Judging a book by its cover

Only an idiot would judge a book by its cover.   So onto the cover.   The cover photo is certain to be out of Dominic’s hands, and the product of a picture researcher at Penguin, but it does raise a few interesting points.

The front cover is a fantastic picture.  Put it in a gallery and I could look at it for hours. (If you haven’t seen it, it is reproduced in my initial post of 17th April.)  Here we have two terrace houses, one carefully painted, the other covered in years of industrial grime.   But in the context of the book, what does it mean?  Is the first, bright, house, the season in the sun, the thing that is lost?  And the second the declined house?   Or is the season in the sun the 70s, and this freshly painted house itself the song swan?  I really cannot read the image.

Part of Dominic’s USP is that he is not old enough to remember, this is history untainted by personal recollection.  But the cover photos, front and back, raise some interesting points about received memory.  Perhaps part of the choice of the front cover image is the presence of the back half of a Mk 1 Ford Capri.   This is problematic.  Firstly, it is a 70s icon, an after-the-fact reconstruction and reimagining of the 70s.   Secondly,  although the Capri was produced 1969 to the mid-80s, this is Mk, Mk 1, produced 1969-1974 (to my mind the sexist Capri, but that is beside the point here).  The peak year for its sales was 1973, before the period of this book.   It was a commercial success, the second most popular imported car into the USA in the 1970s (after the VW Beetle) although Ford imported it from West Germany, not the UK.

As with all icons, it is more a romanticised and reconstructed memory, not a representation of what was real.   If I were to chose a car (without doing a huge amount of research on sales figures 1974-1979) it might well be the bloated Mini that was the Austin Allegro (voted by reader of The Sun the worst car ever in 2008, despite being designed by Alec Issigonis) which was produced from 1973 to 1983.  Or Ford Fiesta, a very dull and very popular car produced from 1976.  Not the relatively niche, earlier, Capri.

The back of the book continues the theme.  Here we have a picture featuring a couple of boys with a Raleigh Chopper eating chips from a chip van (the “Mr. Chippy” appears to have been written on it with marker pen).  So here we have another 70s icon.  We are entitled to ask, where is the Space Hopper?  (Although like the Capri, the Space Hopper dates from 1969).

Like the Capri, the Chopper is not a symbol of decline.   It was first produced in 1969 exclusively for export to the USA, where it sold well.  It was first marketed in the UK in 1970.   The picture in the book is of the Mk. 2, a slightly safer version identifiable by its backrack and sold from 1972.  Choppers were a commercial and export success credited with saving Raleigh.

The Chopper and the Capri are interestingly linked in a number of ways.  First, they are both very much rooted in the late 1960s and early 1970s, not in the second half of the 1970s.  By the end of the 1970s the Chopper had been pushed aside firstly by the skateboard craze from 1976 and then by BMX bikes.  Choppers were pushed aside, sales declined and eventually production ceased in 1981.  The issue of periodisation is important here.  Arthur Marwick’s “long sixties” run to 1974.  The new patterns of consumption trailed by an urban elite only permeated mass culture in the early 1970s.  Similarly Andy Beckett in his When the Lights Went Out argues the 1970s were the real 1960s for most people (p209).

Second, the Chopper and Capri are in some sense culturally American.  The Capri was designed by Ford as a “baby Mustang”, the Chopper based on an Easy Rider motorbike, although in this case a British design by Ogle.

But there is a whiff of something else here.  The Capri and the Chopper are seen as signs of working class aspiration, but aspiration trapped within limited cultural horizons.   Highlighting could be considered the an early example of the kind of demonisation of working class culture recently examined by Owen Jones in Chavs.   This view is underscored by the chip van on the back cover.  As John Walton wrote in his wonderful Fish and Chips and Working Class Culture 1970-1940 “the public consumption of fish and chips in the streets, out of newspaper, using unwashed fingers instead of cutlery….violated powerful taboos in respectable circles, involving such sacred issues as cleanliness, privacy and domesticity.” (p137) (Sadly, there has been not study of fish and chips in British society in the post war period).

Of course, these are the cover pictures, not Dominic’s text.  We will have to see whether these are themes developed inside these covers.

Tomorrow, I will be looking at Dominic’s acknowledgements.  But after that I will be reading the book itself.

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About Matthew Cooper

This blog is written by Matthew Cooper.
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One Response to Judging a book by its cover

  1. Glenn says:

    Re Cover picture , I think possibly a rusty Anglia or a base model company Hillman Avenger would have been more in keeping with the period . The Capri would have been up the road at a small semi .

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