I’ve always been interested in the resilience of ordinary life, the way our basic routines survive even in the midst of a crisis, or regroup after a catastrophe. The governor of the Bank of England announced this week that we are living through the worst economic crisis in living memory. Everyone tutted and turned over to the Great British Bake Off. At the fringe meetings of the Conservative Party Conference, the hot issue was the smoking ban in public places. I cannot decide if this evasive attitude is healthy or not. It reminds me of the IMF crisis at the end of 1976, when ordinary life in Britain carried on against a background of talk of imminent chaos. There was a great deal of excitement, for example, about an ostrich glove puppet called Emu, worked by the entertainer Rod Hull, who had just achieved national fame by attacking Michael Parkinson on his chat show. Emu’s children’s television programme was attracting eleven million viewers and the Observer suggested that ‘the whole nation … has gone Emu crazy’. There was even greater interest in the appearance of the newsreader Angela Rippon’s bare legs on the Morecambe and Wise Christmas show, the details of which were leaked to the press in the days before broadcast. ‘The excitement surrounding Ms Rippon’s perfectly agreeable legs convinced me that everybody had gone mad,’ wrote the jazz musician and critic George Melly. ‘Angela Rippon had – wait for it – legs! Did people really imagine she hadn’t? … She reads the news very well, clearly and crisply, but the secret is out. Under that tidy desk is a pair of legs!’
It is now normal to read these popular entertainments as a kind of wilful distraction from political events. But perhaps these trivial preoccupations point to a more complex account of late 1976 than the media rhetoric of crisis suggested. The mid-1970s ‘crisis’ was experienced most keenly by opinion-forming elites. The early and influential converts to monetarism – mostly in The Times and the Financial Times - tended to talk up the possibility of impending national disaster, and to remind readers of the dire predictions about Britain’s future in American right-wing media like the Wall Street Journal and CBS News, which had more than one eye on US domestic politics in seeking to present the UK as a cautionary tale. These moments of banality in daily life in the run-up to Christmas 1976 suggest that not all Britons were convinced by these apocalyptic narratives.
In early 1977 a Gallup international survey revealed that Britons believed themselves to be among the happiest people in the world. In 1978 the Washington Post’s London correspondent, Bernard Nossiter, argued in Britain: A Future That Works that the ‘voices of doom … the scribes and prophets of disaster’ had been wrong about the UK, that its levels of state spending and taxation were normal by European standards and the overall postwar trend of rising affluence, which had doubled living standards since the war, would survive the world recession. ‘Is it possible,’ he asked, ‘that the whole episode is a case of hypochondria?’
Mundane quote for the day: ‘”I see the news is bad again.” The banal phrase punctuates my memories of the late 1930s. I remember an adolescent anger that people would not name the things that were happening: the invasion of Austria; the cession of the Sudetenland; the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Albania – all packaged as “the news”.’ - Raymond Williams