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Strange Days Indeed, By Francis Wheen

Christopher Hirst
Friday 16 April 2010 00:00 BST

A book devoted to detailing the excesses of the Seventies, "that era of polyester, platform shoes and power cuts", may sound as appealing as a bottle of Hirondelle, the ubiquitous plonk of that time.

In fact, the great Francis Wheen has produced a vastly enjoyable panorama that will make the young gasp in astonishment and the old gasp in startled recollection.

"Slice the Seventies where you will, the flavour is unmistakable – a pungent mélange of apocalyptic dread and conspiratorial fever," he declares, and makes good this promise with brilliant research and deliciously ironic prose. His narrative is populated by a gallery of grotesques ranging from Richard Nixon, who, on the brink of invading Cambodia, was preoccupied with the problem of finding room in the White House for a new pool table, and Uri Geller ("strikingly reluctant to display his gifts if magicians were present") to "His Excellency President for Life Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of all the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea...".

In a fine chapter on the violent radicals of the time, Wheen reminds us that our homegrown Angry Brigade took a very British approach to revolution. "More like the Slightly Cross Brigade" says one former member. Weirdly, the most lasting influence of the rather more serious Baader-Meinhof Group is on fashion. In 2001 Prada released a collection called Prada Meinhof.

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