Friday, April 06, 2012

Book Review : State of Emergency - The Way We Were : Britain, 1970-1974 by Dominic Sandbrook (Allen Lane 2010)

I was born in 1963, so the period covered in this book, 1970-1974, coincides with my first proper memories of a world outside my family. I don't remember the election of 1970, but, being brought up in an SNP-supporting household I do remember Margo McDonald winning Govan in 1973, and the SNP's subsequent successes in the 1974 elections. Decimalisation impacted the sixpence in my pocket directly, and what schoolboy could forget the excitement of having to huddle round candles during the power cuts of the miners' strike and the three-day week.

My perspective was Scottish. The Ibrox disaster (dismissed in this book in a sentence, in one of the few misjudgements of perspective) was traumatic as my father was at the game - waiting with my mother for him to return home from the game as news of fatalities mounted will always stay with me. Jimmy Reid only became a  hero once I was old enough to understand the nature of the UCS work-in, and how it differed from ordinary industrial disputes. However, the horrors unfolding in Northern Ireland were distant, despite Glasgow perching precariously on the edge of the same sectarian precipice.

My memories of the period are patchwork, and necessarily underinformed. I remember Slade and The Goodies, but not Lord Lambton, and I was too young to understand the fuss about Poulson. Yet it made the experience of reading this book different from that of reading its splendid predecessors, Never Had It So Good and White Heat. With respect to  these, the past is definitely a foreign country as one has little context with which to refer except for what one has read in books. However, reading State of Emergency allowed me to affirm my experiences and to better understand the context of the events which had unfolded around me.

When discussing the book with a friend, he said that it was too soon for a proper perspective on the events of the seventies, but I don't agree. What Sandbrook has achieved is a masterly summery of the major movements of the period - political events, social, cultural - and brought it together in a synthesis which is highly engaging. There is something Tragicomic about the Heath administration, and Sandbrook manages to capture Heath's gaucheness and rudeness (of the Leader of an Orchestra who said "if you don't stop being so rude to us, Sir Edward, we might start following your instructions") but is also willing to give him credit for much which is today forgotten.

It is a top down book and despite its length it is of necessity superficial in a lot of ways - his earlier books contrast sharply with David Kynaston's bottom-up surveys of the forties and fifties in Austerity Britain and Family Britain which are largely compiled from dairy observations and Mass Observation. Sandbrook does use such sources (the frequent references to diaries of upper-class reactionary James Lees-Milne are particularly entertaining and illuminating, calling Captain Mark Phillips, for instance, "barely a gentleman") but more of his sources are from a dizzying variety of books, newspapers, government papers, film and television. It is the skill with which he manages this mass of information which impresses. Above all, he achieves a nuance of tone which allows him to switch seamlessly from high political drama to carnage in Ulster to the permissive society and Woman's Lib, whilst maintaining a uniformity of clarity, humour and insight. It is quite brilliantly done, and I look forward to further volumes.

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