The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

In these blog posts I’m getting into my time machine and zooming back to 1981. That was the year I went to university in an amazing city. The music. The politics. The vibrancy. It was an incredible place. But there were also huge problems. The riots in the summer of 1981 brought many issues to the surface. And the media struggled to cover it all. As a former print and TV journalist I’m fascinated by just how the media got to grips with a turbulent Britain under Margaret Thatcher.

There was no social media to fan the flames of anger in 1981. But broadcast and newspaper media stood accused in some quarters of ‘glamorising’ the disorders inspiring copycat behaviour.[1] There were requests to newsrooms not to over-report the incidents or sign off with comments like ‘where will it happen next?’

Almost inevitably, that 1970s scourge of television, the campaigner Mary Whitehouse, waded in to claim in the Daily Mail that TV images were fanning the flames of violence. She was incensed at footage of a youth firstly contemplating kicking in a shop window, then doing it and finally calmly deciding what to loot.

“It was that piece of film which finally persuaded me to send a telegram to both the BBC and ITN asking them if they would please consider whether the televising of acts of vandalism and violence did not contribute to the spread of riots by creating excitement, encouragement, imitation and actually teaching the techniques of violence.”[2]

Whitehouse went on to quote Tony Cliff, the founder of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) who had bemoaned the insignificant influence his ultra-left sect had exercised over the rioters. “It was only extensive television coverage and not the SWP itself that has managed to spread the riots in Britain”, Whitehouse concluded.[3]

Faced with a hail of criticism after the summer of riots, the BBC and Independent Broadcasting Authority commissioned a report from Howard Tumber of the British Film Institute.[4] He conducted interviews with youth, police and broadcasters concluding that TV had played a minor role in influencing behaviours and attitudes among urban teenagers.[5] Less than 10% of 12 to 19-year olds surveyed watched television news and so were not avidly following reports of riots around the UK.

The media took flak from all sides. Politicians accused TV news in particular of fanning the flames. The police were disgruntled by a decade of investigative reporting into 1970s policing that cast them in a less than positive light. And the rioters themselves attacked journalists who they perceived as a tool of the establishment and not merely chroniclers of events.

The media landscape in 1981 was very different. TV was restricted to a duopoly of the BBC and ITV with Channel Four still eighteen months away. The broadsheet and tabloid newspapers featured most of the titles that still dominate today but arguably with far greater influence, especially tabloids like The Sun and The Daily Mirror. There was no social media let alone cable TV or rolling news channels. Instead, there was a thriving market in print magazines and periodicals covering every subject under the sun.

Having worked for five years as a BBC News producer in the 1990s, we all operated to a big thick bible of editorial guidelines. Not many people read it cover to cover but the gist was obvious. A gung-ho, gonzo-style approach to journalism was not the Corporation’s ethos. Coming from a print background and having freelanced for the tabloids on occasion, I was berated early on for my use of sensationalist verbs like “smash” and “crash”. Language and content had to be sober.

The new media technology of the 1980s was ENG: Electronic News Gathering. The term was used throughout the 80s and 90s in the way that “digital” was employed for a while in the early 21st century when it still enjoyed novelty status. The riots were an ideal test of ENG technology and its superiority over film, which had to be returned to base and processed before it could be broadcast.

Undeniably, from journalists I have spoken to, there was a frisson of excitement over this test of ENG and whether crews could now better keep pace with events. It was even possible to broadcast live on the scheduled evening news bulletins (this was before rolling news channels) but the BBC was averse to showing any footage until it had been filtered by an experienced journalist.

The downside of ENG became obvious pretty quickly. If a rioter who disliked the media brought an iron bar crashing down on part of the equipment, the ability to get content back to the newsroom was impaired if not impossible. Tumber in his report noted one night of the Toxteth riots where BBC coverage was noticeably lighter because rioters had broken some of the ENG equipment.

The BBC made a point of sending in experienced production crews to cover the 1981 riots who had already done tours of duty in Northern Ireland, where the “Troubles” were in full swing.[6] But even newsroom editors were shocked when crews began to phone in to report that their cars had been vandalised, equipment destroyed and reporters and camera operators attacked.[7]

One news editor remarked:

“The danger of working in certain areas was something even thirteen years of working in Northern Ireland had not prepared us for”.[8]

The BBC in particular were seen by many rioters as part of the ‘establishment’ as opposed to being impartial reporters. At the same time, the police were complaining of two years of ‘biased’ TV coverage of their operations since the controversial tactics used in the 1979 Southall riots that contributed to the death of New Zealand schoolteacher, Blair Peach.[9]

But hostility to the media wasn’t just reserved for the BBC. Independent TV news crews were also subject to attack during the riots, as were print journalists. In 1981, TV and print newsrooms were heavily unionised and so the actions of the rioters were viewed in a dim light by many in the labour movement. Possibly as many of the rioters had never worked, through no fault of their own, they hadn’t imbibed the values of trade union and class solidarity.

Journalists felt as if they were in a war zone. Even the trendy, left leaning New Musical Express (NME) encountered a wall of hostility in Toxteth when it visited to take the temperature. The NME was required reading for any hip and Thatcher-hating youth circa 1981. In a pre-digital age when musical artists had tremendous influence over our lives, the NME and the other music press (Melody Maker, Sounds, Record Mirror, etc) were devoured every week by teenagers.

What David Bowie or Paul Weller had to say about the state of the world was deemed to have earth shattering significance. For us, the advent of punk in 1976 wasn’t just a change in musical fashion but an existential moment for our generation where we declared a kind of Year Zero purging our record collections of pre-1976 impurity. The NME, like the party mouthpiece in a Stalinist dictatorship, told us what was acceptable, and we obeyed slavishly.

NME reporters indulged the patience of their readership with very long thought pieces and interviews peppered with philosophical references to the likes of Carl Jung or Jean-Paul Sartre. And the political stance of the paper was resolutely anti-Margaret Thatcher. But in Toxteth, the NME found no deference.

That August as the riots simmered down, a team from the NME went to the area to find out what exactly had happened. They interviewed a woman called Anna sitting amidst a pile of rubble that had once been “Anna’s Fruit Shop”.[10] Anna was one of those retailers in Toxteth referred to by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher whose reaction to footage of the riots was:

“Oh, those poor shopkeepers!”[11]

Anna told the NME:

“They’ve just created more unemployment by putting shopkeepers and their workers on the dole. They haven’t hurt the police – it’s just their own community that they’ve destroyed.”[12]

The NME spoke to the police and were even-handed in their reporting repeating police allegations they had been spat at and called ‘pigs’ to provoke a response from officers during the riots. A garage attendant remarked stoically to the NME that “there’s good and bad on both sides”.

Then things turned uglier for the team as they went to talk to members of the Liverpool 8 Defence Committee. This was an alliance of community organisations based in the area.The reception at the Caribbean Community Centre was decidedly frosty with one individual telling the NME: “no white press in here”[13].

About twenty local youth then surrounded the NME team and asked why they only visited when there was trouble. They also berated the paper for only promoting white bands from Merseyside like Echo and the Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes. The reporter’s car bonnet was now being used as a trampoline and the team was being frisked by pickpockets. Then one individual articulated the hatred they felt for the visitors:

“You come into a trouble-torn area with your fancy cameras on your back an’ your slick tape recorders an’ fire questions a black people under pressure. An’ then you wonder why they want to hit you over the head an’ steal your equipment an’ leave you on the ground.”[14]

The reporter described his team as being “white boys in the wrong part of town” and the NME beat a hasty retreat from Toxteth.

As Tumber concluded in his report, young people were getting their news about the riots in informal settings like pubs or on the street. I recall first hearing about the July Brixton riot sitting in a pub in north-east London. A friend, Lisa, ran screaming into the bar demanding we accompany her down to Brixton to retrieve her parked car. After hearing what was going on, we decided to order another pint instead.

Pubs played a much more central role in the lives of young people in the early 1980s. In Liverpool, pubs were known to cater for different youth age bands. Mid-teens knew which landlords would turn a blind eye while later teens would drink in different establishments. There were also under the radar drinking clubs, some of which were clearly not licensed. I recall one being above a derelict menswear shop in the city centre that involved ringing a doorbell, walking past the naked mannequins and going up the stairs at the back.

It was in venues like those and on the streets that information circulated. CB Radio has been cited as playing a role with repeated accounts of “omnipresent hooded motorcyclists with citizens’ band radios[15]”. Even chalked messages on walls were a reported means of communication. To give a snapshot of life before smartphones, I recall being on a bus in Liverpool in 1983 when a youth I didn’t recognise sidled up to me:

“You’re in Militant aren’t ya?”


“Yeah thought so, seen ya before. There’s a rally on tonight. TGWU building.”

And that is how information was shared rapidly between political activists, let alone rioters, in the pre-digital age. Unlike Mary Whitehouse, we were not seated in front of our TVs taking notes during the 5.40pm early evening BBC1 news bulletin.

[1] Peplow, Simon, ‘Race and Riots in Thatcher’s Britain (Racism, Resistance and Social Change)’, Manchester University Press, 2019

[2] Whitehouse, Mary, ‘Images that fan the flames of violence’, Daily Mail, 14 July 1981

[3] Ibid: ‘Images that fan the flames of violence’

[4] Ibid: ‘Race and Riots in Thatcher’s Britain’

[5] Tumber, Howard, ‘Television & the Riots’, British Film Institute, 1982

[6] Ibid: ‘Televsion & the Riots’

[7] Ibid: ‘Television & the Riots’

[8] Ibid: ‘Television & the Riots’

[9] Ibid: ‘Television & the Riots’

[10] Duffy, Mick, ‘Life in the War Zone’, New Musical Express, 8 August 1981

[11] Young, Hugo, ‘One of Us’, Pan Books, 1989

[12] Ibid: ‘Life in the War Zone’

[13] Ibid: ‘Life in the War Zone’

[14] Ibid: ‘Life in the War Zone’

[15] Unworth, Clive, ‘The Riots of 1981: Popular Violence and the Politics of Law and Order’, Journal of Law and Society, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1982, pp. 63.85

In these blog posts, I’m casting my mind back to my first year at university in Liverpool. I arrived in the aftermath of the Toxteth riots and a city in ferment. Can’t deny it was very exciting. But it was also a time of massive poverty and sky-high rates of unemployment as well as shocking racism.

For us students, moving out of the halls of residence at the end of the first year normally meant living on the outskirts or slap bang in the middle of Toxteth. Flats were cheap and it was close to the university. The added attraction were the speakeasy-style drinking clubs in collapsing Georgian houses with 1960s neon signs over the door.

A group of us went to one club that was actually in mid-demolition with half the walls of what had once been a merchant’s house missing. I recall what passed for the toilets being under a starry sky. Health and safety considerations were largely absent. The names of these drinking establishments, now shut down, reflected the communities they served: Jamaica House, Yoruba, Somali and the Silver Sands.

DISCOVER: Clubbing in Liverpool in the 1980s

Not that students were necessarily welcomed with open arms in the area. There was a widespread antipathy among many Liverpool youth towards “fockin’ shtewdents” who were seen as well-heeled and insensitive to the city’s plight. One friend of mine, who always dressed in the height of fashion at his own peril, was walking down Granby Street when a local resident threw an enormous animal bone at him!

Unemployment was endemic in 1981 Toxteth. It had been steadily climbing throughout the de-industrialisation of the 1970s. But since 1979, the trend had accelerated dramatically.[1] Manufacturing investment had declined by 20% and unemployment had soared. Young people, and especially black youth, had been very hard hit. Even though the official jobless figure in Toxteth was around 30%, being out of work seemed to be the norm[2].

Three months before the riots, five hundred unemployed people had marched from Liverpool to London, invoking memories of the 1930s Jarrow hunger marches.[3] As a sixth former, I went to Hyde Park to cheer the footsore marchers as they arrived at their destination.[4] Later that year, the TUC (Trades Union Congress) organised the Jobs for Youth Campaign, which saw unemployed teenagers travel around the country by train on the so-called Jobs Express holding regional rallies before a lobby of Parliament in London.[5][6]

It wasn’t just economic policy that hit young people in Toxteth but a racism that wasn’t so much institutional as shockingly overt. Bigoted attitudes among employers were a commonplace. After graduating, I applied for a job with a life assurance company near the Liverpool docks and was offered a post.

I asked a bouffant-haired middle-aged ‘yuppie’ in a double-breasted suit why I’d been accepted. There was a bottle of Kouros after shave placed prominently on his desk to indicate his sophistication and class. “You’re not a scouser (slang for a Liverpudlian), a woman or black.” Apparently, none of these categories, he explained in his Cheshire suburban drawl, knew how to handle money. I didn’t show up on the Monday morning.

The epicentre of the Toxteth rioting was within the so-called ‘Granby Triangle’ bounded by Upper Parliament Street, Lodge Lane and Sefton Park Road. Demographics had changed substantially since the Second World War. The middle class had drifted away half a century before to the suburbs. Many working-class families had been rehoused in the new post-war council estates trading in cramped 19th century conditions for more space.

As a result, the Granby area of Toxteth like other parts of the city saw a sharp fall in population with the percentage of BAME families increasing. The nearby Dingle area was still predominantly white working class. Residents in the Dingle tended to chop and change their local identity. As one political activist from the Dingle observed to me: if it was good news then they were the Dingle but if it was bad news, then they became Toxteth.

One notable building left stranded in the area by the departure of its well-heeled clientele was the Liverpool Racquet Club. This institution opened in 1877 with a subscription of five Guineas. Within its walls, there had been two racquets courts and an “American” bowling alley with a billiards room added later and a private dining room.[7] On the 6 July 1981, it went up in smoke at the hands of rioters.

Another landmark targeted by their fury was the former Rialto cinema. In the 1920s, the cinema could seat 1,305 in the stalls and 500 in the balcony.[8] The walls were covered in murals with romantic views of Venice in the auditorium and the Wye valley in the cafe. Under the management of Gaumont British Theatres from 1928, this spacious venue screened Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer” on 4 February 1929.

But as with many cinemas, it struggled after the Second World War and shut its doors in 1964. It subsequently became a furniture warehouse. The tiled hulk of a building, dominating a junction within the Granby Triangle, was razed to the ground by arsonists in the heat of July 1981. It was left in such a poor state that rapid demolition was inevitable. Looking out of the college bus window, we were greeted with an empty space where a grand old cinema had stood.[9]

In the weeks that followed there were all manner of rumours about why certain buildings had been targeted including the Rialto and the Racquet Club. For example, the Rialto was said to have once operated a dance club with a colour bar. This conspiracy theory neglected to point out that at the time of being burned down, the dance club was long gone and there was an employment agency in its basement serving mainly black clients next to a hairdresser specialising in “Afro” styles.

The owner of the furniture warehouse that had taken over the old Rialto building did have his character impugned in post-riot gossip and the Liverpool Wavertree Conservative MP Antony Steen noted darkly to the House of Commons in a debate on the civil disturbance that the warehouse was “owned by a former Tory councillor”[10].

Steen also pointed out that some rioters had journeyed out of Toxteth to smash all the windows at Thatcher’s tea and coffee house, which he had opened in his constituency. This coffee house became a focus for Labour Party Young Socialists’ demonstrations in the early 1980s. While the Tory ladies sliced their Victoria sponge cake and sipped on Earl Grey within, Liverpudlian activists in rubber Thatcher masks gawped and jeered at the windows. These were indeed strange times.

In total, about seventy buildings in Toxteth were utterly destroyed along with about a hundred cars and this mayhem resulted in five hundred arrests. I can’t deny that among the young students staring out of the bus windows, there was a slight frisson of excitement. We had seen the riots on the BBC and ITV news but here was the stark evidence before us.

[1] ‘Unemployment Statistics’, Hansard, 18 November 1981, Web

[2] Cooper, Paul, ‘Competing explanations of the Merseyside Riots of 1981’, The British Journal of Criminology, Vol. 25, No.1, 1985, pp. 60-69

[3] ‘Route of Jarrow marchers’, The National Archives, Web

[4] McMahon, Tony, ‘Political Badges from the 1980s’, Thatcher Crisis Years, 30 August 2014, Web

[5] ‘Britain at Work’, London Metropolitan University, 2012, Web

[6] McMahon, Tony, ‘Sandwiches for the unemployed on the Jobs Express in 1981’, Thatcher Crisis Years, 13 January 2013, Web

[7] ‘The Racquet Club History’, Racquet Club, Web

[8] Roe, Ken, ‘Rialto Theatre’, Cinema Treasures, 13 May 2009, Web

[9] ‘Toxteth Riots 1981 background – and how it all began’, Liverpool Echo, 4 July 2011

[10] Steen, Anthony, ‘Civil Disturbances’, Hansard, 16 July 1981

I went to university in Liverpool in 1981. It was just after the summer of riots that had swept through Toxteth. So, what did I – a middle-class southerner – discover in my first weeks. Well, quite a lot as it goes. In the next few blog posts – I’m going to cast my mind back to those stormy events.

The Toxteth district of the city had been rocked by a summer of riots. Even compared to similar disturbances in Brixton, Moss Side in Manchester and Chapeltown in Leeds, Toxteth stood out for its raw, lethal energy. We were not informed as newly arrived students that police from all over the country had been billeted in our rooms through July and August to put down this huge upheaval.

The duration of the Toxteth riots is notable. The violence began with an arrest on 3 July 1981 rising to a fiery crescendo over the next three days, abating slightly until fighting on the 28 July between rioters and police led to the single fatality. And then a further resurgence up until the 15 August. In contrast, the 2011 summer riots across England were over in under four days.[1] While the 2001 riots had a similar duration but smaller in scale and restricted to northern towns[2].

A total of 690 police support units from forty UK police forces were deployed on the streets of Toxteth during the weeks of rioting. About 781 officers were injured and 214 police vehicles damaged. There were hundreds of arrests and one young man, David Moore, was killed. And for the first time in the UK, CS gas rounds were fired at civilians.[3]

The next morning, still ignorant of a copper having slept in my bed, I boarded a college double decker bus from the Carnatic halls of residence site to the university precinct. Fifteen minutes later we were in Toxteth. We southern, middle class students sat slack-jawed as the bus trundled down Upper Parliament Street. Or what was left of it. It was as if a fiery tornado had ripped down this Victorian boulevard leaving once grand merchants’ residences gutted.

What had happened was relayed to me in anecdotes from local political activists over the next few months as I immersed myself in Liverpool politics. Tales of the young daredevils who drove milk floats at speed into police lines bailing out like James Dean at the last moment. One press report described this spectacle as a wild “dodgem game”.

Glass milk bottles from the same dairy filled with petrol from a nearby car hire outlet, cloth packed in the top and the resulting Molotov cocktails rained down on the riot police. To get close enough to the forces of law and order, a JCB digger was used by the rioters to hide behind before lobbing their fiery missiles. This and the blazing car tyres strewn across the roads as barricades sent a grim pall of smoke over the city.

One police officer shuddered to recall that infamous JCB: “It was like a big metal T-Rex, it was snapping its jaws and I thought ‘we’re not going to stop this’”[4].  He added that “builders spikes” were being hurled like javelins from behind the digger and that one police officer drafted in from Greater Manchester was speared through the leg.

This officer concedes there was a lot of fake news during the 1981 riots. Both rioters and police spread exaggerated or conflicting accounts. The spear that went through the police officer’s leg shot through his head in another account that circulated widely.[5] The officer was told by fellow police that a colleague had been killed, somebody had their legs chopped off and yet another person had been decapitated with a spade.[6] None of these stories were true.

Once on riot duty, the same officer was confronted by a crowd he noted was racially mixed. And by the second night of rioting, “there were very few black faces[7]”. This somewhat contradicts the inflammatory Daily Mail frontpage headline on 6 July 1981 that declared: Black War on Police.[8]

It also calls into question the claim made by Chief Constable Kenneth Oxford that the blame for the bulk of the violence rested with “young, black hooligans” though in the same breath and the same issue of the Daily Mail, Oxford conceded that white youth were also involved and that “this was not a racial issue”.[9]

Oxford was keen to differentiate Toxteth from Brixton and Southall, playing down the idea that there had been a race riot. “There was certainly no confrontation between black and white”.

DISCOVER: Toxteth riot aftermath – university students attacked

Oxford alighted on a “small hooligan and criminal element hell-bent on confrontation”. Liverpool did not have an immigration problem, he added, as the black community was long established. The same point was made by Home Secretary William Whitelaw in response to Conservative Party hardliners who wanted tough anti-immigration measures and even repatriation of ‘New Commonwealth’ immigrants after the riots.[10]

However, no matter how well-established the black community of Toxteth was, it was by no means fully integrated into the rest of the city. What struck me in my first few months in Liverpool, especially coming from London, was the absence of black faces in the main central pedestrian precinct either as shoppers or behind shop counters. There seemed to be an invisible line drawn between Toxteth and the centre of the city, a twenty-minute walk away, segregating the population on racial lines.

The late Margaret Simey, a City councillor for a Toxteth ward in the 80s, echoed this concern. She wrote that not only were there no black faces in the middle of the city but that some of her fellow councillors representing suburban Liverpool couldn’t point to Toxteth on a map. The area and its population were simply invisible to them.[11]

[1] ‘UK shaken by worst riots in decades’, Press Association, 9 August 2011, Web

[2] ‘Bradford counts cost of riot’, BBC News, 8 July 2001

[3] Scraton, Phil, ‘Power, Conflict and Criminalisation’, Routledge, UK, 2007, pp. 26-28

[4] ‘Merseyside Police officer recalls 1981 Toxteth Riots’, BBC News, 3 July 2011, Web

[5] Kettle, Martin, Hodges, Lucy, ‘Uprising! Police, the People and the Riots in Britain’s Cities’, Macmillan, 1982, UK

[6] Ibid: ‘Merseyside Police officer recalls 1981 Toxteth Riots’

[7] Ibid: “Merseyside Police officer recalls 1981 Toxteth Riots’

[8] ‘Black War on Police’, Daily Mail, 6 July 1981

[9] Ibid: ‘Black War on Police’

[10] Vivekanandan, B., ‘Riots in Britain: An Analysis’, India Quarterly, Vol. 38, No.1, 1982, pp. 51-63

[11] Nassy Brown, Jacqueline, ‘Dropping Anchor, Setting Sail: Geographies of Race in Black Liverpool’, Princeton University Press, 1st Edition, 2005, pp. 81-85

1982 riot

So here we are in 2022. Some of us may be surprised we made it this far. And of course, there are those of our loved ones who didn’t for various reasons. Let’s climb into the Thatcher Crisis Years time machine and find out what was happening forty years ago because 1982 was quite a year.

I was at university in Liverpool finishing my first year and looking forward to my second. The city had experienced a tumultuous summer of riots the year before. The Labour Party was making electoral gains and in 1983 would topple the Liberal-Conservative coalition that had run Liverpool for several years. The music scene was incredible though some of the youth fads from the turn of the decade like the New Romantics and 2Tone were past their peak. We were in the midst of synth-driven pop, which as a keyboard player satisfied me greatly. But guitars would be back soon enough.

1982 event: The Falklands War

The political event that would dominate the first half of 1982 was the Falkands War. In April, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands which was a British overseas territory in the south Atlantic. Argentinian troops had also occupied the neighbouring South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands. The unfolding of this drama was a little surreal to be honest. Not since the Suez crisis, before I was born, had we seen this kind of military adventure – so it was all very odd. Suddenly, friends on campus became flag waving patriots. I was even called an Argie at one point (I’m half Portuguese – we’re not Argentinian).

The war gave UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher a big boost in the polls and undoubtedly contributed to her winning the 1983 general election. I canvassed on the doorsteps during that election for Labour and was depressed to detect the very obvious positive impact the war had for Thatcher. Working class families had sent sons and daughters off to the south Atlantic and were hardly going to take a balanced or nuanced view of the conflict.

The left tied itself in knots. Labour leader Michael Foot tried to support the war without sounding too bellicose but ending up appearing indecisive. Some on the ultra-left became cheer leaders for Argentina – somehow ignoring the fact it was ruled then by a military junta that had crushed democracy, human rights and the labour movement in that country. But these ultra-lefts took the view that the enemy at home – Thatcher – was the worst of two evils. Aside from brushing the Argentine junta’s crimes under the carpet, it also ignored the uncomfortable fact that 99% of Falkand Islanders wanted to remain in the UK.

Since the Tories had won the UK general election in 1979, they had known nothing but crisis and lagged Labour in the polls. Now, they surged and Thatcher milked the war for every drop of positive PR she could get. That included overseeing a victory parade in London when Argentina was defeated.

1982 event: the SDP on the rise

As if that wasn’t bad enough for Labour, the newly formed Social Democratic Party (SDP), set up by Labour renegades, was overtaking Labour in the polls. On 25 March, former Labour grandee and Home Secretary Roy Jenkins won Glasgow Hillhead for the SDP in a shock result. The polls never translated into seats for the SDP but in 1982, they were giving their former party a scare.

As a Labour activist in Liverpool, I was surrounded by people who despised the SDP. Some Liverpool MPs had defected to the SDP at its formation in 1981. These included James Dunn in Liverpool Kirkdale, Eric Ogden in Liverpool West Derby and Richard Crawshaw in Liverpool Toxteth. The latter was held in particular contempt. I can still hear Liverpudlian Labour activists uttering his name with that scouse drawl – Craaawwww- shaw. Given the Labour Party’s shift to the left, these gentlemen were more than likely facing deselection and jumped before being unceremoniously pushed.

DISCOVER: The turbulent Labour Party of the 1980s

1982 event: unemployment still climbing upwards

The economy was slowly emerging from a recession that had decimated manufacturing industry. But unemployment, always a lagging indicator, was still climbing up to levels not seen since the 1930s. Nobody believed the official figure of around three million. In some parts of the countries, being out of work seemed to be the norm. Young people were especially badly hit.

I taught adults basic literary skills at a community centre in the Scotland Road area of the city three years later and found people in their 20s and 30s who believed they would never hold a paying job again. It’s hard to convey how overwhelming mass unemployment was at that time and the way it affected millions of people psychologically – let alone economically. It just seemed as if anything approaching full employment would never be seen again.

1982 event: the Queen’s LGBT bodyguard

Attitudes on LGBT rights were pretty dreadful at the time. 1982 saw a major scandal when the Queen’s bodyguard Michael Trestrail was forced to resign over a relationship with a male prostitute. The 52-year old stepped down after 16 years of service and became the subject of media mockery. The Home Secretary William Whitelaw was required to give all the salacious details to parliament as they were going to leak anyway.

A subsequent inquiry cleared Trestrail of accusations that he had compromised palace security. This was a common slur thrown at gay men – that their sexuality posed a threat to the security of the realm. Homosexuality doesn’t make anybody less patriotic of course. The real problem was blackmail made possible by widespread homophobia. But in 1982, it was the fault of gay men for leading a “double life” and not other people’s bigotry. Take into consideration that we hadn’t yet sunk into the full horror of AIDS at this point – though it was on the horizon – nor Thatcher’s Clause 28 legislation.

1982 event: Arthur Askey dies

Liverpool comedian Arthur Askey died in 1982 (born 1900). A relic from the music hall era and early years of talking pictures. In his later life, Askey had both legs amputated due to poor blood circulation. I remember this because as a money-conscious student, I went to a very dodgy butcher in Liverpool to buy some mince for a chilli con carne I intended to cook for my housemates. The butcher had three grades of mince. I asked what they were. “This is finest cuts,” the butcher pointed at the most expensive mince, “and this is ordinary mince,” he indicated a cheaper variety and then jabbing his finger at the cheapest, he revealed “and this is Arthur Askey’s legs”. Courageously I bought the late Mr Askey’s legs.

We worry today about various kinds of extreme Right activity – especially online. The impact it has on young people. The divisions it creates in communities. The violence it inspires. During the 1970s, British fascism experienced a horrific upsurge on the back of rising unemployment and fears stoked around immigration. It offers a lot of sobering lessons to us today.

Looking back at the 1970s (in my teens in the late 70s), I have to remind myself that we were only thirty years away from the end of the Second World War. All my head teachers (or “headmasters” as they would have insisted on being called in those days) had fought in the war against Hitler. Born in the 1920s, they were scarred by the experience of the Great Depression and had witnessed Europe fall under the heel of fascism. And yet – despite that strong memory of the war and Hitler – the 1970s saw a very marked revival in fascist activity.

Exit Oswald Mosley

Of course, it had never gone away. Oswald Mosley was the leading light of British fascism from the 1930s to the 1960s. Younger audiences will have been introduced to him via the drama series Peaky Blinders. A hugely ambitious figure who got into parliament as a Conservative, crossed the floor to become a Labour MP before setting up a semi-militarised fascist party. Mosley’s dangerous charisma was never matched by the oddballs who came after him.

The emergence in the 1960s of new figures like Colin Jordan has been dramatised by the BBC recently in another series, Ridley Road. Two of Jordan’s lieutenants would go on to become almost household names in the 1970s: John Tyndall and Martin Webster. The gaunt Tyndall and obese Webster could have been mistaken for Laurel and Hardy on a foggy day. But there was nothing very amusing about them. To terrifying effect, they managed to briefly unite British fascism around one party: the National Front (NF).

DISCOVER: The NF in Bradford in the 1970s

Tyndall and his ‘youthful indiscretion’

Born in 1934, Tyndall was a grammar school boy with a patchy academic record who served in the Royal Horse Artillery between 1952 and 1954. In 1962 he was convicted and served six months in prison after a police raid on the offices of the National Socialist Movement, a Hitlerite group of which Tyndall was national organiser. Evidence was discovered that Tyndall and others were involved in building a paramilitary organisation plotting violent attacks.

Tyndall in the 1970s would brush this aside as a youthful indiscretion.

DISCOVER: Southall riot in 1981 began with skinhead gig

Tyndall and Webster take over British fascism in the 1970s

Compared with far right political groups today, the NF was stridently white supremacist, anti-Semitic and vehemently opposed to feminism and LGBT rights. Its tactics veered from provocative demonstrations laced with violence to participation in local and national elections. Their overtly racist message was bolstered by the so-called ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech delivered by the maverick Conservative politician Enoch Powell with dire predictions of what would happen if Britain became a multi-racial society.

And one issue was a godsend – the admission of thousands of people of south Asian descent from the former British colony of Uganda, in east Africa in 1972. President Idi Amin ordered a massive expulsion of the Asian population as part of a xenophobic Uganda for the Ugandans campaign. Ironically, the response of the NF wasn’t a million miles from Idi Amin’s position! Just replace Uganda with Britain.

Their virulent stance on the Ugandan Asians saw the NF win 18% of the vote in Leicester – ironically a city that would be transformed (positively) by…..Ugandan Asian businesses.

Much of the NF’s propaganda was echoed in the tabloid press – not because journalists or media proprietors were NF supporters but for the simple reason that newspapers fed their readers’ prejudices and in those days, comments that would now be unacceptable or even illegal, were read by millions of people.

The NF, though, took the prevalent racism of the time to new lows. In one pamphlet, they claimed that British Asian families living in London burned their dead and scattered the ashes on the Thames “while British families picnicking on the banks looked on in amazement” (sic). And that Nigerians were running a cannibal’s kitchen in North Kensington. The NF also had no qualms about spreading discredited theories about the supposed intelligence of different races. Some of the NF’s visuals on posters are still shocking today.

Europe, hanging and ‘spongers

In the mid-1970s, there was growing anxiety as post-war economic growth faltered. Unemployment began to soar and inflation climbed upwards created a very 1970s phenomenon: ‘stagflation’ = inflation + stagnation. The NF responded with populist slogans calling for a ‘crack down on law and order’, ‘bring back hanging’ and ‘stop the sponging on social security’. Many NF supporters were on the dole in the late 70s but they never regarded themselves as ‘spongers’. That term was reserved for non-white Britons claiming benefits.

The NF also adopted a fiercely anti-Europe stance as the UK voted in 1975 on whether to join the Common Market (forerunner of the European Union). The vote went in favour in stark contrast to the 2016 Brexit referendum on Europe. Much of the language used by the NF on Europe wouldn’t look that out of place today. It’s sadly moved into the mainstream.

Despite becoming in effect the fourth political party in the UK after the Conservatives, Labour and Liberals, the NF was constantly riven by tensions within its own organisation. Whether to favour street-based intimidation over elections. And conflict between those who were more overtly Nazi (in private) hankering for a global fascist order versus ultra-nationalists.

Splits and the British Movement

From the mid-1970s, those who liked their fascism more in tune with the Third Reich and with a jackbooted edge, gravitated to the British Movement (BM). The BM had no interest in running for elections and losing deposits. Its British Patriots Publications propaganda arm produced a catalogue in 1980 with the Nazi slogan, misspelt: ‘Eind Volk, Eind Reich, Eind Fuhrer’. Predictably it sold copies of the anti-Semitic Tsarist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Hitler’s autobiographical rant, Mein Kampf.

The BM arguably more closely resembled the white supremacist organisations that typically get banned in the United Kingdom and United States today. It engaged in Holocaust denial and was very active in recruiting among white skinhead youth. Having seen the success of the political left in harnessing music and pop culture to oppose fascism during the 1970s (the Anti-Nazi League, Rock Against Racism), it set out to do the same on the post-punk skin scene.

On the even more violent fringe, the UK saw two other groups emerge in the 1970s, Column 88 and SS Wotan.

It’d be lovely to say that this is all ancient history – but as we are only too aware, it’s definitely not.

Boomers 80s

This is a fascinating interview below (see video) with a group of young people on Irish TV in 1983. They would have been born in the early to mid 1960s and like many working class youth in the 80s were out of work and bored senseless. This busts the myth I hear so often today that all young Boomers in the 80s were rolling in wealth, shares, property and opportunity. Some were. Many were not.

Listening to the first chap – the punk – is a strong flashback to the time. He and his mates looked different and so got barred from pubs and clubs – and “discotheques”. Unable to socialise indoors, they’d hang out in a public place and then be reported to the cops as a nuisance. Many youth centres and community venues were the victim of cutbacks in local government spending. So, that option for going out had disappeared. There was a single pub that they could drink in without ending up in a fight.

It’s noticeable that two of the young people are unemployed with clearly no prospect of finding work. The punk guy just seemed to be housebound most of the time and with no money. He was living on about eight pounds a week after giving some of his dole money to his mother. That kind of financial constraint would now be hell on earth but was pretty common at the time.

Teenagers didn’t spend that much on clothes – a tenner a year the punk says – and there was a ‘make do and mend’ mentality. Things were just worn until they fell apart. Although the mod and the fashion student clearly cared more about their appearance but it would have been done on a minimal budget. I remember people relied a lot more on second hand clothes shops, which aren’t really a feature of the high street as they once were.

Attitudes to parents were rather cold and distant by today’s standards. Asked about his Mum, the punk says he has no significant feelings towards her other than the fact that she’s his Mum. Though he does love her.

80s young Boomers – aggro on the streets

What’s very sad is the aggression that these young people faced over the way they dressed. Being a Goth or a punk or a Mod in the early 80s was a green light for some thugs to go into attack mode. The violence was just insane. In the 80s, we wrote it off as being a tribal fashion thing. But looking back, I think there was a weird mix of homophobia, sadism and just outright thuggishness. Born to a degree from the much more macho culture around masculinity. Anybody challenging gender stereotypes was living dangerously in 1983.

And officialdom was so weirdly patronising and insulting. The TV presenter here struggles with the idea of nose studs, make up and dyed hair. Young Boomers in the 80s had to contend with a previous generation that was had gone through national service in the army or even fought in the Second World War. Many thought we should also have forced on to a parade ground to sort us out. There was still very much a “get yer ‘air cut” attitude from older people.

DISCOVER: Irish skinheads, rude boys and punks

But what’s very noticeable is that the fashion student for example is clearly a bright and talented chap with a dry sense of humour who refuses to be reduced to a figure of fun. Like the others, they’re effectively on trial as freaks to be mocked by a mass audience. Even despite the fact they were basically unemployed young Boomers struggling to lead purposeful lives. Personally I find it quite sad to watch – be interested to know what you think.

I’d also like this TV clip and other posts on the blog to once and for all explode this nonsense that all Boomer youth had it good in the 80s. The reality was way more mixed and nuanced.

financial scandals Thatcherism

From 1989 for five years I worked as a financial journalist full-time on a magazine called Money Week – and also freelanced for the national newspapers. Half a decade of sleaze being shared by contacts over lunches in swanky restaurants. It was a great time to be an investigative hack doing business stories. Because the end of the 1980s saw a slew of financial scandals – a somehow fitting epilogue to Thatcherism.

Every week in a column on page three of the magazine, we’d list a grim tally of independent financial advisers (IFAs) being ‘terminated’, suspended or under investigation for mis-selling financial services products or worse. The procession of the shamed never seemed to end. And there were several epic financial scandals that seemed to define the era of Thatcherism.

The collapse of the Barlow Clowes investment scam in 1988 was a case in point. It saw over 14,000 investors defrauded of about £153m. His trial was still ongoing during my first years in journalism until his conviction and imprisonment in 1992. With the money he made, Clowes bought a yacht, four personal jets, a helicopter, a chateau in France and a farm in the Peak District. So 1980s!

This was one of several major frauds exposed largely when the stock market tanked in 1987. What characterises all these stories was the credulity of not only investors but many journalists, commentators and City of London folk. Everybody wanted to believe that the 1980s presented a new paradigm where fantastic wealth could be magically conjured up.

DISCOVER: Inflation and unemployment under Thatcher

Another feature of these scandals was the Thatcher government’s reticence to entertain the idea of compensating investors. Very much in keeping with the time the attitude was: caveat emptor. You wanted to make money. You took a risk. You lost your money. Yah boo sucks! Furious investors – many of them Tory voters in the shires and Home Counties – soon prevailed on the government that not compensating them would have consequences.

This mis-selling of duff products extended far down into the population. One good example was endowment mortgages. These were very mainstream products. You took out an interest only mortgage and alongside, this savings product that would not only pay off the capital sum on your house in 25 years but leave you with an additional payout for your retirement.

It also earned financial advisers additional commission and they sold this guff with predictions of future investment growth based on an eternally booming – or at least robust – stock market. Not that these advisers were being fraudulent. Many had a shaky grasp of the financial complexities or just blindly sold the products on offer to them. It was easy money. Why rock the boat?

DISCOVER: The De Lorean scandal

In retrospect, some now blame the regulators for not requiring them to warn their own clients of the risks. Like they would have thanked the regulators at the time! You tend to find those pointing an accusing finger at the regulators of that period also bemoan ‘red tape’.

The legacy of Thatcherism was self-regulation – which the industry had demanded – but didn’t seem to realise that meant taking responsibility for the quality of their own advice. You can’t have it both ways – light touch regulation then blaming the regulators for not being tough enough!

Of course much of this could have been avoided with a decent regulatory system. Three years before in 1986, the Thatcher government had passed the Financial Services Act (FSA). Ideally that would have created a statutory regulator to monitor the industry. But ‘self-regulation’ was the mantra of Reaganism and Thatcherism and instead of one super-regulator, the financial services industry got five (or more) ‘self-regulatory organisations’ (SROs).

Of course the financial services sector, while chaffing under even this light touch regulation, declared it was better than a stricter rules-based approach. The sort of approach – shudder – that was employed in the United States. Many dreamed of the good old days when City folk told their clients that “my word is my bond”. But the deregulation that followed the so-called ‘Big Bang‘ in the City of London in 1986 created a whole new environment. The world of bowler hats and gentlemanly agreements was well and truly over.

FIND OUT MORE: Britain in the era of nationalised industries

And so the mis-selling of personal pensions, endowment mortgages and inappropriate products continued. I covered one story at the start of the 1990s about a hard-sell financial services firm luring police officers out of their very generous pension scheme and into a much shakier private personal pension with all sorts of promises. They even hired police officers to sell to fellow officers.

Even though the FSA brought light-touch regulation, many financial advisers deeply resented it. The SROs became variously figures of contempt or hatred. They’d be accused of knowing nothing about the industry. While at the same time, industry practitioners bitterly resisted attempts to introduce mandatory financial exams. The reason was obvious enough – many of them would have failed.

The aftershock of the financial scandals that rocked the end of the era of Thatcherism are still being felt today. Defenders of the Thatcher model even claim the City was in fact over-regulated – and that was the real root of the problem. Go figure! Industry voices deny there was mis-selling of financial services products. They say this is a gross misrepresentation of the facts.

And defenders of the era, point to the rapid expansion of the financial services sector, filling the gap left by the collapse of manufacturing earlier in the 1980s. That rebalancing of Britain towards financial services is heralded as a British success story.

Undoubtedly, Big Bang left the City of London as the world’s leading financial centre alongside New York. But it’s also left a heap of questions about what kind of country we became, the distribution of wealth and how we treat our fellow human beings. It’s also left millions of people unwilling or unable to invest as they once did in what were assumed to be rock solid investment products.

Labour Party 1980s

Let’s get in a time machine and go back forty years to the Labour Party of the 1980s and see how it compares with today’s infighting!

I joined the Labour Party in 1981. Like many teenagers I was on a quest to define myself. I grew up in what was then a very Conservative suburb of London. Woodford Green had been Winston Churchill’s constituency and we even had a statue on the green to prove it. Although, by a curious irony, his Labour opponent Clement Attlee lived in the same constituency. As did the communist suffragette, Sylvia Pankhurst.

Today, the London borough of Redbridge is a Labour council with two out of the three constituencies in Labour hands. But back in 1979, Maggie ruled the borough. So when I first decided I wasn’t a Tory, I opted for the Liberal Party. That was before it became the Lib Dems.

As a middle class boy with radical leanings, I needed to find a political home. On the one hand, I didn’t like Thatcher and on the other hand, Labour had been in power since 1974 and implemented a programme of austerity and cuts. The Liberals – especially the Young Liberals – had a progressive, radical veneer and that won me over for a while.

It didn’t make me long to realise I’d made a mistake. The Liberals in reality were a coalition of middle class Tories, who for various reasons couldn’t bring themselves to be in the Conservative party, and libertarian lefties who found the Labour Party too authoritarian. The latter faction expended vast amounts of ink and hot air trying to synthesise William Gladstone and the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin. The Young Liberal publication, Liberator, seemed to be in the hands of ageing hippies – which offended my punk/New Wave sensibilities. I eventually decided they were talking bollocks.

DISCOVER: How the 1979 general election changed history

Starting the 80s by joining the Labour Party

Making the leap to Labour was quite a big deal for me back then as Thatcherite Toryism was very much in the ascendant. I was invited by a friend to attend the Epping Forest branch of the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS). What I didn’t realise was that the LPYS at that time was firmly under the control of the Militant – a Marxist group within the Labour Party. That wasn’t a problem. In fact, it made the transition easier. I was able to join the Labour Party while simultaneously hating the old guard in charge who’d been in government between 1974 and the general election defeat in 1979.

Like many people at the end of the 1970s, I wanted to find big answers. We’d been through a stormy decade. Oil crisis, balance of payments crisis, trade deficit crisis, labour relations crisis and a Labour Prime Minister who famously grumbled “crisis, what crisis”. 1979 completed the shit-fest with the country nosediving into a vicious recession. And everybody who thought deeply about politics realised the post-war political consensus was over. The only question was whether we would lurch to the left or the right.

So I gravitated quite rapidly in the direction of the Militant. They seemed serious about “the transformation of society” and more down to earth than some of the swivel-eyed ultra-left sects I’d encountered on demonstrations as a teenager. It didn’t take very long to notice that the Labour Party was sliding into an extremely stormy civil war. Before 1981, this centred on the election for the Deputy Leader of the party which pitted left-winger Tony Benn against the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Dennis Healey. This was truly a heavyweight contest.

FIND OUT MORE: When the Labour Party had two rival youth wings

The thrill of the 80s Labour Party

Being a teenager at the time, I wasn’t really up for being in a placid and docile Labour Party. And I wouldn’t be disappointed on that score.

The next five years were spent at conferences where the hatred between right and left in the Labour Party was on vitriolic display. The annual National Organisation of Labour Students conference was normally held at a university though a gladiatorial arena might have been more fitting. At one conference, the police stormed in to carry people out bodily. The proceedings at these combative gatherings would begin with the ritual bureaucratic attempt to exclude certain delegations on a technicality and moved onto debates where nobody really listened to the other side. We were far too busy seething with rage!

It’s in this fiery crucible that today’s Labour leadership was forged. The downside of this is that they still know what they hate (the left of the party) but I’m not sure they ever spent enough time working out what they like. So if you’ve ever wondered why the leadership of the Labour Party seems to lack an underlying philosophy and stirring vision, it’s because they spent their youth beating up the other half of the party. Not that they weren’t anti-Tory – but hammering the Trots was the primary mission objective.

Return of the 80s Labour Party?

The 1980s ended with a purge of the Marxist left and other groups from the Labour Party. We then had the rise of Blairism, which ran in tandem with a recovery of capitalism. The left made a Faustian pact with the City and Wall Street where we said: you make your super-profits, but we’ll skim the top to pay for better welfare and urban investment. But the 2008 recession brought that project to its knees and ten years later we had the Corbyn-led move to the left.

Corbynism was a revival of the kind of Leftism that dominated London Labour politics in the 1980s – centred on identity politics and radical international causes. But weak on bread-and-butter working class issues. Not that there has to be one without the other – as some seem to argue – but you need both.

The Labour Party has moved rightwards under Keir Starmer but there are dark clouds overhead that were absent in the 1980s. Labour no longer commands tribal working class loyalty in its heartlands – unthinkable over thirty years ago. Social democratic parties have been pummelled or even destroyed across Europe by new forces such as the Greens and populist movements. The trade unions no longer support the right wing of the party as they used to but they’re also a diminished force in British society. And young people are politically volatile in a way I’ve never seen.

Maybe the future of the Labour Party is to step out from its 1980s shadow.

celebrity margaret thatcher

Back in 1979, we gritted our teeth as Thatcher won that year’s general election. This was a seismic political shift for Britain. And for those of us on the losing side, there was the spectacle of certain celebrities publicly supporting Margaret Thatcher.

DISCOVER: Anti-Tory art from the early 1980s

Admittedly, they weren’t the coolest celebrities. But there were some surprises. For example….LGBT alternative and slightly surreal comedian, Kenny Everett. He got up on stage in front of a baying Tory audience with a pair of giant hands and yelled: “Let’s bomb Russia!” And just in case you think that didn’t happen…

The majority of the “alternative comedy” set were left-leaning if not Labour. While traditional stand-ups like Jimmy Tarbuck were ardent Tories. The celebrity supporters of Margaret Thatcher tended to come from the mainstream TV output of the 1970s and not the bubbling up counter-culture that would ascend, ironically, under Thatcher in the 80s. Often as a reaction to Thatcher – take the likes of Alexei Sayle and Ben Elton.

Tarbuck’s love affair with Thatcher continued for many years even though his home city of Liverpool was a hotbed of anti-Thatcher rebellion. Decades later, his Toryism and the alleged Tory sympathies of another scouser, Cilla Black, brought the ire of Liverpudlian Ricky Tomlinson – a definite lefty – down on them.

The irascible actor said that Cilla, as a docker’s daughter, should be ashamed of being a Tory and this led to a spat between them back in 2002. Tomlinson was referencing the closure of docks and factories as a result of Conservative economic policy in the early 1980s.

FIND OUT MORE: Inflation and unemployment under the Thatcher government

For me, one of the oddest appearances at a Tory conference overseen by Thatcher was in 1983 when the late piano popstar Lynsey de Paul popped up at her keyboard singing: “Vote Tory, Tory, Tory/For election glory”. Her previous career high point was representing the UK in the 1977 Eurovision Song Contest.

school gym 1970s

On a Facebook page for my old school, somebody posted a picture of one side of the old school gym. The wall covered in wooden climbing bars with ropes dangling down that could slide out on pulleys across the gym. I was transported back to P.E. lessons in the 1970s and I’m sure like many of you, there are very mixed memories of those days.

What was it with P.E. teachers in the 70s? The ability to maintain that level of sadistic aggression must have taken incredible effort. About ten years ago, I told my millennial gym trainer what a P.E. teacher, from the Welsh valleys, screamed at me after my javelin throwing on the school field had been below par: “McMahon you s—–c, if you had to hunt for your food, you’d f——g starve!”

My trainer was about twenty years younger than me. And he was so taken by this that he used to repeat this appalling insult when I reached my limit on the bench press. For him, it was a hilarious eye opener on the 1970s school gym. For me, it was like a voice from the deepest reaches of hell.

Why was physical education made so awful back then?

DISCOVER: How teachers were treated by Margaret Thatcher

Admit it, fellow baby boomer, you shudder occasionally to remember P.E. classes. There was the old-style trampet set at an angle off which we had to launch ourselves over a horsebox, arms outstretched, to hopefully be caught by the P.E. teacher. The murder-ball-style games played with a large, unevenly-shaped, leathery sphere known for some reason as the medicine ball. Why it was called that I have no idea. It was more likely to cause injury than cure you of anything.

Then there was the 1970s gym obsession with gymnastics. Because God knows, we all had an inner Olga Korbut struggling to break out. For younger readers, Korbut was a Soviet gymnast who wowed the world with her 1972 Olympics performance. We poor school kids were then expected to emulate this and failure to do so would result in a severe tongue lashing or worse from our P.E. overlords.

If, for whatever reason, you ‘forgot’ your gym kit in an attempt to avoid 40 minutes of gymnastic hell, the changing room had a box full of mysteriously waylaid kit – completely filthy – that you were forced to wear. We called these disgusting items the “VD shorts” – VD being the acronym for STDs back then (venereal disease). Nobody knew the provenance of the discarded shorts and tops nor why their owners had never claimed them back. They just sat there, festering in the corner.

FIND OUT MORE: How the National Front targeted schools in the 1970s

Then we were herded like sheep into the showers. At one of my secondary schools – I went to two – this area was a communal room. Overhead was a row of nozzles spouting boiling or freezing water – never anything in between. The gym teacher would strip off and join us…..yeah, about that. Mid-shower, he’d turn round to us eleven-year-olds barking: “Pass the buttermilk soap!” Small bars of soap that dissolved at a rapid rate.

On one occasion we’d had to abandon a rugby match because it was raining so hard. Well, the sadist-in-chief made us play for what seemed like an eternity until two of my fellow pupils collapsed deliriously on to the swampy pitch and started chucking mud at each other. Back in the changing room, after we’d spent a few minutes passing the buttermilk soap around in the showers, the same P.E. teacher produced a trainer and gave one of the kids an almighty “slippering”. This meant touching your toes while your arse was thwacked very hard.

DISCOVER: What was School Kids Against the Nazis?

Despite the best efforts of certain P.E teachers I kept up sporting activity throughout my life and I still weight train today. But really, that is DESPITE and not BECAUSE of my experience of the 1970s school gym. Sadly I have many friends who were permanently put off any kind of organised sporting activity for the rest of their lives. I rather hope today it’s a more humane regime for schools kids than it was for us in the 1970s school gym.

This is Olga Korbut – I was definitely not Olga Korbut