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5 January 2021updated 08 Sep 2021 8:52am

From the NS archive: Happy new year

7 January 1977: Will this year be more or less ghastly than the one just endured?

By Arthur Marshall

In this first-person piece from early 1977, Arthur Marshall reviews the year just passed – instant blancmange, English hops, Princess Anne and the state of the National Theatre – and considers the New Year’s mood.


So basically buoyant and hopeful is the human spirit that one can never believe that the year to come will be even more ghastly than the one just endured, but I dare say that 1977 will turn up trumps and achieve it comfortably: and then only seven more years to go to 1984. The recollection of the various quaint episodes that have gone, day by day, to make up the warp and woof of life are all stocked away on memory’s groaning shelves but seldom, in my case, under the correct year. What happened when? It’s all rather a blur. Was it last year or earlier that Mrs Thatcher, prudently placing two tins of Marie-Elisabeth sardines in her store cupboard, was accused of hoarding and photographed, registering sweet defiance, by the press? Really, the cheek of such interference! If I wish to fill my entire house with cartons of instant blancmange, why on earth shouldn’t I?

Certain happenings can, anyhow, be safely put down to 1976, for example one’s realisation of the really enormous size of Mr Carter’s teeth, looming alarmingly out at one as he bared them in smile after toothy smile and never more so than when hugging that animated old mother, “Miss Lilian”, sporting her loyal T-shirt and gabbling uninhibitedly into microphones. Then there was that moment when the whole of Kent was put at panic stations over the sex of their hops, the EEC disapproving of English male hops but approving (ah, these lascivious foreigners!) of the female ones. And what countless further worries there have been: Princess Anne tumbling off horses, Lonrho, streakers rushing to and fro, and Jack Jones getting ratty about Ascot. The thickest of veils must be drawn over our really ludicrously inept and feeble showing in the Olympic Games, an expensive undertaking which revealed the British genius for losing everything but the final battle in wars at its brilliant best. The Games are not, yet, war and so we failed almost all along the line. There was, need one ask, a “welcome back” and “hard luck” lunch for the competitors (paid for, without reference, by us, of course), not exactly the best way of ensuring more stout-hearted and successful performances in future. There was an argument here for the stocks and a good pelting with turnips.

Prominent personalities haven’t come off so awfully well in 1976. There was that interminable gasbag, J Stonehouse, deciding to exit into oblivion without preserving one single crumb of dignity and in so doing costing the country a hefty sum of money in legal refreshments or whatnots. There was the final flourish from the peer-maker H Wilson, completing over a hundred ennoblements (at least one of them, involving as they do the word “noble”, proving pretty rough going) with the rummest imaginable collection of eyebrow-raising names, all jumbled together as haphazardly as in a game of Consequences. What a lark if we could have the Wilson ton-up lords all assembled together in a breath-taking snap, a weird phantasmagoria of humanity. There was the merciless hounding of poor J Thorpe, a wretched happening which showed both journalists and the papers they serve at their repellent worst. There were those Wimbledon ladies squabbling unattractively about what money their moist activities were going to bring in. But never mind, there was Mary Wilson to restore calm, not this time with a restful poem (“Holidays are jolly days and when my toil is o’er…”) but with the stupefying information that the door of No 10 gets opened 942 times a day, presumably to let out the hot air.

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In the world of the arts there have been glum faces, and not only about that pile of bricks at the Tate. It is becoming increasingly clear that the National Theatre is a national fiasco on a really elaborate scale, difficult of access, unlovely to look at, mechanically unreliable and so appallingly expensive that in the end, and the end is pretty near, it will prove impossible to run. As a boy at school, I used to think how odd it was that when royalty kindly came to visit us they always “opened” something. There were so many buildings that could more profitably have been “closed”. Perhaps, quite soon, Her Majesty could be persuaded to close the National Theatre and we can then go back to what has always been the best solution, if we have to do the thing in triplicate — a combination of three readymade theatres, Drury Lane for the big productions, the Fortune (hard by) for the small, and the Old Vic, three theatres with traditions and atmosphere and charm and accustomed to making profits. It is fashionable to despise theatres with prosceniums but attendance at Chichester’s open stage has never persuaded me that there is anything to be gained, dramatically or artistically, by sitting in a side seat and spending the evening gazing bemused at Lady Macbeth’s bum.

What else in 1976? Everybody got very agitated about asbestos. Think-tanks thought, but at what expense and with what profitable results? News of Concorde disappeared entirely. We are no longer told, perhaps wisely, whether it is still flying, and in what numbers or how many have been bought by other countries. We are no longer coaxed to fly to Bahrain at exorbitant cost and munch palm-hearts en route (“Supersonic travel is so relaxing”). Not a happy year, but at least there has been one bit of cheering news. Women are now allowed to join the Fire Brigade but must have a bust measurement of 36 inches. I have to confess that I’m a bit vague about busts. Is 36 inches good news or bad?

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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