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Britain, 1970-1974: Feminism, flower power, and other ‘failed’ enterprises.

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

By Michelene Wandor.

THIS IS DOMINIC SANDBROOK’S third tome (in the best possible sense) chronicling post-war Britain. Two earlier books, Never Had it So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles and White Heat: 1964-1970: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties, suggested invigorating cultural times. Now come the warning salvos of State of Emergency, a successfully compendious (more than 700 pages) survey of the first half of the Seventies.

The period is boundaried by Edward Heath’s arrival and departure as Prime Minister. Sandbrook describes Heath’s ‘strangulated accent’ and social insecurity, and indicates throughout his narrative the double-edged emblem of post-war upward social mobility. In some ways, Sandbrook’s enterprise is a corrective one, challenging what he sees as a general doom-and-gloom approach to the decade. Some chapters do, indeed, read as much like elegies as historical accounts: strikes, industrial mayhem, violence in Northern Ireland, and the “failed” enterprises of feminism, flower power, and the ‘alternative’ culture. However, he gives credit to extra-mural activities of the time, one of which, Friends of the Earth has “seeped into the mainstream” of our current ecological concerns.

For those of us growing to a kind of adulthood in the early 1970s, Sandbrook’s stories trigger memories. I was a few years older than most of the people I got to know and worked with then. Married, with two small children, there was no way I was going to lie around with flowers in my hair, squat in broken down houses, or go on tour with energetic, committed theatre companies. But I did go on feminist demonstrations, to conferences, discovered my inherently radical politics and began writing seriously. Instrumentally, Time Out (which Sandbrook mentions only once) enabled me to keep tabs on the newly burgeoning culture. I started Time Out‘s poetry column, reviewed literally hundreds of poetry books and magazines, reviewed theatre and film, and wrote news pieces. I began with the surname ‘Victor’ (my married name) and soon changed that to my invented, baggage-free (relatively) surname, Wandor. This was the cutting edge of the cutting edge.

At the time I was also writing and publishing my own poetry, and writing plays which found fast production venues. I have the (dubious?) honour of being the only woman playwright to have written for Portable Theatre in the early 1970s. There was, however, considerable tension between my various aesthetic activities (writing and reviewing) and the largely “instrumental” and didactic approaches of the politicos – male and female – with whom I shared visionary optimisms.

In an attempt to find a clear answer to why “I” wanted to write ( a bourgeois individualist activity, as it was then being widely characterised), I did an MA in the Sociology of Literature at Essex University in the mid 1970s. The course itself was pretty ragged – Sociology lecturers debated with Literature lecturers during what were supposed to be our student seminars, and I gave up on the long drive from London to Colchester. I did, however, revisit my Cambridge Leavisite education, and wrote a dissertation on the competing literary arguments of right and left in the 1930s. That didn’t resolve the art/politics dichotomy for me, but it helped confirm the fact that writing was the thing I wanted to do, could do, and did, indeed, earn my living by it.

THERE HAVE BEEN UNFORESEEN disadvantages from my freelanced polymathery. Unlike some of my contemporaries, I didn’t climb into academia (some became professors, now with decent pensions – am I envious? Of the pensions, yes), enter career politics (some dazzled by the lures of power and opportunism – sorry – opportunity). I remained (perforce) a multi-genre writer – something largely unappreciated in British culture, where people like to be able to apply simple labels.

I’ve said nothing about the various emotional personal turmoils many of us went through, alongside the heady cultural experiences. These are very hard to write about, and are, of course, virtually invisible in Sandbrook’s account. But then, this isn’t his g-g-g-g-generation. It’s ours, even if we are now dispersed, meeting too often at funerals and memorials, and occasionally at reunions, where we can scrutinise each other for grey hair, baldness, posture and skin tone.

It always surprises me to read the occasional piece of journalism which claims that poetry readings, open mikes and poetry groups are a new phenomenon. In the early ’70s, there were many new, genuinely open, welcoming reading venues, particularly for new poets trying out their work and reading skills. Of course, there still are such events, but my sense (from having visited and read at some) is that they are now more structured and linked to the proliferation of creative writing courses, academic and extra-mural. These have now turned out ‘guru’-like poets who seem (I am being careful about making over-global claims) to accumulate acolytes. I have no doubt that there are probably as many people as ever seriously writing poetry. But poetry publishing has been slowly shrinking. Major poetry lists (Oxford, to name but one) have folded, many of those outrageous and irrepressible small presses have folded, and the field is dominated by a small group, whose publications seem to be the only ones reviewed and stocked by the chain booksellers.

Recently there was a short TV series called The Young Ones. Not Rik Mayall, et al. A group of ‘elderly’ people were taken back to 1975, in the hope that, by reliving some of their youthful activities, they could “think” and therefore, “be” younger. It was a touchingly spurious psycho-babble experiment, and it made riveting viewing. Sylvia Syms, Lionel Blair, Dickie Bird, Liz Smith and Derek Jameson had a great time, found renewed companionship and energies. It’s obvious, really. In isolation, we become lonely and disaffected. With shared independence, we are both ourselves and a part of each other. If there is any legacy from the 1970s for some of us, it is that.

These days we are surrounded by the ’70s. The Likely Lads and The Good Life on the repeat channels. Mini-skirts and Elizabeth David back in fashion. I could go on. The generations of the 1960s and 1970s had a verve and an optimism, which it’s hard, in these stringent times, to imagine can be easily duplicated.

Or am I saying that, because it is part of the way we were – and the way I was?

Michelene Wandor is a poet, playwright, musician and broadcaster. Her two most recent poetry books are published by Arc Publications: Musica Transalpina (a Poetry Book Society Recommendation), and The Music of the Prophets. She has also written the first history of creative writing in the UK: The Author Is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else: Creative Writing Reconceived and Art of Writing Drama.

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