The 1970s: strange days indeed
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book is about the 1970s as you probably don’t remember them.
A quick glance at the cover and at the blurb gives the impression that it is a kind of cultural history of an era. For Francis Wheen the Seventies began existentially when he decided to drop out. As he describes it:
With my rucksack and guitar in hand, I came to London on 27 December 1973 brimming with the ambition and optimism of the Sixties — a dream of change, a sense of limitless possibility — only to find the Seventies enveloping the city like a pea-souper.
In another place he is more explcit:, when discussing when the Sixties ended and the seventies began:
So it goes for most of us as we try to reconcile our private histories with a public narrative. Philip Larkin, recording the start of free love in 1963, lamented that ‘this was rather late for me.’ For me, alas, it was rather too early. I came to the party a full decade later, on 27 December 1973, when I caught a train to London from suburban Kent, having left a note on the kitchen table advising my parents that I’d gone to join the alternative society and wouldn’t be back. An hour or so later, clutching my rucksack and guitar, I arrived at the ‘BIT Alternative Help and Information Centre,’ a hippy hangout on Westbourne Park Road which I’d often seen mentioned in the underground press. ‘Hi,’ I chirruped. ‘I’ve dropped out.’ I may even have babbled something about wanting to build the counter-culture. This boyish enthusiasm was met by groans from a furry freak slumped on the threadbare sofa. ‘Drop back in, man,’ he muttered through a dense foliage of beard. ‘You’re too late… It’s over.’ And so it was. The Prime Minister, Edward Heath, had declared a state of emergency in November, his fifth in just over three years…
The promise these passages (and he blurb on the cover) give of the reconciliation of private histories with public narrative is not fulfilled. We are not told whether or how Francis Wheen dropped back in, or how he spent the rest of the Seventies. He presumably survived, or he wouldn’t have written the book. So I was expecting a cultural history, but instead it was more of a political history, and the political history of the 1970s was laced with paranoia, at least according to Wheen.
So having established what the book is not, what is it?
It’s the public narrative turned inside out.
Those of us who lived through the Seventies remember some of the headlines, and some of the major events. But what Francis Wheen does is take us behind the scenes, backstage, as it were, to see the stage props, and the actors without their make up. What were the motives for the much publicised political decisions? What was Edward Heath really up to with his successive states of emergency? What was the story behind Watergate, or Nixon’s rapprochement with China, or the Allende coup in Chile? What was really going on with nihilistic terrorist groups like the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Tupamaros urban guerrillas in Uruguay, or the Symbionese Liberation Army?
Wheen has trawled through the various memoirs, diaries, letters and papers published by people close to the seats of power, and revealed some of the conversations about and motives for some of the decisions that were announced in the press. These documents were not available at the time, and it is only now that the inside stories can be revealed. Books have been published, archives made available, and Wheen concludes that Nixon, Heath and most of the other world leaders at the time were barking mad and quite paranoid. The Seventies were the paranoid decade, and that paranoia was the decade’s major bequest to those who followed.
Most of us don’t have time to read those documents, and so Francis Wheen has done it for us and made a digest of it to save us the trouble.
The trouble is that his selection of events to record would not have been mine. The events that stood out for him were not those that stood out for me, even in the public narrative.
Living in South Africa we were only very vaguely aware of Britains “winter of discontent” and its “Who governs Britain?” election (Answer: Nobody).
The Yom Kippur War of 1973 (40th anniversary at time of writing, but Telkom alone knows when I’ll get to post this) made more of an impact. It meant the reopening of the Suez Canal, and within a few months I no longer looked out from my front door in Durban North on 30 or more ships in the roadstead waiting to enter Durban harbour, and one could walk on Durban’s beaches without the lumps of crude oil making them took like the aftermath of an explosion in a Marmite factory.
There were some consequences of the Yom Kippur War that Wheen does mention, though — reduced oil production, rising fuel prices, and fuel restrictions . The fuel restrictions (in South Africa) were announced in November 1973, with speed limits in towns of 50 km/h and on open roads of 80 km/h. On 30 November I was driving into town from Durban North along Umgeni Road — the traffic was preferable to the sleep-inducing boredom of driving on the freeway at 50 km/h. I stopped at a robot and an Indian guy in the car next to me shouted, “Have you filled your tank, petrol is going up to a Rand a gallon.” Several other people told me the same thing on that day. Rumours abounded, and queues at filling stations were long. Now I doubt if we’ll see the fuel price as low as a Rand a litre again. But back then we were suddenly aware that whether we used it quickly or slowly, oil had to come to an end some day. Someone somewhere said that if every adult male Indian used toilet paper, the world’s paper supply would be exhausted in two weeks. So yes, Wheen was right about that. The Seventies was a time of the feeling of an approaching disaster, of inflation and the imminent end of the world.
But in South Africa it was also the decade in which PW Botha and Magnus Malan decided to invade Angola (Wheen did not consult any diaries of their associates) and thus of what the South African public were led to believe was the “Border War”, though much of it took place a long way from any borders.
In the 1960s, under Vorster, South Africa had turned into a police state, but with the accession of P.W. Botha there was a military take-over, By the end of the Seventies the “Border War” had mutated into the “total onslaught” and South Africa came to be ruled by a military junta which lasted throughout the 1980s.
So in Wheen’s book I was expecting more of a cultural history of the 1970s, though there was not much of that. But the book did inspire me to think of how we do reconcile our private histories with public narratives, even if Wheen does not deliver on this.
In July 1968 I sat with a college friend, Alaistair Wyse, in Hyde Park in London, making paper flowers, which we handed to passers-by as we made them. It was our contribution to the hippie peace movement, and perhaps, for me, the end of the Sixties.
A few days later I returned to South Africa after two years of study in the UK. If the Seventies were the paranoid decade for Britain and the USA, South Africa was an early adopter, South Africa became a fully-fledged paranoid society ten years earlier when B.J. Vorster became Minister of Justice in 1961, and just about every year after that new repressive legislation was introduced. So when I arrived home the paranoid society of the 1970s was already in full swing. Safari suits, combs in socks, short back & sides and Gunston (a brand of Rhodesian cigarettes, smoked by whites in support of Ian Smith’s UDI).
There were some other features of 1970s culture that Wheen also does not touch upon. Like Jesus Freaks.
In 1970 I was living in a community that was a cross between a new monastic community and a hippie commune, though some of our visitors tended to treat it as a crash pad. We called ourselves the Community of St Simon the Zealot, and reading, many years later, the Security Police’s exegesis of the name, was itself a study in paranoia, though we knew that at the time. We just didn’t have proof.
The community eventually disintegrated, partly because of conflicting ideals, and partly because some of us were deported. But it was also interesting, a few years later in Durban North, to meet some Jesus Freaks from America, a colony of the Children of God, who seemed to be doing somewhat better than we had, and whose secret booklet, Revolution for Jesus: how to do it seemed a lot more practical than the little red book of the Thoughts of Chairman Mau. I still have a copy in the Dutch translation, which I might some day finish translating back into English, unless someone can find the original.
At about the same time there was the film Brother Sun, Sister Moon which was possibly the alternative ideal of the decade, though it got mangled in copyright wars or something. Perhaps that is symbolic, because the rest of the decade was a constant stream of disaster movies — The Poiseidon adventure, The towering inferno, The taking of Pelham 123, The Hindenberg and more. Perhaps it is significant that several of them had remakes about 20-30 years later. I wonder why? That in itself is perhaps a cultural fact worth pondering.