We are, apparently, “back to the 70s”! We know this because economists and columnists tell us so. And they are so rarely wrong. Granted, the family cars are laid up on the drive awaiting a sip of petrol like those occasional porpoises that swim up the Thames and then, inevitably, lie gasping on the foreshore like Pocahontas vainly awaiting a passage home.
True, should I ring my doctor to discuss how it’s affecting my mental health, he wouldn’t answer. At least not until some weeks after the despair had finally proven too much. In that regard, he’d have much in common with the RAC, HSBC, airlines or, indeed, any of the myriad organisations I’ve dealt with recently who are permanently “experiencing unusually high call volumes” no matter when one rings.
Theirs is a slow retreat from the ghastly business of having to deal with customers. Or patients. Multi-layered electronic defences from chat-bots guard scarcely functional websites. Restaurants too give the vague impression of doing one a favour by being open. A sort of “soup’s off” hark-back to the days when the customer could like it, lump it or take on the union.
Yes, it’s got the vague feel of the 70s, I suppose. That decade is a spectre that rises occasionally to haunt Britain in much the same way as inflation lies in wait under every German bed. But like night terrors to glad, glorious morning, it’s all a matter of perspective.
Climb to the top of Observatory Hill in London’s Greenwich Park and do so once a decade since 1970 and you will see what I mean. In the 70s, the vista, if not entirely bleak, would have been informative.
Looking down past the glories of the Royal Naval College to the Thames, one might have seen the tea clipper Cutty Sark, Sir Francis Chichester’s Gipsy Moth and American tourists thronging the three and buying overpriced choc ices from a little stall on Greenwich Pier. If it was a Sunday, it was the only thing open after 2 pm.
We held onto its glory as a comfort blanket
Behind you, General Wolfe, his pedestal scarred by German shrapnel gazed out over an empty river. There was the occasional train of barges, of course, but between the Luftwaffe, the dockers’ unions and the rise of container ships, the pleasure boats would have taken you past dead-faced, lights-out wharves and warehouses to the blackened Victorian splendour of Tower Bridge. The Isle of Dogs, over the river, was flat and bleak. Brunel’s foot tunnel to Island Gardens sweating gently, often darkly, certainly dangerously between it and Greenwich.
If you cycled east along the river bank, there was nothing until you hit first Woolwich with its ferry, the Ernest Bevin, then the Thamesmead estate: brutalist monster from the marshes, designed for the displaced of London, location and inspiration for A Clockwork Orange.
Only the past spoke. And the loudest voice was the war. It spoke in the grimy buildings, the prefabs and the gap-toothed streets. In the NCP bombsites and in the allotments and in street party jubilees, bunting and all. In school, geography books that told us which part of the Commonwealth all our food came from even after we’d rather stiffed Australia and Ghana by joining the Common Market. It spoke in what we read and in what we watched and in the overtly stated feeling that if the war had been our finest hour, it was also our last as a country worth the name.
We held onto its glory as a comfort blanket. Against what? The IRA blowing up British Rail’s 1950s rolling stock. Everything on toast by candlelight and the reassurance that Millions of Little Britain’s Had Grown Up Great Knowing Beanz Meanz Heinz. In free milk for kids and balaclavas as school uniform and of a lad called Ricky with a permanent green candle under his nose and a cough that told of damp. In restaurants that thought fruit juice was a starter, In puffs of blue four star fumes at service stations as we pushed unreliable cars onto petrol forecourts.
And which union was it this week? The car workers over there to the east in Dagenham, the railways and tubes, the bin men or the postal workers, the teachers slowly dismantling their authority as surely as the dockers and Red Robbo were dismantling their industries. Firemen, miners, lights out London.
There was modernity, of course. There, to the north west, across grey, mid-rise London, the Post Office tower, to the east in the clank, clank of the Thames barrier piles being jack-hammered home and in Concorde, the plane America couldn’t match so tried to ban.
They will tell you that there was a greater sense of community then
But if you dropped down from that Greenwich hill and drove through the Blackwall Tunnel to Hackney, you would have found, long before the winter of discontent infamously left rubbish piled high, my paternal grandfather: Homburg, Melton, shiny shoes and feet at 45 degrees like the soldier, he had been lamenting the sheer squalor of the Chatsworth Road where he’d gone to buy his paper and his sweets and the feeling that he took his life in his hands every time he did.
“I bet you’re sorry you won now” John Lennon had quipped of the elderly in the 60s. But by the 70s, it wasn’t bloody funny anymore.
You didn’t even need to go that far. Where I was dragged to get my haircut, the Italian barber — ads for Cossack, pictures of be-coiffed footballers and all — had a shop in the shadow of a block straight out of Naples. Strung washing, screaming harridans, barely clothed children and sump oil all over the cobbles.
They will tell you that there was a greater sense of community then. It’s hard to see where between the class war and the union strife, the sectarianism and the bosses vs the workers, the football hooliganism and the boom time for bank blaggers. For sure, the middle classes gathered around bottles of “plonk” at house parties where the general feeling was, at least, one of going down together, boozily and with Habitat.
The pubs were full, life was less regulated and the milkman still had time for a cuppa and a check up on the old dear on the 27th floor. GPs would actually answer a call at the weekend and even show up at your house. Television was still a talking point and, for the 70s free-loving commune who lived next door, garden nudity and the occasional whiff of pot didn’t concern the modern legions of denouncers and moralists as long as they kept it to themselves.
Sundays weren’t frantic bouts of activity but rest via enforced closure. Once the park kickabout or swim were finished, the “swift jars” in the two-hour Sunday lunchtime pub slot done, the nation went quiet. Boredom, alcohol, the Sunday blues and closed doors. A weekly lockdown with all its attendant symptoms.
The water of daily life will find its way through
Climb that hill now and what do you see? The Naval College is a university, its students thronging the Thameside pubs and walkways. Modern housing, restaurants and shops line the riverbanks. The glistening architecture of the Isle of Dogs and the City serviced by modern, driverless trains, goes about its considerable business. Cruise ships, water taxis and even a boat running clay pigeon shoots ply the waters. A skylon crosses the Thames.
Shops stock more than beans, Cresta and Sunblest — even on the days where there’s a gap in the shelves there’s more variety than a 70s Safeway could have dreamt about. The pubs don’t shut at two, though there are far fewer of them . Chatsworth Road has a Society Against Gentrification and nobody wears a balaclava any more. Blue or grey.
Teachers’ unions and GP Colleges still look back in anger but the water of daily life will find its way through. It always does. Petrol tankers too.
Which isn’t to say the view is perfect. It just isn’t the 70s.
“We live in a country we didn’t grow up in,” a friend is fond of saying. It’s a half lament for its essential character and colour and for the freedom that came with it. But it’s a toast too to the power — not unalloyed good — of progress.
He’s right. We grew up in the 70s. And it isn’t that country any more.
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