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Strange Days Indeed, Francis Wheen

My review of Francis Wheen's latest book, Strange Days Indeed - The Golden Age of Paranoia, is in this week's issue of Tribune Magazine, along with other reviews of books, film and theatre.

Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia by Francis Wheen
Fourth Estate, £18.99

The title of Francis Wheen's latest book, Strange Days Indeed, is perfect. The '70s were indeed paranoid. And with paranoia comes darkness, and not just figurative. There won't be many, from '70s children upwards, who won't remember the power cuts which gave Andy Beckett his title for another book about that decade, When the Lights Went Out. Wheen and Beckett are not the only two either, for there has been a recent trend to reminisce about the '70s. Wheen has mined many of that decade's most memorable quotes, which could just as easily apply to our own times. Take this, from Senator Frank Church, who, in concluding an investigation into the illegal activities of the FBI and the CIA in 1976, said: "Too many people have been spied upon by too many government agencies, and too much information has been collected."

Wheen has collected much - but not too much - information, and includes some of his own personal history. Arriving in London in December 1973, with rucksack and guitar in hand, he hoped to find something of the ambition and optimism of the '60s. He was in for some mighty disappointment, confronted with what Der Spiegel was telling its German readers: "London (is) as gloomy as the city described by Charles Dickens." It wasn't just Germany. The rest of the world was reporting with a dollop of sly schadenfreude on the condition quickly coined as the "British disease"; no, not MRSA, but strikes, causing power cuts and creating roads full of rats from the mounting piles of rotting rubbish. It is inevitable that the party of the previous 'swinging' decade that Wheen had so hoped to find left only an almighty hangover consisting of societal abandonment, rage and despair. For many this dark hangover would last for most of the '70s. And, like the end of a party full of LSD come downs, paranoid delusions were everywhere. News reporting was particularly fertile ground for those tuned into what was "really" going on out there.

For all those who maintain the '70s were not that bad, that the austerity and mass uncertainties served some purpose, one only has to mention terror, for this is the era in which it all kicked off. The IRA, Baader Meinhoff, Weather Underground... and then there was England's very own brand of terror from the Angry Brigade. Sounding more like a wannabe punk group, they issued their communiqu├ęs courtesy of a child's John Bull printing set. From the reaction to the obscenity trial of the satirical underground magazine Oz, however, it seemed as though the establishment was more terrified of Rupert Bear plunging a gigantic penis into a granny than of any home-grown terrorist group.

The golden age of paranoia was also fuelled by the advancing technology, or perhaps the advancing technology was fuelled by the paranoia, for the '70s gave birth to modern computing as we know it. Then there was the first mobile phone and that staple of monied women of a certain age the world over - the face lift. Oh, and Uri Geller. Spy devices all. And yet, as bleak and sinister as it might seem, and could have remained in the hands of most other writers, through Wheen's absurdist lens it is all laugh out loud funny; the planet as nothing more than an unsupervised asylum. One thing is for sure, though, world leaders certainly weren't up to their task. Think Mao, Nixon, Amin, Wilson...

A book such as this could easily fly out in all directions, yet Wheen expertly controls the reins, pacing the narrative just right so there is always the desire to be led further into the maze of '70s madness. Wheen is surely our most eminent satirical writer, and I just hope that he is looking at our present decade through the same lens, and is just as busy getting that book ready.

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