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'.