‘In England it’s a dirge – the days are all grey over there. It’s a bit worrying…’ David Bowie, speaking to the NME (by phone from Los Angeles) in 1975
‘These young claimed to be political but regarded political organization as a waste of time… They claimed God was dead but spoke the language of religious mania. They claimed to speak for the workers but despised the workers for their concern with money… they claimed to be open to all but regarded people over thirty almost subhuman in their progress to death.’ From A Messiah of the Last Days by C.J. Driver, first published in 1974.
Probably a fair few of us still look back at the 1970s with a slight shudder, recalling its image-repertoire in rather stark black and white, or else the muddy colours of badly-lit 16mm. The shudder comes from that sense-memory of periodic crisis and of longer-term decline, whether or not the statistics bear out the latter. (There have been some noteworthy revisionist efforts – take Andy Beckett’s When the Lights Went Out – to argue that in the 1970s Britain was fairly well off, was feeling certain social benefits trickling down from the 1960s, and wasn’t especially in need of the ‘reforming’ Conservative government the electorate returned in 1979.)
Still: the 1970s were (and will likely remain) the decade of the fall of Bretton Woods, of the Opec oil embargo on US and Western European governments, of fully five states of emergency declared by Edward Heath’s Conservative government in response to striking dockers, electricians and coalminers (the last of these begetting the three-day week and four months of cold and dark…) Then you have bloody war in Northern Ireland, exported to the mainland, leading inter alia to black ops against the Wilson Labour government, meantime the curious manoeuvres of one or two army top brass making noises about the need for a coup a la Pinochet to see off the spectre of union-driven communism…
Culturally we can now see the 1970s without fuss as a boom time for both apocalyptic and utopian visions. There were those who argued for military dictatorship and/or enhanced survivalist skills with which to meet a nuclear winter, and those who thought anarcho-syndicalism would read the funeral rites over capitalism and that self-sufficiency was a progressive good in itself. BBC viewers were routinely treated to creative versions of one or other outcome – Survivors or The Good Life.
But the 1970s in Britain were certainly a notable ‘moment’ for radical politics of the ecological and sexual and anarchic variety. Astute writers were drawn to that tumult, and were interested, too, in how the Establishment viewed it (with fear or longing?) Howard Brenton’s 1973 play Magnificence, likely influenced by the activities of the Angry Brigade, is one document of the times. (James Graham, the playwright who gave us This House has now written a new play about The Angry Brigade…)
Another fine and unsettling timepiece, available in Finds, is C.J. Driver’s novel A Messiah of the Last Days (1974). Its narrator is Tom Grace, a pragmatic, efficient London barrister with a comfortable life. But his ordered world is unsettled by his involvement with a young man he defends in court – John Buckleson, the charismatic leader of an anarchic movement calling themselves The Free People. Though deeply divided in many ways, the two men are drawn to each other by a common dream of creating a new social and moral order. Buckleson, though, is a figure of interest to more people than those who subscribe to his vision.
The late and great Nadine Gordimer, countrywoman to C.J. Driver, was a profound admirer of his work and we include her tribute to him and to Messiah of the Last Days as a preface to the Finds edition. Gordimer – like Driver, like his creation Buckleson, like every clued-up reader who comes to this novel – felt a fascinating tension ‘between the injustice of inequality in a country which is supposed to be that of a united people, and the contradictions within the extremist radicals themselves in action against the injustice.’ That tension is endlessly modern, and we can see it today, when some maybe wonder whether we are living through what Trotsky called ‘a revolutionary situation’ – whether, in Guevara’s terminology, it is time for the apple to be shaken from the tree; while others, perhaps favouring Burke’s idea of ‘preserving the method of nature in the conduct of the state’ (by which ‘in what we improve we are never wholly new; in what we retain we are never wholly obsolete’) make their stand on behalf of The System. Each to their own.
Meanwhile, if you would like the chance to win a copy of the really superb and thought-provoking A Messiah of the Last Days, you have only to do two things.
1. Answer this question correctly: How many general elections were held in the UK in the calendar year of 1974?
2. Put your answer in an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, with DRIVER as your subject line.
The competition will close at 5pm next Monday December 1 2014 whereupon a winner will be picked out of the office’s neglected black balaclava.