Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Book Notes: The Seventies Unplugged - A Kaleidoscopic Look At A Violent Decade by Gerard DeGroot

The Seventies Unplugged  is the follow-up to DeGroot's highly entertaining and thoughtful book about The Sixties (also billed as a decade 'unplugged'). The book is laid out in a similar format, written as a series of stand-alone historical essays which inform the reader and debunk popular historical myths and misunderstandings along the way.

The Sixties Unplugged is a much funnier book than the second book in the series. Then again, there seemed to be more to laugh about in the debunking of hippie cults who thought that their various rituals would contribute to world peace, than to the more grimy decade which followed. Here in this volume, DeGroot takes the reader on something of a whistle stop tour through a decade which included Charles Manson, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, The Oil Crisis, The Killing Fields of Cambodia, the psychotic antics of Idi Amin, the revolutionary fervour of Islamic Iran, disasters in Vietnam, Arab-Israeli wars, and peace processes, race-riots, the resurgent right wing, skinheads and racists, and punk rock. DeGroot's book is not however about re-stating historical stereotypes which carve the progress of history into neat decade-long compartments. He is conscious to avoid the obvious error of painting the Sixties just in the psychedelic colours of peace and love (when it was in many ways quite conservative), and the Seventies as only a series of atrocities. The one dissapointment of this one is that the arsenal of stunning and surprising quotations which lit up virtually every chapter of 'the Sixties; were largely absent from 'The Seventies'. 

The essays which make up the book are not just journalistic pen-portraits sketching events however. DeGroot is a serious historian who has taken much care in both the selection of issues to cover, and in researching them too. He isn't afraid to offer his own distinctive interpretation of events either, even when the subjects are as controversial as the American arming of the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, or Bloody Sunday and the start of 'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland.  

What emerges from all this is a fascinating book, which makes deeply informative, if not rather sobering, reading. For me, the 1970s involved a quiet, safe, suburban childhood; yet if I had travelled far in any direction I would have stumbled into the significant cultural, political, military and disturbing events which DeGroot explains so well in this compelling volume. Some of the chapters covered subjects I knew fairly well (such as the rise of Margaret Thatcher, or the tragedy of the Jonestown mass suicides); while other chapters introduced me to important subjects about which I was shamefully ignorant. These included, the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, The fall of Salvador Allende in Chile, The Camp David Accords, the entertaining marriage advice offered by Marabel Morgan, or the development of the first IVF treatments and 'test tube babies'. 

At well over five hundred pages, it is not a short read, but it isn't a hard going, in that DeGroot wears his thorough scholarship lightly - not hiding his meaning behind obtuse academic lingo, or weighing the text down with unnecessary references which are all buried in the extensive footnotes. I wonder if DeGroot has started work on a Kaleidoscopic history of the 80s yet!?

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