State of Emergency: the Way We Were - Britain, 1970-1974

"With higher wages for the working classes, access to affordable housing, free health care, free higher education and low levels of crime, all in a much less unequal society, life then was superior to life as experienced by most of us today. In 1976, I was a fully funded sociology undergraduate on a new parkland campus, I had a lovely girlfriend, a motorbike, hair down to my armpits, Neil Young on the stereo. And it was a glorious summer. Bleak? It was bloody marvellous!"

Appearing in a letter to the New Statesman in April 2009, this assessment of the Seventies could hardly be further removed from media images of the decade. Unburied corpses, garbage-strewn and rat-infested streets, candle­lit parliamentary debates, terrorist bombs and near civil war in Ulster - these are the pictures that commonly define the Seventies.

But personal memory is something else, and for many it was a halcyon period. The Seventies were the silver age of British collectivism. The life nostalgically recalled in that letter was the creation of the postwar Labour settlement, which was collapsing. If affordable housing
and free access to higher education were real, so were the oil shock and the continuing rapid decline of core industries. The superior life
enjoyed by many people was an inheritance, something from the past.

In many ways it was also highly conservative. The social movements of the time, such as gay liberation, feminism and anti-racism, were reactions against a society that valued collective provision and at the same time excluded a great many people. Though most of those involved would have denied it, arguing that what they wanted was a better form of collective life, the protest movements of the Seventies were among the forces that shaped the more individualist culture that exists today - one that may be less cohesive, but is also a lot more open.

In Never Had It So Good (2005) and White Heat (2006), Dominic Sandbrook rewrote the history of the Fifties and Sixties, uncovering layers of continuity beneath the economic and cultural upheavals of postwar Britain. His revisionism attracted some flak, not least from the left, but no one could deny the verve with which he re-envisioned the past.

Reading Sandbrook is always an enjoyable experience, partly because of the unforgettable vignettes that are to be found on practically every page. There is something wonderfully telling in the fact, recorded in Never Had It So Good, that when Enoch Powell joined the Conservative cabinet in 1960, Harold Macmillan rearranged the chairs so that he could avoid Powell's "mad eyes". In State of Emergency, the latest volume in what promises to be an ongoing series, Sandbrook moves on to the early Seventies. Ranging across popular culture, literature and social mores, he re-creates that lost world with a flair all the more impressive when you realise he was born in 1974. Sandbrook's narrative is not the only way of retelling the Seventies - Andy Beckett's When the Lights Went Out (2009) presents a compelling alternative - but no one who reads State of Emergency will think of the decade in quite the same way again.

While society may have been more civilised in some ways, life in the Seventies had a shabbiness that is almost unimaginable today. The food in an "authentic old-fashioned hotel" described in Kingsley Amis's novel Jake's Thing (1978) - "packet soup with added flour, roast chicken so overcooked that each chunk immediately absorbed every drop of saliva, soggy tinned gooseberry flan and coffee tasting of old coffee-pots" - is vintage Seventies. It is amusing to learn that Edward Heath once confided in a speech that he had "always had a hidden wish, a frustrated desire, to run a hotel".

There are some on the Tory right who view Britain during the Heath years (1970-74) as not much more than a larger version of Fawlty Towers. As usual, the truth is much more complicated. Like every prime minister after him, Heath wanted a modernised Britain. For a time he seems to have thought that this meant freeing the markets from government control, but he backed off when it became clear that rolling back the state would have entailed letting Rolls-Royce go under. He was forced to renationalise the company and went on to preside over a highly inflationary "dash for growth" and unworkable schemes for controlling prices and incomes.

None of this makes him the corporatist portrayed by the proto-Thatcherite Selsdon Group, formed in 1973 by dissident Tories who thought that Heath's U-turn amounted to a betrayal. Nor was he the confrontational reactionary portrayed by the left. In fact, as Sandbrook suggests, the politician Heath most resembled was Sir Robert Peel. Like the pragmatic Tory reformer, Heath "believed that every problem had a rational solution". Unfortunately for him, that was not the case in Seventies Britain. A "state of emergency" continued throughout the decade. Floundering in half-hearted attempts to forge a replacement for the postwar settlement, Labour opened the way for Margaret Thatcher. Whatever his failings, Heath never had a chance.

The hostile press that surrounds Heath tends to pass over the flaws of his greatest enemy. Powell's brooding presence helped shape the early Seventies, and Sandbrook presents a finely balanced assessment of the man and his career - rather too balanced, in fact. Noting that he was an early advocate of homosexual law reform and an opponent of the death penalty, Sandbrook argues that Powell was "widely misunderstood".

If so, the responsibility lies squarely with the man himself. A gambler who played the race card and lost, Powell was both ruthless and inept. A low point was reached when he let it be known that he could not help but "entertain fears for Heath's mental and emotional stability". This was not only spiteful, but also unwittingly comic, as anyone who knew Powell could not help having the same fears about him. It would have been hard for anyone encountering him in the Eighties, when he talked repeatedly of wanting to have been killed in the Second World War and expressed bitter regret at not having been selected as an A-class assassination target by the IRA, to avoid the impression that Powell had not been wholly sane for some time. Probably Macmillan was right all along. In any event, when Heath banished this strange schemer to the political fringe, he did Britain a service.

Over the past 30 years, life in Britain has improved in many ways (not least culinary). But has politics? Certainly it is more professional, and more subject to middle-class standards of respectability. No senior politician now could make their living by playing bridge, in the way of Heath's shadow chancellor Iain Macleod, who died after a heart attack in 1970. And yet it was Macleod who took an early stand against the rise of neoliberalism in his party, declaring: "The free market is an excellent policy for the strong, but we are also concerned with the weak." It is hard to imagine any Conservative politician saying anything like that today and meaning it, as Macleod - an authentic One-Nation Tory of a kind that no longer exists - so plainly did.

State of Emergency: the Way We Were - Britain, 1970-1974
Dominic Sandbrook
Allen Lane, 768pp, £30

John Gray is the New Statesman's lead book reviewer. His latest book is "Gray's Anatomy: Selected Writings" (Penguin, £10.99)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 04 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Licence to cut

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis