Seasons in the Sun
The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979
Published by Allen Lane (London, 2012)
Seasons in the Sun is the fourth volume in my history of Britain since the war, and, on paper at least, the bleakest. It covers the period from March 1974 to May 1979 – the last Wilson administration, the advent of James Callaghan, the IMF crisis, the Lib-Lab Pact and the Winter of Discontent.
In many ways, though, it’s the most colourful of all my books. On the one hand you have a government in virtual meltdown, with a shabby, careworn Prime Minister feuding with his aides as the economy heads towards hyperinflation; on the other you have the rise of Britain’s first female political leader, Margaret Thatcher. The book takes us into university common rooms and onto the football terraces; we accompany a nervous 11-year-old girl on her first day in a big new comprehensive; we head onto the picket lines with the men at British Leyland; we eavesdrop on the auditions for the Sex Pistols; we join the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper; and we find ourselves alongside Larry Grayson on the set of The Generation Game.
In the mid-1970s, Britain’s fortunes seemed to have reached their lowest point since the Blitz. As inflation rocketed, the pound collapsed and car bombs exploded across London, as Harold Wilson consoled himself with the brandy bottle, the Treasury went cap in hand to the IMF and the Sex Pistols stormed their way to notoriety, it seemed that the game was up for an exhausted nation. But what was life really like behind the headlines?
In his gloriously colourful new book, Dominic Sandbrook recreates this extraordinary period in all its chaos and contradiction. Behind the lurid news stories, the late 1970s were the decisive point in our recent history. Across the country, a profound argument about the future of the nation was being played out, not just in families and schools but in everything from episodes of Doctor Who to singles by the Clash. These years marked the peak of trade union power and the apogee of an old working-class Britain – but they also saw the birth of home computers, the rise of the ready meal and the triumph of a Grantham grocer’s daughter who would change our history forever.
“This is history at its most complete: immersive, absorbing and dazzlingly accomplished. Nearly 1,000 pages are expended in chronicling just five years, with seemingly every television show and newspaper scandal; every gobbet of spittle that arced through the air at picket line and punk gig alike, carefully documented. Don’t be put off by the size. Sandbrook is painting in historical landscape here, and the virtue of the work is magnified by the scale.” Dan Jones, Books of the Year, Daily Telegraph
“An enthralling account of turbulent times with detail that is both surprising and beguiling. This will stand as the definitive history for a good long time.” Joan Bakewell, Books of the Year, New Statesman
“The fourth volume in Sandbrook’s entertaining history of postwar Britain takes us through the five years of Labour party rule that preceded Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 election victory. It captures perfectly the political stagnation and cultural vibrancy of the period.” Tony Barber, Books of the Year, Financial Times
“The first three volumes of Dominic Sandbrook’s epic history of Britain between 1956 and 1979 were exceptionally good. The fourth, Seasons in the Sun, is magnificent … marked by its pace, style, wit, narrative and characterisation as by its exhaustive research.” Roger Hutchinson, Scotsman
“***** Magnificent … A gripping political story, filled with larger-than-life characters: the paranoid, half-drunk Harold Wilson, the ferocious Enoch Powell, the odious Tony Benn. Backing this up is a richly described social background full of angry industrial agitators, bewildered pensioners and bearded radicals … [and an] astonishing cultural context … If you lived through the late Seventies – or, for that matter, even if you didn’t – don’t miss this book.” Ian Morris, Mail on Sunday
“***** Charming, insightful and thoroughly compelling … For those of us who grew up in the Seventies, it’s like sitting down with a friend to talk about old times … What makes this book such a pleasure is the sheer, unashamed nostalgia it evokes. While Sandbrook punctures some of our favourite myths about the Seventies, he also strokes us with constant references to all the things we think back to most fondly – the music, the gossip, the long hot summer of 1976, the Morecambe and Wise Christmas specials.” Keith Lowe, Daily Telegraph
“Brilliant … Each preposterous industrial strike, each episode of Dr Who, Weekend World and News at Ten is replayed. Jim Callaghan, Norman Scott and Rinka, Laura Ashley and Tony Benn, Malcolm Bradbury, Keith Joseph, and Sid Vicious, Marcia Falkender and Vivienne Westwood weave old England’s winding sheet before our horrified eyes. Mary Whitehouse and Margaret Thatcher let out howls, deploring the unravelling — Thatcher bemoaning the ‘swamping’ of English towns by immigrants, Whitehouse pursuing the gay blasphemers. We see them for what they were — like the Norns in Wagner, themselves part of the destructive tale.” A N Wilson, Spectator
“Masterful … He has a remarkable ability to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. His subject is depressing, but the book itself is a joy … [it] benefits from an exceptional cast of characters … As a storyteller, Sandbrook is, without doubt, superb … [he] is an engaging historian capable of impressive insight … Seasons in the Sun is a familiar story, yet seldom has it been told with such verve.” Gerard DeGroot, Sunday Telegraph
“Lovely … Much of the detail is glorious, sometimes hilarious, especially on the Gormenghast-like decay inside Downing Street … [A] rich tapestry of detail … it is full of delights, and captures the febrile, fearful, sometimes apocalyptic mood that gripped Britain during those years of Labour government.” Matthew Engel, Financial Times
“A remarkable achievement … covering not only politics, but also popular culture and social reportage. Most historians would need a horde of research assistants to complete such a task. Sandbrook has done it alone … There is something worth reading on almost every page.” Vernon Bogdanor, New Statesman
“Now that his great tetralogy has been completed, it is time to salute a remarkable publishing event. The author has sustained his themes with narrative skill, maintaining a sense of pertinence with a keen eye for the telling quotation … Dominic Sandbrook leaves his readers to reflect for themselves on the overall significance of a story that he has told with such unflagging verve and mastery of detail.” Peter Clarke, Times Literary Supplement
“Sandbrook has created a specific style of narrative history, blending high politics, social change and popular culture … his books are always readable and assured, and Seasons in the Sun is no exception … Anyone who genuinely believes we have never been so badly governed should read this splendid book.” Stephen Robinson, Sunday Times
“Magisterial … For those of us who lived through the period (I was in my mid-twenties) the book conjures it to mind as if it were yesterday. Sandbrook himself was only a toddler at the time, but his rigorous research and sound judgment have resulted in a work astonishing in its detail and narrative sweep.” Christopher Gray, Oxford Times
“Excellent … This is the fourth volume of Sandbrook’s thorough and provocative social history of modern Britain [and] once again he deftly blends high politics and economics with lashings of popular culture.” Christopher Silvester, Daily Express
“Exhausting though it must have been to write, Seasons in the Sun is exceptionally easy to read. Ranging widely across politics, economics, society and culture (both high and low), and displaying a wonderful eye for detail, Sandbrook drives the narrative along with enviable pace, power and authority. Despite his avowed attempt at even-handedness, his cast of heroes and (particularly) villains adds enormously to the book’s verve and readability … Nobody, presumably, will ever read Seasons in the Sun in one sitting. But read it you should.” John Benson, Times Higher Education
“A thousand-page slideshow of the attempted suicide of a nation. Sharply and fluently written, there are entertaining scenes of normal life, though retrospective horror outweighs the lighter moments … Yet the book is strangely undepressing, perhaps because the country recovered. By making you quite nostalgic for the present, Sandbrook has done a public service.” George Walden, Evening Standard
“Sandbrook has rummaged deep into the cultural life of the era to remind us how rich it was, from Bowie to Dennis Potter, Martin Amis to William Golding.” Damian Whitworth, The Times
“Sharply written … As Dominic Sandbrook shows in the fourth segment of his entertaining history of post-war Britain, the later 1970s were the age in which most of [the] economic chickens came calamitously home to roost … As in his previous volumes, Sandbrook has roved widely in his quest for sources. I particularly liked his referencing of a 1977 episode of Doctor Who, which features a trip to a futurist Pluto … Putting the book down, I was eerily reminded of the time I gave my RAF veteran father a copy of John Keegan’s history of the Second World War. Dad wrote his name on the flyleaf and then added the words “Who lived through it”. The temptation to write something similar on Sandbrook’s title page was every bit as strong.” D. J. Taylor, Independent
“Fans of Dominic Sandbrook will love this latest volume of his panoramic social history of Britain since the 1950s. The book opens with a brilliant snapshot of the Americans filming Star Wars in a Hertfordshire studio. Away from the futuristic set George Lucas and his team found a seemingly backward nation, with its measly three TV channels and restrictive practices. From there Sandbrook charts the aspirations that Mrs Thatcher later exploited; and he does so in a compendious narrative that in substance cleverly matches his description of 1970s culture as ‘an exercise in cannibalism, a collage of references and allusions’” Richard Weight, History Today
“The fourth volume in Sandbrook’s entertaining history of postwar Britain takes us through the five years of Labour party rule that preceded Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 election victory. Sandbrook brilliantly recreates the atmosphere of the period: politically rather depressing, but culturally more vibrant than is often understood.” Summer Reading, Financial Times
“The strikes, the shortages, the grim music — it’s all here in this splendid account of Britain between 1974 and 1979.” Summer Reading, Sunday Times