Short Cuts

Andrew O’Hagan

I can’t be the only person who remembers the 1970s in Britain as a prolonged downpour with a single burst of sunshine. There were 55 million people living here, but on certain days, walking between the rubbish bags that were waiting in the puddles for action from Jim Callaghan, one could feel like the world had gone awol, like Miss Trinidad and Tobago.

There were ‘decades’ during the 19th century. The 1830s: the period of reform. The 1890s: the age of Decadence. But only in the 20th century did we start forcing a character on decades, as if each should have its own mood, in a sense that would prove comprehensible to fashion, advertising, public memory and everyday cliché. Some decades don’t have a mood so much as a central event that defines them: the 1910s are the decade when Edwardian vapours gave way to the guns at Ypres; the 1940s are conditioned by the spirit of the Blitz, even though the bombing stopped before the decade was halfway through. Decade-speak requires the period to have a style, and the 1940s are odd for being in thrall – despite the big band sound, despite the movies and the Beveridge Report – to a version of style that negates itself and calls itself Austerity. (The opening chapter of David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain, 1945-51 is called ‘Waiting for Something to Happen’.)

It can take a while for a decade to have a style. The 1950s, for example, weren’t really the 1950s until the 1960s so clearly turned out to be the 1960s.* We know what they say about the 1950s – ‘you’ve never had it so good’ – but, for decade watchers, it has always whiffed of painted smiles and iffy decorum, of low-rise housing, Butlin’s holiday camps and Kenwood Chefs. The 1960s, as a decade, has a style so vivid as to make other decades struggle to make themselves noticed beside it. People who were young in the 1960s speak a lot about the period, its ‘values’, its new freedoms. I have a friend who says the 1960s was like ‘someone turning the lights on’. Jenny Diski, a stalwart of this parish, has written, in her excellent book The Sixties, as good an account of that decade’s famous permissiveness as we are likely to get. ‘The permission we gave ourselves,’ she writes, ‘was more like a set of orders for disobeying our elders.’

Some decades have a simple sense of themselves that seems not to change very much: the Roaring Twenties. Others – Auden’s ‘low dishonest decade’, for example – are more venal and strange, a mood of uncertainty forming itself almost sinisterly into a style. Some change according to the light. Peter York imagined the 1980s to be a time of relentless new opportunity and inclusiveness and money-making brio. But York published his book 15 years ago; the 1980s are generally seen now as a low point for Britain, a time when old-fashioned wars and new-fashioned money made the country seem ridiculous and exhausted. The 1990s don’t yet have a mood. They may forever be defined by the style they preceded, what Martin Amis, rather horrifically, called Horrorism. Others may see it as a last golden age of selling the silver and weeping over Diana and burning the dead cows, a Blairite meandering into the chaos of international worries.

It sometimes takes a while for a decade to find its voice, as creative writing teachers say. The 1970s are now clear and rather weathered; they also speak to our own times, with their own coalition, their three-day weeks, their household candles and discontented winters. For so long the decade that didn’t seem to have a style, that was, indeed, an abomination of everything we look for in style, the 1970s are now coming to seem like the decade to think about if we want to understand the soul of the country we’re living in. Andy Beckett’s book, When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies, is a crack piece of journalism, with the emphasis on the journey, the author seeking and finding, with no little affection, the essence of a British decade that still redounds with notions of collapse. The 1970s was the period of Beckett’s early childhood, as it was of mine, and his book is all the more likeable, as the best of this decade-watching is, thanks to the high degree of personal vision it brings to the writing.

Books that seek to define the Way We Lived Then are a new strand in popular history. David Kynaston’s magisterial accounts of postwar Britain are matched by Dominic Sandbrook, whose new one, State of Emergency: The Way We Were – Britain, 1970-74 (Allen Lane, £30), is for me a Proustian experience. The wedding of Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips on 14 November 1973 was ‘the first major royal event in London since the Coronation’. It was also the first thing I ever remember watching on TV, aged five, eating from a tin of Ambrosia Creamed Rice. One of Sandbrook’s many contemporary diarists, an Essex teenager, made some notes about the election on 28 February 1974, ‘but she devoted far more space to recording the guest artists on that evening’s Top of the Pops, who included Ringo Starr, David Bowie, Suzi Quatro and The Wombles.’ I remember that exact show. After watching it, I decided it would be nice to be David Bowie when I grew up, or one of The Wombles.

Holidays on the Costa del Sol, Red Rum, Upstairs, Downstairs, The Death of the Author, Aggro Britain, the fuel crisis, I, Claudius. The country’s low ebb would produce new kinds of hero, and a young generation was on its way to finding truth in the noise of the Sex Pistols. I remember my brothers plugging a strange box into the back of the television. It was called a computer and by twisting a knob you could deflect a little onscreen ping-pong ball bouncing from goal to goal. Each of us has a decade to pin some of our early colours to, and, thankfully for some of us, the 1970s is now having its moment. I remember the computer ping-pong and my brother’s ITT tape machine glowing in the dark. ‘Look to the future now,’ Noddy Holder sang: ‘It’s only just begun.’