An Alabaster Age

An Alabaster Yellow SaabNostalgia for days gone by is nothing new. The statue of Richard the Lionheart in front of the Houses of Parliament is a testament to Victorian aspirations of medieval nobility. I remember back in the early 1990’s that my younger sister developed a penchant for tie dye clothing and Janis Joplin records. “The good old days”, as a cliche, has been used so much that not even advertising executives will touch it any longer.

However, lately I’ve noticed a creeping sentimentality about an era that deserves no such tribute. I’ve seen grown men wearing polyester in broad daylight. Disco music and multiple shades of brown have made an appearance in perfume ads. Even prawn cocktails are being mentioned on cookery programmes. God help us: the Seventies are coming back.

I was born in the early 1970’s, so my awareness of the era is somewhat limited; this is probably for the best. However, older, wiser people than me have summarised the period by using words like “tasteless” and “tacky”.

I got a good dose of what they were talking about in my Elementary German class: one day, I was handed a textbook which was printed in 1975. We were instructed to turn to a page which would give us the vocabulary describing various articles of clothing. When I reached it, I discovered a drawing of a young man in quite possibly the most outrageous flared denim trousers imaginable. This was accompanied by a (presumably polyester) shirt with a very wide collar, and a denim jacket that had flared sleeves. I couldn’t help myself: I burst out laughing. After five minutes, I had to be excused from the room. Just recalling the photo is sufficient to cause mirth to well up within me now.

The same values, or lack thereof, applied to music as well as fashion. While I know some individuals enjoy the sounds of Abba or the Bee Gees, there is a a saccharine odiousness to both in my opinion. Some musicians were even worse: last night, I saw a programme called “Room 101”. The show invites celebrities to put things they despise into an Orwellian torture chamber, presumably never to be allowed out again. Richard E. Grant, sturdy soul that he is, wanted to put in a performance of Tony Orlando singing “Tie a Yellow Ribbon”. The audience was “treated” to an accompanying film clip: in it, Mr. Orlando was wearing a light grey polyester tuxedo with black filigree brocade on the lapels. After the clip ended, Mr. Grant summarised my feelings precisely: he quickly and violently assaulted the presenter.

Still, this misplaced nostalgia seems to be unstoppable. I changed channels and found celebrities willingly hosting “Seventies Revival” evenings for each other. It is unlikely this was being done out of intentional discourtesy. Even the sober-sided Economist recently presented side-by-side reviews of one movie set in the Sixties (“The Boat that Rocked”) and another set in the Seventies (“The Damned United”) and found the latter, though it portrayed a more gritty, nasty and dull era to be a far superior reflection of Britain today.

This all leads us to a question of why: why do people want to remember an era that was lacking in anything worth remembering? Do people really believe the Austin Allegro, lava lamps, platform shoes and pet rocks will be remembered as some pinnacle of cultural expression? Or is this merely tapping into the silliness centre of the brain, which is a form of release given the grim signs of economic decay that we see all around us?

The only real comfort I find in revisiting the Seventies, apart from a few masterpieces like Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Tom Baker in Doctor Who, is the fact that we survived it. Let’s not forget how bad it was back then, particularly in Britain. Rather than adopt a consensus model like Germany or France, Britain chose an adversarial paradigm and thus faced constant strife with the unions; the clashes had become quite ugly by the time the Seventies arrived. Edward Heath’s short-lived “dash for growth” policies proved to be a failure. Higher oil prices and decimalisation kicked off a round of inflation. The full employment that people had become accustomed to in the Fifties and Sixties was fading away. There were even routine blackouts in the United Kingdom, accompanied by enforced shorter working weeks.

Yes, there was progress from an environmental perspective: awareness of man’s impact on nature grew substantially, and the Green movement became a genuine political force for the first time. However, this was also an era in which people ate more chemicals than ever before: prepackaged and frozen foods contained preservatives that would make people now blanch in horror. Organic food was what one grew in the garden.

Diminished prospects, diminished cuisine, diminished culture: all these appeared to be the themes of the era. But somehow we’ve muddled through and survived worse. But to look back on that particular era with any fondness appears to be unduly sentimental at best, and an act of masochism at worst.

But perhaps the most galling feature of this nostalgia is that looking backward may prevent us from looking forward: rather than trying to reconstruct the Seventies, perhaps we ought to attempt constructing a new era about which future generations can be genuinely sentimental. Yes, if one sees films advertised like “Lesbian Vampire Killers” it is tempting to believe that we are in an even worse cultural morass than we were in say, 1978. I cannot confess to being a great fan of some of modern art either: Damien Hirst’s activities with a chainsaw and helpless livestock don’t press my buttons. Nor do the latest dance compilation albums appear to be ready to stand the test of time.

At the same time, for every “Lesbian Vampire Killers” film, we have a “Let the Right One In”. For every Damien Hirst, we have scores of undiscovered young artists who deserve more attention. For every cheap dance compilation album, there is a musician toiling somewhere in a symphony orchestra or an anonymous blues bar who is taking performance, composition or improvisation in a different direction. We have no need of the Seventies, we should recognise the plenty that exists in our midst now. Ours is not a golden age, but it is not one that needs a coating in alabaster or beige either, nor needs the glitter of a disco ball or Beef Wellington on the dinner menu. We can do better, and quite frankly, we should.

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