State Of The Arts: Everything Awful About The 70s Is Back

Christopher Fowler
When I sat down to write the 1969-set 'Hall of Mirrors' I didn't have to do much period research because I remembered it all too clearly. 1966-1976 was a decade of precipitously disastrous decline for the UK. To go from the futurist, optimistic fantasies of the mid-sixties to corpses stacked outside crematoria while radicalised unionists pulled everyone out on strike was the greatest human fall since Icarus tried for a tan. With 14 million now in poverty, the nation is forming a disorderly queue for the seventies nostalgia terror train, stopping at economic hardship, reduced public spending, soaring prices, empty shelves, NHS meltdown, crime in the streets, service closures and disastrous import/export targets. London restaurants are now beyond the price range of everyone except top earners and visitors. The large chains, it goes without saying, are universally horrible. Independents are charging like wounded rhinos. An ice cream this morning cost me £6.00 - London prices. Theatre is now as unaffordable as opera used to be. Poverty tourism is back as Europeans arrive, laughing at how easy it is to get into once-exclusive events. The middle of the road dominates in all leisure activities; tenth-rate retro-entertainment masked as 'immersive experiences', the arts safe and dull, literature so retrograde that I half-expect to see the lists headed by Barbara Cartland and Neville Shute. There are tributes to the Ukraine, #MeToo and the other current talking points given Likes by millions on Twitter ('When you care enough to hit Send') which are being used as a cover for amateurish arts events. In King's Cross, London's first LGBTQ+ museum has opened, and while clearly well-intentioned it's stultifyingly dull. How could such a colourful subject be rendered so clichéd and boring? But what are people to do? The Spaffer has danced off on his holidays to leave the mess he created to someone else. Britain now has zombie governance. I daresay even Lord Snooty has donned grey wool socks and sandals on a British beach to see what he can monetise from the rock pools. The Daily Telegraph keeps screaming at people for not returning to a Victorian work ethic, but what incentive is there to sit five days a week in a windowless room? In the 70s James Callaghan, our Prime Minister, said that every morning he woke up wishing he was in any other country but here. In the 2020s the PM can't be reached at all. What percentage of the losses can be laid at the feet of the triple-catastrophes of Boris, Brexit and Covid will be a matter of conjecture for years to come, as the savings the government insisted we accrue from childhood have dwindled to nothing in adulthood, and the Lord Snootys of the world continue to laugh through their property portfolios.   So, is it exactly like the seventies again? Not quite, because at least there was Harold Wilson, and Edward Heath only omitted the truth about his sexuality. MPs didn't lie bare-facedly until corrupt Jonathan Aitken came along with 'the sword of truth and the trusty shield of fair play'. (The Guardian stuck by its story and Aitken went to the pokey). At least the decade closed with disco, so we could at least dance through the pain. This time around there's more than just financial poverty but a poverty of thought, of vision, of history. It looks as we'll get 'The Lady's Made For U-Turning' Liz Truss, about whom 39 failures have already been listed. Choosing which of the many back-flips this career-moth has performed, condemning Brenda and The Firm before offering to buy them a new yacht is a prime example. As the punctured rubber dinghy SS GB sinks slowly off the Kent coast, perhaps an influx of kindly refugees will be able to rescue it. In the seventies I had enough and moved from England to the USA. Today I'd live in Europe but I can't even do that. (Next post will contain rainbows, rays of sunshine, hope and bunnies. Perhaps not hope.)  


Des Burkinshaw (not verified) Wed, 10/08/2022 - 12:00

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Sorry, Chris, but have you hacked into my diary?

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Wed, 10/08/2022 - 12:28

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@admin Funny how the mind works (at least mine...). Immediately thought of the ending of the 'Life of Brian' with its group crucifixion and closing tune, 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.'

Some things in life are bad
They can really make you mad
Other things just make you swear and curse
When you're chewing on life's gristle
Don't grumble, give a whistle
And this'll help things turn out for the best
Always look on the bright side of life
Always look on the light side of life

(With no apologies whatsoever to Eric Idle)

Brooke (not verified) Wed, 10/08/2022 - 13:10

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Not all art is safe and dull... if you feel up to it wander over to Maximilian William Gallery to see fabulous ceramics. Check it online first as it may not appeal to you/Pete. But it's damn good art by geniuses.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Wed, 10/08/2022 - 13:50

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What next in your 'back to the future' analogy --- Boris wearing a donkey jacket and driving an Austin Allegro (aka 'All Aggro') ? Well --- at least the strikers wore suits and ties on the picket-lines in the bad old days, although the general standard of dress would have been at the cutting edge of fashion in 1958.

Christopher Fowler Wed, 10/08/2022 - 14:29

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Brooke, how did I not know about this gallery? It looks good, so I'll head down there when the heatwave breaks.

Paul C (not verified) Wed, 10/08/2022 - 15:42

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Dominic Sandbrook's books on the 70s are excellent : State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain 1970–1974 and Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain 1974-1979. He includes a lot of cultural history (books, music, TV) along with the politics.

In the past some of our best talents entered parliament but this no longer seems the case. The calibre of our politicos seems lower than ever. Wonder why ? Is the savagery of the press and social media? The intrusion into private lives ? I would hate to be an MP. Perhaps this is part of the malaise.

Still, our scientists did an excellent job in inventing a Covid vaccine so quickly and our NHS risked their lives tending to patients. Not to mention supermarket workers, binmen, lorry drivers etc. There are a lot of quiet heroes in our country - I try to be more optimistic.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Wed, 10/08/2022 - 16:30

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The dismal prognosis obtains here as well. Employers can't find workers, just as a whole group of on-line retailers settled themselves in customers decided to shop in person so firms are laying off, and we're told we have been eating out on the backs of restaurant workers so don't expect restaurant prices to be affordable any time soon. I don't know that that fits with the 70s because I was pretty optimistic then but it's what it is.

BarbaraBoucke (not verified) Wed, 10/08/2022 - 16:57

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Thank you, Brooke, for the recommendation of "The Conjure-Man Dies", I've ordered a copy.

Brooke (not verified) Wed, 10/08/2022 - 17:40

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Mr. Fowler, I think you have been rather busy so you may have missed a couple of cool things. Like Fashioning Masculinity at the V&A.

Brooke (not verified) Wed, 10/08/2022 - 17:42

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Barbara, I hope you enjoy "The Conjure-Man Dies."

Joan (not verified) Wed, 10/08/2022 - 19:28

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Surely it’s not all bad Chris, after all Disco hasn’t returned!
Sitting out on my deck on a perfect summer day with a beautiful blue sky, it’s hard to be pessimistic.

BarbaraBoucke (not verified) Wed, 10/08/2022 - 20:07

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Thanks, Brooke. I put a "message" to you a couple of blogs back about possible places to order Bryant and May's Peculiar London from, but don't know if you ever saw what I wrote. I heard about the Library of Congress mystery series, but can't recall where. However, I will look it up. I've read some mysteries from Otto Penzler Presents which I've enjoyed. One was Frederic Brown's The Fabulous Clipjoint" set in 1940's Chicago. Every time the two main characters went into a saloon (one was a teenager) they ordered a white soda. I had to finally look that up. It was carbonated milk!! I think the idea was to kids (at home) to drink their milk.

Brooke (not verified) Wed, 10/08/2022 - 22:01

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Barbara, I did see your note and thank you.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Thu, 11/08/2022 - 00:42

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Like the economy and its effect, there was a good deal of thrashing about in the arts during the '70s, as if artists were trying to figure out how both to survive and a way forward. I think we're again seeing that. Also -- then as now, public financial support for the arts backed by an arms length policy of artistic self-determination was and remains precarious at best --- overlaying the arts scene with a sense of uncertainty, if not foreboding. And of course, the pandemic continues to do no one any favours. Add to this unprecedented dislocation, an economy in shambles, in large part as a result --- and a retreat to the safe harbour of 'middlebrow' is almost to be expected, with only the occasional flash of brilliance.

Interestingly, on the cinema side, Britain has become a notable 'film-making' nation, as opposed to a 'film-creating' one --- principally because intellectual property of any note tends to be snapped up by American companies like Amazon and Netflix. So what you're left with is a British film industry that is just that --- an 'industry' --- and one almost exclusively devoted to 'exporting' goods and services, like top creative talent. The chances for sustainable independent British film companies are slim to none in this environment.

In the decade that 'taste forgot,' on the other hand, there were dozens of independent film companies, a large number which could charitably only be described as 'fly-by-night,' pumping out--- again safe but decidedly lowbrow fare --- consisting primarily of escapist sexploitation comedies and violent horror films. The former appealing to put upon middle-aged men and the latter saying, in effect, 'you think you have it bad, get a load of this.' The other popular and prudent genre was the mostly ill-fated TV spin-off, based on the misguided belief that small screen ratings would translate to big screen queues. And as today, there were occasional bright, if usually unconventional, spots, with the highly individual and ambitious cinematic statements of a Ken Russell, Stanley Kubrick and Nicolas Roeg, among a good handful of others. But I think, in general, the decade can be summed up cinematically by the fact that 'Confessions of a Window Cleaner' was the biggest domestic hit of 1974.

Peter T (not verified) Thu, 11/08/2022 - 08:07

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Possibly to my credit, I have no memory of 'Confessions of a Window Cleaner.' What I do recall of 1974 is that my low income didn't allow much in the way of arts into the picture. I'd say the main difference between then and now is that then we still had the machinery to create wealth, but it was out of action. Now we don't have that machinery; we sold it for the benefit of Lord Snooty. The possibilities for art, especially cinema and theatre, are seriously limited in a nation that's wiped out the wealth of most of the population.

Christopher Fowler Thu, 11/08/2022 - 09:51

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Brooke, I have a habit of trying to book events that have passed. 'Fashioning Masculinity' was on my list along with 'Postwar British Artists', which friends said was surprisingly smart.

Without a central current events system (which Time Out was once brilliant at) so many things pass me by. Pete's mother (in fashion production) took herself off to some kind of museum of sewing and saw an exhibition she found fascinating - no reviews of it anywhere. Too niche, too many more important things to cover like 'Abba - the Immersive Experience' (shoot me now).

BarbaraBoucke (not verified) Thu, 11/08/2022 - 12:53

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admin - Just the mention of Time Out brings back so many memories. It was like my Bible on trips to England. My local news-seller carried it, and I bought it quite often even if I wasn't travelling. I'm sorry to read that it's not what it was, because it was a great resource then.

Brooke - I'm glad that you saw it. I never know if people continue to read a previous blog or not. Many of the forgotten authors led interesting lives - irregardless of whether one likes their books or not. I came across one who was an avowed Marxist - wrote several mysteries - went off to Spain to fight and died apparently on his first day of battle.

Paul C (not verified) Thu, 11/08/2022 - 13:11

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I agree, Barbara - I have a lot of old anthologies edited by Hugh Lamb and Peter Haining - the capsule biographies of forgotten shadowy writers are far more interesting than the stories themselves. If you're interested in this sphere I'd strongly recommend 'Lives of the Novelists' by John Sutherland - a truly magnificent book.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Thu, 11/08/2022 - 13:15

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In the arts category of ''Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore' --- I note that --- now in its 81st year as the BBC Proms --- the iconic concert series devoted an entire programme this season to video game music, much of it processed through filters to sound as if it were coming through a game console. Apparently there is also a market for recorded game soundtracks. Not entirely surprising, I suppose, since gaming is now a bigger business than films and music combined. (Sigh).

Brooke (not verified) Thu, 11/08/2022 - 13:20

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Mr. Fowler, adding insult to injury, the small museums and exhibits can't afford decent marketing depts. and staff.
Well, keep calm and do something useful, like sharpening the guillotine blades. I see a long line of tumbrils coming--for a truely immersive, curated experience.

BarbaraBoucke (not verified) Thu, 11/08/2022 - 18:37

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Thank you, Paul C. I will add it to my book list. I may have to give up sleeping if the mailman/mail-lady arrives with any more books - and the packages are slowly wending their way to my house including Brooke's recommendation.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Thu, 11/08/2022 - 18:43

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Gabriel Byrne, the Irish actor in Death of a Ladies' Man, is currently on tour in Britain doing a show based on Leonard Cohen's memoir. He seems an interesting sort and worth going to see. Don't have his itinerary, unfortunately. Oh, and it's the 49th anniversary of The Party at which record manipulation was introduced by DJ Cool. The family are having an auction today at Christie's New York of memorabilia of that event. And that is my listing of events in the entertainment industry. Just have to listen to the CBC and Tom Power.

Granny (not verified) Thu, 11/08/2022 - 21:45

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@Paul C
Thank you for that reference, looks good "In this brilliant new history, Dominic Sandbrook recreates the gaudy, schizophrenic atmosphere of the early Seventies: the world of Enoch Powell and Tony Benn, David Bowie and Brian Clough, Germaine Greer and Mary Whitehouse"

I enjoyed the 70's. It was the decade when I supported Manchester United, living in Whalley Range for 6 months and wondering why so many drivers used to stop and ask me if I had the time ... I worked at a plastics factory (porta-potties) and the manager had everyone in one by one to tell them to vote Conservative. I watched good films such as One flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and locally (back in Scunthorpe) we has a film theatre where I watched French and less popular films such as La Grande Bouffe. It was the decade when the Birmingham Centre for Cultural studies wrote fascinating books such as "Moral Panics and Folk Devils" (Cohen)
If you were poor in those days you could go to the fishmongers for fish cheeks to make fish cakes from, the butchers for chicken carcases or beef bones to make soups or chicken fried rice. You could go to jumble sales and pick up good books or Victorian clothes for next to nothing, pick up knitted clothes-pull them down and knit up again into something you would wear.
Good time to be poor I think

Helen+Martin (not verified) Thu, 11/08/2022 - 22:30

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Well, Granny, I made fish cakes, but it was hard to find a fish monger. We have one now, one who can tell you where and by whom the fish was caught. It's hard to get the left overs without buying the expensive wholes first but the sales are still around; church thrift stores (ours at least) will sell you a man's coat for under $5.00 and hard cover books are $.50. Stuff turns over pretty fast so there isn't any Victorian clothing showing up.

For fans of Oscar Peterson's piano music, the Canadian mint is making a $1.00 coin to honour the jazz great. The format makes it affordable but it should be a $20.00 gold piece to match the man's standing.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Thu, 11/08/2022 - 23:42

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

#Helen + Martin Helen --- So what are you going to call the Peterson coin ? A 'Tune-y ?' (Sound of cheering and wild applause)

Roger (not verified) Fri, 12/08/2022 - 03:50

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

‘Postwar British Artists had some good artists and some interesting artists, but it was a sampler, not an exhibition. The curators couldn't tie them together. It confirms what you said about prices for "cultural" events. Someone on the dole could go to a couple of exhibitions a week if they walked, shivered and starved the rest of the time.
If "history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce", what do we get the third time round.

Jan (not verified) Fri, 12/08/2022 - 05:15

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I wondered what that prom concert was about "Game music" it were a bit weird and I thought at least one if not both of my hearing aids must have been playing up! So it was in fact filtered as if it were coming through a Games console!

Was pretty rubbishy substandard type film score music as far as I could tell. That you would get to listen to for hours and hours and hours playing a video game....(with an updated terminology name now I suppose) At least some big big brain hit on the idea of making it tinkly and a bit muffled! Thank heavens for small mercies!

Helen's come up with the essential truth concerning those of who can still remember the '70s and make the comparison with today. Back then we were all young with maybe with more optimistic outlooks. Somehow this stuff isn't so scary when you are young.
You can't get too worked up about gloom in your 20s.

Brooke (not verified) Fri, 12/08/2022 - 12:25

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Helen, thanks for the shout out about Oscar Peterson. As Inspector Wycliffe (Jack Shepherd) says, when asked who he wanted to be, "Oscar Peterson."

Jo W (not verified) Fri, 12/08/2022 - 14:52

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

# Brooke,
Ah, yes Wycliffe and Jack Shepherd. I had been reading W.J. Burley’s books since I found them in the library. Didn’t all good finds come from our public libraries? Then they announced a t.v. version of one of my favourite detectives. Oh, I thought, will it stay true? I wasn’t disappointed, Jack Shepherd brought all the attributes of Wycliffe, plus he could play jazz.
Watching on cd recently and ‘im indoors finally noticed that Wycliffe doesn’t shake hands. In the books Wycliffe explains that he is never that friendly with someone who he may later arrest.
I wish that all tv versions of good detective stories were like that. Whoever was responsible for putting the “Gently”stories on to the box, should go to Alan Hunter’s grave and apologise! Weekly!

BarbaraBoucke (not verified) Fri, 12/08/2022 - 17:03

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Agreed Jo W with both comments on the Wycliffe and Gently series. I'd forgotten that bit about why Wycliffe didn't shake hands. I read all the books and probably reread a few.
And Oscar Peterson - a well deserved honor. You're right, Helen, it should have been gold. It is amazing to look at the early lives of some remarkable talents and realize what would have happened if fate or whatever had sent things in another direction. Irving Berlin's parents emigrating to America. Oscar Peterson surviving TB at such a young age, when sadly his older brother didn't. Jerome Kern not getting to the dock in time to sail on the Lusitania. I know there are many other examples, but music comes to mind with me.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Fri, 12/08/2022 - 17:22

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@Jan That's why I'm here, ma'am. To protect and serve --- as the Custodian (without portfolio) of Useless Information.

Joel (not verified) Fri, 12/08/2022 - 17:29

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

public libraries seem to be under attack, once again here in the states..such a shame...i lived at mine as a child, and no matter where i've lived, i have always gone...they are a treasure and should be supported, like school music/art programs

Brooke (not verified) Fri, 12/08/2022 - 17:43

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Dear Readers, Sept 18-24 is Banned Books Week in the US. Join the American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom in supporting libraries and the right to write and read. You can purchase tote bags, pins etc at the ALA store. Donate to your local system.
For some reason, Toni Morrison is scaring the hell out the conservatives.

David Ronaldson (not verified) Sat, 13/08/2022 - 04:42

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I was 16 in1979, so the 70s were a key part of my formative years. I had a generally happy childhood, but still recall much of it as being broken. London was darker before the buildings were scoured and you couldn't get a pint of Real Ale. They're trying to wipe it out again with something called Craft Beer, which is old-fashioned fizz with a Twinings flavoured tea bag dunked in it. Racism is casually rearing it's ugly head in discussions on the Migrant "Crisis" (I hear Colour "Problem") and instead of the Swinging Sixties, we have Cool Britannia as a fading memory. But the days of shared experience are past. Everybody watching the same television programmes has been replaced with niche viewing habits (I couldn't hazard a guess at when my 21 year-old Son last watched a scheduled telly programme)(Yes I could, Eurovision!) and memories will be as much of viral videos as of Saturday night tv. As I get older, politicians ARE getting younger and no more competent and don't talk to me about music in the charts (who knows what's Number One?). But I digress. Why did I come into this room?

Ed+DesCamp (not verified) Sat, 13/08/2022 - 09:19

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@ Admin: well, I take some time off to recuperate from another botched surgery and come back to read your medical update news. I’d like to add my “see above comments”, as others have already said it better than I could. A post or two later, you mention something about burning down an inoffensive little hotel, and, again, others pointed out your ability to destroy your vacations with better words than I have available. I never know if I will laugh, cry, nod sagely whilst stroking my cheek with my pipe stem, or drop the week’s grocery budget on new-to-me author’s when I open the blog.
Whatever happens, you’ve changed lives. I’ve given sets of your books to my three sons, my six siblings, and three good friends. Thanks…all the best going forward.

Peter T (not verified) Sat, 13/08/2022 - 14:57

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Apart from some of 1973-74, the 1970s were extremely kind to me, a personal golden age with more theatre, cinema and exhibition visits than any other part of my life, reading thrillers in the night while waiting for computers to crunch and plotters to plot and walking home as the sun was rising, staying in bed till ten. Who put the words on the office door, "In the morning, the air is clean. No need to do research"? I also made my first long road trips, discovering France, Switzerland and Italy. Yikes, have the young heard of driving a car or riding a motorbike for fun rather than the necessity of going somewhere?

Helen+Martin (not verified) Sat, 13/08/2022 - 20:52

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Ed DesCamp, glad to hear from you again. Was the surgery to correct something wrong or was it surgery done wrongly? Hope your situation is not worse than before.

Ed+DesCamp (not verified) Sun, 14/08/2022 - 05:44

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@ Helen - surgery was to correct a previously botched surgery, but was also botched. Sigh. All is well here in the woods outside Seattle. Hope you are well.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Mon, 15/08/2022 - 20:37

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Ed, I am so very sorry to hear that. I can only hope something improves for you soon. All is well here although we did a day trip yesterday to Vancouver Island for a family gathering (people we mostly haven't met before) and then couldn't find them. At least it was a lovely day.

Ed+DesCamp (not verified) Tue, 16/08/2022 - 04:01

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Helen that sounds like one of Admin’s trips!

Helen+Martin (not verified) Tue, 16/08/2022 - 04:35

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Hadn't thought of it that way. The funniest part was that looking down the slope we could see one more covered table area but there never seemed to be more than one or two people there and it was a little farther than I'm comfortable walking these days. That, of course, is where they were. Two hours each way on the ferry and our reservations were for the 8:30 ferry in the evening. It was a long day, but good actually.

Granny (not verified) Wed, 17/08/2022 - 10:43

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Wished I lived in a country that had proper checks and balances on potentially looney governments.
I would have liked Finland, lovely language with nuances of meanings, excellent education system that a government is not allowed to fiddle about with, and no words for he or she, strikes me that a culture which does not see gender as important has the right ideas

William (not verified) Wed, 17/08/2022 - 11:24

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Pretty sure Politicians of all persuasion have lied well before Aitken. Profumo, Robert Boothby and so on.
Harold Wilson was a bullshit artist of the first degree. White heat of technology my arse.
Everything repeats.
Things are better now in many ways but life can be brutal.