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The 1970s. The decade that taste forgot, we are sometimes told. It was an era in which Labour and Conservative governments in Britain grappled and not very successfully with an ever-recurring balance of payments crisis, powercuts, states of emergency, the IRA and numerous other evils, as recounted recently in painstaking detail in weightier tomes than this by contemporary historians like Dominic Sandbrook and Andy Beckett. Was it like that all the time? Well, no, and especially not if you were growing up, still at school, and only vaguely aware of any of these things, but more preoccupied in the general trivia which was and is part of the teenage world.
THE AUTHOR AND THE BOOK
Derek Tait is a local historian who has written and published several titles on the Plymouth and east Cornwall area. Born in 1961 and thus on the threshold of adult life as the decade ended, he was of an age to enjoy the more entertaining if ephemeral joys provided by 'Starsky and Hutch', 'Kojak', kipper ties, chopper bikes, spacehoppers, clackers, free gifts in cereal packets, Brooke Bond tea cards, Glam Rock, music on vinyl, cassette and for a short time 8-track cartridge, the 1970 World Cup Coin Collection, the changeover from pounds, shillings and pence to pounds and new pence, and the long hot drought-stricken summer of 1976 when only a tremendous downpour at the end of August saved thousands of us from having to rely on queuing at standpipes with buckets for our water. As he lived in Plymouth, not far from where I have worked resided for most of my life, I remember the last-named very well too. Come to think of it, I likewise remember most of the others.
There is nothing analytical about this book. It is in effect a lighthearted journey through one growing lad's memories of life at home, school, playing with friends and going out to look for flying saucers with them, the different cars his family owned, the sweets around at the time, what was big in the musical world, at the movies, or on TV. Nowadays it seems difficult to visualize life without video, DVD, the internet, CDs, or the mobile phone (or ciao, Amazon, Facebook or Twitter) - but that's the way it was then. How did we ever manage to survive without them, and with only three channels on TV, some might ask us today?
TV was king, there was always - well, nearly always - something exciting on at the cinema which everyone would be talking about, long before the advent of humiliating reality shows and Simon Cowell, Glam and punk rock were pushing the musical and fashion envelope out in different directions and outraging our incredulous parents who took one look at them on TV and feared the imminent collapse of civilisation, platform boots may have looked utterly naff and been pretty difficult to walk properly in, but like flares they were the height (excuse pun) of fashion. And we took it for granted that 'Radio Times' and 'TV Times' only listed their own channels every week. What a long time ago that state of affairs seems to be. (Come to think of it, why do they still call the former 'Radio Times'?)
And, says Derek, the 1970s had some of the best cars. Even if they were unreliable rust buckets, they certainly seemed to have plenty of character. Nowadays they may not be rust buckets, they're just unreliable (what's different?). While I think of it, who was the 1970s equivalent of Jeremy Clarkson - can anyone enlighten us?
Do you remember Uri Geller? The headmaster who angrily demanded of his young charges in the canteen at lunchtime who had bent a fork in half surely does, if he is still around. And what about the chemistry teacher who rather rashly showed his class how they could nickelplate copper items during one particular lesson. One enterprising lad - not Derek himself, it seems, especially if the constabulary is reading this - had been paying careful attention, decided to treat all his 2p pieces thus afterwards, and pass them off as 10p coins at the local sweet shop later in the day. Oops.
A few black and white photos integrated with the text help to reinforce the memories. One is of a Dalek which the author built, and which would end up many years later on eBay. (He doesn't tell us how much it fetched, though - it would be fun to know). There's also one of the Hairy Cornflake, Dave Lee Travis (I know, possibly not a name to mention in the light of recent events), compering the summer Radio One Roadshow on Plymouth Hoe, one of skateboarders in the park, and one of a £1 note in the days when a quid was really worth something.
The one thing which slightly spoiled my enjoyment of this book was a string of typos worthy of The Grauniad in times gone by. The band Chickory Tip? The athlete Sebastian Cole? The comedy actor Bernard Cribbens? And worst of all, on the back cover, Wizard? (That's as in Roy Wood, not Judy Garland and Oz). In fairness to the author, as a published author myself, I'm aware that the publisher is generally responsible for these gremlins.
Another mild criticism is that occasionally the book does threaten to become a succession of lists, particularly in the music section where we have a roll call of No.1 hit singles for each year. It's the kind of information easily obtained online or from several pop and rock music reference works, and does suggest a little padding out. Admittedly music has long been a particular interest of mine, but maybe a little critical analysis would not have come amiss. For example, when punk rock came along, did he take the John Peel line that this was something new and exciting, and much of what it threatened to consign to oblivion (and failed) was totally worthless, or perhaps concur with the view of Alan Freeman that there was a place for anything and everything? Just a small point.
It doesn't aim to be anything like a definitive memoir or work of reference on the decade. Yet at less than 200 pages, with pictures, it makes a good light read, and a very pleasant trawl down memory lane.
[Revised version of a review I published elsewhere]
Paperback: 192 pages / Publisher: The History Press Ltd / Published: 1 Sep 2011 / Language: English