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on 14 May 2010
`I'll read anything by Francis Wheen', says Nick Hornby on the cover blurb. Well, so will I. He's one of England's most entertaining popular essayists, always intelligent, thought provoking, gloriously sarcastic and a master of the well aimed bon mot that deflates pretentions and pomposity. `How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World', his previous book, is a masterpiece - a principled and impassioned defence of rationality in the face of the lunatic forces of chaos.

However, I must confess myself a little disappointed by his latest. I was really looking forward to `Strange Days Indeed'. I find the 70s a fascinating period in political and social history, and couldn't wait to read Wheen's take on it. The result, however, while certainly entertaining, was less coherent than I'd expected.

I assume that Wheen was responding to the current vogue for `Mamma Mia' / `Life on Mars' 70s nostalgia, and to books like Howard Sounes' `The Seventies', that seek to celebrate the decade's many contributions to art and society. No, says Wheen, it really was the decade when the 60s party ended and the hangover set in. His thesis is that it was during the 1970s when `paranoid thinking' or `the paranoid style' became widespread in both political and popular circles. It was this, he says, that laid the groundwork for irrationality to dominate public discourse - the subject of `Mumbo Jumbo'.

The problem is, he never truly gets to grips with what he means by `the paranoid style'. The bulk of the book consists of what are basically essays on political figures or events. Nixon justifies a couple on his own. Others are devoted to the likes of Idi Amin, Harold Wilson, Carlos the Jackal and International Terrorism, the Oz trial and underground culture. These people were undoubtedly paranoid. But you can't base such a broad brush social thesis on a handful of leaders. Amin and Mao were monsters; Nixon was a highly complex individual who was clearly in the grip of a nervous breakdown, a description which would also apply to Wilson. Besides, you can find similar examples from every decade, from Stalin in the 30s and 40s to the anarchist bomb throwers of the 1900s. Every era has its paranoid groups.

Other chapters try to broaden out the thesis, for example tracing the collapse of public confidence in government following the Watergate revelations, and the rise of the popular conviction that the UK was ungovernable and headed for a military dictatorship. The problem here is that these were perfectly rational responses to particular circumstances. The fact is, the UK of the mid-seventies did appear to be ungovernable, and US intelligence was bugging its own citizens and plotting to destabilise foreign governments. Distrust and suspicion, then, weren't paranoia - they were sensible responses to new information. Weird conspiracy theories, aliens, opus dei and black helicopters can't be blamed on Watergate, then. They're a different phenomenon and, if their roots are in the 70s, Wheen doesn't prove it.

The three stars are a bit of a compromise. If what you want is a biting, well-written, highly entertaining series of essays centred on some of the wackier characters of the 1970s, then it's all here. It's also a timely corrective to the 70s nostalgia industry. On the other hand, Alwyn Turner's `Crisis, What Crisis?' does a better job of blending high and low culture to give a more balanced view of the decade. The best place to start, however, if you really want to understand the decade (at least as it played out in the UK) is Andrew Beckett's `When the Lights Went Out'.
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on 20 October 2009
Its a common allegory to compare the sixties to the hedonistic party while the seventies was its hangover, but coupled with the sour anxiety at the time ran an even deeper, all-pervasive band of post-excess malaise, rampant paranoia.

The cast here are Nixon and Kissinger acting like Bond Villians, a button-press from a world destroying nuclear arsenal; Wilson and his huddled, terrified acolytes in Downing Street, Uri Gellar and a milion bending spoons, and numerous other mad or maddening characters, acted out against a canvas of drab, the psychadelic rainbows of the previous decade now drained to various shades of grey, lurching deeper into stagnation, fear and gloom. If you've ever read Wheen's previous pieces on the Seventies (theres a couple of choice cuts in 'Hoo-hahs and Passing Frenzies')you'll know what to expect.

As with every book, indeed everything Wheen has ever written, this is Grade A Unputdownable. His style is hilarious yet terrifying, his research deep and thorough, and his eye for the absurd sharp. The anotations come thick and fast, each one a juicy little side order to the main course you'll wolf down.

How the hell we got out of the decade without revolution, right wing coup or nuclear annhiliation remains a mystery, but Im only glad I wasn't around till 1973, and 3 Day Weeks, Crazed Presidents and paranoid PMs meant rather less to me than Watership Down, Star wars and Floella Benjamin.

A great companion piece to David Aaronovitch's very fine 'Voodoo Histories'...but wait. Two brilliant books on paranoic conspiracy out at the same time...there must be a more sinister connection...
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 19 October 2015
I was casting about for a book about revolutionary terrorists operating in the 1970s, and in particular the Angry Brigade. I know, I know. Welcome to my world. Anyway my research suggested that "Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age Of Paranoia" might be just the ticket. I can report that I found what I was looking for, and then some.

"Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age Of Paranoia" was my first book by Francis Wheen and it won’t be my last. Indeed within a few chapters I had ordered a copy of his biography of "Karl Marx", and copies of "How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions" and "Hoo Hahs And Passing Frenzies: Collected Journalism, 1991 2001", and I am eagerly anticipating all of them.

"Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age Of Paranoia" was right up my street as I’m someone who grew up in, and remains mildly obsessed by, the 1970s. Francis Wheen's earlier book "How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World" began in 1979, and the elections of Thatcher and Reagan. "Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age Of Paranoia" recounts how we got there. As Francis states in the introduction, "Fasten your seatbelts: it's going to be a bumpy ride”.

Unlike those tedious TV documentaries that tend to focus on spacehoppers, flares and Chopper bikes, this book highlights the turmoil and paranoia that characterised so much of the 1970s. The book's subtitle "The Golden Age of Paranoia” is at the book’s heart, opening with a chapter on Richard Nixon, who I had never before realised was quite so consumed by paranoia and an inferiority complex. The book goes on to provide similar examinations of the dysfunctional regimes of Heath and Wilson in the UK and, yes, the various terrorist organisations that bombed their way through the decade. It’s all here and what an extraordinary read it is. Despite the topics under discussion, the book is very readable and frequently amusing and the book abounds with surprising and amazing anecdotes about figures like Carlos the Jackal, Idi Amin, Tariq Ali, Harold Wilson, Uri Geller and many more.

It is, in short, entertaining and fascinating and I finished the book a confirmed Francis Wheen fan.
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on 23 October 2009
At a safe distance, we can laugh at this history. If everyone had known at the time what Francis Wheen reveals of the time we would all have had a nervous breakdown. Our rulers seem to have been mad, bad and (given that they had their fingers on the nuclear button) very dangerous indeed.
Wheen has taken advantage of the deaths of most of the main actors to expose some previously libelous truths. Whether his seventies history would be as mad if extended beyond 1976 or not depends perhaps on whether some of the late seventies figures are still alive.
Of those who are dead, we know that Nixon was a paranoiac drunk, Heath an imbecile, Wilson a fruitcake, the leader of the largest UK trade union a soviet agent... All good rollicking stuff! Great laughs - at a distance.
You'll read this book at a sitting or two. Then you'll want more. Wheen's other stuff is good too:How Mumbo-jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern DelusionsHoo-hahs and Passing Frenzies His book on Marx has been highly praised by non_Marxists, and though I've not read it that's good enough for me, but I can't find the link. Can it be that the British are so bored with Socialism that Marx is out of print?
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on 23 February 2010
So I see it. When you've had enough of superstition, political hypocrisy, and intellectual dishonesty in general, one of the writers you can turn to for oxygen is Francis Wheen. I've read this book with the greatest of pleasure from start to finish. The work of a mind even more disillusioned than the author of HOW MUMBO-JUMBO CONQUERED THE WORLD. In any case the same wit, the same clarity of thought, the same understatement are present. I am almost surprised that such a rational work can nowadays get published.
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on 25 February 2011
This is an extremely entertaining book about the decade I find most fascinating: the 1970s. Wheen's central theme is the fear, paranoia and conspiracy that pervaded both American and British politics and he illustrates how this was mirrored in journalism and popular culture, especially literature, music and cinema. If the book has a minor fault it is his overly generous references to Nixon's presidency at the expense of Carter's and the relatively lightweight examination of British political life throughout the 70s, though he covers the essentials: Heath's incompetence, the oil economic crisis, N Ireland, terrorism and the Wilson government. It's also packed full of lively anecdotes about the scandals and conspiracies of the period.
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on 10 November 2013
This should be part of the general education system in trying to get the next generation to think critically for themselves.
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on 9 August 2015
An incisive, readable and witty account of the early 70s - on which point, readers thinking this is a book about the the entire decade should be warned: there is hardly any mention of anything happening after 1976 - no mention of Three Mile Island, Rhodesia, the revolution in Iran, punk, the Silver Jubilee, or Margaret Thatcher's election victory. That said, it is a fascinating account of the first half of the decade, analyzing the paranoiacs who ruled during that time - Nixon, Wilson, Idi Amin, and the wider cultural obsessions and fears of the time. An accurate account too - although I did find one, minor, omission - Botswana was not listed amongst the few African democracies that did not experience a coup or military rule during that decade.
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VINE VOICEon 11 April 2012
This great book by Francis Wheen (the author of a series of excellent and thought provoking titles) presents the almost forgotten decade of the 70s. What is stricking (or at least will be to those too young to remember this era) is the state of decomposition of Britain. What we now think of Greece, people used to think of England at that time: bankrupt, morally dissolved and ripe for political disintegration. Also shocking is the portait of the many quite deranged international leaders of the time, starting with Nixon and finishing with Idi Amin. All this is very entertaining yet a bit scary. The scary bit comes from the realisation that there are a great many deranged leaders in our days, and similar feelings of doom. A great book to have. Also you should consider How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions.
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on 3 September 2011
I recently have read Francis Wheen's political book, i.e. Strange Days Indeed." As a former columnist for the Guardian, he recalls a number of drastic scandals conducted by policians and their close relatives and friends and notorious incidents executed by celebrities and religious leaders, and he provides the detailed minutes and abstracts taken from the articles in the 1970s. His findings do not only include political scandals but also peculiar reviews of pornographical films and radio programmes.

Some British say M. Thatcher discreetly destroyed their country. Having read Francis Wheen's summary of American and British politicians scandals, I can see they profoundly influenced British both good and bad way and it can be called "pessimistic period".
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