Sunday 7 August 2022

What I Don't Miss About the 70s 4: Lifestyle

The Pauper's Cookbook (Jocasta Innes) came along in the early 70s, during the oil crisis. We were paupers, but meals were still supposed to contain meat: liver, ox heart. There was a lot of prejudice against vegetarians, who were subject to the same scorn and unfunny jokes as vegans are now. “Macrobiotic” food became fashionable – cheap brown rice and vegetables. There were perfectly good meatless meals we’d been eating for years without fuss, like quiche, macaroni cheese, cauliflower cheese, salade Nicoise, omelettes, spaghetti with tomato sauce. But perhaps these were all too enjoyable to qualify as 70s austerity food. You could never add the chutney or tomato ketchup sauce that would have made it edible, you had to add dried herbs that didn’t taste of anything – or Marmite!

In Woody Allen's Sleeper, 1973, he’s cryogenically frozen and wakes up in the future. The futurians tell him all his friends are dead, and he says: “Dead? But they ate organic rice!” It was both funny and subversive.

I kept expecting “Dig for Victory” to return, but it stayed away until the 90s, perhaps because acquiring an allotment meant navigating a Kafkaesque thicket of bureaucracy. The wider world wasn’t keen on practical solutions. It was full of sinecured jobsworths who delighted in making the possible impossible.

Many didn’t use deodorant because they thought it “blocked up your sweat glands” or gave you cancer. We now had access to baths and constant hot water, but we weren’t used to it and some still stuck to three baths a week, like at school. Hot water was "bad for you". Soap "dried your skin". Washing your hair too often (more than once a week) damaged it. Leave it alone and it'll clean itself. Most relied on launderettes – not often enough. Feminists really did worry about whether they should shave their legs, and elsewhere.  

The book Alternative London (Nicholas Saunders) came out in the late 60s (self-published and sold by a network of students). Few followed its anti-capitalist instructions to the letter, but we adopted some of the lifestyle as set dressing: we had mortgages and fitted carpets but that was OK because we cooked dried beans from scratch and reused yoghurt pots and saved rubber bands and threw an Indian coverlet on the bed. Mainstream culture shrugged – or mass-produced pottery with that "hand-thrown" look. 

Sarah Thelwall wants to bring the 70s back: I'm discovering something of a contemporary counterculture, hardly underground, of turning away from consumerist society, living on as little income as it's possible to do, taking a slower pace, reducing dependence on modern technology, developing presence, relying on inner resources rather than confirmation of self from what is outer, making how I feel paramount to appearance etc - I wonder if this will be an effective counter-measure to patriarchy, not through protest but through daily practice of a sort that is being taken up by, likely, as many men as women? Men are as much victims of the global economic and cultural hegemony, the birthchild of colonialism - violent, self-gratifying, lacking in empathy and never satisfied. Women, the underclasses and the planet Earth itself are the plundered.

The 70s to a T. And what difference does it make if you do things slowly? Why take three hours to cook a meal you’re only going to scoff? I suppose making your own clothes is “slower” than buying them. At least she didn’t say “simpler”. And what use is "developing presence"? Perhaps it means "don't lose weight, get a tan and bleach your hair". I'm sure we can do a comparative experiment and look at outcomes, measuring the income of the husband you attract using either method.

I'm amused by the simpletons who think capitalism is a club you can opt out of if you have a public sector job and make your own clothes. (Karl Sharro ‏@KarlreMarks)

We were advised to make our own logs out of old newspapers (there was a device you could buy), and craft tumblers out of old wine bottles. (Nobody ever advised "start a glass recycling company".) The method involved red-hot pokers, and much sandpapering. I don't think anybody ever followed these terrifying instructions, and besides, if you couldn't afford tumblers, why were you buying wine? Tumblers were given away free with petrol, or with French mustard.

Labour-saving white goods became available and more affordable in the 60s, but in the 70s they were expensive, and middle-class people didn’t buy things “on the HP” (hire purchase), so they saved. We had overdrafts (up to a point), but no credit cards. Another reason for making your own houmous.

People of all ages shared flats and houses (it was a watered-down version of the commune, the way we would all live soon). This lifestyle faded out, but back then, a lot of life was communal. You shared a flat, worked in a co-op, and spent your evenings in “groups”, being “active” or going to classes. You need never be alone – and you couldn't exclude anybody as it wouldn't have been politically correct. People were benign in a generalised, Quaker way. You needed to have the right attitudes – but you didn’t have to be pretty, popular or flirtatious, or know the right people, or have money, or be successful. It was a shock to find a shallower society existing in parallel.

Communal living was also about not wasting money or resources; or not feeling that you had to earn lots of money – because look, you can live for so much less. So you ate lentils and chickpeas, and wore clothes from jumble sales. It was about sticking it to the Man. At the same time, conventional people were shocked that men and women shared living spaces.

After the "let's modernise everything" movement of the 60s, there was a renewed interest in history, and a move to stop "them" pulling down everything in sight. Instead of throwing out old jug-and-basin sets, we collected them – there was a whole lace, chintz aesthetic. Some got very huffy about this, complaining: "That's not nostalgia, that's my childhood!"

There was a story people used to tell about a docile, domesticated elephant which suddenly attacked and almost killed a stranger. It turned out that the stranger had been cruel to the elephant 50 years previously. Was this a cautionary tale? If it was, people seemed not to understand the moral.

Shop staff, train guards and museum staff were boot-faced. Everyone was routinely rude and sarcastic – especially to young girls.

Bottled water hadn’t happened – it was an 80s thing. In fact, nothing came in plastic bottles. Victorian water fountains were a thing of the past, but there was quite often a tap labelled “drinking water” in ladies’ loos. And there were far more public toilets. If you asked for water in a restaurant it would be room-temperature tap water (which back then tasted of chlorine). If it arrived at all. 

I and some friends were travelling home to Norwich from Cambridge in 1976. We went to the train's buffet (they were a good idea – bring them back). The others got cups of tea but I just asked for a glass of water. I can’t remember what the man behind the counter said, but he shouted at me and was very hostile. I got my glass of water in the end, or rather small plastic cup. (I don’t miss those plastic cups, which weren’t heatproof and held hardly anything.) We found seats and I explained to my American friend that sometimes my accent made people inexplicably rude to me. He was baffled. To some, a public-school accent means that you have a title and are a millionaire – and I’d asked for a free glass of water instead of paying for anything. Plus, buffet man could be rude and abusive because nobody was filming him on a smartphone and I was unlikely to report him to his superiors. And if I had, see “tangle of bureaucracy” again. The abusive got away with it and we just lived with it. 

Some pubs didn't welcome women – if you went in, or were taken, you’d be frozen out or told to leave. In the early 70s many didn’t allow women to order drinks at the bar. The ridiculous non-queue queue is still with us.

In the 80s I tried to buy some nails in the DIY shop in Matthias Road. I went in, spoke my request and repeated it about three times while the man behind the counter stood still and silent, looking straight through me and pretending I wasn't there. (Now the staff of the DIY shop in Balls Pond Road, male and female, couldn’t be more sweet and friendly. The Matthias Road emporium became a Travis Perkins, then closed.)

Men in official roles treated young women with a total lack of charm or even politeness: Dr Blau at the Migraine Clinic, Mr Eckstein the jeweller who told me my bracelet was paste, the man at the Halifax who told me they couldn’t give me a mortgage; Dr Chris Beetles who told me I'd have to spend the rest of my life in a surgical corset (he runs a gallery now). Not a smile, not a handshake, not a “nice to meet you hello how are you”, no “come in, take a seat”, no "I'm terribly sorry but". I’m sure we’d been told that if we smiled and were friendly to men they would be beguiled by our looks and charm. No, nothing. Not a flicker. Not the faintest echo of warmth, friendliness or even politeness. It didn't inspire us to trust men or even like them.

Despite the revolution, you couldn't be indignant – showing emotion and getting angry in social situations simply wasn’t done. You were shushed if  you complained about sexist ads. You’d either be told to stop being so boring, or that you only objected because you were prudish. You were shushed when you complained about Golden Delicious apples which for a long time were the only ones we could get (apart from Red Delicious which were even more revolting). Lovely Coxes and Russets just disappeared, or were hard to find. 

You were shushed for going on about feminism (“too intense”), people tittered at street danger (“lurking, dark alley, he he”), child abuse was dismissed as “kiddy fiddling”. Mental illness was either “going a bit doolally”, or “nervous breakdown, in hospital out of sight”. Sexual harassment? “I’d just stab them with my hatpin, ha ha!” (Women had not worn big hats secured with foot-long hatpins since the 1910s.) A young woman is kidnapped and murdered in London in 2021 and people are still having this conversation, using practically the same words, and exchanging competitive “witty put-downs when I saw a flasher”. Meanwhile women are still passing round the same unarmed combat tips. They work.

People also could not imagine what it was like for a young, single woman going home alone at night along dark streets – which were much darker back then. And there were fewer buses, no night buses, and fewer people about, and we couldn't afford taxis. The only solution offered was: stop being single.

There was a moment when Bohemian students suddenly bought houses and became wine buffs. And it had been their game plan all along. 

70s clothes here.

More about the dreary, withholding 70s here.

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