Review: The 70s


I’m all in favour of expertise on TV: better a historian than a newsreader, a scientist than some bloke off Countryfile. But knowledge isn’t the only thing that matters. Warmth is important, too: a connection with the viewer, whose attention the presenter must hold. On BBC2, there comes a well-timed new documentary series, The 70s (Mondays, 9pm), which explores the years that brought us Black Tower, Genesis and the rise of the Wimpey housing estate. It’s presented by Dominic Sandbrook, whose writing about postwar Britain is much praised and whose latest book, Seasons in the Sun, is a history of Britain between 1974 and 1979.
Sandbrook knows his stuff, which is all to the good so long as people stay tuned. But will they? I’m not sure. I would have switched off if I hadn’t been reviewing the programme and I could not be more interested in the 1970s if I tried. Ah, those halcyon days when my parents fought one another in the courts for half-shares in a teak dining table, various earthenware bowls and a few sets of Sanderson curtains!
The BBC publicity department styles Sandbrook as a “1970s enthusiast”. But you can no more imagine him cracking open the Findus Crispy Pancakes than you can George Osborne. Often, he seemed to be sneering. When he wasn’t sneering, he was grimacing, and when he wasn’t grimacing, he could be found looking distinctly awkward in, variously, someone’s front room, the HQ of the National Union of Mineworkers in South Yorkshire and a three-star hotel in the Costa del Somewhere called the Barracuda. My dear! The places one sees when one is on tour with a television crew!
He described the British taste in wine as “untutored” – what did your parents drink in 1971, Dominic? Château Lafite? – and the educated, entrepreneurial Ugandan Asians who landed British jobs with such admirable speed as having “dragged themselves up”. (He meant this as praise but his tin ear means that he is prone to reaching for the wrong word.) He even, when he compared the prime minister’s French to that of Voltaire and found it wanting, achieved the astonishing feat of making me feel sorry for Ted Heath. Heath, incidentally, installed gold carpets in No 10. His pals thought this made the place look like a modern bachelor pad. But most people – or so Sandbrook said – thought it looked like “a boudoir” (nudge, nudge).
Which people? This is the other problem. The series cries out – it positively screams – for interviews. I longed for someone other than Sandbrook (who was not even born until 1974) to look back, to give events both perspective and immediacy. As it was, this was just a clip show with a grand essay laid decorously over it, like a doily on a Formica table.
They were sometimes very good clips. Someone had dug up fantastic footage of miners who had been told by their bosses to wear hairnets down the pit; better that, the young men said, than abandoning their be­loved new feather cuts. And I loved the moment when a TV reporter asked a wailing Bowie fan why she was crying and all she could tell him was: “He’s smashing!” (The campaign for the revival of the word “smashing” starts here.) Only the stupid or heartless could fail to take pleasure in watching Rodney Bewes in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? and Leonard Rossiter in Rising Damp. Especially Bewes, whose luxuriant and preternaturally springy hair puts me in mind of a family-sized malted loaf.
But this kind of thing isn’t enough to sustain an hour of television, let alone four. Sandbrook tried his best to give it some energy: he scattered the word “seismic” about and attempted to surprise us by claiming, for instance, that Arthur Scargill’s rhetoric was “almost That­cherite” (as ideas go, this seemed a little strained to me). The soundtrack, meanwhile, didn’t fall silent for a moment, so if Journey, T. Rex and the Moody Blues are your thing – and when I’m in the right mood, they’re certainly mine – this could be the show to do your ironing to. Still, it felt to me like a horribly missed opportunity. It was uninvolving, whe­ther you were there or not. What a shame. People do love the 1970s, as I remember every time the ageing rock star who lives on my street wobbles by on his chopper.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Islamophobia on trial

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

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