If the seventies were as grim as recent events suggest, why were we so happy then, wonders Rory Olcayto
We don’t really know what to think of the 1970s. Recent events centred on alleged abuse by popular TV personalities have cast a dark shadow over the decade, and today we cringe at the sexism, racism and bad health habits that appear from today’s seemingly more equal society to have been endemic.
However, you may remember a newsworthy report from 2004 by the New Economics Foundation, which showed Britain had never been happier than in 1976. That year social inequality was at its lowest and the measure of domestic progress (MDP) peaked. MDP covers crime rates, energy consumption, pollution and public sector investment.
Critics laughed off the findings pointing out life expectancy and technological progress don’t figure in MDP and should if we want a more accurate index. But this argument has its faults too: you might say that longer life has burdened the state financially and families psychologically (care can be draining emotionally – and financially too). The debate over the true worth of technology is hard to measure, especially in terms of happiness.
What I can say however, with a degree of evidence, because I was there, even if I was a youngster, is that the quality of the surroundings I grew up in during the 70s was more solid, more ‘there’. My local railway station was manned, had a covered, tailormade wooden bridge, and two working platforms – all of these things are no longer.
My school was new, spacious, and my parents didn’t have to worry where in the town they lived to ensure I went to a good one. (And the town’s best nursery school, located in the council-run housing estate, had better facilities and teachers than the privately run ventures). The seafront promenade was in better nick, there was a new swimming pool, and the piers were well-maintained (one of them has since been left to rot). I remember too, there was a well-designed signboard in the town centre that lit up landmark attractions and other places of note, and there were working drinking fountains dotted around its busy streets. These little touches might seem slight but they strengthened the sense of a shared place.
Last year, during the launch of his book The Coalition Chronicles, I listened to Ian Martin lambast the idiocy of contemporary politicians, of all colours, who seem hellbent on selling off the public assets we once used to consider our own: railways. Natural resources. The National Health Service. For him, and for me, these things were Britain, and knowing they belonged to you, to us, clearly played into that communal sense of happiness that lit up magical, mythical 1976.
I recount these various memories because Louis Hellman recently sent me a copy of a new book from the Twentieth Century Society called The Seventies: Rediscovering a lost decade of British architecture, to which he contributed one of the better chapters. It covers his days as an architect in the GLC’s Schools Division, including his walking out over the MACE building system for schools that was eventually scrapped and his first encounter with the late Brian Anson, the ex-planner who saved Covent Garden from redevelopment.
It’s a fascinating read and a reminder of days when architects used their political clout. One other chapter, Barnabas Calder’s study of the Burrell Collection competition, is equally compelling. Describing its ‘tone’ – and perhaps the 70s in general – Calder writes: ‘The spirit of municipal generosity is pervasive, with its emphasis on use by the people of Glasgow, and its omission of a shop – unthinkable in later years.’ Imagine that. No shop. How did we cope? Somehow, though, we were happier then.
Glasgow, the 70s and 'the spirit of municipal generosity'