Digging up the past: Colvin and the Spiders from Mars
Reading history books about your youth makes you feel old. The discovery that archaeologists have got to work on the period you regard as your salad days makes you feel positively ancient.
That’s how it was when I read this article in the London Times, about an archaeological team digging up a nineteen-seventies camping site in southern England.
The camp site opened in 1971, when I was studying in England at the age of 19. This apparently makes it (and presumably me) a fit subject for digging up and turning over. What next? Palaeontology?
Not that I did any actual camping in the Seventies. A certain amount of camping around, yes. I remember wearing a red-and-blue flash of makeup on my face to a David Bowie concert (the 1973 ‘Aladdin Sane’ tour), and the phrase “divinely decadent darling” was all the rage among my friends for a while after the 1972 release of the film of Cabaret.
These are memories I mostly prefer to forget.
(That’s me in the centre of the Rod Stewart photo, by the way, resplendent in rumpled blue patchwork denim and a vile red moustache).
But I’ve been hurtled back into the Seventies – The Decade That Style Forgot - over the last week or two, largely due to a book called Strange Days Indeed, by Francis Wheen.
The book’s overarching theme is paranoia: “Slice the Seventies where you will, the flavour is unmistakable – a pungent melange of apocalyptic dread and conspiratorial fever”.
Some of the stories are familiar, though freshly told. There’s a riveting reprise of the Nixon story, for example, whose details – the anti-Semitism, the racism, the self-fulfilling obsession that everyone was out to get him – were recorded on a taping system which he didn’t even reveal to Henry Kissinger.
But other episodes are simply astonishing. Did you know— I certainly didn’t – that Britain’s top public servant, Sir William Armstrong, literally went mad at a country-house seminar in 1974? It’s a story worth quoting at length:
“Sir William stripped off his clothes and lay on the floor, chain-smoking and expostulating wildly about the collapse of democracy and the end of the world ... In the middle of this hysterical sermon, as the naked civil servant babbled about ‘moving the Red Army from here and the Blue Army from there’, the Governor of the Bank of England happened to walk into the room.”
It was left to the Prime Minister’s Principal Private Secretary to ring the Prime Minister, Edward Heath, and tell him that the head of the civil service had been admitted to a mental hospital. Heath’s reaction, that he “thought William was acting oddly”, is either classic British understatement or a further testament to the overall lunacy of the times.
But Wheen’s book is not just a portrait of a paranoid decade at the government level, although from Idi Amin to Mao Zedong it is that: it also paints a wider picture of a society in which the ‘paranoid style’ had become dominant. It ranges from the radical chic of a society party in New York to the sordid and blood-spattered German underground movement that created the Rote Armee Fraktion, better known as the Baader Meinhof gang .
In the course of the whole book, the cumulative picture, far more persuasively than any digested version can render, convinced me that Wheen was right to compare the Seventies to a trip he took to North Korea, “a theme park of madness and paranoia”.
I left the mad, decaying England that Wheen describes at the dying end of 1973. I’d had enough of the endless strikes, the power cuts that left you shivering in the dark, the IRA bombs and bomb scares. Unable to get any better job than tending bar or washing-up in restaurants, I arrived back in Australia with relief; within about a month I’d landed a cadetship at the ABC.
So it’s always been tempting to see Australia as removed from the paranoia and disintegration that were affecting the rest of the world in the Seventies.
Tempting, but once you start remembering the world through Wheen’s prism, it’s hard to stop.
From 1974 on, I spent most of my journalistic career working in New South Wales, much of it at the new ABC youth station then called 2JJ (now Triple-J). Our office was in Sydney’s King’s Cross.
Just up the road, you could sometimes see a prostitute step out of a shop doorway to hand a brown envelope through the window of a police car.
Across the road, in Forbes St, was the Forbes club, a notorious illegal gambling joint. The late Tony Joyce, reporting for This Day Tonight, once set up his camera on the roof of the building next door and told viewers, in innocent tones, that he had phoned the police to alert them that the place was hosting gambling without a licence, but that no-one, so far had turned to up to raid the place. The program kept crossing back to him for the next half hour but no police ever came. This provocation enraged the Premier, Sir Robert Askin, so much the next day that he went into Parliament to announce that there would be police raids on all Sydney’s illegal gambling dens at six o’clock that evening. Given that kind of notice, it was hardly surprising that when the cops arrived, TV cameras in tow, nothing untoward was happening at all at any of these establishments.
Privately, it was common knowledge that NSW was corrupt from top to bottom, and the corruption began in King’s Cross, with two people only ever referred to as ‘Mr Big’ and ‘Mr Sin’.
Mr Big was a thug and organised crime figure called Lenny McPherson. Mr Sin was Abe Saffron, a former sly-grog seller who’d accumulated a gambling and prostitution empire.
In Gentle Satan: Abe Saffron, My Father, Alan Saffron says that two successive NSW Police Commissioners, Norm Allan and Fred Hanson, took huge sums in bribes from Abe Saffron.
The word was that Askin himself was also involved.
Everyone in Sydney journalism ‘knew’ most of this, but the barriers to publication were huge. Juanita Nielsen, who ran a little crusading newspaper in King’s Cross, crossed someone powerful and disappeared – believed kidnapped and murdered. And where intimidation didn’t work, there were the libel laws. Journalists like Wendy Bacon and Tony Reeves tried to rake the muck and tell the story, but much of it they could only hint at.
Journalists all over Australia at the time had similar tales to tell. Yes, we were all paranoid, in Wheen’s terms, because some fairly nasty people really were determined to stop us doing our job.
The strangest thing, reading a book about the madness of an era which seemed like normality at the time, is the sudden thought: what will we look like from the vantage point of, say, the year 2040?
I’ll leave you to predict for yourself the elements of life in the first decade of the twenty-first century that will seem, from that vantage point, odd, inconvenient, silly, corrupt or just plain mad.
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