Get Yer Ya-Yas Out

The 70s are an unloved decade. Even while they were on there weren’t many who proclaimed them a golden age. Looking back the most common reaction of survivors seems to be “Dear God, I actually wore that?” There’s so much more to the 70s than gas shortages and discos. Surely no other decade had so many deeply disturbed individuals playing prominent roles in public life.

Francis Wheen's Strange Days Indeed tells the stories of several of these off-kilter individuals and tells them as they deserve to be told: deadpan and in detail. He offers us a veritable smorgasbord of loony tunes behavior and lets us savior every silly detail. Wheen starts off with a few stories familiar to American readers, such as Nixon’s famous late night trip to the Lincoln Memorial to chat with the protestors. Nixon may be one of the more famous examples of paranoia but for sheer insanity nothing beats the inhabitants of Number 10 Downing Street and their wacky band of cohorts. From the chief civil servant who circumvents imaginary listening devices by conducting meetings in the nude to Prime Minister Wilson, his political secretary Marcia and her all powerful handbag there’s plenty of side-splitting entertainment. The Wilson and Marcia saga may be the most horrifically funny political saga ever, what with Marcia’s fears of being lured unawares into orgies, Wilson’s bizarre acceptance of whatever abuse she threw his way and some staff members wondering if offing Marcia might not be the best for England. There’s are still more crazies – mentalists, Bobby Fischer, the Weather Underground and Red Army Faction, Madame Mao, Idi Amin and on and on.

Wheen has plenty of material and he uses it brilliantly. This isn’t history, however. This is Wheen’s impression of the 70s, his take on events. It is neither comprehensive nor unbiased. Wheen has tangled with the all powerful Marcia before and lost, for instance, so it would be silly to pretend that Wheen is dispassionately reporting events. He makes some assertions that I would prefer to see sourced (like his repeated references to Nixon being a drunk; I’m not disputing this, I’ve simply never read about it before). He also has a habit of referencing fictional works as if they offer unassailable authority. It’s easy for me to forgive these shortcomings because the book is so entertaining and because Wheen admits to knowing by heart all the words to two epically stupid songs. Anyone who can sing Gimme Dat Ding and quote Balzac is entitled to a few foibles.

This is a fun, fast read recommended for anyone who possesses a love of the absurd.

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