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memories of the Seventies!
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Image by brizzle born and bred
“pigs, punks and prawn cocktails”

Flares, long hair and a truly embarrassing band from Edinburgh.

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The 70s started where the 60s left off. Hippy ideas and fashions were becoming part of mainstream culture. In the 70s, everyone wore flares; technological advances brought many improvements to home life, and travel abroad, became accessible to many more people.

The 70s though, was also a time of economic strife and Britain’s standing in the world seemed to sink to a new low.

It’s hard to sum up a whole decade, but for me the 1970s starts with living through the three-day week, cold dinners by candlelight, due to power cuts, we lived in the dark for hours on end. The only sensible thing to do was go to bed to keep warm and wait it out. So I lay there staring at the ceiling, thinking about all the things I would have to re-set and re-programme when the lights came back on.

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Then I thought about the dustbins. It is almost impossible to recollect the 1970s without thinking about dustbins. They – and the emptying of them – were a huge issue in your life. In the borough where I lived, run by a far-far-Left Labour council, the major cause for celebration after Christmas was not the New Year, but the Return of the Dustmen, who vanished for a length of time of their own choosing, having exacted (with the universally understood threat of a rubbish-strewn front garden) a seasonal tip from every household on the round.

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Everyone remembers the hot summer of 1976 of course, but do as many remember the harsher winters? Don’t forget though, how tedious Sundays were with no shops open.

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I clearly remember the 70s miners’ strike, the winter of discontent, the three-day working week and gritters on strike. I remember the struggle to make ends meet, food shortages caused by people panic buying only to throw it away when supplies were restored. The miserable power cuts, grey cold miserable days and even greyer colder miserable days and then along came Thatcher and it just got worse.

The average price of a pint of beer, when we went decimal in 1971, was two shilling (10 pence) men were a lot better dressed, you wouldn’t get in a night club or a dance hall, without a collar and tie.

The 1970’s must be the decade of the worst cars ever made, the Marina, the Allegro etc etc. British Leyland suffered from the start to finish with Union problems. Their strikes in the 1970s were staggering and world famous. It appeared from an outsiders point of view that the production line workers were inherently lazy! I’m sure many of you will disagree with me passionately, but this is my opinion.

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Of all post-war decades, the 1970s has undoubtedly had the worst press, but the truth is that most ordinary families in 1970s Britain were better off than ever.

In 1970, the self-made builder’s son Edward Heath came to power promising a "quiet revolution" that would turn around the fortunes of Great Britain PLC.

Sailor Ted, however, soon ran aground, his ship scuppered by the lethal combination of an energy crisis, a financial crash and a second miners’ strike in two years.

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And though Labour’s Harold Wilson got the country back to work, it came at the price of inflation at almost 30% and a humiliating bailout from the IMF.

Perhaps fittingly, the decade ended with another prime minister being humiliated by the unions in the Winter of Discontent, though this time the victim was the veteran Labour bruiser Jim Callaghan.

The industrial unrest of the early 1970s provides witness to an age when Britain seemed to be in terminal economic decline and decay. There were two major coal strikes, the poor industrial relations in-between when the social contract between the government and the unions failed, the intervention of the IMF, and the Winter of Discontent of 1978–9, strongly associated with the inability of councils to bury the dead.

The Three-Day Week was one of several measures introduced in the United Kingdom by the Conservative Government 1970–1974 to conserve electricity, the production of which was severely limited due to industrial action by coal miners. The effect was that from 1 January until 7 March 1974 commercial users of electricity would be limited to three specified consecutive days’ consumption each week and prohibited from working longer hours on those days. Services deemed essential (e.g. hospitals, supermarkets and newspaper prints) were exempt.Television companies were required to cease broadcasting at 10.30 pm during the crisis to conserve electricity.

Here, indeed, was an age of industrial conflict but here, also, was an age of the hippie anarchists of the free festival movement and of the Gay Liberation Front. The Sex Pistols were formed in 1975, and reflected upon the depressed culture of the 1970s.

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The television programmes suggested decline – with laughs – in Fawlty Towers and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.

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The fashions were increasingly varied, from the hippy type Afghan coats, over bell bottoms and flowery shirts with long rounded collars. These were more often than not accompanied by long hair and straggly beards (or bum fluff), Ben Sherman shirts with stay pressed suede heads, braces, Doc Martins or monkey boots, harringtons or crombies, the leather jacket, faded light blue jeans of the greaser, chrome-plated comb in the back pocket and beetle crushers.

As the decade wore on there were of course many changes – glam rock to punk, skinheads to bobheads. At one stage, I think around 1977, everyone was walking around in clothing from the second world war army and navy stores and dancing to big band music – that didn’t last for too long though. It was a decade of change and experiment.

The above sums up some of the attitudes present in the 1970s. The 1960s gave us free love, but the ’70s trod where the ’60s feared to go. Music and politics went hand in hand. Nobody dreamt that the countries named in the above speech/lyric would be ‘free’ by the 1990s.

The rise in the popularity of Scottish bands such as The Bay City Rollers and Rod Stewart led to an invasion of tartan, but that died away with the coming of Glam Rock, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. Pop idols wore stars on their faces and glitter everywhere else. Some wore a lot of makeup and still looked tough. At the time, LSD was plentiful and cheap. Between ’74 and ’76 or so it was possible to get hold of pyramids at around 50p per tab and that was street cost not wholesale prices. Large numbers turned on and tuned in, grew their hair and wore flares.

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At the same time disco, had been quietly pulsing away. Many bands arrived on the scene via Soul which, in turn beget Northern Soul. Reggae became popular, with rumours abounding of the quality of Bob Marley’s voice with the release of his Live! album – the man at his best. Then there was the classic ‘Sticky Fingers’ by the Rolling Stones, and anything by Bowie. In the space of four weeks in the legendary summer of 1976 London saw performances by The Rolling Stones at Earls Court, David Bowie at Wembley (the White show) and Bob Marley playing Rastaman Vibration at the Hammersmith Odeon.

The 1970s aren’t exactly the technological wonder years; a Teasmade was the height of luxury! Domestic technology was mainly British made, but it was expensive and hard work compared to today’s labour saving gadgetry.

At the start of the 1970s most TVs were black and white and colour TV licences totalled just 275,000 but by the end of the decade there were over 12 million. Colour sets cost a fortune (£3,000 today) and broke regularly so most people rented. With only three channels, choice was limited and shows such as Morecombe & Wise, Blankety Blank, Miss World and The Generation Game could attract over 25 million people. The rise of colour TV was one of the domestic technology success stories of the decade and watching TV was so popular that it became Britain’s biggest past time.

Before the 70s, toy cars for boys and dolls for girls were the usual fare. These didn’t go away but this decade brought some wacky alternatives to distract us. Although there was a shortage of plastic and plenty of industrial action to interrupt production, Stylophones gave us electronic masterpieces, a big rubber bouncer came along, as did a head and shoulders for budding beauticians. The Wombles, Slime and Star War figures would follow.

There are now more mobiles than people in the UK but in the 1970s families fought constantly over a telephone in a chilly hallway. The rise of the phone has been huge – in 1970 under half of households had a phone but by 1999 this had risen to 98%.

And although we often think of the 1970s as the end of something – the tired, miserable hangover after the long party of the Swinging Sixties – it makes much more sense to see them as the beginning of a new chapter in the story of modern Britain.

For most ordinary people, after all, the 1970s brought new experiences that their parents and grandparents could barely have imagined.

The most obvious example is the package holiday abroad, which 30 years earlier would have seemed like something from science fiction.

In 1971, British tourists took some four million holidays abroad – which then seemed an awful lot. But by 1973 that figure had jumped to nine million and by 1981 it was more than 13 million.

For even relatively poor, working-class families, holidays no longer meant Blackpool and Bognor but Malta and Majorca. And "abroad", once regarded with such suspicion, now meant two weeks of sun, sea, sand and sangria.

The boom in foreign holidays was only one example of a nation broadening its horizons. Yes, the TV schedules were still full of casual sexism and astonishing racism, while teenage boys who wore make-up in emulation of Marc Bolan and David Bowie often risked a vigorous kicking.

But from professional working women to long-haired footballers, from pornography in the corner shop to computers in the office, the cultural texture of British life probably changed more quickly between 1970 and 1980 than during any other post-war decade.

As late as 1971, women were banned from going into Wimpy Bars on their own, after midnight, on the grounds that the only women out on their own at that hour must be prostitutes.

Yet only eight years after that rule was lifted, Margaret Thatcher was walking into Downing Street as Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. There could hardly be a better symbol of change.

Of course Mrs Thatcher’s election victory is often seen as the decisive watershed in our recent history – the moment when everything was radically transformed, for good or ill. But Mrs Thatcher won in 1979 not just because she offered something different, but because she understood how much Britain had changed already.

As a working woman distrusted by the traditionalists, she was a fitting representative of the changes that had remade Britain in the previous 10 years.

She appealed to a new spirit of self-interested materialism – the same spirit that the Yorkshire miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill, of all people, had captured as early as 1970, when he told an interviewer: "You only get as much as you are prepared to go out and take."

And she appealed to a new ethic of populist individualism – the same ethos of permanent self-reinvention that David Bowie had captured, when as the androgynous Ziggy Stardust, he told Britain’s teenagers that "one isn’t totally what one has been conditioned to think one is".

Thatcher, Scargill and Bowie. You could hardly imagine three stranger bedfellows – the grocer’s daughter from Grantham, the Marxist miner from Barnsley, the gender-bending rock star from Bromley.

But in their different ways, they captured the complicated, contrary spirit of a decade that was richer, more interesting and a lot more important than most of us realise.

The 70s gave people a taste of a computerised future. High tech gadgets, such as pocket calculators and digital watches, became status symbols in the early years. By the end of the decade they were almost throw away items. There was also a chance to sample some primitive computer games, such as the tennis game Pong.

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In 1971 Britain gained decimal currency and abandoned the age old system of pounds, shillings and pence. Old people hated it and shoppers thought the change was an excuse to put up prices.

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Inflation in the 70s was a huge problem. Everyone talked about the cost of living. A series of strikes lead to power cuts and the Three Day Week. The 70s was not the best time for Britain’s economy. Britain finally joined Europe in 1973. This was meant to improve things, but left our home market vulnerable to imports. Foreign cars became more the norm than the exception and British industry struggled to compete.

Britain’s standing as a sporting nation was damaged by World Cup defeat in 1970, following the historic win in 1966, however, there was worse to come when we even failed to qualify for the competition in 1978.

1976 was one of the best summers ever, but the drought meant water shortages. 1976 was a turning point for music and fashion. Punk appeared on the scene and the younger generation rejected the ideas and style of the hippy movement.

In the following year, the nation celebrated the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. There was at least something to be cheerful about. It also seemed that the worst of the economic problems were over. However, as the decade ended, a series of strikes, dubbed the Winter of Discontent, brought Britain to crisis point. Jim Callaghan’s Labour Government lost the 1979 election to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives. Britain had her first woman Prime Minister. Change was on the way.

The Cost of Living

Life in 1970 appears to have been ludicrously cheap. A loaf of bread cost 9p and the average weekly wage was around £32.

In 1970, homebuyers could expect to pay £4,975 for a house.

It was a similar story on the roads. The Range Rover, which was launched in 1970, could have been yours for £1,998.

The Mini, which celebrated its 11th birthday in 1970, cost around £600.

A glance at Britain’s social life in 1970 is equally intriguing. A trip for two to the cinema cost less than 90p, while a bottle of plonk was about £1.

For those with more spirited and extravagant tastes, a bottle of whisky cost £2.69 back then.

Pub prices, too, seem foreign. A pint of lager in your local was 20p. And cigarettes, which enjoyed a lot more popularity then, were 20p for 20.

Still, it’s not all doom and gloom. Prices have gone up but so has our spending power.

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And some things have even risen for the better. In 1970, the average life expectancy in Britain was 72. Today, it is 77 – giving us five more years of spending.

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