Monday, 16 July 2012

The Way We Were


I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood and make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres.  Actually, I couldn’t but Dominic Sandbrook can; he has in Seasons in the Sun: the Battle for Britain, 1974-1979, the sequel to State of Emergency - the Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974, which I reviewed here in October, 2010. 

I’m not quite sure how to describe this book, hovering as it does between history and black comedy.  I found myself laughing out loud at points at the sheer awfulness of our national life in the not so distant past, a past my parents lived through, a history they experienced.  I simply had to ask them if it really was that bad. 

Yes and no, they replied: politically, economically and socially times were bad - a time of IRA terror, a time rampant inflation, a time of irresponsible trade union barons, a time of Marxist militants, a time of drift and decay; but they were young, they were both undergraduates at the same Cambridge college; they were in love; they had their season in the sun.  Perhaps the day will come when I look back at our present troubled times through a soft-focused lens! 

Sandbrook’s title, taken from a whimsical song popular at the time, is deliberately ironic.  The period between the surprise victory of Harold Wilson and the Labour Party in the election of March, 1974 and the defeat of his successor James Callaghan in the election in May, 1979 comes as close as any to marking the nadir of modern British history.  It was a period that ended not in a Summer of Satisfaction but in the so-called Winter of Discontent, when the country, overwhelmed by a great wave of trade union militancy, saw rubbish pilling up in the streets and the dead queuing for burial. 

I knew that Labour governments were dysfunctional but, my goodness, I had no idea of just how dysfunctional.  Harold Wilson, who won two elections in the 1960s, came back to power a sad ghost of his former self, increasingly beset by paranoia and quite possibly showing the signs of early mental decay. He was completely dominated by his long-standing political secretary and confidante, one Marcia Williams, a truly ghastly individual.  At one point she even addressed Wilson in the hearing of others as “You little cunt!”  By the summer of 1974 her influence was so baleful that his inner circle even contemplated having her murdered.  Instead the next best thing served: she was sent upstairs to the House of Lords as Lady Falkender.  This Lady was no lady.  Even the Queen obliquely queried her elevation. 

Sandbrook rightly suggests that the mid to late seventies were not just important as prelude to Thatcherism, surely the most necessary antidote ever devised, but as a “decisive moment in our recent history.”  It was a time of transition, a time that saw the strange death of social democratic England, a time that saw the death of the consensus that had dominated British politics since 1945.  It was the time that saw the end of Old Labour, killed off, ironically, by its trade union allies.  I would say that if one wanted to understand Tony Blair and the modern Labour Party one could do no better than pay close attention to this period.

It was a time when illusions went hand-in-hand with delusions.  In March 1974, when it was clear even to the economically illiterate that it was no longer possible to spend one’s way out of a crisis, Denis Healey, Wilson’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, proceeded to spend his way out of a crisis.  More and more people began to wonder if Britain was on the road to Weimar, with hyperinflation an ever present threat. 

Actually the country had the worst of both worlds, inflation and economic stagnation, allowing a new term – stagflation – to enter the vocabulary.  The historian A. J. P. Taylor, who prided himself on his left wing credentials, wrote to his Hungarian mistress urging her to “Pray for the recovery of capitalism.  You can’t realise how near we are to catastrophe: all our banks may close their doors in a few months’ time…You are lucky to be living in a Communist country and safe from such things.”  Even Callaghan, Foreign Secretary at the time, said, in a mood of black humour, that if he had been a younger man he would emigrate.  Many did. 

The author does an excellent job in identifying some of the key cultural icons.  There is surely none more iconic than the inexpressibly vulgar Beverly Moss from Mike Leigh’s play Abigail’s Party.  She is a monster of social one-upmanship.  She is also a harbinger of things to come.  Most of all she is a representative of a new aspirational Britain, wholly material in concern, and this includes the trade unionists who, in their devil take the rearmost attitude, killed all hope of a bright new socialist future. 

There is surely no more pathetic case than that of the political fantasist Tony Benn, the Secretary of State for Industry, propping up one dying industry after another, full of socialist sentimentalism, when all the working classes really wanted was new fridges and package holidays.  Workers of the world unite; you have trips to Torremolinos to gain.  The trade unions are often seen as Margaret Thatcher’s greatest enemies.  In fact they were her best allies.  “The cowardice and irresponsibility of some union leaders”, Denis Healy later reflected, “guaranteed her election; it left them with no grounds for complaining about her subsequent action against them.” 

I’ve emphasised the politics of the period in this review by there is so much more in Sandbrook’s door stopper of a book, weighing in at a hefty eight hundred plus pages.  He covers so much ground, including the cultural and sporting highs and lows.  The highs and lows, depending on your point of view, might be best represented by the Sex Pistols, a dysfunctional punk band for dysfunctional punk times.  Yes, it was true: there were no more heroes anymore. 



There is also a very good chapter on schooling and the negative effects of fashionable, 'child-centred' educational theories, absurd beyond absurd, particularly in the example of William Tyndale Junior School in Islington.  This school might very well serve as a microcosm of England, an undisciplined free for all. 

Drawing on a huge range of sources, Sandbrook weaves an effective tale, though perhaps a little less effective than that told in State of Emergency.  To paraphrase Dickens, this is the best of books and the worst of books.  It is strong in narrative and anecdote, weak in depth and analysis.  The author’s industry is impressive though, given the quick turnaround between this and his previous book, perhaps a little too Stakhanovite.  I would suggest less labour and more reflection.  No matter; Sandbrook’s limpid prose carries one along quite nicely through an epic comic tragedy. He has the ability to make one laugh and cry by turns.  This is the way we were.  This is the way we never want to be again. 


18 comments:

  1. It was an awful time. Socialism triumphant . . . they didn't fail, they succeeded. They created exactly the 'paradise' of their dreams . . . too deranged to know such dreams are a formula for nightmare.

    But, I too, was young and in love, and there was a fabulous sound track and an infinitely better future to build. Among the grotesques and the garbage, seeds were stirring.

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    1. They seem to have been, Calvin. You were obviously here at the time. Did you follow the Jeremy Thorpe story? I feel sorry for that poor dog but the whole farce made me laugh so. :-))

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  2. My hunch is that things were better back then than they now seem and are worse now than we think.

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    1. Mark, read the book. The whole period seems to have been unremittingly bad! I simply don't get the feeling from our present times.

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    2. > The whole period seems to have been unremittingly bad! I simply don't get the feeling from our present times.

      What signs for optimism do you see in present day Britain, Ana? What things do you think are working well?

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    3. Seymour, ask me in another thirty years! Like my parents then I am young now. Life is bad in some ways but in others...well. :-)

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    4. Well, Ana, I hate to puncture your optimism. But if I survey the Britain of 2012 there are few - honestly, no - things working well.

      We are in debt up to our eyeballs. Our education system (including, I believe, the private sector now) is bad and on course for abysmal. We have a massive underclass that is set to grow exponentially. Meantime our judiciary is ineffective, our media blinded by PC, our government corrupt, and our voting system unfit for purpose. Daily life, outside but especially inside the workplace, is increasingly stultified by a blind nomenklatura class for whom process is everything and end result irrelevant. Our public services are so expansive and expensive that a baby born today will have to work until the age of 77 (on current, no doubt massaged, estimates) in order to pay enough tax to support them. Mainstream culture is increasingly trashy and nihilistic, with rap music being pure cultural poison. There is massive resource waste and moral/intellectual corrosion at every level of our society.

      But all of that would be bearable - even solvable in the long term - if it were not for the biggest threat. We have a massive contingent of Third World immigrants which is set to grow such that they will outnumber the native Brits within this century. These are people with no connection to or love of our culture, history, traditions or achievements. In many cases, they are dead-set against these things.

      With all of that in mind, I think the problems of the 1970s pretty much pale in comparison to those of 2012. We could well be living in the last decades of Britain as you and I, in our different ways, have known it.

      Of course, it is solvable. But we would have to become vicious in order to do it.

      Again, I'm sorry to say these things. It just surprises me that someone as intelligent as you cannot see the danger we are in.

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    5. Seymour, I have no disagreement with you on any of those points. Still I cannot shake the feeling that things seem worse then than now, what with hyper inflation, bone-headed trade unionists, Marxists in the bed rather than under it, the IMF crisis and on and on. I confess that I have a natural optimism on my side. After all, this is my time and this is my life.

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  3. You ain't seen nothing yet.

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  4. Indeed Ana, a salutary reminder that liberalism breeds an erosion of the legal structure. Children have become almost as obnoxious as the politicians as parents try to befriend their offspring and abnegate responsibility. The building block of the state remains the family. From microcosm to dwindling macrocosm ad absurdum. Abigail personified the social climber without any redeeming qualities, a small person in a small world manipulated by the media. Now how far do the rulers of today seem from her, or how near to their illegitimate daughter as they search for forgotten clich├ęs they may pass off on the unsuspecting herd?

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    1. Good question, Richard. Have you seen that play? I have it on DVD, a give-away in one of the Sundays. Beverly is played by Alison Steadman, brilliantly awful!

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  5. Ana, as always, your reviews are spot on!

    As your comment about your parents demonstrates, our memories (both personal and popular) don't always reflect realities. For example, here in the States, much is made of the "Summer of Love", and "our" (not mine, I was much too young) memories are of peaceful flower-children blissfully swaying to music. Imagine how surprised I was when (now an adult) I surfed the web and found many articles (in newspaper archives) about cities in flames, and viewed a video clip showing soldiers setting up HEAVY machine guns (.50cal Browning M2HBs surrounded by sandbags) on the steps of Federal and State Capital buildings, whilst columns of smoke rose in the background! Also (many years later) from KGB and Stasi archives we now know that they funded many of the student anti-war groups. I wonder how many of the anti-UK activities you have described were also set in motion by the Soviets?

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    1. Thanks, CB. :-) The KGB seems to have been involved with some of the senior trade union leaders. It's certainly true that the British Communist Party had an influence in the trade union movement well out of proportion to its numerical strength.

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  6. The 1970s were even worse than the picture you paint here Ana (I was there!). And I still think of Tony Benn as Anthony Wedgewood-Benn, an aristocrat who pretended to be a working-class hero.

    One small point regarding your reference to punk rock, which incidentally was aimed at people like me, who were still listening to bands like Pink Floyd and Queen: No More Heroes was by the Stranglers, who were anything but dysfunctional.

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  7. knew that Labour governments were dysfunctional but, my goodness, I had no idea of just how dysfunctional.

    We have this thing about muddling through but it's just a cover for the appalling incompetence and after all, the pollies at the top only had information coming in, as we all do, to shape decisions about what they would do. And that info coming in was always viewed through the filters of Whitehall incompetence and the pollie's own prejudices.

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    1. Very true, James. I think you would enjoy this book. The debates in Cabinet at the time of the IMF crisis are highly illuminating.

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