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An outstanding account of a tumultuous decade,
This review is from: When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies (Hardcover)
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In `When the Lights Went Out' Andy Beckett has written an outstanding account of a pivotal decade in modern British history. In many ways Beckett's work serves as a powerful antidote to these troubled times. While all the talk is of the worst global depression since the 1930s, it seems comparatively stable compared to the financial, social and civil turmoil of the 1970s, which he unfolds in vivid detail.
Beckett eschews the usual take on the 1970s (glam rock, piles of rubbish, etc.) using individual stories to illuminate the period. Occasionally he inserts himself in the text, providing personal context to the era. Some readers won't like this, but `When the Lights Went Out' never sets out to be a conventional history book, instead following the traditions of `the new journalism.' I think this adds to the work and his personal flourishes are tidy rather than self-indulgent.
What I particularly liked was Beckett's revisionist take on history. Edward Heath is portrayed as idealistic and visionary, Jim Callaghan a fine Prime Minister; both are let fallen by what Harold Macmillan once referred to as `events'. Harold Wilson, often fondly remembered, is painted as opportunistic and chameleonic. The events that precipitated Margaret Thatcher's 1980 revolution are made clear, yet Beckett makes obvious that her coming to power was never inevitable, even as late as the day she was elected, in June 1979.
There is a sense of loss at failed projects, such as the doomed third London airport at Foulness, the failure to make the most of the North Sea oil dividend. The IMF debacle is detailed, but Beckett puts it into context - economic chaos had become a norm in the 1950s and 1960s, both decades considered by some to be halcyon eras.
There are a couple of shortcomings, notably his coverage of the onset of Northern Ireland's troubles, which was the most bloody period of civil strife in more than a century, but is largely glossed over because, he argues, it wasn't foremost in a majority of Britons' concerns. This is a somewhat flawed argument, and the bloody consequences of Irish nationalism and loyalist would be felt until the end of the century. I also felt that the élan of Beckett's writing trailed off towards the end of the book and the latter chapters were less polished than what had preceded them.
Overall this is a fine and engaging work - the best book I have read this year - that at once enthralled and fascinated me. It is less a dry and bones history than a writer's response to a decade that shaped our modern existences; perhaps no one will write a finer account of the seventies - I for one couldn't put it down.