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Britain, 1970-1974: Pageantry, crisis, and Harold Wilson’s second coming.

A Fortnightly Review of
State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974
by Dominic Sandbrook
£30 768 pages Allen Lane.

By Anthony Howell.

I’M NOT SURE I want to spend the last days of the Noughties and the best part of the bi-millennial teens reading up about past decades. Archivists tend to work on a thirty-year time-lag; so now we’re in for a deluge of reminiscences and research re the Seventies, and for most of its chroniclers, the decade is served up as a grim antidote to the Swinging Sixties. “What really happened to Britain in the Seventies” is brought to light in When the Lights Went Out by Andy Beckett (Faber), which Roy Hattersley found “beautifully written and hugely entertaining.” Meanwhile reviewers in the Independent and the New Statesman laud Crisis? What Crisis?: Britain in the 1970s by Alwyn W. Turner (Aurum). It falls to my lot to wade through, or at least take a fair number of dips into, State of Emergency, by Dominic Sandbrook.

Sandbrook is adept at dishing out the timely hook of detail: miners working completely naked because is was so hot underground they had to counteract their perspiration by drinking a salt-laced eight pints of water every shift. He contrasts the solidarity of the miners with the virulent determination of the government to emasculate the trades-union movement. Ah, the Seventies! When there were still ideologies – and closets: Jeremy Thorpe going to enormous lengths to hide his homosexuality, allegedly plotting to murder his erstwhile lover. But while that may have mattered in politics, in the art world at the time it was a disadvantage to be straight. And as for those men who dared aver that they were, many felt shouldered aside by a rugby scrum of feminists; so between the teapot and the tortoise (in the Roman sense) heteros didn’t stand much of a chance back then.

Politics and movements and the fresh affiliations that grew up in the Seventies are covered in the book. Sandbrook describes The Friends of the Earth blowing the first clarion for the environment, while Frank Chapple, lord of electricians, grumbles about footling issues like the future of the planet: “My members…can identify with the advance of new technology and its benefits, not with the muesli-eaters, ecology freaks, loony leftists and other nutters who make up the anti-nuclear brigade.” Astutely, Sandbrook points out that a lavish-enough magazine called The Ecologist was funded by James “Teddy” Goldsmith and casino-owner John Aspinall – neither of whom were exactly “loony leftists”.

AS FOR THE RAGE against the permissiveness that had characterised the Sixties, Sandbrook tellingly describes Mary Whitehouse emerging “pale and blinking” into the spring sunlight of Soho to denounce that “rotten” educational film, Growing Up – with its full frontals, masturbation and explicit copulation.

National pageantry is contrasted with national crisis – royal weddings and The Miss World contest set against oil-price hikes, industrial seizure, and the escalation of violence in Northern Ireland; all of which culminated in the downfall of the Heath government and Harold Wilson’s second coming.

State of Emergency is cogently written, and well-analysed, but there are more than 750 pages, and he’s only up to 1974! I shake my head at our attempts to conjure up the dream that is the past, especially the more or less immediate past. One friend of mine started a dream notebook, but stopped when the dream of the night before took more than 24 hours to jot down. The past our sociology industry seems to demand that we recall is a past to which I am indifferent. Why should I bother to remember that Crosland was spelt with one S? – though I do have to admire this shadow environment spokesman for dropping off to sleep on television.

Who was the shadow environment spokesman in the 1870s? I’ve no idea, but during that decade James Whistler exhibited The Artist’s Mother, George Eliot published Middlemarch, Through the Looking-Glass came out and Samuel Butler gave us Erewhon. Few politicians, if any, know who I am, so why should I care about them? I have to confess, that I prefer the by-ways of history to its highways, and since I subsist in a backwater, I would be more eager to read a history of backwaters. Interesting species get spawned in these.

Ronnie Scott’s “old place” had already gone – closed in ’67 – so, for me, the era of going to hear experimental jazz mixed with liberal doses of Kwela from South Africa and then going on to dance ’til dawn to Ska and Soul in the Count Suckle Cue Club in Praed Street, had already drawn to a close. My first book of poems had just been published, and I survived by writing articles for Vogue and Harpers – articles on avant garde artists – Robert Wilson, Philip Glass, Stuart Sherman, Sol Lewitt – unthinkable to find such articles in the pages of contemporary fashion; but this had been a tradition going back into the thirties, when Vogue published an excellent article by Vyvyann Holland called “How to Write” – listing the bizarre methods of his father’s contemporaries. So back then, in 1970, women who read Vogue were still wearing bras, but being intellectual was part and parcel of being fashionable.

“Poetry International” started on the South Bank. John Ashbery came over to read. I did the first UK radio interview with him, and he became a close friend. At that time American art and literature seemed refreshingly experimental compared to its framed or leather-elbowed British counterpart. Many of the artists I knew began hopping frequently between London and New York. Some settled in the States, and have subsequently developed reputations there, but not here – James Nares, for instance, and Trevor Winkfield.

INSPIRED BY NEW YORK, I tried to organise events featuring poetry and sculpture; events which mixed arts practitioners. I read a long poem in conjunction with the movements of a kinetic sculpture by Peter Logan in Derek Jarman’s vast Bankside studio. Jarman and Andrew Logan were unacknowledged hosts to a great deal of alternative culture, both in fashion and in the arts, in those days. I also did my first workshop in Wormwood Scrubs, beginning an engagement with creative writing in prisons. One of the great train robbers read out a fantastic ballad of the robbery that he had written. Who has the manuscript of that?

The Poetry Society hosted a happening created by Ann Lauterbach, John Welch and myself involving poetry generated on the spot with tape-recorded play-back. Openly, and “Americanly”, enthusiastic, Ann was a positive force in London cultural life, befriending artists and poets. We were all determined to tear down the walls separating British art into specialized coteries. I don’t know if we succeeded, but by ’72 I was lecturing in art-schools, drawing comparisons between Philip Glass and Bridget Riley.

We created performance poetry events among the sculpture exhibited at the Whitechapel, and Covent Garden was the focus for a great deal of experimental activity, as it had been with the Drury Lane arts lab in the sixties. There was the Artist’s Meeting Place, and Garage Art, the latter presided over by the redoubtable Vera Russell. Garage was more conservative than AMP, which was next door, but both sponsored some of the earliest performances by The Theatre of Mistakes. A little earlier, Nigel Greenwood had hosted Gilbert and George performing “Underneath the Arches” at his Sloane Square gallery. A group of artists, myself included, founded Wallpaper Magazine – a far, far cry from the magazine currently using that title. There were twelve editors. Six of them could contribute to any one issue, while the other six got the issue together, and the contribution had to be an original work of art. The cover was cut from rolls of actual wallpaper. Editors included Amikam Toren, Susan Hiller, and Anthony McCall.

There were feuds and divisions – the politically committed and the feminist artists ranged against hedonists like myself – and yet we were often at the same parties, or in the same beds, and exhibiting in the same courageous venues – all sharing the same shoestrings. For us, the greatest patron of the arts was the dole. It enabled members of performance art companies to live in the attics of country farms and create living artworks that would become famous at festivals all over Europe and America. It enabled people to get on with whatever they were putting together.

Frankly, as I recall it, that half-decade was quite a golden age.

A former dancer with the Royal Ballet, Anthony Howell was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen and The Times Literary Supplement. His first collection of poems, Inside the Castle, was published in 1969, and his Selected Poems have been published by Anvil. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice , and two novels – In the Company of Others and Oblivion, a novel about the tango. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale.

Read another review of State of Emergency by Michelene Wandor.
Read Ticklishness, a poem by Anthony Howell.