2017 is 1978-y. The calendar for both years is the same in terms of days of the week and dates. It differs in other ways, such as the date of Easter Sunday and the movable feasts. I am, possibly rather pointlessly, “re-enacting” 1978 in my mind, keeping track of news stories, popular culture and events in my life from that point. 1978 is also the last year I didn’t keep a regular diary of some description, so it’s interesting to extend it backwards. My father was my current age in 1978 too, so that may be significant. My mother, on the other hand, was my current age in 1982, a more important year. As I’ve mentioned before, 1978 was also the best year in terms of positive economic activity – if you subtract economic activity which is generally negative, such as disaster relief, cleaning up after car crashes, healthcare after people have fallen ill and funerals, it comes out on top. Finally, it’s the last year before Thatcher.
This is all nostalgia of course. However, it’s useful nostalgia, and it makes me wonder if there’s a way we can get certain things back. Certain other things shouldn’t come back because they were utterly awful. Here’s a list of my impressions of the differences between then and now taken from my observation of events:
More respect for working class culture
One of the most striking things about 1978 is that there’s a kind of prosaic, “everyday-ness”, unpretentiousness and mundanity to a lot of stuff which feels more distant now, and I would associate this in my mind with working class culture. Unemployment, for example, tended to be portrayed publicly as misfortune for the unemployed rather than resulting from laziness or even blamed on the unemployed in any way. There was none of this sanctioning, lecturing, condescension or any of that. Nor was there any contempt for the more chavesky members of society, to the extent that the very word “chav”, though it did exist, was not widely known. It occurs, incidentally in a certain punk song I’ve been unable to track down from that very era, but it’s actually a Romani word and at the time would’ve been heard as part of that vocabulary rather than something adopted fully into English. Employment in working class occupations was also, naturally, higher.
Punk is, of course, an anti-establishment, though also cynically exploited by the mainstream, strand in the late ’70s, but again with working class roots. Another example is pub rock, punk’s precursor, which I can never quite get a fix on, and there are many other groups around which are anything but pretentious. Squeeze’s ‘Cool For Cats’ particularly springs to mind, although it’s one example among many. Squeeze, in fact, clearly following on from the Troggs and the Kinks, reflect what is more an ongoing tradition which has since come to an end rather than something which was particularly distinctive of the time, although there is clearly a swelling of working class influence at this point. Continuing in the vein of popular culture, sitcoms come to mind such as ‘The Liver Birds’, clearly long in the tooth by that point, and also such as the rather obscure ‘Upchat Line’. Also on TV we have ‘Play For Today’, which criticised the spending on the Silver Jubilee while a single mother struggled to make ends meet in ‘The Spongers’, a series for which Mike Leigh and Ken Loach both wrote many plays. Remarkably to today’s eyes, there was even an educational TV series on trade unions and industrial relations, something which would never be seen today. Such series as ‘On The Move’, featuring a young Bob Hoskins as a lorry driver, promoted adult literacy.
Speaking of driving, this was also an era when modernity was symbolised by road traffic and motorways. Traffic wardens were the butt of many jokes and more seriously, this was only a few years after J G Ballard’s ‘Crash’ and his less well-known ‘Concrete Island’, a modern-day version of ‘Robinson Crusoe’ telling the tale of a man stranded on a traffic island on the M4 in West London and struggling to survive. Ian Watson’s ‘Thy Blood Like Milk’ portrays a young joy rider who is made to pay for his victims’ lives with his blood, which is drained from him in a hospital on ‘Superhighway 31’ in a polluted future. By the late 1970s this was fading, but the grittiness of the black stuff was in the soul of 1978. Alan Bleasdale wrote that in 1978, again for ‘Play For Today’.
Art and Craft
Before the automation brought by CGI and computers in other ways, artisanship and virtuosity were musts. Whereas nowadays computer-generated landscapes, characters, scenes and special effects are ubiquitous, the best CGI in 1978 was seen on the likes of ‘Star Wars’. Before the recent additions to ‘A New Hope’, there were two instances of CGI use, both very primitive by today’s standards. All the rest was of course achieved by the likes of model shots and matte painting. Real objects were involved by necessity, and ingenuity and creativity were very hands-on. Different skills are naturally required today, just as professional and hard-won, but they do not involve manually dealing with materials, cinematography and paint. Another example is airbrushing, an important aspect of illustration at the time, which links to album cover art and via that the concept album, because at that time people would sit down and listen to entire double albums in one sitting.
Unity of experience
Today it can be quite difficult to work out whether what you’re into and are familiar with is widely known. There are countless TV channels, music can be streamed or downloaded, often as single tracks, on demand, and timeswitching is routine. None of this was widely available in 1978. There were three TV channels, four national radio channels and very few video recorders and the Walkman wasn’t introduced until 1979. All of this led to a marked unity of experience regarding popular culture. If you weren’t physically sitting in front of the telly when Corrie was on, that was it – you wouldn’t see it. The world would stop for ‘Morecombe And Wise’. You could make a cup of tea during the ads but you couldn’t skip them and the first box set wouldn’t appear for decades. The music chart was key. Films were not shown on TV for five years after they had stopped showing them at the cinema and there was a rule that television programmes would never be shown more than three times, which wasn’t a problem for most people because everyone hated repeats. This was also the era of losing TV shows. The BBC only introduced a policy on archiving that year.
All of this meant that people would watch the same programmes and hear the same music at the same time. This meant a much higher degree of focus on popular cultural products than exists today. Scarcity led to value and quality in both viewership and production. There were not acres of air time to fill. In fact, much of the time BBC TV would just be showing Test Card F or a blank screen. Moreover, the fact that it was harder to wow the viewer with special effects meant that non-realist writing actually had to be good rather than relying on the spectacle.
Slap and Tickle
More embarrassing to today’s sensibilities is of course the overt sexism, racism and homophobia everywhere with little sense of inappropriateness or interest in the rights of the people affected. The interminable ‘Carry On’ series of films was drawing to a close, and they are of course deeply corny and painful to watch today, but I also maintain that they are in a firm tradition of bawdy British humour which stretches back through pantomime, Shakespeare and Chaucer all the way to the double-entendres of Anglo-Saxon riddles. Again, this is an example of an ancient tradition which was drawing to a close rather than a specific Zeitgeist. Much of it is should of course stay in the past but there is a potential distinction between bawdy humour and political incorrectness. It’s possible also that the reason it existed was that there was still a sense of hiddenness at the time connected partly to modesty and perhaps prudishness, which contrasts with today’s expectation that we bare all in social media and elsewhere. Another aspect of the dark side of this is of course the likes of Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris – rampant active paedophilia. As I mentioned before, at the time the Paedophile Information Exchange were affiliated to the National Council for Civil Liberties. All mercifully gone, along with the tendency of people not to over-share. There were depths, some of them dark, but some also profound in a way we have lost touch with.
Nonetheless I maintain that because of the sheer Britishness of the tradition carried on by ‘Carry On’, the cringe-inducing smuttiness of Sid James’s Henry VIII is the most appropriate portrayal of that monarch ever to appear on screen.
Then there’s the question of homophobia. Whereas this was quite pronounced at the time, it has the distinction of having got worse in the 1980s due to the Thatcher government capitalising on the AIDS epidemic. Consequently although it was at the time drifting towards greater tolerance, this process took a U turn in the early ’80s and proceeded to go backwards for many years. Hence the question arises of the point at which we were back to being as opposed to homophobia as we were in 1978, and how much earlier various other measures of tolerance, such as the lowering of the age of consent, would have happened.
Progress and Equality
I’m not going to succumb to the fantasy that things were better in the old days and certainly progress has been made in terms of gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity. However, what really stands out for me is that there seemed to be much greater respect for the working class and the poor, and an understanding that progress would smooth out inequality. Many of the differences between then and now are to do with technological change, perhaps progress, but not these. These are primarily to do with naked class prejudice and excessive focus on the work ethic and profit and whereas people today tend to have a strong understanding that it’s not acceptable to be sexist or racist, the ideas of respect for the poor without blaming them for their situation and the willingness to treat the working class as worthy of dignity and respect is gone.
How do we get this back?