David Lister: 1972: The end of the age of innocence

It was the year of the Ford Cortina, Gay Pride and power cuts. But when Bloody Sunday tore through 1972, Britain changed: the Sixties were finally over

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:08

The past is, of course, another country. But 1972, when the events of Bloody Sunday occurred, was another planet. Those who were not yet born, be prepared to be amazed. This was a time when otherwise macho rock stars wore make-up and platform shoes; when the top British football teams comprised top-class Britons; when the Welsh were best at rugby, and the West Indies mighty at cricket; when the National Union of Mineworkers could bring down a government; when Israel were the good guys; when students expected and received grants, and subsequently jobs.

Such was the natural order of things. The "Troubles" in Northern Ireland were slowly becoming part of the British psyche. Since 1969, when British troops were sent over, the Troubles figured regularly in the press, and loomed large in political discourse. But it was only later in the Seventies, when the IRA took its campaign of violence to the mainland, bombing targets in cities such as Birmingham and Guildford, that Northern Ireland became a weary staple of everyday conversation.

Bloody Sunday, of course, also brought the Troubles into sharper perspective for those on the mainland; it even influenced British culture. In one of the more unlikely responses to that day's events, Paul McCartney, by now an ex-Beatle, released a single entitled "Give Ireland Back to the Irish". Such gestures were important then, and the song was immediately banned by the BBC.

The events in Derry also made a deep impression on another element of British life in 1972, an element as important then as it is absent now: ultra-left politics. The "hard left", a long- discarded phrase, was present in many guises and behind many initials. There was the International Marxist Group, or IMG, which spawned Tariq Ali; there were the International Socialists, or IS, which produced many of today's right-wing intellectuals; and there were numerous other smaller groups with markedly similar initials – all of them ripe for the satire they were later to receive from the Monty Python team in its 1979 film The Life of Brian.

For these hard-left groupings, Northern Ireland was a key issue. But it wasn't the only one. There were battles to fight closer to home. A generation which believed itself radicalised by the Sixties now had a Conservative government. Edward Heath's administration had antagonised the unions with its Industrial Relations Act of 1971. Its Education Secretary, one Margaret Thatcher, had abolished free school milk. That provoked a demo in Hyde Park against "Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher." "No Milk from an Old Cow" was one notable banner from that day. Most importantly, there were the miners, flexing their muscles against Heath in the opening rounds of a battle that would lead the following year to the three-day week – and eventually to an election fought on the question: "Who Governs Britain?"

Already in 1972 the industrial disruption that would escalate during the decade and into the next was evident. Coal miners walked out in their first national strike for almost 50 years. Three-quarters of the electricity used in the UK then came from coal-burning power stations. A state of emergency was declared, as was a one-off three-day week, a grim dress-rehearsal for an event still two years away.

There were power cuts across the country and local disputes over miners' pay and conditions grew violent. Secondary picketing fuelled the tension. The Education Secretary took note.

Inflation ran at 7.7 per cent. The number of people out of work and claiming benefit rose above one million for the first time since the 1930s. And the Speaker was forced to suspend the Commons for 10 minutes after the prime minister was subjected to a storm of jeers and abuse as he confirmed the total.

But to look at these 1972 bullet points and relate them to the rest of the decade, as many historians have done, is, I believe, to miss the point about that year. It wasn't just the beginning of the Seventies, a decade characterised by industrial dispute, rising inflation and growing unemployment. It was also the last year of the Sixties.

Take fashion. The apparel by which we remember the Seventies was certainly in evidence. Ties were large, dresses tight. Platform shoes were unwieldy and somewhat grotesque underneath a pair of bright, tight, hot pants. But in 1972 this was not the look that reigned supreme. The most popular look, not least on campuses, comprised frayed jeans, tie-dye, tunics, and hip huggers with bell bottoms. It was 1972, but the summer of 1967 had not yet faded. On those same campuses the use of soft drugs was rife.

A Conservative prime minister was in Downing Street, the miners were striking, but the politics that were to really change people's lives, and whose effects can still be felt today, were the legacy of Sixties radicalism. They were taking shape in small, revolutionary meetings, marches and underground magazines that would soon make women's liberation and gay liberation household phrases.

In July 1972 the first Gay Pride march took place from Trafalgar Square to Hyde Park. Some marchers were in gaudy colours, some were in drag. This and other events led not just to the founding of Gay News but to a society in which gay equality would be considered something normal to strive for. Perhaps, looking back, one could wish that the Gay Liberation Front had emphasised more the need to see gay people as ordinary rather than stressing separateness, as such marches and dress styles tended to do. But maybe movements need to be noticed.

As Andy Beckett points out in his brilliant history of the Seventies, When The Lights Went Out, the Seventies feminist movement was harder to pinpoint in terms of time and place: so many different groupings were at work. But the debut issue of Spare Rib was published in July 1972, another magazine – and one of the most important – among many in an underground press enjoying possibly its last great year of rude health.

Again, though, history has been rewritten somewhat. Spare Rib was not pure radicalism; like much else in that year of contradictions it was straining to be radical but also looking back at conventionality. Alongside articles on the suffragettes and a group of women in London "fighting for a fair deal for women night cleaners" was the headline "Georgie Best on Sex".

In the cinema, the wunderkind generation of Seventies directors was beginning to make its mark. Indeed, Francis Ford Coppola's epic The Godfather was the biggest grossing film of the year. A Clockwork Orange appeared at Warner West End Cinema in Leicester Square in January. It was billed as "being the adventure of a young man whose principal interests are rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven".

But on television, the new ratings grabber was to be Are You Being Served, with its nudge-nudge jokes about Mrs Slocombe's pussy, and its (to modern eyes) excruciating camp caricature of a preening homosexual. The new wave was surging forward; but the old formats and old prejudices carried on regardless.

Although this was to be the year that David Bowie would take the world by storm with his Ziggy Stardust album and the launch of his androgynous persona, the number one record at the time of Bloody Sunday was "I'd Like to Teach The World to Sing" by The New Seekers. Written for a Coca-Cola ad, the line " I'd like to buy the world a Coke, and keep it company" was amended so that radio stations would play the song.

If you wanted to move beyond Bowie there was Marc Bolan's T Rex and the glam-dressed, melodic rockers Slade, a group so popular they rivalled the Beatles for songs going straight to number one. Perhaps it's only because their music has not been used recently for a movie or TV soundtrack that they have largely been forgotten.

Bloody Sunday certainly dominated the news; but you had to wait for that bulletin until the appointed times: 24-hour news was not even a dream. A fourth channel was, but it would take another 10 years to materialise. So it was just three channels – and no daytime TV for adults.

That summer, young and old would be glued to their TV sets when 11 Israeli athletes were massacred at the Munich Olympics. The grim event was one of many which forced us at last to start taking security seriously.

One can look back, too, on quaint statistics. The Volkswagen Beetle was the most popular in the world, with sales exceeding 15 million; the Ford Cortina was beginning its 11-year run as Britain's best-selling car; and British Leyland's Morris Marina and Austin Maxi were also very popular, just two or three years before the company became synonymous with all that was bad in industrial relations. The average house price was £7,800, a gallon of petrol 35p, a pint of beer 13p: figures that many in the country, just months after decimalisation, still had to mentally translate into pounds, shillings and pence. And who could forget the pensioner on the BBC News who couldn't understand "why they didn't wait for us old people to die out" before changing the currency?

But such nostalgia can be applied to any year from another age. What makes 1972 special goes beyond folk memories of a glorious summer lived out to the sound of a then-hip Rod Stewart singing "You Wear It Well". What makes that year special is that it marked a borderline between the Sixties – the years of affluence, experiment, sex and drugs, and hippie, idealistic, and, yes, flaky politics – and the real Seventies, the years of inflation, unemployment, changing attitudes to gender and sexuality, radicalisation and the first mentions of words that were much later to become commonplace: terrorism and terror.

It was 1972, perhaps as much as any year in the Sixties, that felt revolutionary, optimistic and egalitarian. The news of Bloody Sunday certainly played to the growing anti-establishment feeling among the young, and was a political rallying point. But it didn't dominate the year. How could it? The real political in this year was the personal. And the personal didn't allow for too many outside interruptions.

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