State of Emergency
The Way We Were: Britain 1970-1974
Published by Allen Lane (London, 2010)
State of Emergency is the third volume in my history of modern Britain, covering the years of Edward Heath’s Conservative government from June 1970 to February 1974.
It’s the period I was most looking forward to researching, not just because it was absolutely packed with political and cultural incident, but because of the extraordinarily apocalyptic atmosphere of strikes, bombings and the three-day week.
Ted Heath himself turned out to be a wonderfully bizarre character, brooding in Downing Street as everything collapsed around his ears. But one of the real pleasures of writing this book was the sheer range of Dickensian characters, from Don Revie in his lucky blue suit to Mary Whitehouse denouncing the “obscene vegetable matter” on show in Doctor Who.
At times I felt a bit like Sam Tyler from Life on Mars, trapped in a world that was forever 1973. But there are a lot worse places to be: this was by far the most enjoyable of my books to write.
In the early 1970s, Britain seemed to be tottering on the brink of the abyss. Under Edward Heath, the optimism of the Sixties had become a distant memory. Now the headlines were dominated by strikes and blackouts, unemployment and inflation. As the world looked on in horrified fascination, Britain seemed to be tearing itself apart. And yet, amid the gloom, glittered a creativity and cultural dynamism that would influence our lives long after the nightmarish Seventies had been forgotten.
In this brilliant new history, Dominic Sandbrook recreates the gaudy, schizophrenic atmosphere of the early Seventies: the world of Enoch Powell and Tony Benn, David Bowie and Brian Clough, Germaine Greer and Mary Whitehouse. An age when the unions were on the march and the socialist revolution seemed at hand, but also when feminism, permissiveness, pornography and environmentalism were transforming the lives of millions. It was an age of miners’ strikes, tower blocks and IRA atrocities, but it also gave us celebrity footballers and high-street curry houses, organic foods and package holidays, gay rights and glam rock.
For those who remember the days when you could buy a new colour television but power cuts stopped you from watching it, this book could hardly be more vivid. It is the perfect guide to a luridly colourful Seventies landscape that shaped our present from the financial boardroom to the suburban bedroom.
“A thrillingly panoramic history of the day before yesterday … The fact that he scarcely remembers the 70s makes his achievement here all the more remarkable: he vividly re-creates the texture of everyday life in a thousand telling details … Does it merit 700 pages? You bet.” Francis Wheen, Observer
“In State of Emergency, this pre-eminent historian of recent Britain delivers a hugely entertaining, always compelling, often hilarious portrait of the Seventies. It is based on the broadest research, from the white papers of Heath’s government and the Bloody Sunday inquiry to NME interviews with David Bowie and the pornographic magazines of Paul Raymond … I have to say it is rare to read a book that covers the miners’ strike and the Irish Troubles, and yet often find oneself laughing out loud.” Simon Sebag Montefiore, Sunday Telegraph
“Epic … fascinating … there is so much to enjoy and appreciate … Neatly interweaving his interpretation of the political and economic history of the Heath years with insightful reflections on everything from racism in television to the rise of self-sufficiency, football hooliganism and the inexplicable popularity at the cinema of Robin Askwith sex comedies, Sandbrook has produced a memorable portrait of Britain in an era of angst and upheaval.” Nick Rennison, Sunday Times
“Superb … Sandbrook writes as though he were there, yet he was only born in 1974. This suggests a phenomenal attention to detail and an intrinsic understanding of the period, its culture and its people … Anyone who was there should read it: and so should anyone who was not.” Simon Heffer, Literary Review
“Reading Sandbrook is always an enjoyable experience, partly because of the unforgettable vignettes that are to be found on practically every page … In State of Emergency, the latest volume in what promises to be an ongoing series, Sandbrook moves on to the early Seventies. Ranging across popular culture, literature and social mores, he re-creates that lost world with a flair all the more impressive when you realise he was born in 1974 … No one who reads State of Emergency will think of the decade in quite the same way again.” John Gray, New Statesman
“Splendidly readable … His almost pitch-perfect ability to recreate the mood and atmospherics of the time is remarkable.” The Economist
“Detailed and authoritative … sophisticated and nuanced … Sandbrook is both knowledgeable and entertaining … this is a fine addition to what is becoming a monumental series on the history of modern Britain.” Adrian Bingham, BBC History
“Magisterial … for me a Proustian experience.” Andrew O’Hagan, London Review of Books
“Meticulously fair … The paradoxes of the Seventies are brilliantly dissected and analysed.” Simon Griffith, Mail on Sunday
“As he proved in his earlier works, Sandbrook is a masterly magpie. Nothing escapes his gaze, from the ‘silk lavender dressing-gowns’ sported by Peter Wyngarde’s Jason King, through the sexual politics of Doctor Who, to John ‘never one to miss a bandwagon’ Lennon sending a cheque to support the striking Clyde shipworkers. Throw in deft précis of the rise in football hooliganism and birth of the mugger, the introduction of the Pill and boom in pornography, and the depressing side-effects of brutalist council blocks, and you have as eclectic a historical grab-bag as you could wish for.” Christopher Bray, Independent on Sunday
“Sandbrook pores over cabinet papers and Downing Street memoirs – although he is also admirably strong on the cultural reflectors of the third Doctor Who and the Carry On films … A beautifully controlled 600-page narrative” Roger Hutchinson, Scotsman
“The period has long been written off as a dismal interlude between the liberation of the Sixties and the excesses of the Eighties. To me, it always seemed full of colour and excitement. Sandbrook, who wasn’t there, captures some, at least, of that energy and chaos.” Philip Hensher, Daily Telegraph
“Characteristically deft … an engaging and richly textured portrait of a nation in crisis … Sandbrook’s great skill is his ability to marshal vast amounts of information elegantly, with evidence ranging from parliamentary debates to Carry On films to Shoot magazine, while on every page rooting out a telling vignette.” Andrew Neather, Evening Standard
“Compelling, amusing and exact.” Ferdinand Mount, Spectator
“Shrewd and well-researched.” D. J. Taylor, Independent
“An entertaining history of the early 1970s … a subtle portrait … Sandbrook is at his best describing a society caught between past and present, yet often more stable than it looked.” Brian Groom, Financial Times
“Sandbrook demonstrates an impressive command of his subject. Apart from devouring political memoirs, economic and social data, contemporary newspaper reports and novels, he appears to have watched an immense amount of Seventies TV, especially sitcoms and Doctor Who. Although he crams his text with many nuggets of information, he knows just when to insert a lapidary judgment or a shaft of irony from the vantage of hindsight.” Christopher Silvester, Daily Express
“An entertaining account of a misunderstood period … Sandbrook shines a light onto British life in the 1970s with a sardonic wit and a feel for the way most people muddled through ordinary, thwarted lives by raising families, consuming goods and enjoying entertainment.” Richard Weight, History Today
“Stunningly rich … When I was a history teacher, I would have killed for a contemporary historian like Dominic Sandbrook. Or a contemporary history book like State of Emergency.” Anthony Clavane, Sports Bookshelf
“Makes an effective case for the decade of discontent as the cradle of contemporary Britain … The real delight of the book is the sense of temps retrouvé … Twentieth-century history is tantalisingly close, yet the quaint deferentiality which stubbornly pertains in Sandbrook’s dingy new world [is] a reminder of just how dramatically different are our own times.” Lisa Hilton, Books of the Year, Independent on Sunday
“Sandbrook writes with such verve and humour that he makes the Seventies, one of the most depressing eras in British history, seem not so bad after all.” Amanda Foreman, Books of the Year, Mail on Sunday