Tuesday, 15 May 2012

The 70s: TV Review

Just finished watching yesterday's final episode of Dominic Sandbrook's history of the 1970s.

It's a period that I remember quite well, although the varying failures or successes of Scottish football and Welsh rugby were not something I followed at the time, or even now.

Scotland notably lost the world cup, and the triumphalism of the Scottish National Pary faded in the bitter taste of that defeat. Quite how much tongue in cheek, Sandbrook suggests a correlation between sporting failure and political failure is hard to say, but the mood of Scotland was probably influenced by that, if only because of the triumphalistic certainty that they would win, and the nationalist fervour riding on that wave.  In the event, the referendum for devolution failed.

Sandbrook's comments on Scotland remind me of reading "Scotch on the Rocks" in the 1970s. It is a novel by Douglas Hurd (later Foreign Secretary) and Andrew Osmond. Published in 1971, it was a political thriller which saw an increase in Scottish nationalism, and a political crisis in which the Scottish National Party would emerge as a serious force, arguing for independence, by force if necessary. As the Scottish National Party did become more popular, winning 11 MPs in the October 1974 General Election, with their campaign to keep oil revenues for Scotland, the events of "Scotch on the Rocks" seemed remarkably prescient.

In Wales, however, there was even less support for devolution, and against Sandbrook's suggestion, as he notes, there was nevertheless sporting prowess in Welsh rugby. Again, I can't remember ever being interesting at the time, and even having just watched the programme, I'm afraid I'm none the wiser. All I know is that there were lots of Welsh flags, dragons flying in the wind, and they won,

The rise of the comprehensive schools was a matter of interest to me, as my chosen career at that time was to teach mathematics. What I didn't realise was that the move to comprehensive schools began in the Ted Heath government, and was driven forward by Margaret Thatcher, removing many of the grammar schools, including the one she had attended to. The Labour government continued this trend, but it began - perhaps not surprisingly - under the managerial thinking of the Heath regime, and she was the original and fervent proponent of closing grammar schools and founding comprehensive schools.

Political memories are short, and as Sandbrook noted, by the time she was Leader of the Conservative Party, her rhetoric had done a complete about turn (so much for her phrase - "the Lady's not for turning"), and now vigorously defended the very grammar schools that a bare few years before she had done so much to destroy. Nevertheless, as Sandbrook remarks, it was a populist agenda, playing well into public support. The dream of the comprehensive school could be seen to have failed in the dramatised rendering of school life in "Grange Hill", where many people wrote in incensed at the violence, lack of respect, and poverty of education shown in the TV show. The writer, Phil Redmond, had been to a comprehensive school, and was simply writing about the school culture that he had experienced first hand, but the show raised anxieties about children taking it to heart with copy-cat behaviour.

There was also a fear, prevalent at the time, that Sandbrook notes, that education had been taken over by Marxists with a trendy left wing agenda that had little to do with education. I don't think that was the case. It is true that there were experimental schools such as Summershill, but that was an exception. For the most part, teachers tried to teach, and teach well, but it was more an ideological structure that hampered that, with a very strong impetus from educational theorists - not often teachers themselves - to remove "streaming" in favour of a more egalitarian classroom where every pupil was taught the same.

In practice, of course, certainly in subjects like mathematics, this is wholly unworkable, as the spread of ability is so large that the slowest pupil will be more likely to fail if the class proceeds at a median point, while the brighter ones are held back. Even in other subjects, such as English, I think a case could be made for streaming, if only from my own experience of reading aloud around a classroom, where it was an exercise in excruciating boredom for fast readers, while the slower readers painfully read word after word, and probably hated the experience just as much.

The housing estates, those modern flats - streets in the sky - were another seventies failure. Sandbrook looks at a typical case, where the dreams of leaving slum dwellings were replaced by slum dwellings in "concrete jungles" rather than "streets in the sky", with no community, vandalism, muggings, and gradual deterioration. In part, as he explains, this reflects the breakdown of the family, with a climbing divorce rate, single parent families, latch-key kids often left to their own devices. This wasn't the cause of the deterioration, but the combination of a socially less cohesive society, and buildings that had been constructed by planners on an idealist, but unrealistic and paternalistic agenda, meant that they soon became ghettos, and eventually would be torn down. The one he looked back on in old clips is now the site of a supermarket.

Christopher Booker, in his book "The Seventies" describes how Lasdun's 15 story tower - one of the first to be built - originally "invariably photographed under blue skies, with its concrete gleaming white in the sun" had become by 1976, "tatty and forlone, its concrete cracked and discolouring, the metal reinforcements rusting through the surface, every available inch covered with graffiti" and "inside there is a stench of urine.. while the wretched glum looking tenants shuffle past to wait for the only lift that is working."

It is frightening how badly buildings were designed in the 1960s and 1970s, both from the point of view of their structural longevity, and their ability to be places where real people could live, and not architects idea of what people would like. As he points out, this takes place in a period of five to ten years - an incredibly short time. We are still living with the legacy of that, and of course, also, the lack of understanding of the materials themselves, so that concrete degradation would take place. Architects were swept up into the dream, and still would be, given half a chance.

Not so long ago, there was the suggestion of 15 stories high blocks of flats on the Waterfront - Jersey's version of Dubai. I remember speaking to an architect at the time, who was enthusiastic about blocks of flats for St Helier as it would keep Jersey's countryside free of development; he was particularly keen not to see development around Grouville, where he lived in a nice country home. A luxury flat - the modern ideology - is clearly not something that any self-respecting architect would be keen to live in, and I do wonder why, if it is as marvelous as the adverts suggest.

The crunch came for the Labour Government with the triumph of the unions in the "Winter of Discontent" - a cold winter with thick snow, transport grinding to a halt, strikes on a scale not seen before the Great Strike, and a callousness that went with the Unions desire for huge pay increases. Sandbrook mentions Great Ormond Street, where nurses tore up their union cards in disgust, and parents came in to feed their sick children. My son, who was watching this, was wholly disgusted by the way in which the hospital staff who did strike seemed to not care about desperately ill children.

Of course, as Sandbrook points out, many of them were among the lowest paid, but there still seems to be something intrinsically wrong about those kind of actions. It's like the attitude of Bill Dunn of the ambulance driver's union - about ambulance men's plans to ignore 999 calls - "if it means lives lost, this is how it must be, we are fed up of being Cinderella's. This time we are going to the ball".

Another notorious action during the winter was the unofficial strike by gravediggers, members of the GMWU, working in Liverpool and Tameside. As coffins piled up, Liverpool City Council hired a factory in Speke to store them. As Wikipedia notes:

On 1 February a persistent journalist asked the Medical Officer of Health for Liverpool, Dr Duncan Dolton, what would be done if the strike continued for months, Dolton speculated that burial at sea would be considered. Although his response was hypothetical, in the circumstances it caused great alarm. The gravediggers eventually settled for a 14% rise after a fortnight's strike.

The Unions won, but the price of that victory was the triumph of Margaret Thatcher who came to power after the discontent, and the backlash against the tactics and attitude of the Unions. It was a Pyrrhic victory that would see them emasculated under anti-Union legislation, which outlawed flying pickets, and forced strikes to have proper ballots of all members, not merely carried by activists.

If they had reformed themselves into more democratic organisations, and had a better idea of the consequences of their actions, that might well not have come to pass. But with the farce of "block votes" at Labour Party Conferences, the Union leaders had mostly lost touch with the public, behaving more like powerful barons of feudal society. The Greeks knew this - in a Greek tragedy, hubris is always followed by nemesis.

1 comment:

James said...

In Wales, however, there was even less support for devolution, and against Sandbrook's suggestion, as he notes, there was nevertheless sporting prowess in Welsh rugby.

Ah, Tony, you don't understand Wales. All of the cottage-burning Welsh-speaking nationalists were in the north: to a man the successful rugby players lived within twenty miles of the Bristol Channel in the south. Even today the links between north and south are inadequate.