In between flexing like a whore and falling wanking to the floor, time still manages to squeeze a few goalpost-moving chores into the mix as well. Yes, I know I’ve written about it before, but even if it doesn’t go the whole hog and blow my mind, it never fails to at least light a little fuse there whenever I measure distance. If I was to look back, say, fifty years from the date of my birth, I would find myself either on the Western Front or storming the gates of the Winter Palace. Today, the same span returns you to 1971; and because some of my earliest recollections stem from that year, the factor of living memory makes it feel so much closer than half-a-century away. Naturally, my 1971 would have been considerably different from yours if you were approaching adulthood or were already there. My 1971 retrospectively resembles the set of a public information film; that’s how it looks to me now, anyway. My world was shot on 16mm. It was small-scale, compressed into compressed little houses on compressed little streets with compressed outside privies and compressed corner shops. But as I was only knee-high to a midget at the time, it didn’t seem especially claustrophobic.
All doors were open to a 3-4 year-old on that street; I can still picture the interiors of most houses because I seemed to have a free pass into all of them. I must have been a likeable kid, I guess. Despite my easy familiarity with them, however, every adult was formally addressed as ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’ bar an old lady in a permanent headscarf who was known to all the children as ‘Auntie’. There was a middle-aged woman called Mrs Sharp a few doors down and I remember I always addressed her as Mrs Sharples; I can’t recall if she looked like Ena, but she didn’t appear to mind my confusion. Actually, considering it bore more than a passing resemblance to a certain street on the other side of the Pennines, the residents didn’t disappoint. I remember there being an equivalent Minnie Caldwell and Albert Tatlock and Elsie Tanner, but I suppose they came with the furniture back then. Any available neighbour was happy to look after me if the need arose, and it often did. Other than the ones who were drawing their pensions, many of the adults playing central roles in my 1971 were probably half the age I am now, which is a sobering thought.
For me, 1971 was the last year before school, so it retains a sense of innocence and purity in the memory, coated in infant amber that contrasts with the wider world of 1971 that I learnt of gradually, long after my personal experience of the year had slipped into history. I can’t, for example, recall any major news story of 1971 from the actual time. Even decimalisation, which dramatically changed the country’s century-old currency in February, didn’t register because I was simply too young to have acquainted myself with the old money before it had gone. The Ibrox Stadium disaster; the disastrous introduction of Internment in Ulster; the generational culture war of the ‘Oz’ obscenity trial; the devastating famine in Bangladesh; Idi Amin seizing power in Uganda; the death of Jim Morrison – all events too huge to inhabit my little head, all events that needed me to grow a bit more before I had the space to take them on board. Even Charlie George’s memorable FA Cup Final winner that sealed the Double for Arsenal – and it’s exactly fifty years ago tomorrow when the lanky, long-haired legend lay flat out on the Wembley turf after scoring it – yes, even that passed me by in 1971, though my father was at the game.
At least my ear was picking up signals from elsewhere. Pop music was connecting me to otherworldly places that only telly, comics, and astronaut-driven moon-buggies were otherwise informing me existed; pop impacted in a way that news stories from the year didn’t. There are a remarkable number of hits from 1971 that take me back there, and it was a richly varied year for music. The first stirrings of Glam Rock were infiltrating the singles chart and illuminating ‘Top of the Pops’, with both T.Rex and Slade scoring their inaugural No.1s; Elton John and Rod Stewart also broke through to a scene where the giants of the decade just-gone were still the standard bearers, though for perhaps the final time. The recent cultural earthquake of the Beatles’ break-up saw a flurry of eagerly-anticipated solo releases, yet a bickering Lennon & McCartney were overshadowed by the feel-good vibes of George Harrison. Both The Who and The Rolling Stones delivered the goods again with landmark releases, whilst acts to whom the 60s was merely a launch-pad, such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Joni Mitchell, went from strength-to-strength by unleashing albums that remain classics in what turned out to be quite a year for LPs that have stood the test of time. And while all this was going on, David Bowie and Alice Cooper were waiting in the wings, preparing to catch 1972 unawares.
Hair was fashionably long for both sexes in 1971 – and there were only two then. Skirts were shorter than before or since; if you’re a leg man, watching any TV series from the beginning of the 70s means you’re in for a treat. The term ‘Metrosexual’ had yet to be coined, but many of the leading men on television in 1971 that the ladies liked were undeniably well-groomed. Two of the most preposterous albeit enjoyable series from the ITC stable of flamboyant escapism premiered that year, ‘The Persuaders’ and ‘Jason King’. The former saw Roger Moore essentially auditioning for the Bond role, though the character of Lord Brett Sinclair was perhaps a little too effete to fill 007’s squarer shoes. Similarly, the immortal Peter Wyngarde as the hilarious novelist-cum-secret agent who’d first appeared in ‘Department S’ a couple of years before was far too camp to convince as someone you’d trust with a licence to kill; but within the confines of his imaginary international playboy/espionage landscape, he made perfect sense. A world of your own was something I could relate to myself in 1971.
When the pages of ‘Oz’ were dissected at the Old Bailey that summer, the moral majority recoiled in horror at what the youth were getting up to, but the Christian backlash against ‘The Permissive Society’ was gathering pace via the likes of the Festival of Light; it also had plenty to object to when Stanley Kubrick released ‘A Clockwork Orange’ at the end of the year, despite the fact that the story itself is actually as moral as anything a Bible-basher would recognise from his book of choice. The violence perpetrated by Alex and his Droogs seemed to cause less palpitations to Mary Whitehouse and her God-fearing cohorts than the sexual element in the movie, yet violence was a greater threat to the stability of the streets, what with the emergence of that working-class terrorist, the Skinhead. The new urban bogeyman was making his mark on the football terraces in 1971, with hooliganism becoming the latest social menace. But it wouldn’t be a flash in the 1971 pan; it would outlast both the year and the Skinhead himself.
For all the moral panic fuelling Fleet Street, however, the wave of self-confidence carried over from the heyday of England’s swinging seems to have still been largely intact in 1971 – a last hurrah for faith in the future. Maybe it only began to finally, belatedly disintegrate with the chill economic wind of the following year, the one that whipped-up Britannia’s skirts to reveal the moth-eaten, make-do-and-mend underwear of a grand old lady whose best days were behind her. Stitching up the holes in her knickers by candlelight in 1972, she must have wondered what went wrong. Her one-time protégé on the other side of the Atlantic by the name of Uncle Sam had his own problems at the time, but doesn’t everybody, whatever the year? It is always the worst of times for one person as much as the best of times for another; it just depends where you’re at. Where I was at in 1971 is on scratchy and grainy subconscious celluloid now, but the impression made by it is as sharp and vivid as ever. Some good stuff came out of that year, and I’m glad I was there, half-a-century ago.
© The Editor
9 thoughts on “SPIRITS OF ’71”
“Oh God, [you’re] still alive”
As one of superior age at the time, 1971 for me represented my time of experimenting with early adulthood, becoming independent, working, driving, voting and many other more personal activities which earlier youth had precluded or seriously limited.
I was working in a financial environment at the time of Decimalisation and, with that perspective, it was the ‘biggie’ of the year to me, it was almost exciting, being part of the sort of material national change which none of us had ever seen before. As it happened, it was all very well planned and was carried off with very little chaos. Around that same time there was another huge national change going on, the conversion from Towns Gas to Natural Gas – again that monumental change was executed remarkably smoothly, especially when you consider the lack of IT and data support available, somehow those old grey blokes in baggy grey suits managed to make it all happen without blowing the whole country to smithereens.
Socially for the young, it was the immediate post-Beatles era when other forms of music were taking over that space, most of which were destined not to last beyond a season or two, not that it bothered me, I was too busy getting mobile and sampling my new freedoms. I still have a passport photo from that era and I’m astonished at my youthful presentation and long, flowing hair, but neither seemed to inhibit my lifestyle at the time – they were happy, learning days, as I suspect yours were too, albeit a decade or so behind on the learning-curve.
But only a couple of years later, the traitor Ted Heath took us into the EEC, so happiness paused for more than 45 years, but now happy days are here again, as the song goes.
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Thanks for sharing that. January 1972 almost seems like the point at which what we think of as ‘The 70s’ really began, with Bloody Sunday and the Miners’ Strike (and the accompanying power-cuts). 1971, on the other hand, still seems to own that ’60s glow’ in retrospect. I only wish my memories were a little more plentiful, but at least I have some.
Actually, just belatedly occurred to me re your passport photo of the time – wearing the C&A jacket, by any chance?…
Sadly no, that would have been valuable evidence of its longevity. Boring office-work suit, being a boring office-worker at the time.
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Glad to have found your blog. I must be just a little older than you, though not by much, and distinctly remember one of our primary school teachers who all the other kids’ mothers swooned over as he had a distinctly Jason King look and style about him. Then of course came the public toilets incident I believe. Similar childhood, a small semi on a Manchester housing estate, kids, kids, and kids everywhere, out and about here there and everywhere all day, and not a fretting parent to be seen 🙂
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I remember a guy my dad worked with in the early 70s was a dead ringer for Wyngarde and I was of a young enough age to wonder ‘Is that really him?’ I think I did actually ask my dad if the guy was Jason King; if he’d said yes I’d probably have believed him. Would’ve made an especially boring episode of the show, though – King working undercover for an export firm in Leeds.
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Here’s something to jog a few memories (shameless plug incoming) –
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Just took a quick look at that and will watch it in full later. Thanks for the link. I’ve done something similar myself, but just for my own entertainment; I’ve never considered sharing it by uploading it for fear of copyright strikes and so on. YT would definitely be a no-go for such a project, though I’ve never really thought if Vimeo would be amenable.
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