Strange Days Indeed by Francis Wheen

The 2009 release of Zack Snyder’s film The Watchmen found me rushing back to re-read the 1986-87 comic book series I consumed as a teenager. Revisiting Alan Moore’s gritty post-industrial wasteland where civil liberties are endangered and nuclear apocalypse threatens made me wonder what sort of imaginative world I had re-inhabited. Rather than some alternate dystopia it really seemed like our own world with one or two variables shifted ever so slightly.

Then it hit me. The world of The Watchmen was simply a place the ’70s never ended. It’s a reflection of an American dystopia that actually happened, an axial point of disillusion, anxiety and fear where you can stand and, as far as the eye allows, see Nixonland stretching away from you in every direction. It’s a place we’ve lived, minus the masked adventurers and the blue ubermensch.

Francis Wheen’s new narrative of the ’70s reminds us why it is so easy to confuse a relatively recent decade with a dystopian society. In his trademark style that manages to combine elegance with a breezy clarity, Wheen makes the case the ’70s gives off a “pungent mélange of apocalyptic dread and conspiratorial fervour”.

It did. It was the decade where political leaders from Idi Amin to Richard Nixon played out their private paranoia on a grand stage. Meanwhile, the British military played a Kafkaesque game with the provisional IRA as undercover informants ratted on what turned out to be other undercover informants. It was a time when conspiracy thrillers like Chinatown and Three Days of the Condor competed with disaster films as the most popular theatrical releases. All this took place against a backdrop of rising unemployment, runaway inflation, UFO sightings, David Bowie and Eric Clapton playing fascist, and Uri Geller bending spoons. Wheen leaves no strange tale untold of this decade during which it seems every word was caught by a hidden microphone.

For a book named for a John Lennon lyric, Wheen spends surprisingly little time on popular culture. Instead, he focuses on the role of politics shaping culture. Wheen, thankfully never descends into simple descriptions of political change. He tends to favor the well-wrought tableaux centered on a major figure that tells us much about the ghastly nature of the times they lived.

Wheen’s description of the complete mental breakdown of Sir William Armstrong, Britain’s powerful chief civil servant, becomes a kind of metaphor for the whole decade. Armstrong’s infamous collapse, ending in his warning civil service employees that they should “prepare for the apocalypse” and rambling about “red armies fighting blue armies” tells us much about what had become of the stiff upper lip in this decade of runaway unemployment, inflation, electrical outages, and fuel shortages. Oh yes, and the ever-present threat of nuclear Armageddon.

The ability to link global events certainly represents one of the real strengths of Strange Days Indeed since most histories of the decade focus on the United States. In one of the best sections of the book, “Going Underground”, less time is spent on the Weatherman and the Symbionese Liberation Army than on odd phenomenon like Britain’s Angry Brigades and, most significantly, on Germany’s Baader-Meinhof movement. And, it feels like every national leader must have been out of their minds. Wheen moves seamlessly between Nixon’s rantings and Madame Mao’s conviction that her domestics sought to drive her mad with noise.

Sometimes it feels a bit too seamless, especially when the reader steps back from Wheen’s seductive style. It may not be possible to grant him that this was truly a “golden age” for the paranoid style since there are simply too many claimants for that title. Does the decade beat out the American ’50s? Do the British ’70s have much on the British ’80s when economic distress blossomed angrily into strong right-wing movements (a germination that obviously began in the late ’70s with the rise of the National Front)?

Moreover, how exactly are we supposed to interpret this rampant paranoia? Once the reader takes a breather from Wheen’s breakneck pacing, it’s a little hard to decide whether or not to buy into his interpretation of this decade. Yes, the paranoia of Richard Nixon is easy to prove and equally easy to laugh at, at least at this distance. But what about the anxiety of the average person living through it all, those poor British souls that Wheen himself describes as wondering if that “muffled whimper” is “the sound of the next door neighbor being strangled by a KGB hitman?” Maybe more sympathetic, what about those who wondered if “those army tanks at Heathrow airport” are conducting “a routine military exercise, or (as Harold Wilson suspected) preparing for a military takeover?” Didn’t they have reason to wonder?

American science fiction writer Phillip K. Dick seems to embody Wheen’s thesis. The author of classics such as The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Dick himself dreamed of neo-nazi and/or Soviet conspirators seeking to use his novels to convey messages to underground agents. But in Dick we also have someone whose tendencies toward paranoia fed off very real anxieties. He had been under surveillance by his own government since a youthful flirtation with socialism. Paranoia had firm roots in reality.

Francis Wheen has, indeed, found some strange days in his exploration of those bad-haircut days not so long ago. But, as he writes in his conclusion, “flickering glimpses of déjà vu” for that era are all around us in the 21st century. Given the first ten years of this new millennium, there is every reason to believe some future historian and her wide-eyed audience will guffaw at our definition of the normal. Or perhaps I am just being paranoid?

RATING 7 / 10