Strange Days Indeed, By Francis Wheen

You didn't have to be mad to matter in the 1970s... oh wait, perhaps you did, reckons Francis Wheen
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If the 1960s vs the 1970s was a sporting fixture, to most people's way of thinking, the decade of the Beatles, mini-skirts and England's World Cup triumph would wipe the floor with that of the Bay City Rollers, flared trousers and the three-day week. Yet where mention of the swingingness of the 1960s now occasions a certain ennui, the turbulence of the decade that followed seems to exert an ever stronger hold over the imagination – a good example of the losers acquiring an appeal no less enduring than the winners'. In any case, who wants to be endlessly told about an era during which people were having so much better a time than you are now? It's preferable to be able to look back not in envy but in pity.

For a long time, the 1970s were dismissed as a byword for general naffness; a source of shame for those of us who came of age in its dim, power-cut-enforced candlelight, when to be born 10 years earlier was to bask in the radiant glow of superior pop music and headier politics. But now, with its pre-echoes of the anxiety and dread that characterise much of life today, the decade is receiving closer inspection and turning out to be both even worse than we remember, and at the same time far more interesting.

That's what comes through in Francis Wheen's hugely entertaining Strange Days Indeed, which one reads in a state of mounting incredulity at the madness that infected the world's rulers at a time when everything was falling apart. Wheen's book follows hard upon Andy Beckett's When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies and covers some of the same ground. But it is far more thesis-based and ranges further afield, exploring how the "paranoid style" was common the world over, with Nixon and Harold Wilson sharing deeply suspect behavioural tendencies not only with each other but with Idi Amin and Mao Zedong.

It is also much funnier. This is no criticism of Beckett's very fine and indeed rather more forensic study, but Wheen, the author of marvellous biographies of Tom Driberg and Karl Marx, has a tremendous sense of the absurd. And absurdity is ever-present in his account of an age in which someone such as Uri Geller could come along and have respected people genuinely believing that his spoon-bending skills might change the course of civilisation.

There isn't a chronological thread to Strange Days Indeed but the effect is cumulative nonetheless. Nixon and Wilson loom large. The doomed venture that was Watergate is laid comically bare. There are fascinating chapters on the Oz trial and revolutionary terrorism. Ted Heath has never seemed so hapless. We are reintroduced to such terrifying 1970s totems as Carlos the Jackal and Gerry Healy, and perhaps most memorably of all, Wilson's private secretary, the notorious Marcia Falkender. If you're not unhinged, you're not in the book, but then Wheen convinces you that just about anyone who mattered in the 1970s was unhinged. It's a grotesque and riveting pageant in which the moral is not so much that power corrupts as that power sends you mad.

This is not history as tidal sweeps of societal forces. It is history as a jumble of events determined by human foible and grave character weakness, exacerbated by the elevation to high office. We all like a good conspiracy theory, yet in Wheen's hands it doesn't spoil our fun to have the best 1970s ones debunked. As Wheen writes, the so-called Me Decade "could just as aptly be defined as the Them Decade", in which unseen forces and nameless threats lurked in the corridors of power and beyond.

Above all, Strange Days Indeed is an absolute treasure trove of fantastic stories. Who knew that the man who first twigged that Nixon had fitted out the White House with secret recording devices was none other than our own, supposedly bumbling former prime minister, Alec Douglas-Home?