Book review: Torch song for a candlelit era
WHEN THE LIGHTS WENT OUT by Andy Beckett Faber and Faber, £20
OUT of envy, because I was too young for them, I've always enjoyed stories about the Sixties not swinging, or only swinging in London's Carnaby Street, of the Summer of Love lasting just a weekend, of orgy numbers not achieving the required quorum, and of the Dansette dying after track three of the Strawberry Alarm Clock's elpee because no one had another shilling for the meter.
But what of Britain's 1970s? We know what they were like. No need for another book on them, and certainly not a revisionist one. Nothing in that decade was strawberry-hued; most was grey or beige. Strikes, shortages, blackouts, bombs – that would sum it up. Like today, Britain was bust. There were reports at the time of the summer of '76 being quite hot, but few can recall this now. A grim, uninspiring period, all agreed? Then we'll forward to the full council for homologation. (Trade unions ruled in the Seventies and this was how everyone spoke).
But Andy Beckett remembers differently. Or rather he grew up in the following decades spouting the party line about "dead-end Britain" in the Seventies. Then he did some rooting around. Five years in the writing, When The Lights Went Out is a splendidly rigorous and vigorous alternative take on '70s Britain and surely the first history to be entirely Chopper and Spacehopper-free, to mention flared trousers only vaguely, and to get through 434 pages before namechecking Mike Yarwood.
The Seventies, he argues, have been misrepresented. He's fed up hearing how the punk revolt ('76-'77) was a "reaction" to the Winter of Discontent ('78-'79). Although intrigued as to how dead-end Britain managed to produce "such a flowering of pop music, fashion and television", he's less concerned with popular culture than with the targets of Yarwood's mimicry: Ted Heath, Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, Denis Healey, Jack Jones, Arthur Scargill – all of the leading Seventies players right up to Maggie Thatcher, who killed Yarwood's career overnight.
But he's also interested in politics at the grass roots and in the muddy festival field; in the concrete-and-glass campuses where you could be tutored in Marxism and shagging by role models for The History Man's Howard Kirk. "In the Seventies, the essence of politics was often the picket line and the think-tank pamphlet," he argues.
The essence of the Swinging Sixties was contained in the Seventies; rather than being the hangover decade, this was when the party really started. Beckett, a journalist by trade, tracks down counter-culture veterans of communes and squats ("Somebody might be walking round without their clothes on… somebody might be making love on one or another mattress"). In between all the walking etc, Gay Lib and Women's Lib found their voice, so too some dodgy ecologists, and the first ish of Spare Rib was produced by miners' strike-enforced candlelight.
Some of the most vivid writing concerns '74's three-day week: the wax 'n' wick hippy tycoons who soon ran out of candles, the freezing civil servants who resorted to wearing carpeting, and the Colchester couple who became stars of Italian TV as much of Britain summoned the spirit of the Blitz and reckoned they preferred "the darkness… the sense of life slowing down".
Beckett manages to make the IMF crisis read like the best kind of thriller. He travels far and wide, sometimes in search of a single Seventies-crucial quote. He visits Seventies utopias: the TGWU centre in Eastbourne, and Shetland with its multifarious community centres. North Sea oil splurged too late to save many of the decade's political giants, but Beckett finds the good in most of them – indeed his even-handedness extends to identical descriptions of Heath and Scargill (small eyes, dagger noses). Politics in the Seventies was "rawer and more honest", he declares.
Beckett was anxious to complete the book before anyone else died off (Jones passed away last week). He's done the Seventies proud and the hilarious chapter on the '75 Watchfield free festival, jointly organised by hippy anarchists and the Wilson government, and featuring a "Rent a Loony Stage" and much state-sponsored nude frolicking, will stay with me for another 30 years at least.
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