03 July 2007
The Last Summer
This posting has been inspired by a one over at Neil Clark's blog. There, Neil took issue with a writer who claimed that the pre-Callaghan years were a time of squalor. It occurred to me then, and I commented on this to Neil, that once we are dead, nonsense like this would become the standard text. We need to write our own memoirs of the time before the cataclysm.
It was going to be a very hot summer, that much was obvious by the April of 1976. Spring just didn't arrive that year, as we went from winter to summer without even a pause. My first memory of that time is of how I decided, in about the April, that looking for a job could wait: this weather was something special and I didn't want anything tedious like work getting in the way of my enjoyment of it.
I had been made redundant the month before, but that was not a problem. We had a thing called earnings related benefit that was paid on top of the dole for the first six months of unemployment. The amount of the benefit depended upon the wage earned, hence the name, and since I earned about £25 a week, my ERB was quite high. So there I was, still only 19 years old, with redundancy money jangling in my pocket, and a long hot summer to enjoy. I decided to get a job when either the summer, or my money, ended. Luckily for me they both coincided...
We need to remember that Britain had a social wage in those days. Basically you did your hours at some job or other. As everyone else did the same this meant that council house rents were cheap, buses were frequent and cost coppers to ride, and all manner of services such as gas, electricity and the telephone that today cost an arm and leg, then cost next to nothing.
Of course, for those who wanted to arse-lick their way up the corporate ladder, things were not quite so rosy. The more money you earned the more income tax you paid. Government revenue in those days came mainly from direct taxation, so those creatures ended up paying quite a wack. To make make matters even nicer, inflation was high, but we had strong unions that ensured regular pay rises. The employers' men didn't, but they could console themselves with the fact that they were "staff" and not "workers". As I used to like pointing out, being staff and having 25p in the pocket would get them a pint of bitter. For some reason they never enjoyed my humour as much as my mates did.
Who in his right mind would not have wanted to be a young working man during the summer of 1976? I took my redundancy pay, signed on the dole every two weeks, and spent the summer drinking beer and chasing women.
One of the women I caught was called Lucy, a lovely Zimbabwean girl who worked as a nurse at Park Hospital in Manchester. I met her one night in a disco, and she told me that she was from Rhodesia. "Don't you mean Zimbabwe," I replied? She gave me a lovely kiss there and then and that was me fixed up.
Lucy lived in a nice, subsidised nurses' home, and ate in the nice subsidised canteen that was provided to the hospital's staff. Getting to visit her was easy. I didn't have a car so I caught a bus into Piccadilly, Manchester, and then another one going out to the hospital. If I stayed too long, but wasn't invited to spend the night, then I used the all night buses to get home. They only ran every hour and cost twice as much as the ordinary service, but they got people to their destinations. Today Manchester does not have all-night buses, so getting around is more difficult without a car.
A couple of years later, when the Callaghan government started to cut back on public services and the bus fares went through the roof, I learned to drive and bought a car. However, that was in the future, and in 1976 I travelled everywhere on cheap public transport.
I remember taking Lucy over to York for a few days. We travelled on the British Rail train which left and arrived on time and the fare was cheap - it had to be, I was signing on, remember?
However, most of the summer was spent relaxing in Piccadilly Gardens, just soaking up the sun and chatting to anyone who wanted to help me kill another beautiful day. Today you would go and sit in a pub's garden, but they scarcely existed in 1976. Pubs in Manchester were working men's swill shops that opened their doors at 11.00am and closed them at 3.00pm. Come 5.30pm they opened up again until 10.30pm - except Fridays and Saturdays when they stayed open until 11.00pm.
However, this did not mean that you could not keep on drinking all night - far from it. Oxford Road Station Approach had a well known drinking club that I used to go in a lot. It opened when the pubs closed and stayed serving until the last customer left, usually at dawn. Just across Oxford Road and behind the Palace Theatre was another drinking dive that catered to the all-afternoon brigade. Both these places got full with shift workers like me, policemen, the local hard men and prostitutes. They were great places to meet interesting people and get sloshed out of your brain.
So the summer went on. That never ending summer. Until one day it started to rain and I decided that it was time to go and get another bastard fucking job. So I did. It took me about a week, and that was me done along with the summer.
There will never be a summer like the summer of 1976 because when it ended something ended in Britain. The notion that you could live well as a working class person, in a society that tried to share its resources fairly, and in which you did not have to bust a ball to earn a buttie, has gone from the popular memory. People may tell their children about how you could change jobs on a whim - they do - but the memory of everything else that we enjoyed has gone. We need to bring that memory back and make it a political demand.
Until that happens, we will never have another summer and the winter that has now lasted for over 30 years will remain.