The year of power cuts, polyester and a 45p Big Mac
1974: Scenes From A Year Of Crisis Nick Rennison Oldcastle Books £14.99
Most people would probably plump for the 1960s as the decade when the old, patriotic, church-going Britain changed into the world we recognise today: miniskirts... The Beatles… foreign holidays...
Nick Rennison argues here that in fact the 1970s – ‘polyester, platform shoes and power cuts,’ as one writer neatly summarised it – was the watershed decade of modern times. And in a sequence of hugely entertaining, often wryly amusing and sometimes grim snapshots, he offers plenty of evidence.
Yet much is oddly familiar here too. Pop music evolves, fashions vary and history marches on, but human nature remains remarkably constant. And politicians and hypocrisy go together like bacon and eggs.
Take the misery of the three-day week, when the whole country suffered power cuts and electricity blackouts for an entire winter, thanks to industrial action. One Government Minister, Patrick Jenkin, helpfully advised the electorate to brush their teeth in the dark. He was widely ridiculed, especially when it was reported that his own comfortable North London residence ‘was a blaze of electric light early in the morning’.
As an eight-year-old schoolboy I found eating supper by candlelight thrilling. But for my father in his study, or my poor mother in the kitchen, it must have been an utter bore. Televisions stopped broadcasting at 10.30pm and shops ‘had to choose either mornings or afternoons to switch on the lights’. To cap it all, Idi Amin, the brutal Ugandan dictator, mockingly set up a ‘Save Britain Fund’ and promised to send us emergency food parcels to help out. He might have been an appalling murderer and thug, widely rumoured to have eaten his own foreign minister’s liver, but he did have a sense of humour.
It isn’t all politics, though. Rennison gives us the epic boxing match of Ali v Foreman, the Rumble in the Jungle and the shock of Manchester United’s relegation to the Second Division (now the Championship).
The VW Golf was launched, one of the most successful cars of all time. Its Italian designer, Giorgetto Giugiaro, also designed a new shape of pasta, the Marille, which ‘never quite caught on’. And the first McDonald’s opened in South-East London, where a Big Mac cost you 45p.
In the arts, the big news was the great Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s flight to the West, where he gave a fierce speech against ideological censorship, saying, ‘Woe to that nation whose literature is cut short by the intrusion of force.’ I wonder if today’s shrill woke warriors and priggish book censors have pondered Solzhenitsyn’s words?
It’s appalling to be reminded of the atrocities of the IRA. The Guildford and Birmingham pub bombings were horrendous, and the true perpetrators have never been charged – although such things are now, let us pray, in the past.
Still with us, alas, is that weeping sore of the world, Israel/Palestine. In May 1974, Palestinian terrorists broke into a private house and murdered three Israelis, one a child. They then took control of a school, which ended with a bloodbath and the death of 31 more Israelis, many of them children. The Israeli response was predictably ferocious: they bombed what they claimed were the terrorists’ bases, located in Palestinian refugee camps in southern Lebanon. Many more were killed.
Although there is plenty of light entertainment and colourful anecdote in this 1970s portrait, I finished it thinking, never mind McDonald’s and the VW Golf: how desperately sad that in all the important ways, absolutely nothing seems to have changed or progressed in 50 long years. Will it ever?
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