The London Of 1972... According To This Retro Time Out Guide Book

By Maire Rose Connor Last edited 6 months ago
The London Of 1972... According To This Retro Time Out Guide Book

Picture this: it's 1972 in London: the scene of the capital's Ulster Protests, the first official Pride march, and Jesus Christ Superstar's West End debut (cheers, Wikipedia!). You're young, "earning something, though not enough" and living in a flat, or else visiting the city on the budget. How do you go about making the capital your oyster, three decades before the Oyster card made its own debut?

Well, the plucky youths at the then-fledgling Time Out magazine created a guide especially for you.

Nearly half a century after it was published, a dog-eared copy of Time Out's Book of London found its way into one of our favourite hometown haunts, a bookshop-cum-BYOB Thai restaurant. After discovering it during a serendipitous pre-meal sweep of the shelves, the rest of the evening was spent snatching glimpses of the London of yore (at least, according to a few counter-cultural staff writers) in between mouthfuls of massaman and merlot. Here's what we learnt.

1. Gentrification was alive and well

Nowadays, if you live in the likes of Islington, Kentish Town or Camden, chances are you're making decent bank (you have to be raking in around £97.k per year to buy a house in that latter neighbourhood). That wasn't the case back in the '70s, of course, with north London casually referred to as the part "where most of us live". But the times, they were a-changing. After the postwar-property boom "triggered a fervour of redevelopment", the rapid influx of middle-class buyers made areas like these the "most socially volatile" in 1970s London, with rising prices driving out working class locals. Sound familiar?

2. And Time Out knew which way the wind was blowing...

While the book flirts with the idea that the bohemian enclave of Notting Hill — the nearest London comes to New York's Greenwich Village, apparently — is the capital's "centre of gravity", it concludes that this is actually moving eastwards. The closing of the docks had freed up "vast acres for redevelopment" and, by the end of the decade, a new tube line would snake all the way from Stratford to Stanmore, drastically improving connections to and from the East End.

But don't go thinking Time Out's writers would be seen dead here. A "relative — and still selective — affluence" had stripped the area of its old Cockney charm, reducing East End identity to "cars, sharp suits, beehive hairdos, huge entertainment pubs, like plastic palaces, something more individual and more rootless than before, and uglier" — or so the book would (rather snobbishly) have us believe.

"There was an old woman who lived in a shoe until her lease expired and the landlord wanted it back to sell off at a vast profit - the rat."

3. ...up to a point

"If you live in London, you live north of the Thames", Time Out tells us, evidently failing to anticipate the massive influx of negroni-necking media types that would flock to the likes of Peckham, Dulwich, and Camberwell a few decades later.

Yet this is immediately followed by the acknowledgment that a majority of born-and-bred Londoners probably do now reside south of the river. So, Time Out, what are you trying to say? That south London was so woefully underdeveloped that it wasn't really part of the city? Sure, pre-Jubilee Line, Overground and DLR, transport links weren't exactly great but it's far from a cultural wasteland — there's even a hulking great UNESCO world heritage site south of the river.

4. Chelsea is culturally bankrupt

It's not just south London that's subject to Time Out's snark. While "Hampstead has some genuine pretensions to being an intellectual/artistic colony", the notoriously posh neighbourhood of Chelsea apparently "has only frivolous pretensions".

Hang on, what about The Rolling Stones? Mary Quant? Vivienne Westwood's Sex Shop?

"American expatriate professors come out of the first; fashion designers out of the second."

...Ah. So it would seem that the latter calling isn't high brow enough.

Forget rooftop bars, and gimmicky pop ups... all you need is a really good pub

5. Finding love in London has never been easy...

In a chapter called "Clubs and Sex", one writer waxes nostalgic about the days when "if a single girl could walk from Sloane Square to Colville... without being accosted at least 6 times, she thought she was losing her appeal". But such routine sexual harassment was apparently on the decline in the seventies. The men who would pick up women in Biba "by buying them the blouse or dress they came for" had moved on, with courting having "grown colder and more expensive since then". Readers are advised to dip their toes into the discotheque scene, instead.

6. ...But at least you can rely on the capital's food scene

Thanks in no small part to the capital's cultural diversity, there was more to London's food scene in the seventies than powdered mashed potato and prawn cocktails... despite what New York Times writers might think. Time Out provide a helpful guide of kebab etiquette, as well as the proper way to order a curry. You can forget your posh sourdough pizzas, though — according to the book, Pizza Express was your best bet for a decent pie in 1972.

7. The times, they were a-changing

For all its slightly odd takes, the book does have some interesting insights on the capital's evolving infrastructure, particularly when it comes to transport. In 1972, construction on what was then known as the Fleet line — and would eventually launch as the Jubilee line in 1979 — was well underway, and the Piccadilly line's Heathrow extension had been given the green light. Despite these developments, the London Underground was, according to Time Out,"going downhill".

Since the now-defunct Greater London Council (GLC) took control of the capital's public transport network in 1970, fares had "increased enormously", without noticeable service improvement. Even more damning, the GLC is accused of  "actively killing off public transport" through lack of investment. Funds were instead earmarked for the doomed Greater London Development Plan, which would have seen a network of motorways encircle central London and involved the obliteration of Covent Garden's famous piazza.

Thankfully, such plans were eventually abandoned, due in no small part to the efforts of community resistance groups. Nevertheless, change — both good and bad — was afoot. High rises "sprouted up like a diseased bed of asparagus". Somerset House was about to open to the public. And, perhaps most significantly, Britain was poised to join the European Communities, a move that would, eventually, give citizens from all over the EU the freedom to make London their home.

As for Time Out? A second edition was due out the following winter, promising "100 more pages and a few less gaps".

Last Updated 24 April 2019