Seventies Shades of Brown

We could do worse than return to the decade of ABBA, Laura Ashley and double-digit inflation
Diana Thomas

“Ooh, you look wonderful, darling!” said my fabulous neighbour who owns the ground-floor flat – recently spread across several pages of Architectural Digest – in the country house where I play Miss Havisham, alone in the attic. “All those shades of brown. So chic!”

And so Seventies. I was born in January 1959, meaning I turned eleven in January 1970 and celebrated my twenty-first birthday a few days into the Eighties. In-between, my entire adolescence, my secondary education, and most of my time at university, were defined by the Seventies. So I speak from personal experience when I say there was a lot of brown back then: on the walls, the furniture, our clothes. Not the bathroom suites, obviously. They were avocado.

But everywhere else, you could have any colour you liked, so long as it was brown. And a middle-class girl could have any dress she desired, so long as it was Laura Ashley and covered in itty-bitty flowers and the occasional frill. And here we are half a century later, and it’s all coming back. There are beige, caramel, chestnut, tan and chocolate garments all over the fashion pages, and the frocks are more floral and frilly than ever. Any day now, someone will rediscover the cheesecloth Seventies shirts that became semi-see-through in the UV light – then compulsory for any hip dancefloor – making white bras glow an eerie purple for boys to goggle at.

And, of course, we have ABBA back. Not to mention queues for petrol, warnings of winter power cuts and the spectre of inflation. Prices might rise by as much as four per cent, apparently. Well, the inflation rate for 1975 was 24.2 per cent, so there’s a lot more inflating to happen yet. But it’s a start. Which leads us to the standard economic and political analysis of the Seventies as a time of stagnation and decay: the endless strikes; the trains that didn’t run; the new cars that broke down the day you bought them; the endemic shabbiness of streets strewn with dog mess and uncollected rubbish; the overwhelming sense of a nation going downhill.

“Managing decline” was the philosophy of post-Imperial Whitehall. We weren’t a serious power anymore and the only thing to do was to let the public down easily and hope they didn’t notice. Or maybe not. In a recent Guardian article, Polly Toynbee painted a picture of the Seventies as seen from Islington. All the talk of strikes and decline, she wrote, was just a right-wing lie, pushed by Murdoch’s stooges on the Sun. Britain in the Seventies was more egalitarian, with better public services, and workers’ rights were protected by strong unions and feminism – or Women’s Lib, as it was then called: the beginning of the long, and still unfinished road towards true gender equality.

Well, there’s some truth in that. There was more equality in the Seventies, and less concern with money, for the simple reason that an 83 per cent tax rate made it virtually impossible to get rich without leaving the country. Property prices were much lower for those who bought their own homes, and council houses were more numerous for those who did not, meaning attaining a home of one’s own was an automatic assumption, not a distant dream. And watching the way modern management runs roughshod over workers, and the increasingly gross disparity between the lives of the super-rich – the one per cent of the one per cent – and everyone else, even a capitalist like me begins to wonder whether things have gone far too far.

That said, the tens of millions of days lost to strikes were not an imaginary figment of Tory propagandists; nor Britain’s reputation as the Sick Man of Europe, or Thatcher’s stunning election victory in 1979. There’s a reason she got more votes than Blair in 1997: people were genuinely sick of the way things were. I remember going to the States for my gap year in 1977, and again over the next few years when my diplomat father was posted to the British Embassy in Washington. Even with the twin shocks of the oil crisis and defeat in Vietnam leaving America at its lowest ebb, it still seemed more prosperous, more modern, superior in every way to the dreary mediocrity of home. To be British in the Seventies felt like being on the losing side of history.

And yet… and yet… it was also a brilliant decade in which to be young. Above all, it was a time of freedom. Toynbee uses that word to describe the sense she had in the Seventies – as a woman a decade or so older than me – of being part of a political and social milieu actively fighting for feminist and socialist ideals, for a better and fairer society.

My own retrospective sense of freedom is more personal. I simply see that my friends and I – almost all middle-class, white and privately educated – were far freer, in a multitude of ways, than our equivalents are today. For a start, we never questioned our place in the world or felt the need to be constantly ashamed of our history. And as grubby as the Seventies might have been, we never had to wear masks, isolate from our friends or be excluded from our places of education.

On a more straightforward note, we grew up with a greater sense of personal independence. As a child of six, I made my own way to school, and regularly ran across Kew to the playground a quarter of a mile from my home. That was perfectly normal for my generation. For children today, it would be grounds for their parents to be prosecuted.

In the summer of 1971, aged twelve, I went on a hiking trip in the Wye Valley organised by my maths teacher, Mr Capes. There must have been half a dozen of us kids, maybe eight. Every day we’d set off from one youth hostel to another, several miles distant, armed only with a packed lunch, a map, and a brand-new ten pence piece (our currency having just been decimalised) to buy a fizzy drink along the way. Mr Capes would point us in the right direction and then leave us to it, sometimes in groups, sometimes alone, but always entirely unsupervised. By modern standards it was grossly irresponsible. Except it wasn’t, because having to rely on our own resources was wonderful training for teenage life.

Perhaps that independence was the foundation for another great freedom we had, which was to think and say whatever we wanted, on any subject, knowing that our friends, parents or teachers might very well argue with our opinions, but no one would challenge our fundamental right to hold them. There is a disturbing uniformity of acceptable thought among the young today, which arises, I suspect, from an equal uniformity of political allegiance among their educators. Back then the members of university faculties ranged from tweedy High Tories to groovy, moustachioed Maoists. Today (and this is true across the West), academics are overwhelmingly left-wing, and often in a very specific, dogmatic, illiberal form.

We were also free from fear. This was not because the world was any safer. The Cold War still carried the possibility of nuclear annihilation. The TV news was filled with battlefield reports from Vietnam, the Sinai Desert, and the streets of Northern Ireland. IRA bombs were an ever-present threat. There were solemn scientific portents of ecological doom then, as now. The 1972 Club of Rome report, “The Limits to Growth”, stated that computer modelling showed that overpopulation would lead to mass starvation. And we were told that climate change would lead to… uh… a new ice age.

As it happened, obesity was to become a greater problem than starvation, for the West at least, and climate change now refers to getting hotter. Though bright young teenagers knew about these things, and even protested the injustices and inactions of the elders, they did mould our entire world view, as they seem to for the young today.

Perhaps that was because we were also free of screens. Most homes had one TV and one phone. The whole country watched the same three channels. Social media apps were as yet entirely unimagined. If you wanted to talk to your friends, you’d hog the phone for hours, or spent time with them in person. Interactions were communal and face-to-face, not atomised, alone, and at a distance. And yes, there was peer pressure, particularly on girls, but there wasn’t the constant barrage of imagery and influencers, let alone the universal experience of hardcore porn, to distort our ideas of how to look or behave.

It never occurred to teenage girls who had been raised on the comic Jackie, before graduating to magazines like Honey, 19, and, oohh… Cosmo, that they should remove all their pubic hair, or get surgically implanted lips the size of buttocks, or boobs like barrage balloons. The closest thing to body shaping back then was lying on your bed and sucking in your tummy, to do up the zip on your skintight Wrangler flares.

We got our youth cultural information from Top of the Pops, the Sunday evening chart rundown on Radio One, and, if we were real musical aficionados, the NME. And I’m sorry, forgive an old buffer, but the music was far better then. Apart from anything else, it was all entirely new. To see Bowie sing “Starman” on Top of the Pops, or gaze on the cover of Aladdin Sane was not just a matter of swooning at his gorgeousness, it was to be awoken to a revolutionary new idea about the mutability of human existence. Bowie was telling us, “You can be anyone … or anything.”

Bowie was new. Reggae was new. The spacey electronics of Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk were new. The music of the Sex Pistols and the Clash wasn’t new, but their cropped hair and equally spiky attitudes certainly were. And even disco, which all serious music snobs derided at the time, was actually the most revolutionary music form of all, since it challenged the straight, male hegemony of rock with an overtly female and gay-focused alternative. Also, we were free to have sex. In recent years, a slew of reports from across the western world have reported that young people, and particularly young males, are having less sex than previous generations. Hence the appearance of “incels”: angry, woman-hating, involuntarily celibate men. 

Seventies kids came of age at a perfect moment: after the sexual revolution of the Sixties had been fought and won, and before AIDS cast the shadow of deadly disease over bodily contact. Among the boys and girls I knew, the rules of sexual play were clearly understood by all. From the time we were thirteen, parties would have rooms set aside for snogging, with mattresses on the floor and scarves draped over lampshades to create a romantic glow.

Teens would explode out of their respective single-sex boarding schools and go mad in a spit-swapping frenzy of frottage and fumbling. By the time we moved onto actual relationships at fourteen or fifteen, the unspoken rule was “everything but”. In other words, mouths and fingers could go anywhere, but actual, penetrative sex was out of bounds… until a girl went on the Pill at sixteen or seventeen – and then it was game on.

I can only speak from my own experience and that of my contemporaries. But we were a generation that copulated within couples. Of course, there was casual sex, but it seemed much less prevalent than relationship sex, so more often than not there was that vital element of love. It would of course be naïve to imagine that everything was sweet and rosy and no one ever got abused, pressured or forced into sex. Sadly, those things are as old as humanity itself. But girls of my generation simply did not think of themselves as victims in the way their equivalents are relentlessly urged to do so today.

Still from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, 1975

For sure, these privileged freedoms were mitigated by tremendous inequalities and injustices across broader society. To take a simple, personal example, a combination of David Bowie, the Rocky Horror Show and Jan Morris taught me that I was transsexual (as the word was then). But the various psychiatric professionals to whom I was sent in the late Seventies, in the hope that they could relieve my crippling insomnia, depression and anxiety, refused to believe me when I told them how I felt. I went along with their denial out of fear. I was terrified, and with good reason, that if I ever gave in to my true nature I would become an outcast, who could never hope to have a fulfilling career or a family of their own. The lives of trans people are far from perfect today, but, they are also far less imperfect than they were then. Professionals are wiser, our society is infinitely more tolerant of difference, so trans people, like gay people, are far more able to live as our true selves.

Likewise, my female university contemporaries were outnumbered by males, and went into workplaces that were still overwhelmingly male-dominated. They could only dream of a world in which the ONS survey “Gender pay gap in the UK: 2019” could state: “For age groups under 40 years, the gender pay gap for full-time employees is now close to zero.” But at least we didn’t live in a world in which our successors as Cambridge students are encouraged to note and report the micro-aggressions they have encountered, turning undergrads into informers, in a manner more worthy of a police state than an academic institution.

I went to King’s, the most proudly left-wing of all Cambridge colleges.  Before “woke”, before “politically correct”, the phrase for socio-political rectitude was “ideologically sound”. You heard those words a lot – either seriously or drenched in sarcasm – around the college bar. But even the college Trots, who were endlessly calling rent strikes and banning the college from having anything as bourgeois as a May Ball would have baulked at grassing up their mates.

The Twenty-twenties seem to me to be drifting into dictatorship: overtly so in Russia and China, but more subtly, insidiously in the self-loathing, intellectually decadent West.

That prospect terrifies me. But then, as a friend once pointed out, I’m the last of the old-fashioned liberals. Or to put it another way, I’m a Seventies girl at heart.

Diana Thomas is a journalist, editor and author who has published 16 novels (of which three have been No.1 UK bestsellers), in more than 20 languages, under a variety of names, none of which is “Diana Thomas”

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1 Comment. Leave new

  • Marcus Gibson
    January 27, 2022 1:05 pm

    An excellent piece, thank you. I, born in 1957, also ‘suffered’ the 1970s. Life really was poor, drab and dreary for many. Music, compared to the decades of the 1960s and 1980s, was often terrible – Bay City Rollers, The Slade..
    The Labour Governments, unable to act on anything to make the country prosperous, melted away in 1979, unlamented. Labour Governments inevitably ALWAYS end in national bankruptcy, and this one was no different: cf those of Attlee, Callaghan, Blair-Brown.
    Trains that never ran on time; waiting a year for a new phone line. Strikes everywhere..
    However, it certainly wasn’t all ‘brown’. The skirt suits, print dresses, and smart office outfits of the 1980s actually arrived much earlier, from 1975 onwards – and my college photos provide proof. Those Laura Ashley brochures? Now worth £150 if you have one; and original dresses are even more..
    Thankfully, in 1979 along came Mrs Thatcher, undoubtedly the most dynamic leader of Britain since the war. She made mistakes, certainly, but she smacked one enemy after another, and restored Britain’s reputation and standing – and introduced an era of enterprise that has not stopped, in fact it has only accelerated, ever since..

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