(Photo: Steven Muster)
Watching (again) the magnificent movie version of John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I realised how right the director (and scriptwriter) got the setting: 1970’s London. Grim, green, grey. Peeling paint, rotten wood, grey telephones (at least theirs worked on the far side of the Irish Sea). The arse seemed to be falling out of everything, in mid-seventies London. The backwash of the 1973 Oil Crisis, on the heels of the Yom Kippur War, had hit hard; there was a lot of industrial chaos; the Provos were still planting bombs here and there. Flower power (if it ever really existed beyond the King’s Road and in magazines), was well dead.
Walking into a pub in North London, one evening in the late seventies, I encountered, unhappily, a chap I owed a money to, from a few years previously. Like a Cockney Cagney, he walked over to me with a pool stick in his hand, pointed it at my eye and said, in a broad west of Ireland brogue
‘The hippies are all dead, boy. And you owe me twenty pounds, so you do.’
I glanced around the (rough, rough, rough) bar, in panic, and nodded over at a figure breastfeeding a pint of Guinness behind a newspaper.
‘That’s my cousin sitting over there. Do you know him, by any chance?’
The cue stick was lowered. I promised to repay the money, forthwith and sidled over to my protector. It had all been a misunderstanding, it seemed. I suddenly had what the Arabs call wasta: connections and a little bit of protection with it. It was only a week or two later that I became aware of the Alsatian doggy chained up on the roof above our heads, as a caution to the friskier customers. Cockney barman; Irish clientele; German dog.
The days of the squats and the handy money were drawing to a close. Of living on a sixpence in London. Of dining in style in Wimpys, drinking in Biddy Mulligans or The Cock in Kilburn and waking up who-knows-where. Twenty years on, there would be mobiles phones, computers and the electronic neural map that is the internet. Angst-ridden progressive rock bands (to the sound of Tubular Bells) and angst-ridden singer-songwriters (male and female) would give way to Punk on the way to the more electronic uplands. Something approaching colour would steal into the streets of London again. Maybe it was just that there was more money about; or maybe it was (horror) La Thatcher who led the emergence from the green-grey (for the south of England, that is). Or maybe it was inevitable: hippies die, punks die, even Goths die.
This, of course, is someone else’s seventies. Already preserved in formaldehyde, like some strange specimen out of time. We are, you might say, when we are as much as what we are. Facets of the contemporary vanities and delusions that keep us sane and upright.