The Seventies – Sorry You Missed Them?

On pens, paper and a past world


Last night I watched a “documentary” about the Seventies. It was really an excuse to use all the naughty words and scenes that are now banned from view. Assorted young people expressed mock horror.

It got me thinking about that pre-online era , its lack of monitoring and surveillance, its strange innocence of the seedy corruption now being so ruthlessly exposed.¬† Swearing was still considered improper in mixed company or outside the privacy of the home. And homes were still considered private space. If someone had seriously suggested we shouldn’t smoke in them or have a drink while nursing our infants, we would have gaped at them in amazement.

Nobody checked up on you much, record keeping was often sporadic and haphazard. When all you had was paper and pen, or a typewriter that demanded carbon copies and correcting fluid, recording every detail was too onerous and bulky to be manageable.

Of course, the opportunities for evil to flourish were manifest, but for most people, I point out to the judgemental young of the online era, this didn’t impinge hugely on their day-to-day lives.

I particularly loved the job references of those days. They were seldom wordy. One of my favourites, which conjured up a whole world picture in a single sentence, was elegantly hand written on ancient college notepaper.

” Alisdair’s First in Classics was well-deserved.”

Poor Fiona, however, was given shorter shrift from her employer.

“Miss Smith is a well-spoken, neatly presented young woman, who has been with us for two years”

Yet when I look at the painstakingly documented minutae on today’s profiles and portfolios, I wonder how much more they actually tell us about the essential Alistair or Fiona, than those single sheets of the past.

We’re smothered with all the mountainous documentation on multiple competences, which information technology has made possible. Hundreds upon hundreds of boxes meticulously ticked, but has the quality of work/workers and the culture of the work environment really been manifestly improved?

Of course we can never easily tell, ironically because of those very  deficiencies of record keeping and patchy measures (if any) used in the past. Commentators on the Seventies are free to claim whatever suits their own perspective and ideology.

All I can say for sure is that, despite all the information we now have, it doesn’t seem to prevent the corrupt practices of global business, the powerful elites or the authoritarian, opinionated, politically polarised gatekeepers of public services. It doesn’t even prevent the brutal murder of little children in their cruel homes and disfunctional CCTVed communities, nor the institutional ill-treatment of the old and vulnerable.

We little people just know more about it now.

We can see it on television.

Just like all the explicit brutality and close-up, lip-licking violence that was never ever screened in the benighted Seventies; the online porn desensitising a whole generation; the dubious faux porn of pop videos degrading “emancipated” young women; the pitiless exploitation and humiliation of the afflicted in “reality” shows; the freak shows masquerading as medical “documentaries”.

All in all, the Seventies weren’t the worst time to be alive – despite all that shiny artificial satin and those silly platform shoes.



Lesson 39 The Not So Public Library

Lesson 39 on the Right to Books

One of my groups at Mandy’s school was composed of six girls from the Punjab.  They loved the stories we read in class and discussed them heatedly.  They were very hot on moral issues, and eagerly related the books we read to what they had seen in the latest Bollywood movies.

I used to love the Monday morning conversations between them and Josephine (an Afro-Caribbean pupil often banished to my room for bad behaviour). The group used to practise their English by describing the plot of whatever film they had seen at the weekend.

“So she shamed her family then?”
“No, but the village thought she had. She was shunned!” (We had learnt “shunned” very quickly. Shunning and shaming seemed to crop up a lot in Bollywood conversations).
“So that was when she was thrown down the well?”
“No, that was afterwards. When her cousin betrayed her!”
“The one whose husband thought she had brought shame on him?”
“No! The other one, the one who got leprosy!”

In the course of one of these discussions, it emerged that the plot was a reworking of a classic novel and I mentioned that I had borrowed the book from the library.  None of the girls knew about the local library, so I explained how they could borrow books there for free.  In the end we decided on a trip there, so that they could join.

They were full of enthusiasm when they saw the range of books available to borrow.  Everything went well, until we collected the forms to sign up.  We took them to the desk, but the jobsworth there  refused to accept them.

“They have to get their fathers’ signatures,” she insisted.

“But it doesn’t say that on the form” I protested. “It just says an adult ratepayer. I’m an adult ratepayer!”

“No, it has to be their father!”

I was ready to go into battle, but one of the girls tugged my arm and whispered in embarrassment, “Come away , Miss! Don’t bother!”

It suddenly dawned me that the bitch behind the desk simply didn’t want them to join because they were Asian and she knew very well that a father’s signature might be difficult to get. Many of the fathers couldn’t write, others were reluctant to sign official forms they didn’t understand.

I was still burning with fury, when we got back to my office and to  Josephine, serving out her banishment there.  She curled her lip scornfully, when she heard the tale from the others.

“Give me the forms,” she said. “I’ll sign them!”

The group looked aghast.  It was an obvious solution to their problem, but one which gave rise to a real-life moral dilemma. This was forgery and deceit.  What if their fathers did not want them to join? A couple of girls guessed any request would be denied. What did they need with books?  They had plenty to do at home already, helping their mothers.

They thought of other ways they could get round the signature problem, for instance by getting one girl with parental permission to pass on the books to others, or even waiting till they were old enough to join on their own.

Josephine disdained such weakness.  For her it was straightforward. She knew survival entailed fierce guerrilla warfare with authority.

That’s how she came to be sitting in my office, scowling at the injustice of the world.