Francis Wheen

Francis Wheen explores the history of the 1970s. He began the decade as a schoolboy at Harrow, and he relives his experience of auditioning for the honour of singing the new boy’s solo at Churchill’s Songs, a process he describes as a “posh X-Factor”. It was future Prime Minister Ted Heath who conducted the orchestra, and Wheen goes on to discuss Heath’s chaotic early 1970s government. In the 25 years preceding Heath’s government, there were two states of emergency declared in Britain (in 1955 and 1966); during his three-and-a-half-years in charge of the country, Heath declared five. It was around the time of the last state of emergency that Wheen decided to drop-out and move to London, but he soon found out that the counter-culture of the 1960’s had long ended, crushed by the gloom of Heath’s almost Dickensian London. Wheen goes on to relate stories such as how William Armstrong, the head of the Civil Service, once gathered all of his staff together and told them to go home and prepare for Armageddon, how former Labour MP John Stonehouse unsuccessfully faked his own death, and former Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s mental decline. Overall, Wheen explains how the 1970s was a decade when the remarkable became unremarkable.