might be lured into believing it is, as there is very little social history or coverage of major events that were not political. Film, theatre, books etc are similarly only mentioned if they were politically motivated, which of course many were in those days; nevertheless it's still a very quick trawl through a decade whose culture was probably more interesting than that of any subsequent decade, certainly musically. I could have done with a few more statistics - publishers probably think they are irrelevant and a distraction these days in a popular history, but it was interesting to read that Britain was at its most equal in the years 1977 and 1978 with the inequality gap increasing ever since. Terrorism in Northern Ireland is covered but I couldn't find a reference to the Angry Brigade.

Having read an amusing letter in The Guardian recently that highlighted the practice I can't help noticing how authors who were 'fortunate' enough to go to public school and Oxbridge love to mention the fact as often as they can in their books, reviews and articles. One review I read recently got the Oxford connection out of the way in the first sentence; so we discover as we read through that Beckett attended a prep school and is a Balliol man. He was only a child in the 70s, but at least he's gone back through the source materials and interviewed many of the principal players, many of whom are now deceased. I don't envy him having to read through numerous volumes of self-serving political memoirs. On the whole a rather depressing read as the last third of the book prepares you for the onslaught of Thatcherism at the close of the decade under which so many of us suffered, mostly through high unemployment, which looks set to make an impressive comeback in the next couple of years.

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