Book review: When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies, by Andy Beckett

Beckett's profile of the 1970s overlooks the positive, says Stephen Bayley.

Last Updated: 25 Oct 2010

When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies
Andy Beckett
Faber & Faber

What makes people who have read Keynes' General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money such insufferable know-alls? How did economists ever achieve their spurious pre-emption of wisdom? The extent to which the history, condition and destiny of this country are described and determined by economists' faddery and flim-flam is flabbergasting.

Especially when these same economists have never been known to get anything right. Especially the economy. Yet you cannot debate issues of real value with economists, because they will always resort to the frigid calculus of employment, interest and money. And look where having a country run by politicians corrupted by economic theory has got us. It's what's known as bankrupt.

I am convinced by Grayson Perry's argument that if you want to know how to run a business, ask an artist. There's a romantic notion that artists are otherworldy dreamers who sit around sucking pencils or peering out of the window in search of the muse across the horizon. Actually, no. If you look at Perry at work, you'll see an expert in time-management and delegation, an authoritative executive with genius-level marketing and promotional flair. He knows how to read a P&L and make money, and he understands the morality of work and the poetry of objects. Would I like the country to be run by a transvestite ceramicist dressed as Little Bo Peep? You bet I would. How could he possibly make a worse job of it?

I was put in mind of this while reading Andy Beckett's When the Lights Went Out - Britain in the Seventies. Yes, I know the estimable Beckett is an historian, not an economist, but the whole argument of his book is framed by the PPE order of play. Which means material culture is mostly ignored.

Terence Conran, who has made such a singular contribution to improving real life (as opposed to manipulating data) these past 30 or 40 years, appears once, and then only as a supporter of the visionary Maplin Sands airport that Beckett seems to find slightly comical as an expression of loopy Edward Heath-era futurism. Roy Strong, who arrived at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1974 and soon made queueing for blockbuster exhibitions a part of national life, making connoisseurs of us all, is not mentioned once. A dreary old trade union termagant such as Jack Jones, by contrast, has a long paragraph of entries in the index. This is truly weird.

I saw the '70s through the prism of the university system, as an undergraduate, a postgradute and then a teacher. Granted, the perspective from Liverpool University School of Architecture's library was a privileged one, but, on the other hand, I remember the problems of this fashionably despised decade. The oil shock, the three-day week, the persistent threat of IRA bombs in London, British Leyland, and the brutal ugliness - shared with dishonour by each side - of the Grunwick dispute.

But if I confess my privileges and admit that the three-day week allowed me more time to play tennis, and the lights going out was a great incentive to sociabilty, does it seem Panglossian to say that I don't entirely recognise the world Beckett describes? I thought the '70s were rather marvellous. By the end of the decade, exchange controls had been lifted and we could travel freely, but long before that, important elements of cosmopolitanism had entered the UK. They visited us before we visited them.

Conran's Habitat democratised good design. I was amazed and exalted to find I could buy in Liverpool furniture that I'd only ever seen in continental magazines. Pizza Express arrived in Notting Hill. In 1970, the Range Rover, one of the great all-time car designs, was launched: a fantastic rebuke to the bone-headed union culture and crap management of the fag end of the motor industry.

Punk affirmed the extraordinary vitality of Britain's youth culture. Concorde went into service in 1976: don't laugh, it was utterly marvellous. Caroline Conran's 1977 translation of Michel Guerard's Cuisine Minceur marked the beginning of our now uniquely sophisticated food culture. We titter now, but Clive Sinclair introduced the world's first popular calculators, digital watches and computers to generalised astonishment and delight. The decade began with the glorious last of the Beatles and ended with Pink Floyd flying an inflatable pig (manufactured by Zeppelin) over Battersea Power Station. Oh yes, and Thatcher.

Beckett mentions some of this material stuff, but not with a lot of enthusiasm, although he makes the interesting comparison between Britain in the '70s and Weimar Germany in the '20s, where a vigorous culture also flourished despite (or perhaps because of) dreadful political and economic malaise. My problem with When the Lights Went Out is that I find the AUEW, Resale Price Maintenance, money supply, the Scottish National Party and Arthur Seldon all very boring. Especially in the same volume.

My own history of the '70s would focus instead on the import of pizza ovens, the cult of Beaujolais Nouveau, David Mellor cutlery, Norman Foster's amazing Willis Faber Dumas building in Ipswich, the Range Rover as modular design and the opening of the Conran Shop - with its smart Mies chairs and white Apilco crockery - on Fulham Road in 1973.

My own first book, In Good Shape, was published in late '79: its subtitle was Style in industrial design. It was the '70s that taught me its contents. I found the decade exciting, smart and sexy, but then I do not have a politician's or an economist's (or an historian's) prejudices.

Cultural commentator Stephen Bayley is an MT contributing editor

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