For anyone under the age of 50, it's very hard to visualise just what the 1970s was like. Years of economic turbulence, poor industrial relations and strikes culminated in what was known as "The Winter of Discontent". This reached its peak during January and February of 1979 when grave diggers in Liverpool and Tameside went on strike, with the walkout demonised in newspaper headlines like “Now They Won’t Let Us Bury Our Dead!”
1979 saw more than 29 million working days lost to strikes, the highest number since the General Strike in 1926, and utterly transformed the country. Three months on from the notorious grave diggers' strike, the Conservatives won the General Election and Margaret Thatcher became the UK's first female Prime Minister, sweeping away the post-war consensus.
Mrs Thatcher's period as Prime Minister saw the Trade Union movement eviscerated, the UK's old manufacturing industries dismantled, state owned monopolies privatised and de-regulated, and the post-war Keynesian economic consensus traded for Monetarism. The old Labour Party eventually was replaced by Tony Blair and New Labour.
The challenge though for all of us today looking back on the past is to try to bring to life the impact of this period on ordinary men and women.
To this end, we were very lucky recently to have acquired two paintings by Theodore Major, owned by a family in Canada who had been friends with Major. The paintings themselves were exciting enough (and soon found new homes). The real excitement though came in the form of a bundle of letters written by Major which had been kept by the family.
The letters were a small window into the nature of the man - from his love of apples to the health issues Major was experiencing at the time. There were titbits about daily life, his views on art and some amusing stories: "Many people call to see the paintings. A London lady (rather stout) got stuck trying to get past some paintings - but her husband and I managed to move some of the pictures to get her out again. Next time she said she would get a crane to lift her through the window."
But for me, the most fascinating aspect was contained in two short letters written on 26 January 1979 and 13 February 1979, telling the story of the struggles Major was facing with sending a painting to the family in Canada.
These letters overlapped almost perfectly with the height of the Winter of Discontent. 22 January saw a "Day of Action" by unions, when around 1.5 million people came out on strike - the largest general stoppage of work in three generations. The dispute then largely ended on 14 February, when the government and the TUC reached a settlement.
This is how Major described events:
26 January 1979
"Alan is trying to find a way to get the little picture to you. He will be writing to explain the difficulties. He said that he had rung the Manchester Air Service several times but he had got no satisfactory answers - as yet.
Alan and I will devise some method before long. The docks are on strike - all wagons are off the road - only essential goods are getting through - so we may have to wait a little while yet ... The ambulance men are off work - even emergency cases are not being seen to. Parts of the country are having to use dirty water - water men on strike! Terrible! ... I have just had to cancel an Exhibition at Preston - on account of transport - no printing and very bad weather conditions and little petrol. We have had the worst winter that I can remember. It is still snow, ice and strong winds."
29 January 1979
"Just a line to say that I sent the picture along to you today by AIR MAIL."
13 February 1979
"It was good to know that you had received the little picture, and that you like it. It was one which I refused to sell at the Gallery – (I felt I could only sell it to a friend).
The Preston Exhibition had to be postponed. When it should have been held – petrol was unobtainable, the transport workers were on strike – also the printers.
The roads almost unusable – so it was a lot of work framing and painting frames etc – all for nothing!
This is the worst winter I remember. Very very cold, everyone seems to be on strike, no refuse collection, Hospitals “picketed” – sick people turned away, dead people left unburied etc etc!
I am busy painting – I ran out of white paint last week (due to transport difficulties) but my friends ran around and managed to get some for me.
We are all struggling to keep on going. It is hard for people – even school children are prevented by “pickets” from attending school in some areas. The buses and school buses often stop running to inconvenience people.
All this cruelty to young and old and bereaved people – makes me see “red”!
I hope for better things ..."
Theodore Major died in 1999. It would be fascinating to know whether he felt his hope for better things was fulfilled.