Speak, Memory


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When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies, by Andy Beckett. Faber and Faber, 448 pp.

About a quarter of the way into Guardian journalist Andy Beckett’s impressive account of Britain in the 1970s, self-satisfied Labour Party politician Denis Healey, who served as Harold Wilson’s chancellor of the exchequer, observes that he knew “bugger all about economics” when he was appointed to the post, but soon learned, as chancellor that “economics is just a branch of social science” and was able to get on top of the job within the space of three months. It’s a striking admission not just for what it tells us about Healey’s complacency and the lack of expertise required of a politician even at the giddy heights of government, but also because it draws attention to the fact that much of what matters in history actually takes place elsewhere. Beckett might have done well to heed the content of Healey’s observation and pursued its implications. Economics is indeed no more than branch of social science, but you wouldn’t know this from what is, by Beckett’s own admission, a history of the period confined to political and economic events.

This isn’t to belittle his achievement, since the book is substantial and stands in its own right as a well-researched and thorough piece of journalism within its own self-defined parameters, but a good deal of context is lost if significant social forces-demographics, crime, scientific and technological developments, deskilling, shifts in religious allegiance, patterns of geographical and social mobility, changes in youth culture, etc., etc.,-are treated as epiphenomena or mere ephemera that have no enduring structural impact. It’s a history that only the vulgarest of Marxists could love.

Beckett has also taken a top-down approach to history, interviewing the individuals at the heart of things, as though they were the key players rather than merely representative or indicative of larger social forces and mass movements. To interview the founders of Spare Rib or Sid Rawle, the “king of the hippies,” is all well and good, to the extent that they embody the rise feminism or the free festival movement, but the idea that these individuals were the prime movers or somehow “led” the movement rather than just surfed a wave (some may even say, cynically, “took advantage”) of those movements is to mistake cause and effect. In sum, I would have preferred to read a People’s History of the 70s rather than a one-sided Great Man’s History of the 70s.

The definition of politics used by Beckett is conventional, too. It’s what you’d expect of a Guardian journalist, touching all the right bases-gay rights, feminism, Grunwick and Saltley Gates, Northern Ireland, the rise of environmentalism, the increasing visibility of minorities-but because of the limitations he places on himself there is precious little on, for example, the anti-Apartheid movement, Britain’s relationship to the Commonwealth, immigration from Uganda, or the issues of Rhodesia and Cyprus; nor is there any indication that Beckett understands the political significance of other aspects of everyday life, such as youth culture, most notably punk rock and its entire DIY ethic, the role of sports in generating nationalist sentiment (this was a decade that saw not just the British Lions tour South Africa but also Buster Mottram joining the National Front, of hooliganism, of Virginia Wade winning Wimbledon, Scotland going to World Cups and England not), nor the importance of the mass media in generating a set of communal values, along with the accompanying marginalization or demonization of “outsiders.” Such a change in terms might well have required Beckett to do double the legwork required to produce the book he has (he tells us it was five years in the making), but it would have yielded a more comprehensive, more rounded and contextualised account of the period while also countering the standard Spenglerian “decline of empire” narrative that is usually imposed on the decade. The 1970s were certainly turbulent, but they were also colourful and exciting and brimming with new possibilities, with hope, with resistance and struggle; they just need to be looked at from a perspective other than that of a Telegraph reader.

Lest I be accused of some nostalgie de la boue, I’ll happily acknowledge to growing up in the 1970s and that consequently I’m prone to a rose-tinted view of those years. Even the blackouts caused by power cuts were a source of excitement, our generation’s equivalent of the Blitz. But I’d make the point, too, that my elders who saw the 1970s in apocalyptic terms were themselves guilty of romanticizing earlier decades, as though the Second World War was a triumph of communal spirit and victory a demonstration of British superiority, the empire and commonwealth a source of pride rather than shame. The message to take away, I’d suggest, is to be very careful when compartmentalizing the past, either chronologically or sociologically, because the process of categorization carries with it implicit assumptions that will inevitably shape the final result. The truth lies in the interstices.

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2 Responses

  1. Andy Beckett

    February 9, 2010 10:29 am

    In his 25 January review of my book When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies (Faber, 2009), John Green gives a distorting account of what the book actually contains. Green characterizes it as a “Great Man’s History of the 70s”; in fact, many of the most important chapters – on the 1972 miners’ strike, the three-day week, the Gay Liberation Front, the Grunwick strike, and the Winter of Discontent – have junior activists and trade unionists and members of the public as their key protagonists. I do also, I admit, write about the decade’s beleaguered prime ministers – should I have left them out? – but their impotence in the face of the decade’s bottom-up political movements is probably the book’s central theme.

    Green also suggests that I make no mention of the part played by youth culture and the mass media in 70s politics. In fact, I include a substantial section on Rock Against Racism, and make frequent reference to the way newspaper and television coverage demonized strikers and misleadingly darkened the tone of 70s politics with overly doomy reporting and editorials.

    Puzzlingly, Green criticizes me for focusing my book on “the individuals at the heart of things”. I wonder how he thinks history should be written – by ignoring them? He also writes that the 70s were “brimming with new possibilities” in politics, implying that I don’t hold that view, or at the least leaving my position on this question unclear. The middle section of my book is actually called “new possibilities”.

    Finally, my book has 576 pages and not 448 as Green states. I wonder how carefully he read it?

    Andy Beckett

  2. John Green

    February 9, 2010 9:08 pm

    I was sorry to read that Andy Beckett feels that I have distorted the contents of what I described as an impressive and substantial book and a well-researched and thorough piece of journalism. Upon reading his explanation, however, it is clear to me that he has not understood the main thrust of my criticism, namely, that as a consequence of the conventional categories he uses to structure and organize his narrative of events, he offers only a partial history of the period in question.

    One of the lessons learned early in any sociologist’s career is that those individuals “at the heart of things” are frequently least well placed to provide an accurate and objective version of events, however appealing their personal accounts might be for a journalistic rendering of history. Indeed, it is precisely such individuals who tend to occupy the epiphenomenal places in social history, representing the froth on the surface of far greater and more interesting social forces that I would have liked to have seen explored in the book, as I explained in my review.

    Making reference to a contrived youth cultural movement such as Rock Against Racism on account of its influence on politics does not a history of the period’s youth culture make; it only serves to highlight my point about Mr. Beckett’s conventional understanding of politics. What of the politics of punk and its associated DIY aesthetic, which resonates even today among bloggers? What of ska, rude boys, skinheads, and what they tell us about race relations? What of the teenyboppers who followed the Bay City Rollers and the Osmonds? What of Glam Rock? What do they tell us about shifting gender relations?

    I am well aware that a section of the book is called “New Possibilities,” but again, to re-iterate what I said in the review, it touches on all the usual bases you’d expect of a Guardian journalist but no more than that. The “possibilities” that I had in mind extended far beyond those suggested by such standard tropes: Why not examine the changes in geographical mobility and the consequences for the extended family offered by the expansion in car ownership, or why not explore the consequences of the opening up of overseas travel to far greater numbers of people as a result of package holidays? What of the possibilities generated by the expansion of comprehensive education? How did that affect social mobility? How about the loss of manufacturing, deskilling, the feminization of the workforce and cultural reassertions of masculinity in the form of football hooliganism? What about the VCR? Convenience foods? Social dislocation caused by unemployment in agriculture? Postmoderninsm and its impact on architecture? New developments in the arts and humanities? I’m repeating myself, I know, but the failure to see that all social spheres permeate one another—that sport is political, the artistic is economic, the musical is gender inflected, travel is racially conditioned, the family is ideological—means that whole swathes of significant social forces are overlooked.

    There is not yet, as far as I am aware, an established literary etiquette in the blogosphere, but it used to be the case that authors were discouraged from responding to reviews of their books or from attempting to control the reception of their work or otherwise imposing an interpretation of it on their readers. This applied a fortiori in such circumstances where the reader had bought the book with his own hard-earned money and had not received any remuneration expressing his opinion. Indeed, time was when more humble authors used to begin by thanking the reader for buying their book in the first place and for taking the time to formulate an opinion on it.

    Finally, as far as the discrepancy in page numbers goes, the fault is entirely mine for copying and pasting the book’s details from the review of Mr. Beckett’s book at the Socialist Unity blog. I direct Mr. Beckett there for a review that he might prefer to mine.