SPIRITS OF ’74

Impeachment proceedings against the US President set in motion; ongoing tensions between a hostile Israel and its hostile neighbours; Britain experiencing its worst economic crisis ‘since the war’ and a minority government unable to stem the rising tide of electoral disillusionment; increasing awareness of the damage being done to the environment by pollution and the time limit on natural resources; pop stars either churned-out by TV talent shows or taking to the stage carrying severed heads to shock Daily Mail readers. Anyway, that’s the world of 45 years ago for you; good job we’re in a better place now, innit.

1974 may seem like a long time ago – it certainly does if you were 6/7 at the time – but some of the exasperated media reactions to yesterday’s chaotic Commons resumption evidently came from those unaware that things were hardly more refined in the Westminster bear-pit of the early 70s. When unemployment hit the 1 million mark just a couple of years before 1974, the debate following the publication of the figures was so incendiary that the Speaker of the era blew his whistle and ordered both teams off the pitch until they’d cooled down. Even Bercow hasn’t stretched his authority that far, so one can only imagine how bad it must have been. We may be dependent upon Hansard for records of proceedings in the days before Parliament was broadcast either on radio or television, but at least the proof is there in black & white.

1974 started as it meant to go on. 1 January 1974 may have been the first occasion in which New Year was marked as a national holiday, though the timing of this distracting day-off was certainly convenient; 1 January 1974 also marked the inauguration of Ted Heath’s Three-Day Week. A few copies of the Radio Times are the only physical documents I have from that period, but they give a good indication of just how severe the restrictions imposed by the PM’s policy were. A magazine that on a good week could run to over 90 pages (Price 5p!) is reduced to a measly 32 (albeit without a reduction in the price) and the usual practice of printing separate editions for the different BBC regions has been suspended in favour of ‘All Editions’. However, even in a pre-24-hour TV age, it’s still strange to note that both BBC1 and BBC2 broadcasts (no ‘commercial’ channels listed in the publication then) close for business no later than 10.30pm. No VHS, DVD or YT to prolong the entertainment, either. I wonder if a lot of babies were born in the autumn of ’74.

References to the state of the nation pepper the dialogue in popular sitcoms of 1974, from ‘Rising Damp’ and ‘Porridge’ to ‘Steptoe and Son’ and ‘Till Death Us Do Part’; the latter even devoted an entire episode to the ‘Silly Moo’ played by Dandy Nichols announcing she was going on her own Three-Day Week, much to Alf Garnett’s consternation; and this episode aired in January itself, smack bang in the middle of events. Restrictions on electricity usage and street lighting further hammered home the sense of crisis to the public, as did an across-the-board pay-freeze while prices nonetheless continued to rise; and some football matches were even switched to a Sunday (Shock! Horror!) as a means of working around the floodlit ban on midweek games.

The Three-Day Week was also tapping into what was called ‘The Energy Crisis’ at the time, largely accelerated by the ramifications of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when western nations’ support of Israel prompted the Arab oil-producers to quadruple the price of their supplies as they belatedly realised the strength of their hand. No-motoring Sundays in Holland and President Nixon advising Americans to turn down the thermostat were echoed in the British public information films produced during the Three-Day Week with their authoritarian catchphrase of S.O.S (‘Switch Off Something’). Perhaps my most vivid personal memory is that of visiting an aunt living in a concrete jungle of a tower block complex when there was a power-cut; I remember looking out on all the surrounding flats suddenly plunged into darkness – and it was a pretty intimidating place even when fully illuminated. My aunt couldn’t switch the fire on because none of the apartments had gas in the wake of Ronan Point, so we sat in the cold and dark and lit candles; we probably played cards.

Heath’s cynical ploy was blatantly intended to hold striking miners responsible for the situation, yet he completely misjudged the enduring grip the miners as a special breed of working-class hero had on the public’s sentimental imagination; when Ted called a snap General Election in February, he watched as his majority was whittled away quicker than you could say Theresa May. He desperately tried to cling on by cobbling together a coalition with Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberals, for the latter’s reward for upwards of 6 million votes was a paltry 14 seats; it didn’t work out, but 6 million voters were understandably disillusioned to see Harold Wilson back at No.10 – almost as if 6 million votes counted for nothing; just like 17.4, eh?

Labour’s lack of a majority made a second General Election unavoidable and it came in October, making 1974 the only year of the 20th century other than 1910 to contain two outings to the hustings; I wonder what Brenda from Bristol would’ve made of that. In the end, Wilson remained in power with a hardly overwhelming majority of 3. Aside from the political uncertainties, the feeling of the country going to Hell in a handcart was further compounded by the IRA’s most effective mainland cell making its savage mark in Guildford and Birmingham. Small-scale fascism was also making its presence felt via the National Front capitalising on the tendency to scapegoat immigrants as the cause of the nation’s ills; a student protestor called Kevin Gately was killed during a clash with the NF in London’s Red Lion Square in June, earning him the unenviable distinction of being the first person to die at a British demonstration in 55 years.

The streets may have been lower on knife or acid crime in 1974, but Britain was still a pretty violent place. As Stuart Maconie once reflected, giving the wrong answer to the question ‘Do you like Slade or T.Rex?’ posed by a stranger at a bus-stop could lead to a knuckle sandwich. Even as a six-year-old wandering either alone or with a pal, it was rare indeed to turn a corner and not be challenged to a fight by the snotty-nosed cock of the street in question.

It was no coincidence the year ended with two melancholy seasonal hits jostling for the No.1 spot. Mud’s ‘Lonely This Christmas’ and ‘Streets of London’ by Ralph McTell were quite a contrast with the boisterous, upbeat equivalents twelve months earlier, ‘I Wish it Could Be Christmas Every Day’ by Wizzard and Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’; but the nation was knackered. The best music of 1974 is infused with an existential weariness, from Bowie’s apocalyptic ‘Diamond Dogs’ LP to Brian Protheroe’s sleepless-in-Soho one-hit wonder, ‘Pinball’ – yet, for all the post-Punk revisionism, the bar was still set remarkably high, give or take the occasional novelty hit. America’s own sense of crisis was best reflected in its cinema – from Warren Beatty’s paranoiac ‘The Parallax View’ to Bob Fosse’s Dustin Hoffman vehicle celebrating the decline and fall of a drug-addled comedian engaged in a doomed rage against the machine, ‘Lenny’. The fact that one of the biggest box-office smashes in the US was ‘Deep Throat’ said something itself.

So, yeah – the world is f***ed, but sometimes it seems it always has been. And I’ve no doubt that, had social media existed in 1974, maybe someone would be reminding the more hysterical tweeters that 1931 had been a bit grim too.

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© The Editor

4 thoughts on “SPIRITS OF ’74

  1. Those of us old enough to have been adults in ’74 remember it well. The 3-day week was certainly a device to engender solidarity against the miners, rather than a necessity, same goes for the rotating power-cuts, both of which failed in their key objective. But it must be remembered that very many jobs were exempt from the 3-day-week, my job certainly was, mainly because I worked in the energy sector, which was considered strategically essential, even for the drone office-clerks like me. Most of those affected were industrial/factory works, no coincidence that they would mostly be Labour voters and union members, so they took the brunt of Heath’s hit on their hourly-based wages.

    Back then, everyday life was nowhere near as dependent on electricity 24/7 – if that were to happen now, with all the later technology, telecoms, payment and control systems, chaos would ensue, as no-one would now have the foggiest idea or even the capacity to operate anything ‘manually’.

    Of course, that year was followed by 1975, during which we were given the opportunity of an In/Out referendum on our continued membership of the EEC (as it then was). The majority decided to Remain, so the losers accepted that result with good grace and went away for the next 40+ years – so some things do change after all, but not necessarily for the better.

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    1. Funnily enough, if I ever mention the Three-Day Week to my dad, he always comes up with the same statement. He worked for an export firm called ‘Glook’ at the time and his stock response is – ‘We didn’t have a Three-Day Week at Glook, mate.’ I often wonder how it was actually enforced. Were there ‘Three-Day Week Inspectors’, officious little Jobsworth’s who turned-up with a clipboard to note down who was breaking Heath’s decree?

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      1. Your dad’s exclusion would have been under the ‘essential for exports’ label, there were lots of convenient labels, relatively few actually observed/suffered the 3-day week, I don’t recall any organised supervision or any prosecutions for disregarding it. ‘Window-dressing’ sums it up – just indirect propaganda, they all do it still.

        I can forgive Heath the cosmetic 3-day week, I can forgive Heath the cynical power-cuts, but I can never forgive that traitor for signing us up to the EEC without our consent, a belated price of which is being paid by our whole democratic system now. May he rot perpetually in Hell.

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  2. There was no three day week as I recall, rather it was electricity three days out of five. No inspectors needed to prevent us working by candlelight or battery power, and as Mudplugger correctly notes things were less reliant on electricity back then: I worked as a bookkeeper in a City firm which had some bits computerised (the income bits) and the rest was adding machines and paper, especially the accounting and stock control. So we worked the hours of daylight on those two days, put in extra hours on the other three days to clear any backlogs, which were few because trading activity was reduced so paperwork was reduced also.

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