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State of Emergency

March 28th, 2011 · Posted by Skuds in Life/Politics · 2 Comments · Life, Politics

Front cover

It took a while to get there, but I have just finished reading State of Emergency, The Way We Were: Britain 1970-1974 by Dominic Sandbrook.  It is a real door-step of a book, about 5cm thick in hardback and I have started and finished reading several other books since I started this before Christmas, but this month I decided to concentrate on this and get it finished.

Although only 40 years ago, Britain in the early 70s was a very different place from now.  The TV programme Life on Mars shows this very well, but doesn’t get into some of the nitty-gritty.  For example, in 1971, 64% of families had a washing machine, 69% had a fridge and 90% had a TV.

I am still reeling a litle bit at that.  We take fridges for granted now, and we certainly had one when I was growing up, but it is strange to think that my parents quite probably didn’t have one before I was born and most other people would have been the same.

This was another book from Amazon’s Vine programme whereby they send me free samples in return for me reviewing them.  This is what I wrote about it:

This is a remarkable book. Having read Andy Beckett’s book about Britain in the 1970s (When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies recently (well June 2009 – how time flies) I was a little daunted to see a book just as thick that only covered four years of the decade, but it is a very accessible book despite the extra detail.

Essentially this is about the Heath government, but is not limited to just Westminster politics. It branches out into changes in wider society over the same period, drawing from a wide range of sources. In one paragraph there might be a quote from the diary of Tony Benn or a senior civil servant and in the next there might be a quote from the diary of Kenneth Williams or a normal teenager of the time.

Popular entertainment features quite extensively to illustrate contemporary attitudes. Some are obvious choices, like Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads or Alf Garnett, but others were more surprising: Doctor Who crops up a lot and I was surprised to see just how topical some of those episodes were. When I watched them as a boy I thought they were just entertainment but there were episodes making a point about the miners; strike or entry into Europe, and the whole character of Jo Grant was reflecting the changing place of women in British society.

As an aside, the fact that some of the TV programmes were so topical suggests that even for sitcoms the production cycle must have been so much shorter than now with some episodes being broadcast only weeks after being written.

Actually, the only criticism I can make of this book is the way in which so many of the cultural references fall outside the timeframe of the book. I know that sometimes a book might eventually get published a long time after it is written so that a 1976 book might have been started in 1973, but there were too many plays, books, TV shows and films from the latter years of the 70s used to illustrate points. Partly it made me think that the writer couldn’t find enough contemporary examples and partly it made me wonder if this is a sign that he has no plans to write a history of 1975-1979 but to jump straight to the Thatcher years.

For me the whole book was an eye-opener as I was around at the time but too young to really know what was going on. In retrospect I feel a tad guilty about having such a brilliant time in the early 70s now that I know just how bad everything was and how hard it must have been for our parents to keep us happy despite it all.

Above all, this is an insight to the personality and fortunes of Edward Heath. Even as a card-carrying leftie I can see how his version of one-nation conservatism was well-intentioned, and may even have worked out in better economic circumstances. Certainly he seemed to have a better rapport with the trade union leaders than most Labour PMs. I did find myself thinking that if North Sea oil had come onstream during his time in office he would have made much more contructuve use of its revenues than Margaret Thatcher did.

I think Heath comes out of this story quite well, certainly better than Kenneth Williams: the quotes from his diaries just make him appear petulant, self-centred and mean-spirited.

I think that anybody who enjoyed the Andy Beckett book will find not only enjoy this one as well, but find it complements it very well. One thing I didn’t realise when I started was that the book is actually only(?) about 650 pages long; the remaining 100 pages are notes, reading lists and an extensive index. Still a substantial read and a remarkable acheivement, even more so considering that the author is only about 35 and has also written a couple of similar books on the 1960s. I would be in awe that somebody managed to do all the research for such a book by that age, let alone three of them.

There are some similarities between this book and the Andy Beckett one.  In both cases, the writer wasn’t old enough to have any first-hand knowledge of the early 70s, and Andy Beckett would have only been about 10 by the end of the decade.  I guess this makes them more objective about it than if they had been at university or work at the time.  In both cases the net is cst a lot wider than politics and takes in culture, food, fashion and other aspects of life.

The biggest difference obviously ythat the Beckett book is about the whole decade, so in political terms it is about the competition between Heath and Wilson, while the Sandbrook book can concentrate a lot more on Heath.  It also means that, with fewer years to cover it can cover more ground during those years. For example, there is a lot more about football in this book I think.

The other difference is that Beckett interviewed a lot of people for material, in many cases catching them shortly before their deaths.  That meant a lot of quotes from people who have the benefit of hindsight.  This newer book relies instead on contemporary sources like diaries and official records.

It is a good read though: organised by topic rather than just starting at 1970 and working its way through the years.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • skud's sister

    Well, I know we didn’t have a colour tv until the late 70’s (I was away at school by then I think). We did have a washing machine but no hot running water until we moved away from Lynton.

    I do seem to remember grandad (I think) having a gas-powered fridge and finding it fascinating. And Janice & Julia having tvs in their rooms seemed really odd – I don’t even think I was jealous.

  • Skuds

    It was a gas fridge and it was huge!

    Those 69% of houses with washing machines… I imagine quite a few were like ours: twin tubs. When I got to school we had a twin tub there as well.

    It would have been hard to be jealous of TVs in the bedroom when there was so little on it – and the chance that what you wanted to watch would be on in the front room was theoretically 33% but normally 100%