When the Lights Went Out by Andy Beckett: Book Review

I saw When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies by Andy Beckett on LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Programme and the publishers’ description made me think maybe it would be interesting:

Over five years in the making, this book is not an academic history but something for the general reader, written with the vividness of a novel or the best works of American New Journalism. No such treatment of the seventies has been previously attempted. Hopefully the book will bring the decade back to life in its all its drama and complexity.

And it did bring that decade back to life. It’s a very detailed book, using original material such as diaries, letters, personal memoirs as well as books written about the period. I particularly liked the personal, face-to-face interviews with some of the key figures such as Ted Heath,  and his assessments of politicians such as this one of Margaret Thatcher in 1975 when she was a contender for the leadership of the Conservative Party:

 She was a fast learner, a holder of fierce convictions and a highly distinctive speaker and political presence. (page 261)

Margaret Thatcher was, essentially not easy to be around: ‘Thatcher was always tiresome,’ remembers the political journalist Michael White who spent a lot of time with her in the seventies. ‘There was no romance, no self-analysis, no self-consciously epic qaulity like you would have got with Churchill. (page 262)

When Beckett describes the strikes of the decade, and there were so many, the changes in the balance of power, the three-day week and the Winter of Discontent, I was back there living it all over again. My only criticism is a personal one – when he writes about the economic and financial situations with all the statistics he quotes I was a bit bored and have to admit that I skim read those sections. It was the personalities, the personal touches and the cultural and social scenes that I liked – for example during his interview with Denis Healey, who was Harold Wilson’s Chancellor of the Exchequer in the seventies Healey talked about Wilson’s lack of ambition:

‘In his second term he told many people that he planned only to stay a few months. He told me in the lavatory at No. 10 just before a Cabinet meeting.’ Healey giggled, characteristically delighting in the black comedy. Then, equally characteristically, he looked out of the window of his Sussex study and kicked Wilson’s reputation in the shins. ‘I thought, “About bloody time!” He was a terrible prime minister, actually.’ (page 162)

 Andy Beckett is a journalist and this book is very readable. As well as the personalities I also liked his descriptions of places, comparing how they are today with how they were in the seventies and his comparisons of the crises that faced Britain then with those facing us today:

At the least, a very seventies dread has seeped back into how people in Britain and other rich countries see the world. Economic crises, floods, food shortages, terrorism, the destruction of the environment: these spectres, so looming in the seventies did not go away during the eighties and nineties; yet they faded – they were often quite easy to forget about. Now that they have returned to haunt newspaper front pages almost daily, it is possible to wonder how many of Britain’s seventies problems were ever really solved. (page 522)

5 thoughts on “When the Lights Went Out by Andy Beckett: Book Review”

  1. I haven’t heard of this book until now but this sounds terrific. I loved the seventies and I’m going to read this one just to relive that period. Thanks for introducing me to this one.

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  2. Rhapsodyinbooks I’d like to see Beckett write a book about the Eighties, maybe he will. That would cover Thatcher’s relationship with Reagan.

    Margot you’re welcome – I hope you enjoy it.

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  3. Sounds interesting. I know what you mean about statistics. On the positive side, skimming them saves you time for more interesting reading 😉

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  4. I’m halfway through this one at the moment (thanks to LT ER too). Enjoying it immensely. I was a teenybopper and then student all through the 70s, the current afffairs and politics went straight over my head, so it’s great to look back with a different take.

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