Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

Strange Days: Cold War Britain. A Sneering.

with 9 comments

Pastiche Politics.

Strange Days: Cold War Britain is a three part series shown on BBC.

The second section was broadcast last night.

The BBC describes it as follows, “Dominic looks at the front line of the conflict as a newly prosperous Britain of consumerism was pitched against the Soviet ideal of communism.”

Historian Dominic Sandbrook, the presenter, is a master of supercilious  superficiality.

The Great Contest (Isaac Deutscher)  was played out in the UK in the late fifties and sixties between  the ‘Guardian reading’  CND – all solemn and po-faced – and the threat of imminent nuclear war.

Britain’s main contribution to fighting the Cold War was pop culture (the Beatles) of, and there were some missiles somewhere. There was James Bond to help us, and John le Carré (whose name Sandbrook managed the hard task of pronouncing ‘la‘ Carré) to muddy the waters.

Strange Days had some serious real-life stuff, with the Soviet blackmailing of British Navel Attaché John Vassall for his gay sexuality.

Strident left-wingers presented Play for the Day, which were little more than class war rants. Joining the Communist Party of Great Britain, one clip was reeled out to show, was a serious commitment, not far of becoming a Jesuit.

Come 1968 and  the ‘seventies and Communism turned groovy.

We had the evidence of Rising Damp’s Alan Guy Moore (Richard Beckinsale) to demonstrate it.

In the battle between the Ideal Home exhibition and  Nikita Khrushchev capitalist consumerism had the edge.

Who needed left-wing politics when you had white goods?

Now there are reasons to think that some of Sandbrook’s underlying arguments tilt in the right direction.

Sandbrook is, if the word is appropriate for somebody I’ve only just heard of, well-known for arguing that the 1960s far from being a decade of Revolution were conservative.

In the New Statesman (2005) he stated,

…anywhere you look you can find evidence that belies the myths of permissiveness and revolution. Was there really a cultural revolution? A million people rushed out every Saturday to buy the latest hit singles; but two million men and boys went in pursuit of fish, and a staggering 19 million people pottered about the garden.

It is indeed striking that you can meet people  (Coatesy writes as somebody who actually was part of the counter-cultural left in the early 1970s) and who, on the basis of a few trips to the Roundhouse think they were part of this ‘cultural revolution’.

Those of us who were (and I know some of them as well) were acutely aware of how much a minority the ‘counter-cultural left’ was at the time. We had only to see the reactions of other people in pubs to tell us.

But that’s as far as it goes.

Sandbrook has apparently never heard of the New Left, anti-Stalinists and a lot more.

Despite these (and many other) gaps Strange Days  tries to be too clever for its own good.

Sandbrook has faced charges of plagiarism in the more recent past.

Strange Days is just pastiche politics.

Written by Andrew Coates

November 20, 2013 at 1:01 pm

9 Responses

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  1. If we are talking about a cultural revolution then I think the terminology is fair, for the first time we young workers had access to radical newspapers and bookshops. Some of the papers were more than left Turgid tomes, although many ended up as them😉. Feminism found its feet so too did working class and sections of middle class youth, who refused to ape their fathers lifestyles, especially in clothes, etc, as many previous generations had. How black music changed the perception of working class young people to race is still under-appreciated. For example I came to left politics via Lennon and IT, not Lenin, although he came later.

    Societal change was also massive, who can truly say the British ruling classes love of the rope which was brought to an end in the 1960s was not a revolutionary event? Trade union confidence and pride amongst the rank and file was a joy to behold but sadly there was very little revolutionary change politically. It was also a very me, me, decade, far more so than the 1970’s methinks, which really was a revolutionary decade both at home and abroad, ‘as the fuck you boss you will show us some respect’ became the order of the day.

    The fact revolutionary change did not become embedded in the 1960s is what enabled the ruling classes to start there reactionary rollback in 1979.

    Mick Hall

    November 20, 2013 at 1:31 pm

  2. There is some truth in that Mick but if you;d tried to go into a working class pub in Camden Town (as immortalised in Withnail and I) you’d soon have found that looking counter-cultural was not a good idea.

    Andrew Coates

    November 20, 2013 at 2:10 pm

  3. There are still a fair number of places -and not just in pubs- even within Greater London where it is not a good idea to look ‘counter cultural’, or, to speak normally ‘a bit different’.

    On a related note, there is a nice bit in a BBC documentary about Depeche Mode where one of them recalls going to see his parents in Basildon or Harlow or whereever, in about 1980. As he spent most of his time hanging around the ‘fashionable’ bits of London (Camden, presumably?) with his musician and music industry mates, he’d forgotten it wasn’t the done thing as a man to a) drink anything apart from a pint of IPA or lager, and certainly b) to have peroxide blonde hair with a leather jacket, ear piercings and black varnished nails. After being “asked” (imagine cliche cockney-ish accent with more than a hint of violence) “What the f* do you look like” he dashed off to his mum and dad’s place.

    I know of a fair few pubs in the more easterly part of London (where the hipsters haven’t turned up yet, and it will take a long while and maybe some nuclear war for that to happen) where, 30+ years on, the situation hasn’t changed. My 70+ year old’s father’s last visit to a local pub (with my mother) ended quickly after him (and her) getting a load of violent homophobic abuse from some 20-something local thugs for him daring to drink wine and, even worse, her drinking a pint of beer. Oh for the days when that particular Wetherspoons was the council housing department.

    dagmar

    November 20, 2013 at 2:56 pm

  4. No, I simply do not believe the Depeche Mode stuff was quite what it seems, hippies, punk rock, teddy boys and mods had ‘even’ filtered down to places like Basildon and Harlow. By the early 80s, a guy or gal wearing a pin through his nose and a bin bag/whatever may have made heads turn as he walked into the bar. but so would an old lady or Jesus Christ himself, local pubs are like and I have no doubt many of them are to this day. By the way who drank pints of IPA, a small light ale maybe if they were Ronnie Kray😉

    If the guy had stayed and had a pint instead of rushing off to his mum, apart from a bit of banter all would have been well, after all he was a local and within five minutes someone would probably shouted across the bar said “Hows your Mum and Dad these days son.

    Now if he had worked into one of those nice middle class gold clubs or so called gentleman’s clubs behind the mail, the tale might have had the ring of truth about it.

    I worked in a paper mill in the latter half of the 60s and my two work mates had served in the Royal Navy during WW2, one on Atlantic convoys and the other on the Russia run. I used to take Oz in and we used to have all sorts of discussions about its content. When i look back, what I began to see was these working class men had a hinterland which I came to marvel at and admire. Shakespeare turned out to be John’s great love and Bob’s great passion was the rose in all its 57 varieties.

    Of course they were a little bemused by me, a mouthy little gobshite, but resentment there was not, and given their own youth was partially taken away due to WW2, the tolerance they showed me amazes me even today. When I got on my high horse and pontificated about something in Oz/IT/ where-ever John would turn to his mate with a wink which he made sure I saw, and say something like “remind me Bob, what were we doing when we were young Mickeys age?

    Since then I have seen a fair amount of life and working class prejudice for sure, but it has never been on a scale as what I have experience and witnessed from member of the middle classes.

    Mick Hall

    November 20, 2013 at 7:57 pm

  5. I’d take slight issue about the pub scene in those days Andrew. My recollection is that it was more how a guy sounded that could provoke hostility than appearance. Think of a young Ozzy Osbourne. No matter how outrageous his appearance his background would be obvious as soon as he opened his mouth. I am from a similar background (although not a Brummie) and usually managed to defuse potential violent reaction to my appearance verbally. Those from the middle classes were not always so fortunate.

    Mick O

    November 20, 2013 at 10:10 pm

  6. No, I simply do not believe the Depeche Mode stuff was quite what it seems, hippies, punk rock, teddy boys and mods had ‘even’ filtered down to places like Basildon and Harlow. By the early 80s, a guy or gal wearing a pin through his nose and a bin bag/whatever may have made heads turn as he walked into the bar. but so would an old lady or Jesus Christ himself, local pubs are like and I have no doubt many of them are to this day. By the way who drank pints of IPA, a small light ale maybe if they were Ronnie Kray😉

    If the guy had stayed and had a pint instead of rushing off to his mum, apart from a bit of banter all would have been well, after all he was a local and within five minutes someone would probably shouted across the bar said “Hows your Mum and Dad these days son.

    Now if he had worked into one of those nice middle class gold clubs or so called gentleman’s clubs behind the mail, the tale might have had the ring of truth about it.

    I worked in a paper mill in the latter half of the 60s and my two work mates had served in the Royal Navy during WW2, one on Atlantic convoys and the other on the Russia run. I used to take Oz in and we used to have all sorts of discussions about its content. When i look back, what I began to see was these working class men had a hinterland which I came to marvel at and admire. Shakespeare turned out to be John’s great love and Bob’s great passion was the rose in all its 57 varieties.

    Of course they were a little bemused by me, a mouthy little gobshite, but resentment there was not, and given their own youth was partially taken away due to WW2, the tolerance they showed me amazes me even today. When I got on my high horse and pontificated about something in Oz/IT/ where-ever John would turn to his mate with a wink which he made sure I saw, and say something like “remind me Bob, what were we doing when we were young Mickeys age?

    Since then I have seen a fair amount of life and working class prejudice for sure, but it has never been on a scale as what I have experience and witnessed from member of the middle classes

    Mick Hall

    November 21, 2013 at 12:04 am

  7. People say that there are some pubs on the Estates in Ipswich that are like the Slaughtered Lamb in An American Werewolf in London.

    But generally speaking the isolation of the Counterculture was surely much greater in the late sixties and early seventies than younger people might appreciate.

    To take one example, there is nothing organised like the Festival of Light today – even if the Mail, the Sun and the Express are possibly even more reactionary than papers at the time.

    As for the political atmosphere in the 70s.

    I recall working as a records clerk at a ticket agency HQ (Keith Prowse) just off Tottenham Court Road during the February 1974 General Election.

    A gang of employees (mainly women) who worked the telephone lines put up National Front material round the offices.

    I protested violently and was told that it was a “bit of a laugh”.

    Andrew Coates

    November 21, 2013 at 11:55 am

  8. “Strident left-wingers presented Play for the Day, which were little more than class war rants.”

    It was called “Play for Today”?
    But that wasn’t in the 60’s, it ran from 1970-84.

    The “Wednesday Play” was its 1960’s precursor.
    A groundbreaking TV drama series, which included such plays as:-

    Dennis Potter’s “Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton” & “Son of Man”
    Nell Dunn’s “Up the Junction”
    Nigel Kneale’s “The Year of the Sex Olympics”
    Peter Watkins “The War Game” (banned and not shown on TV until 1985)
    Jeremy Sandford’s “Cathy Come Home”, produced by Tony Garnett and directed by Ken Loach.

    These created national political controversy and got up the nose of conservatives like Mary Whitehouse.
    Michael Gove recently spoke out against a suggestion to revive it.

    Sandbrook’s awful series on the Cold-war is just another example of how far the BBC has degenerated.
    -Cultural Thermidor.

    reg

    November 22, 2013 at 12:46 pm

  9. Thanks Reg, I was very young at the time……

    Andrew Coates

    November 22, 2013 at 5:50 pm


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