Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Seventies in the shade

I am, in the literal sense, a child of the 1960s.  But the 1970s was really the formative decade for me.  Even now, much of my taste - in books, films, music - seems to have its roots in that decade. 

I was intrigued, therefore, by Francis Wheen's new book, Strange Days Indeed, an account of the 1970s subtitled 'The Golden Age of Paranoia'.  As Wheen indicates, the book is in part a prequel to his last, highly entertaining work, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, which began with the oddities of the Reaganite 1980s.  He quotes John Fowles in turn referencing Gramsci's Prison Notebooks: '...the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appears.'  Wheen's book details just some of the 'morbid symptoms' that characterised the decade that sat uncomfortably between the optimistic idealism of the 1960s and the increasingly unfettered capitalism of the 1970s. 

Like its predecessor, Strange Days Indeed feels more like a collection of essays than a sustained history, and at times this left me feeling slightly frustrated.  There were points where I would have preferred a clearer exploration of cause and effect or a more thorough exposition of the linkages between the various phenomena that Wheen describes.  But the descriptions themselves are fascinating.  We get chapters on Nixon and Watergate, the Heath and Wilson governments, international terrorism and the 'underground' movement, the Oz obscenity trial, developments in Russia and China, Idi Amin, the CIA, Uri Geller and Erich von Daniken, and plenty more.  One senses that Wheen wasn't exactly short of material. 

Wheen describes the 1970s as 'that most distant of times, the day before yesterday'.  It may be that any decade, subject to this kind of scrutiny, would reveal its share of peculiarities.  But there does seem to be a sense that, for a few years, the world lost its collective senses (alongside Sir William Armstrong, head of the civil service during the Heath government, who at the height of the Heath's conflict with the National Union of Mineworkers had to be led away babbling about Armageddon).  Many of the stories - Nixon effectively bugging himself, the faked suicide of the MP John Stonehouse, Harold Wilson having to break into his own aide's property to recover papers withheld in a fit of pique - seem scarcely credible to a contemporary reader. 

And yet, as Wheen concludes in the final chapter, there are odd parallels with our own time - global economic crisis, the US engaged in a prolonged and increasingly intractable war, the resurgence of fanatical terrorism, the prevalence of conspiracy theory and political paranoia.  It may be that our current fascination with the decade - from Mamma Mia to Red Riding, from Frost/Nixon to Life on Mars - reflects a growing sense that they are perhaps tapping into a contemporary zeitgeist.  If so, we should perhaps treat Wheen's enjoyable book as something of a warning. 



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