Tuesday, 31 July 2007

I Don't Love the 1970s

I have to apologise to non-UK readers as this posting views the 1970s from very much a British perspective. In many other countries I am sure the decade was quite a bit better. As I have noted in previous postings the British public lives in the past and having moved on from the 'good old days' of the 1950s, the 1970s seems to be the focus of nostalgia, in my mind, very wrongly. There were things going on across the world that made the 1970s less than rosy for many people. The Vietnam War did not finish until 1975. The Vietnamese had been fighting the Japanese from 1941-5 then the French until 1954, then the Americans 1965-73 before the Chinese then got a look in by invading in 1979. The Vietnamese in turn invaded Cambodia which had been under the control of Pol Pot since 1975. He carried out the murders of about 2 million Cambodians and an attempt to return the country to 'Year Zero'.

Afghanistan was invaded in 1979 by the USSR and Iran went from a royal dictatorship to a fundamentalist one in the same year. The Middle East which had been plagued by fighting from 1914 onwards saw another round of the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1973; the Arab response to this was an oil embargo stronger than that imposed in 1967, then the more effective tool of simply quadrupling oil prices, which led to inflation across the World and the end of what is seen as the post-1945 economic boom. Chile's elected government was overthrown by American backed rebels and the President Allende was assassinated. Peru, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Ecuador all faced guerilla wars and dictatorhips, something which alsco came to Brazil and Argentina. South Africa remained under apartheid; a war which ran for more than a decade started in 1975 in Angola and similarly in Mozambique, in Uganda Idi Amin came to power in 1971 and lasted until 1979 instituting a horrific regime and leading to the ejection of Ugandan Asians; in the Central African Republic a similarly insane and brutal dictatorship under 'Emperor' Bokassa I ran 1972-9. In total 20 African states were under military dictatorship in the 1970s.

Once the USA had finally left Vietnam, maybe the 1970s appear reasonable for Americans, in the narrow window of detente in the Cold War and before AIDS began to bite. Even with inflation and even in the UK, in the 1970s there seemed to be some prosperity. Despite the petrol price increase 1975 saw the peak in car sales. Clothes were loose and jeans flared, partly stimulated by a glut in cotton production. Yet, even in the prosperity of which some of the world's citizens were benefiting from, there were concerns. There was the worry that we were going to run out of oil and yet no-one really commited to any other fuel. The French went ahead with nuclear power as did the British and Americans to a lesser extent. The accident at the USA's Three Mile Island nuclear station in 1979 was a foretaste of what would come from Chernobyl in the USSR in 1986.

So globally the World was in a mess. However, everyone these days seems to look through all of this to disco and glam rock. These were brash hedonistic cultures mixing fashion and music and a sexual freedom, if you were lucky. As with the 1960s when only a fraction of the population of any country, even in the West, let alone elsewhere, actually experienced the hippy movement, so in the 1970s. I suppose fashions such as flares, tanktops and platform shoes did penetrate to the high street, but you were hardly going to experience glam rock or disco culture to any meaningful level at a dingy local disco or nightclub. The UK in the 1970s and it had been since the 1830s onwards was dreary, drab and only functioning once in a while.

The closest reflection of this rather bitter side of the 1970s seems not to come in documentaries, but in the series. 'Life on Mars' which is about a 'time-travelling' policeman from 2006 who ends up stuck in 1973. The ugly bedsit where he lives and the threat from IRA bombs sums up the experience of the bulk of the UK population far more than renditions of 'Dancing Queen' or 'Ride a White Swan'. Not only were the 1970s drab, something that the brash acid colours of interior design could not conceal, but they were boring. As an aside, you can see two clear segments of the 1970s, probably pivoting around 1975 when the glam of the first half of the decade slowed down, worn out by its excesses and shaded into the lower key second half, for which the faeces-brown shade of Austin Allegro (I kid you not, see if you can find an image online of this appalling car) seemed to sum up the last five years of the decade and began to prepare us for the comfiness of 1980s domestic styles.

The 1970s were boring as the UK only had 3 television channels. These went off during the middle of the day and rarely stayed on as late as midnight. The viewing figures for popular shows topped 20 millon (i.e. about a third of the entire population) indicating how little there was to do. On Sundays no shops were open bar newsagents that closed at 12.30 and pubs which closed 15.00-19.00 and then again at 22.30. The prime entertainment on Sunday afternoon was to walk around towns of closed shops looking in estate agents' windows before coming home for a dreary serial, religious programmes and if you were lucky a nature programme. People turned up their colour televisions (not a universal luxury, many still watched in black & white) so red that blood looked like strawberry jam when it came out of a seal on one of these nature programmes. There were no home computers, music was on records or cassettes, both prone to damage. Music is a matter of choice, so if you like disco or funk or '70s soul or ska or punk or progressive rock or folk, all popular in the 1970s, fine, but in fact much of the music that the bulk of the population in the UK heard was very naff child stars like The Osmonds or Our Kid or singers like Dana and Gilbert O'Sullivan singing sickly sentimental stuff. Though children were given a freer rein to go to the park and run around and vandalise, they were no safer than they were today. The television schedule was filled with warnings to children about how they could be run over (graphically illustrated by a hammer smashing a peach), electrocuted on electricity pylons, drown in canals, drown in manure even, get run over by tractors, be abducted by strangers and so on.

Life in the 1970s was unhealthy. Now smoking is banned even in pubs in the UK. In the 1970s it happened everywhere: in cinemas, shops, on public transport (including underground trains until the Kings Cross station fire of 1987 which killed 31 people) even in the workplace. Everywhere you went in the 1970s stunk of tobacco smoke; cigarette advertising was everywhere. Dog faeces were not picked up in the way owners have to these days and walking down a suburban street was a real hazard; you were lucky if the dog had had a typical canine diet of the time and had white faeces, these were hard and did not squidge when trodden on - these days they eat better. In the shops nothing was sugar-free or contained bran, there was minimal indication of what it actually contained. Bread was snow white and chewy as rubber; cereals were jam packed with sugar and advertising to children was unregulated, no wonder tooth decay in children was so high. The quality of food and drink was appalling from disgusting UK made sherry to whipped up desserts full or artificial colours you had to put up with food that these days would turn your stomach. Driving was equally a danger. Wearing seatbelts was not compulsory and you could drive at 90mph (144kph) on motorways until 1974 in an era when no car had a crumple zone, ABS or airbags.

I have not mentioned the industrial action in the UK. The attempts by the Conservative government (1970-74) and the Labour government (1974-79) to reduce inflation by limiting pay claims led to rising industrial action. The most notable outcomes were in 1974 with the three-day week and in the so-called 'Winter of Discontent' of 1978/9. 1973 had already seen the reduction of motorway speed limits to 50mph (80kph) to conserve fuel and electricity was only made available for 3 days during the 5-day working week. This bumped up unemployment and left household subsisting on cold food and candles for many nights from January to March of that year and limits on industrial use of electricity for even longer. In December 1978 similar issues over pay arose leading to strikes by lorry drivers and local authority staff meaning that refuse was not collected and people were not buried. The cessation of many deliveries meant panic buying of things like sugar and flour, hiking inflation even more; also many petrol stations closed as they ran out of stocks. Railway workers, nurses also went on strike and the Army had to step in to provide emergency cover. The government did not use the powers under Acts passed in 1964, 1973 and 1976 which would have allowed it counter the strike. Though in 1948-9 the Labour government under Clement Attlee had been happy to declare states of emergency and Conservative Edward Heath did on a number of occasions 1972-4, the Labour prime minister in 1978-9, James Callaghan felt inhibited from doing so. The unrest ended in February 1979 but had wrecked Labour's chances of winning the forthcoming election, a 5% lead in the polls had turned into a 20% lag by February and the election in May 1979 brought the Conservatives to power until 1997. [For more on why I consequently don't love the 1980s, see a future posting].

Unrest was not limited to the industrial scene, though it was not until the early 1980s that the UK saw race riots on a scale not witnessed since the 1950s, the 1970s set out the groundwork with the rise of the National Front (NF) and thousands of incidents of racism (seemingly condoned by television comedies which often raised 'humour' from racial differences, especially the series 'Curry and Chips' [shown in 1969 and cancelled fortunately after only 6 episodes] and 'Love Thy Neighbour' [which shockingly ran 1972-6; 8 series]) affected people across the UK, not least the refugees escaping Idi Amin's horrific regime.

So next time suggests you attend a '70s party and dress up in glam or disco fashions, remember that that style was as much a fantasy for the people of the time as it is for you. Whilst the 2000s are not that wonderful, I am certainly totally unwilling to trade them to experience the 1970s.

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