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June 2, 2004

memories of London in the seventies

I'm only 37. Almost half the population is older than me. Nevertheless, it's beginning to seem urgent to preserve certain generic memories before they slip away. For example, a hundred million or more Americans can remember as much of the 1970s as I can, but how many can remember being an American kid in London in that era? Sitting on stacks of old volumes in dusty antiquarian bookshops, reading Horatio Hornblower or Enid Blyton under the skeptical eye of the proprietor; wax paper sheets for toilet paper in the icy "gents" rooms--"Property of Her Majesty the Queen" printed on each sheet. On the streets: businessmen still in pinstripes and bowler hats, children in school uniforms, punks with spikes on their scalps, Indian refugees from Uganda, Saudis in white robes.

Standing when a master enters the classroom (a master with the right to cane us); calling other students by their last names. Warm orange "Squash" served to minors in small glasses in the back rooms of Edwardian pubs. Feeding coins into the electric space heater in the bathroom. Wallpaper with heavy raised patterns, deliberately painted white. German Jews from Hampstead and Chalk Farm fill the seats at chamber music concerts. No fast food--only "cafes" with eggs and sausage on the menu, and "Wimpy's" horrible English hamburger chain (the beef tastes cured), and Chinese takeouts that serve a fried egg on top of the rice; then a few Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets ("Do you 'ave them in America, too?"); and then a flood of McDonalds.

Strong accents mark the social classes, none of the more neutral "Thames Valley" dialect that now crosses class lines. Unreconstructed communists in the offices of public utilities frown on a Yankee bourgeois child. Older gents in cloth caps are amazingly proficient--professional, you might say--at boy's hobbies like stamp collecting, model trains, and wargaming with lead "figures." Parochial middle-class Englishness comes face-to-face with cosmopolitan outsiders in the great train stations, airports, and museums. Concorde roars overhead, petrol flows from the North Sea, James Bond is on the big screen: Britain is modern.

Obnoxious Americans upstairs in the double-decker busses. Nothing open on Sundays or evenings--which means waiting forlornly for the bus back to London after every business has closed and all one can see are TVs flickering through lace curtains. Perhaps Carter is on the tube, the US humiliated in Iran. The empty lots of London are bomb sites, cleared by the Germans in 1940. Reinforced concrete rises out of the rubble, surrounding old St. Paul's with brutalist office towers and apartments. Young "mums" with too many kids, chatting in the laundrette. Cadbury's chocolate bars in the Underground. Adventure playgrounds with murals painted by teenagers on the cement walls. Labour isn't working, Mrs. Thatcher, the Common Market, the National Front.

June 2, 2004 12:05 PM | category: none


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