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A History of Impossible Situations

By Joe Kennedy.

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Andy Beckett, When the Lights Went Out: What Really Happened to Britain in the Seventies, Faber and Faber, 2009.

The settings of Gothic films and novels – Otranto’s eponymous Castle, or Alien’s space hulks and prison planets – often combine radical isolation with the facilities of incarceration. Sometimes this trope slips out of the purely fictive. Rising improbably from the marine wilderness at the north-eastern extremity of Britain’s territorial waters, the silhouette of a North Sea oil rig possesses the glowering architectural charisma one would anticipate finding in a Bram Stoker or Alfred Hitchcock. Andy Beckett’s When the Lights Went Out, a seismology of the United Kingdom’s decade-long drift from social democratic consensus to free-market neoliberalism, interprets the derricks and platforms of Brent, Schiehallion, and the Forties as potent emblems of this transition and, simultaneously, one of its impelling forces. With captive employees vetted by American management for possible left-wing inclinations, and geographically distanced from fellow workers in a fashion which made union organisation out of the question, each rig was, in Beckett’s terms, a ‘Trojan horse for a new, more right-wing version of workplace politics’.

It’s an arresting allegory. The evocation of the socially schismatic eighties touching land under cover of the resource hailed by Labour and Conservative governments alike as the means of universal prosperity serves as a memorable snapshot of the medium-term origins of Thatcherism’s epistemic shellburst. One might well enquire, however, about the extent to which this limber shuttling between history’s latent and manifest content can be sustained throughout an account which stretches out across five hundred pages. Is there, perhaps, a risk that this way of reading the past becomes laboured?

The short answer is that it is structurally necessary, as a performative illustration of the elastic definitions of ‘obviousness’ and ‘secrecy’ in the seventies. A number of post-’68, progressive organisations were dependent precisely on the making-explicit of sexual and pharmaceutical behaviour which had previously been called upon to keep itself dark. Moreover, tensions and resentments which had largely been kept in abeyance by the fine balances of the postwar emerged, both at home and abroad, into the public’s awareness. This emptying-out of the clandestine or repressed is mirrored by the decade’s calendarial incontinence. If one of Beckett’s main concerns is to reveal how the complex of deregulatory, state-shrinking political moves we mean when we refer to ‘the eighties’ was already underway before Thatcher’s election in 1979, When the Lights Went Out is equally committed in its assertion that the tendency towards social radicalism conventionally regarded as a by-product of Swinging London was only fully realised after 1970. Tellingly, the chapter dealing with the Gay Liberation Front and the second-wave feminism represented by publications like Rosie Boycott and Marsha Rowe’s Spare Rib is titled ‘The Real Sixties’.

Beckett’s previous book, Pinochet in Piccadilly, scrutinised the sometimes unsubtle complicity of right-wing tendencies within the UK’s political and intelligence elites in both the 1973 deposition of Chile’s socialist leader Salvador Allende and the maintenance of the autocratic regime which ensued from the coup. Given this interest in the long-range resonances of purportedly localised political impetuses, it is unsurprising that When the Lights Went Out is preoccupied by questions of geographical and historical scale. These problems spark an intriguing play of dimensions as structures colossal in their immediate contexts – the oil rigs undergoing assembly in a dry dock on the Moray Firth; the huge coke heap at Saltley Gate, scene of the Scargill-galvanised picket which instigated the downfall of Edward Heath’s government – are reconfigured by the narrative as microcosmic instantiations of national and global ideological face-offs, an approach which itself re-enacts the paranoid multivalence peculiar to the decade’s political imagination.

Don DeLillo, Iain Sinclair, and David Peace have staked out this wired associativeness as territory belonging rightfully to fiction, and it’s tempting to count Beckett alongside these more established inquisitors of the period. With its impressively-rendered characters – an ailing, suspicious Harold Wilson almost resenting his 1974 reinstatement to Downing Street; Margaret Thatcher slyly installing Milton Friedman’s free-market monetarism as the Conservatives’ dominant ideology – and the author’s present-day expeditions to such seventies dramatis loci as Derry and Aberdeen, When the Lights Went Out does in places feel more akin to Sinclair’s geographically excavative novels than to ‘conventional’ coffee-table history. It seems unlikely that this is accidental, and it definitely isn’t inapt. Hindsight tells us that the real events of the decade prompted some form of glitch in the way in which its events were perceived historically: in order to demonstrate what was, to many, an unmanageable excess of new realities, Beckett cites Peter York’s assertion that terrorism and unwanted economic novelties like stagflation engendered a set of ‘impossible new situations’.

The incongruousness of much of what took place in the seventies offers the book more than its fair share of arresting set pieces. One of these is the description of the 1975 Watchfield Festival, a ticketless jamboree held on an old military airfield and co-organised by sixties recusants and a government tiring of unsanctioned mass gatherings. While Beckett’s sketching of the negotiations between these unlikely bedfellows is entertaining enough in itself, it also sustains his grand narrative about how the coalescing of dissonant ideologies engendered the climate of Thatcherism. If this is the story of the abandonment of one well-known, left-leaning, consensus, it also narrates the dissolution of ideological oppositions which precipitated the contemporary political dominant. When the Lights Went Out is, ultimately, an archaeology of the here and now: the analogies drawn by many present-day commentators between what seems to be New Labour’s swansong and the demise of social democracy under James Callaghan are thrown into sharp relief by Beckett’s novelistic take on the seventies.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joe Kennedy is Postdoctoral Lecturing Fellow in the School of Literature and Creative Writing, University of East Anglia.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 26th, 2010.