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Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia Hardcover – 3 Sep 2009
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'delightfully unorthodox history..The strangest decade has received the treatment it has long deserved' Book of The Week Time Out
'This gallery of grotesques is great fun' TLS
'fascinating, wonderfully funny and curiously terrifying' Waterstones Books Quarterly
'wonderfully deadpan and precise writer' The Scotsman
'Wheen expertly controls the reins, pacing the narrative just right so there is always the desire to be led further into the maze of '70's madness. Wheen is surely our most eminent satirical writer, and I just hope that he is looking at our present decade through the same lens, and is just as busy getting that book ready' Tribune
'Wheen's view of the Seventies in Britain is unrelentingly grim' The Spectator
'hugely entertaining…Wheen has a tremendous sense of the absurd' Independent on Sunday
'What makes this book such an outrageously funny, entertaining read is the stream of anecdotes, from the Oz obscenity trial to the mercenary coup plotters who fly into the Seychelles posing as rugby-playing members of the fictitious Ancient Order of Froth Blowers, their weapons hidden in their luggage under piles of toys 'for disabled children'. Not even the most outrageous novelist could make this kind of stuff up, but perhaps only a writer of Francis Wheen's skill and touch could turn it into a book as glorious, memorable and laugh-out-loud hilarious as this.' Literary Review
'Wheen's high-octaine, rollicking and impressionistic survey' Mail on Sunday
‘First review of Francis Wheen's brilliant Strange Days Indeed ran at the weekend:'Wheen couldn't write a dull book if he tried…And while not even he could make the 1970s likeable, few could make the crimes, follies and misfortunes of that wretched decade so entertaining' Christopher Hart, Sunday Times.
About the Author
Francis Wheen is an author and journalist who was named Columnist of the Year for his contributions to the Guardian. He a regular contributor to Private Eye and is the author of several books, including a highly acclaimed biography of Karl Marx which has been translated into twenty-two languages and the bestselling How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World. He recently wrote the screen play for The Lavender List, a biopic on Harold Wilson's last days in government. His collected journalism, Hoo-Hahs and Passing Frenzies, won the George Orwell prize in 2003.
Top customer reviews
"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.
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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There was no 'mass paranoia' and we certainly did not have 'cold leftovers for supper and a...Read more