Stranger than Fiction

I write a lot here about how effed-up and miserable Britain was in the 1970s but there were also times when reality took on the lurid, couldn’t-make-it-up quality of a cheap paperback thriller — one written by someone on drugs.

Take the story of “Lucky” Lord Lucan: the dashing, flamboyant aristocrat (apparently once considered for the role of James Bond) whose wife ran into a London pub one night in 1974 covered in blood and screaming “Help me, help me, help me! He’s in the house! He’s murdered my nanny!” Back at their house the bludgeoned body of their children’s nanny was found tied up in a mailbag in the basement but Lucan was gone, and two days later his abandoned car was discovered with bloodstains on the seats and a piece of lead pipe like the one used in the murder.

In the intervening days Lucan mailed a letter to a relative explaining his side of the story and saying he intended to “lie doggo for a bit” which turns out to have been a typically-British understatement because Lucan vanished off the face of the earth and was never seen again. Over the years Lucan became something of a tabloid Moby Dick with newspapers breathlessly following any hint of a sighting of the fugitive, phantom peer all over the world no matter how unlikely. 40 years later he still sends British tabloids into a tizzy.

The Lucan story was sensational and strange enough but in the 1970s it shared headline space with several other bizarro scandals. Like the one involving Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of the Liberal Party who was accused of hiring a hit-man to kill his former gay lover Norman Scott. Adding extra eccentric tabloid spice to the story was the fact that Thorpe’s pet-name for Scott was “Bunny” and the hit-man only managed to shoot his dog. Scott’s other claim to fame was inadvertently coining the term pillow-biter which became derogatory slang for a gay man that was much used at my school.

Then there was the case of John Stonehouse, the Labour MP who faked his own suicide — Reggie Perrin style, leaving his clothes on a Florida beach — and a few months later was discovered to be very much alive and hiding out in Australia with his mistress. When police found him they initially thought they’d discovered Lord Lucan who apparently had a large scar on his right leg, so for proper identification they asked Stonehouse to take his trousers down before they arrested him. Years later it was revealed that Stonehouse — a Government minister — had also been a Communist spy.

It’s no wonder the Monty Python team called it quits in 1974, their satire couldn’t keep up with reality. In this context I think of Maggie Thatcher as Graham Champman’s uptight colonel who would walk on in the middle of a sketch and tell everyone to stop because things were getting “too silly.”

Download: Lord Lucan Is Missing – Black Box Recorder (mp3)

And I didn’t even mention Joyce McKinney.

Snatch of the Day

Whenever I went to Piccadilly Circus in those days I was more worried about the drug dealers hanging around Eros than I was pickpockets.

The wonderful, horrible 1970s

Thanks to Simon for pointing me in the direction of the terrific Scarfolk Council blog, the humour of which will be instantly familiar to anyone (un)lucky enough to have grown up in England in the 1970s.

I’ve added it to a new link category called “English Diseases” over on the right where you will find all that is rotten, depressing, lovely, and weird in old Blighty.

Scarfolk Council may be a parody but they don’t need to stretch the truth that much when it comes to the grim weirdness of the 1970s. For example, these are the opening titles to a children’s television program from back then. This used to terrify us while we ate our fish fingers and mash at teatime.

And records like this got to number one. How we got out of that decade alive is beyond me.

Download: Mouldy Old Dough – Lieutenant Pigeon (mp3)

Shock Horror Probe

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the new film by acclaimed documentary-maker Errol Morris was about the Joyce McKinney story which dominated the British press in 1977 — when they weren’t frothing at the mouth over the Sex Pistols, that is. It’s a doozy of a story too, involving a former beauty queen who became obsessed with a Mormon missionary, followed him to England where she kidnapped him and handcuffed him to a bed (with mink-lined cuffs) in a Dorset cottage for three days while she forced him to have sex with her (according to him anyway, McKinney always claimed it was consensual). He eventually escaped, she was arrested but skipped bail, fled the country, and was found in Atlanta a week later hiding out disguised as a nun.

It really doesn’t get much more perfectly tabloid than that so it’s no wonder Fleet Street had a collective orgasm over it, especially when at the centre of the story was a colourful, curvy blond given to statements like “I loved him so much that I would have skiied naked down Mount Everest with a carnation up my nose if he had asked me to.”

But perhaps the most surprising thing about McKinney is how completely forgotten she is (or was, before this movie.) Despite the lurid, you-couldn’t-make-it-up nature of her story she vanished and tumbled down the memory hole pretty soon after she left England (though she continued with her highly eccentric behaviour.), even people who were around in England in 1977 might have a hard time remembering what she was infamous for. That’s how things were in the old-media world of the 1970s, only one cheapo book was published about the case and yesterday’s tabloid sensation quickly became tomorrow’s fish and chip paper.

She obviously picked the wrong decade (wrong century, actually) to kidnap a Mormon missionary and chain him to a bed. Today there are plenty of ways for a person to milk their Warholian fifteen minutes for all they’re worth and even people who don’t seem to actually do anything can become world-famous, so the sky should be the limit for a character like Joyce to turn her notoriety into money and celebrity: hire Max Clifford to keep her in the papers, a reality television show, a tell-all autobiography, her own line of fitness videos, make-up, shoes, perfume, and probably her own brand of fur-lined handcuffs to sell on QVC too.

Now we need someone to make movies about Lord Lucan and John Stonehouse.

Download: Sunday Papers – Joe Jackson (mp3)

The future’s so bright…

Back in the olden days when computers were bigger than a garden shed and had the processing power of a digital watch, typefaces like this were always used to signify THE FUTURE and anything sexily high-tech and space-age. That type style was based on a font called E13B designed in the 1950s by the banking industry to be read by computers as part of the Magnetic Ink Character Recognition system, and you still see those funny-looking numbers on the bottom of your cheques today. The idea that a machine could “read” something must have been quite exciting at the time and a sign of how groovy the future was going to be so no wonder it was used in this fashion.

Forgive me for getting all font-nerd on you but it’s because I am one that I find it rather amusing to see it used on this cover which projects a very Tomorrow’s World-style optimism about the coming decade and seems to be looking forward to an era of robots and jet packs for everyone. Of course what we actually got was an oil crisis, strikes, inflation, riots, and brown flares — and I thought The Economist were supposed to know stuff like that.

Download: This Is Tomorrow – Bryan Ferry (mp3)

They never had it so good

Though the phrase “Crisis? What Crisis?” was most famously used as a headline by The Sun during the Winter of Discontent in 1979 and was the title of a Supertramp album before that, I think it was first used on this cover of The Economist dated August 12, 1972. I don’t know what the story was about but knowing the era I imagine it was another economic or industrial disaster of some kind.

The funny thing about this cover is I assume we’re supposed to think the family are enjoying a life of languid pleasure, the idle working classes sunning themselves on the beach while the country goes down the shitter. And they have a radio! Luxury! Grandad in particular looks very happy stretched out in the sun. But looking at it now all I can think is how bloody uncomfortable and miserable they seem (well, apart from Grandad) sitting on that hot, pebbly beach fully-clothed, and with their six grubby kids they look more like a vagrant gypsy family than happy-go-lucky workers living off the fat of the land with their consumer electronics. Was this the best The Economist could do, or was life so bad in 1972 that people looked at that picture and thought “Lucky bastards”?

But at least in the summer of 1972 they would have this trio of (appropriate) hits to listen to on their fancy radio while they fried on the hot pebbles. I bet they’re not wearing any suntan lotion either and poor old mum will have to rub cold Calomine on their raw red skin when they get home.

Download: Automatically Sunshine – The Supremes (mp3)
Download: Sea Side Shuffle – Terry Dactyl & The Dinosaurs (mp3)
Download: School’s Out – Alice Cooper (mp3)

The Alice Cooper would probably have made Grandad wake from his snooze and say “What the bloody hell is this racket? Put on Jimmy Young!”

The best things In life aren’t free

The first time I remember being aware that there was such a thing as politics and economics was one day in the early 1970s when I went into my local sweet shop to buy a bag of crisps and discovered that they had gone down in price from 3p to 2 and a 1/2p. I asked the bloke in the shop why and he said “it’s because of the budget” which I thought must be a wonderful thing if it lowered the price of crisps. I don’t know if Anthony Barber or Dennis Healey was Chancellor of The Exchequer at the time but I like to think it was the latter and that’s why I became a Labour voter — forget Socialism, give me cheap crisps and I’m yours for life. I know 1/2p doesn’t sound like much but you could buy two Black Jacks for that back then.

Then one Friday night sometime later my mum sent me and my sister down to the chip shop with 10p each to buy a bag of chips, only for us to discover that they had gone up to 12p for a bag so we had to go back home to get the extra 2p. Thus my dreams of a Socialist Utopia of inexpensive greasy food and snacks were dashed and I learnt that in politics and economics there’s no such thing as a free lunch — or a bag of crisps — and what they give with one hand they take with the other.

Download: Money (extended version) – The Flying Lizards (mp3)

Tom’s Crystal Ball

Tom Robinson’s song “The Winter of ’79” isn’t about The Winter of Discontent of that year because it was written and recorded before that actually happened. In the song Tom is reading his tea leaves and looking into the future, imagining events in England a year down the road (written from the point of view of someone looking back at 1979) and it’s not a pretty picture: civil unrest, violence, fascism, repressive Government and police brutality — but with cheap beer, so it wasn’t all grim.

Let’s see how his predictions worked out.

All you kids that just sit and whine
You should have been there back in ’79
You say we’re giving you a real hard time
You boys are really breaking my heart
Spurs beat Arsenal, what a game

I hope Tom wasn’t doing the Football Pools because that’s wrong for a start. Arsenal beat Spurs 1-0 in December 1979. It was probably a rubbish game too.

I’d been working on and off
A pint of beer was still ten bob

I can’t remember how much a pint of beer was in 1979. Ten bob (50p to you kids) does sound a bit cheap for even then, but my wages from my Saturday job at WH Smith that year were a whopping £6.60 which was enough for me to get shitfaced in the pub after work (which usually took about 6 pints back then), have a kebab on the way home, and still have enough money left over to buy records and cigarettes. These days £6 would get you a couple of pints at most but you wouldn’t have much change left for a kebab.

They stopped the Social in the spring
And quite a few communists got run in
And National Service come back in
In the winter of ’79

When Marco’s caff went up in flames
The Vambo boys took the blame
The SAS come and took our names
In the winter of ’79

These verses might all sound like typical lefty paranoia about the fascist state clamping down on political dissent, but by the mid-70s the country seemed headed for social breakdown and political anarchy and some elements of the British secret services, convinced that the government and the unions (and the BBC) were in the hands of radicals and revolutionaries, actually planned a military coup against the Labour government of Harold Wilson that would have installed Lord Mountbatten as the new Premier. So it’s not paranoia if it’s true, though no one knew about this at the time. And you have to remind yourself that he wrote this when “Sunny” Jim Callaghan was Prime Minister. If he thought England was a violent, politically oppressive place when he wrote the song in 1977 then God knows what he would have written if he’d waited a while and seen Maggie Thatcher in power, a woman who openly referred to striking workers — fellow British citizens — as “the enemy.”

It was us poor bastards took the chop
When the tubes gone up and the buses stopped
The top people still come out on top
The government never resigned
The Carib Club got petrol bombed
The National Front was getting awful strong

Well, some things never change. The top people still come out on top and are far richer and even more on top than they were in 1979 (and mostly got that way under a Labour government), the Government is clinging to power despite being mortally wounded by scandal and an economic crisis, and if you change “The National Front” to “The BNP” these verses could be from a song called “The Winter of ’09”

So it turned out that Tom was right about the winter of 1979 being an important point in English history, he was just wrong about a lot of the facts — even the football results. But it didn’t take much imagination to look at England in 1977 and imagine the worst.

Download: The Winter of ’79 – Tom Robinson Band (mp3)
Buy: Power In The Darkness (album)

What’s it all about?

The sentimental musings of an ageing expat in words, music, and pictures. Mp3 files are up for a limited time so drink them while they're hot. Contact me: lee at londonlee dot com





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