The ’70s was an odd decade, writes political historian and Private Eye deputy editor Wheen (Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography, 2007, etc.). People didn’t even have cell phones.
In a move guaranteed to make anyone who was there feel old, the author opens by noting the disbelief of a young BBC producer that Harold Wilson, then prime minister of the United Kingdom, did not have a mobile phone at his disposal. “The scene was deleted,” he writes. The ’70s were a grim period, with aftertastes of the Altamont tragedy at the beginning and the evils of disco and the frightening visage of Ronald Reagan near the end. In the middle there was Vietnam, Richard Nixon and a host of other maladies. The meat of Wheen’s lucid discussion is what can be considered a golden age of the paranoid style of politics, as the historian Richard Hofstadter put it, and of widespread paranoia in general. There were plenty of reasons to be paranoid, from Watergate-era wiretapping to the freewheeling antics of a host of terror-inducing groups, including the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Red Brigades, Scientologists and many more. In response, writes the author, came various emotional reactions manifested in the culture, from the anger epitomized by punk rock to the desperation of John Cleese’s TV character Basil Fawlty. Wheen has a pronounced talent for finding little tidbits of historical data that speak volumes. Few others would remember that Tom Hayden, ex of Jane Fonda, once belonged to a commune that worshipped North Korean dictator Kim Il-Sung, head of a state that Wheen dutifully visited once and pronounces about the worst place in the world. The author ably navigates the shattered landscape of the decade, which, for all its awfulness, has inspired a fair share of nostalgia. How else to explain another terror like Mamma Mia?
Literate, authentic to period detail and often entertaining—a sight more interesting than David Frum’s How We Got Here (2000) and other historical treatments of a soul-testing decade.