Sunday 7 August 2022

What I Don't Miss About the 70s 3: Ideas

The guilt-ridden socialist 70s. (The Daily Mail)

The 70s were a decade of flares, polyester, recession – and superstition and quietism. Many aspects of life were rubbish, but "Mustn't grumble!" At the same time lefty politics were extremely radical and we were convinced revolution was just round the corner. We were going to make everything new – or perhaps we already had. 

I thought that everything had changed, changed utterly. Perhaps I took it all too seriously. Maybe people pick up fashionable ideas, knowing (and not knowing) that they'll drop them next year when another one comes along.

Some important laws had been passed: homosexuality was no longer a crime, abortion was obtainable, and the Equal Pay Act... well, it had been passed, but equal pay was being phased in slowly so as not to upset people. It still is.

We didn’t have much power over our lives. We were likely to get stuck in a low-paid dead-end job in a small town where we didn’t meet many people and the dating pool was limited. We couldn’t afford to give up our jobs and move to America where we might have more options. Or even to Manchester.

Any problems, you were told to “get help”, which consisted of talking to a therapist for years while she didn’t give you any practical advice like “smile more and wear nicer clothes”. 

If your schemes turned out to be pointless, you were told to be grateful for a "sense of achievement". 

A colleague recalled that all her university girlfriends had been on Valium. If you bumped into a friend and asked “How are you?”, you got the answer, “Oh, I’m so depreeeeessed.”  

You were not your conscious mind, there was no such thing as “the self”, and everything you did or said was the result of your subconscious pulling your strings. You weren't forgiven for making mistakes, because, per Freud, everything you do is intentional. And it was a poor approach to achieving anything.

You can't always get what you want, but if you try some time, you might get what you need. (The Rolling Stones) Friends claimed you wouldn’t like being happy and if you got what you wanted you wouldn’t like that either. And if you can’t get what you want, change your want. These mean-minded mantras were popular before the Human Rights Act, the consumer movement, people power etc, back when the establishment, firms, monopolies, universities, schools, manufacturers could do us over and get away with it. 

But at the same time: You can do, be, get what you want as long as you want it enough. And we believed in magic: biofeedback, iridology, ley lines, earth energies, negative ions, out-of-body experiences, UFOs, crop circles, karma, astrology, homeopathy, synchronicity, the Tarot, crystals, Freud, Jung – surely as a means of obtaining health and happiness? But these efforts were never direct – directness was very frowned on. As was science ("white-coated priesthood, triumphalist narrative"), perhaps because it disallowed much of the above. A new paradigm was going to overthrow the "scientific paradigm" any day now. (No sign yet, 2022.) Science and modernism had failed to cure all diseases/stop wars/improve living conditions, so the lefties threw out all scientific thinking and said truth was relative in an irritatingly smug way.

("Biofeedback" consisted of training your brain to produce beta waves with an electronic device. Negative ions were good for you, and were given off by a water feature in your living room.)

Process was more important than product. Teachers were not allowed to be didactic (or doctors scientific). You could join a singing group or drumming workshop but you couldn't improve. And leaders – sorry, facilitators – were not allowed to teach you music theory, or grammar. They were supposed to empower or enable you to do the thing. Anyone who thought a magic wand would be waved and they'd be able to do the thing without any effort on their part were doomed to be disappointed.

Some of us had grown up thinking we’d been created to be saved by Jesus, do good, and go to heaven. Without that narrative, what was the “purpose” of life, we wondered? We looked for other narratives, and then read Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan which says that life is “a succession of accidents, as happens to us all”. Many were unable or unwilling, though, to shake the idea of determinism, and astrology was pervasive. Karma was popular – pop Hinduism brought over by the Beatles? Even the revolution was going to just happen thanks to historical inevitability, and progress would take us into the future via conveyor belt. 

There was a vague feeling of “it must have been meant”. Some asked “What does the universe want me to do next?” or "Am I making the movie or is the movie making me?" Or they advised, "Act, don’t react". It was all quite impractical. 

We weren’t supposed to write the story of our lives as “Get job, join institution, rise thru ranks, retire on pension”, or “Get married, have children”. (As a permanently single person my life was never going to have a shape apart from “get older and more unattractive” but I was sold "attain greater self-knowledge".)

I want a job, I want a boyfriend, and most of all I want to make my nan happy. (Snog, Marry, Avoid) Could anyone have said that in the 70s/80s? You don’t want to work for The Man! You don’t want to fit into some heterosexist straitjacket! Working-class people were always more realistic – and seemed to be having more fun.

There was no Google. Agony Aunts in women's magazines were our only source of information. There were self-help books, but despite censorship ending in the late 60s, publishers still didn’t trust frank chat about sex. Then along came Our Bodies, Ourselves and The Sensuous Woman. These authorities even said it was OK to masturbate, though OBOS suggested some very strange ideologically sound sex positions. (Not all 70s ideas were silly: the agony aunts told us fantasies were just fantasies.)

Ideas came and went, such as: All men are rapists. All penetrative sex is rape. All depression is caused by repressed anger: beat a pillow with a tennis racket.

Despite working for the revolution 24/7, nobody was interested in punishing perps, or apparently in changing anything. (They were more interested in psychoanalysing the perps and making excuses for them.) Apart from being "politically active" and joining Women's Groups, our job was to wear the right uniform (dungarees), eat the right food (brown rice), engage in equal partnerships, spout the right opinions and "spearhead" – ie charge into the socialist, enlightened future and hope that everyone was following us. Our whole lives were supposed to be propaganda and "sending the right messages".

Jealousy, shyness and embarrassment had supposedly been abolished in the 60s – after the hippy revolution we could let it all hang out and social interaction was on an entirely different plane. Except it wasn’t. We just had no words for jealousy, shyness and embarrassment – or even loneliness and isolation – so we couldn’t talk about them and life was even more agonising than it might have been. Jealousy became “possessiveness”, which was frowned on. By the late 70s the term “social skills” had been coined. But for a long time, the entire 80s in fact, nobody would accept that shyness was a problem, or even talk about it much. All they would say was: The so-called shy are arrogant, lazy and self-centred. Loud, brash types are really shyer than quiet, lonely individuals. Forget about learning to talk – become a good listener. Most people are too busy thinking about themselves to notice you. 

The nuclear family, mother, father, children, was the cause of mental illness and all society’s ills, according to pundits like R.D. Laing. Besides, it was a historical and local anomaly that developed as a result of Catholic marriage laws. There was a moment when approving of partners, marriage and families was equivalent to going over to the enemy.

Lefties proclaimed they were going to abolish the nuclear family, worldwide. We would engage in experiments in alternative relationships and living arrangements, and never pair off again. (The disappearance of the idea that “premarital sex” was a sin, and the availability of contraception, might have had something to do with this.) What happened? People paired off as before, they were just rather quiet about it, and didn't get married. "Dating" was not mentioned, or at least not in my hearing. Nobody talked about “love” much – perhaps the 60s had put them off. They were going to get rid of capitalism and patriarchy, too. 

The feminists would help you do whatever you wanted to do, unless that was “get married and have children”. If you confessed to this life goal, they did their best to put you off, claiming it was slavery and worse. It was fashionable to say that anybody could reproduce, like cows. And who wanted to be a cow? Having children was supposed to "turn you into a cabbage". But where did they think the replacement humans were going to come from? (And if it's that easy, where are my children?) 

There was an alternative role model (as we used to say): the "earth mother". This mythical creature lived in the country (with whom, and on what was never mentioned), had loads of children (whose, we didn't know), and made her own jam. Did they all live on home-made jam?

Middle-class feminists dressed in a deliberately “unfeminine” way – real workmen's dungarees were popular. Why don't they wear orange boiler suits and hivis vests now? But, really, we still had to “get a boyfriend”. The feminists pretended that in about six months they’d have fixed everything: women would be able to ask men out. Meanwhile the mainstream world took little notice except to make lame jokes about bra-burning and “liberated women”. According to writer Linda Grant, the feminists at university talked a good game, but you had to be engaged before finals. 

And you couldn't say "I need a boyfriend/girlfriend because I need someone to go to the concert with on Saturday".

In our teens and early 20s, young women of my era all claimed that we didn't want boyfriends and would never get married. Of course we did and did, but we wasted a lot of time and effort with our pretence. (Moira Redmond) 

I still find the hypocrisy hard to credit.

Nobody ever wanted to BE that woman – the strong feminist with a career who didn’t need anybody because she was so politically pure. (Caitlin Moran)

In The Dialectic of Sex, Shulamith Firestone described romance as “a cultural tool of male power to keep women from knowing their condition.” (New York Times. Perhaps that's where everybody got it from. But there was a huge gap between theory and practice.)

Nobody would talk about buying a house or flat on your own (much harder if female), or pensions, or a lonely old age. Men recoiled from women with "an agenda". Perhaps they were all obeying the oft-parroted injunction to "live in the moment". 

Before "the pill" and effective painkillers, we were told period pains were caused by smothering mothers, and would go away if you understood how your body worked and had a positive attitude to your periods. The cure for cystitis or period pains was "have another baby". Raspberry leaf tea was also recommended – what happened to that? A doctor convinced many that childbirth couldn’t possibly hurt because there were no nerve endings in the uterus – on the same reasoning, vaginal orgasms were impossible. (And all kinds of pain could be banished by willpower. I thought we'd seen the last of this one, but it's back as "mindfulness" and "pain management".)

Medical science was frowned on because it used "military metaphors", and we didn't want alien drugs "invading" our bodies. All illnesses were thought to be psychosomatic: everyone had read the same paperback by Edward Shorter. (An Amazon reviewer comments that Shorter "has “a mildly negative opinion of the somatisers he describes”.) Neurotic people were always fancying themselves ill, so if you were ill you were neurotic – neurosis probably caused by repressed sexuality. Men told single women that they "repressed their emotions" – as if we had somehow done it to ourselves.

People were fond of saying “We can’t have a pill for every ill”. Always sounded like a good idea to me.

We were told that logic was a male province, and women had different brains. Feminists claimed logic was linear, and hence phallic, but women had different methods (knob of butter, pinch of salt) that were just as valid. Logic belonged in the wrong, uncreative half of the brain. During the long, long, expensive process of psychotherapy, you had to wait for insights, rather than try to work things out. You can imagine how effective this was. And shouldn't therapy have a sell-by date? What's the point of a "cure" that takes 20 years?

More mantras: It is more blessed to give than receive. When God shuts a door he opens a window. There is good and bad in everyone. Cynicism is crushed idealism. It's all right in theory, but will it work in practice? Nature knows best. We can't stand in the way of progress. People need a sense of mystery. A newborn baby is a blank slate (so we can write what we like on it). 

Yes it's time for psychologists to stop talking about nature vs nurture. It was time back in the 1970s. (@aylwyn_scally)

Many were rude about the “caring, sharing” professions. On the credit side there was a quiet revolution in values: we wanted “caring, sharing” relationships; more people became social workers; we had the idea that families should be democratic, not autocratic, and that we should be KIND to children – and to each other. There was a backlash to these ideas that continues to this day.

Before the 70s, the disabled “had to be put away”, corporal punishment flourished, children were abused and nobody did anything, there wasn’t a word for domestic abuse until someone came up with “baby battering” and “battered wife”. And it was just assumed that many people wouldn’t be happy and should just lump it. It was about time people began being kind! Before, there was always some reason why you couldn’t.

For a long time, feminist authors advocated that these peaceful, matriarchal agrarian societies were exterminated or subjugated by nomadic, patriarchal warrior tribes. An important contribution to this was that of archaeologist Marija Gimbutas. Her work in this field is now however largely rejected. (Wikipedia)

Everybody believed in Philippe Ariès, who claimed in Centuries of Childhood that childhood had been invented by the Victorians, and that, due to high child mortality, for the rest of the past parents didn't invest in their children but treated them as mini-adults.

While academics have dismantled much of Philippe Ariès's theory, many of his beliefs persist. (Amanda Ruggeri,, 2022) It was middle-class parents in the 50s and 60s who sent their children away and treated them as mini-adults – probably because they’d been raised the same way. Yes, somebody isn’t treating their children as children – but it can’t be us.

Everyone was into sociology and read the relevant blue paperbacks (Pelicans). The discipline's parish mag was New Society and to a lesser extent The Listener. Sociology had a language all of its own as if it was trying to pass itself off as a science. (There were a lot of graphs and x-y axes.)

Lefties talked and acted as if come the revolution (which was always going to happen in about six months’ time), everybody would become like them. There would be no more makeup, no more fashion (patriarchal plot, exploits third world), no more bling, no more keeping up with the Joneses or competing with your neighbour because we’re all equal now… Look on the modern world: oligarch bling, footballers’ wives. And they honestly thought they were going to take over the whole world. Though actually sanctimonious puritans have always co-existed with the Veneerings (Dickens) and the Bullyon-Boundermeres (Punch). 

OK, attitudes have changed a bit. Maybe we helped. Gay people and single parents are accepted (aren't they?), though their lives may not be easy. 

I didn't waste time beating a pillow with a tennis racket, but I did write about the 70s in my novel We Three.

And for more ridiculous fairytales, try my book What You Know that Ain't So.

More jaundiced views of the past here, and links to the rest.
Review of Helen Gurley Brown's Having It All.

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