benn

‘piles: see Benn, Tony’… Just occasionally, a book’s index is a work of art in itself. Here, Jonathan Law finds some that offer a hilarious insight into 1970s Britain…

In a recent Dabbler Diary, Brit wrote interestingly about reactions to the passing of Tony Benn – that “indefatigable, articulate, admirable, unique man who happened to be completely wrong about everything”. To anyone like me, who first came to political awareness in the 1970s, the near unanimous warmth of the tributes can hardly be other than puzzling. I’m old enough (just) to recall the days when the same Benn was the most vilified man in Britain, invariably drawn by Cummings, Jensen, Jak and the rest with strobing eyes and the body language of a mad Nazi robot. You can’t help asking how and when that happened – the morphing of a once potent bogeyman into a cuddly cross between Alan Bennett and the late Queen Mother.

Seeking some enlightenment – and aware that my knowledge of Benn in his earlier incarnations was actually pretty vague – I looked him up in the index to Dominic Sandbrook’s Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain 1974-79, a very thick book that has been languishing in my ‘to read’ pile for much too long. I was richly rewarded, if not entirely in the way I had expected. Sandbrook’s index turns out be a minor comic masterpiece and – by and of itself – one of the best things I have read about the 1970s. In case that sounds implausible, then here is an edited version of the entry on Benn:

Benn, Anthony Wedgewood, (Tony): airy-fairy stuff 36; and the CIA 153-4; consoles himself with a new quartz clock computer 649; fails to take part in orgies 154; has the most ghastly piles 786; inhales his own rhetoric 273; insularity 501-2; as a madman 275-6, 329-30; on the towering genius of Mao Tse-tung 488-9; paranoia 154; tries to spoil the Silver Jubilee 630

Not only is that genuinely funny, but it also conveys the authentic texture of a life – and of a still puzzling era. The effect depends most obviously on Sandbrook’s eye for detail and his mordant turn of phrase, but it is surely heightened by the index form itself; the weird medley of items is made to seem all the more incongruous by our expectation of orderly analysis, logical arrangement. Nor is the Benn entry a one-off. Working through the rest of the index, I found myself repeatedly laughing out loud at the biographical entries, with their apparently arbitrary (and yet always very apt) choice of particulars. In much the same way, there is something deeply surreal about the index as a whole – a space where Bagpuss curls up next to the Baader-Meinhof Gang, Love Thy Neighbour is neighbour to the sinister-sounding Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Peacekeeping, and Murdoch, Iris materializes next to Multi-coloured Swap Shop (now there’s an appearance I would love to have seen).

In all this, I suppose, the index acts as a faithful mirror to what we can all now agree was a very odd decade. Indeed, if you wanted a lurid snapshot of Britain at that time you could hardly do better than to compile a selection from the indexes to Seasons in the Sun and Sandbrook’s previous volume, State of Emergency – The Way We Were: Britain 1970-1974:

Akenfield; Anal Rape (film); Angry Brigade; Askwith, Robin; Betamax; Bird’s Eye; Black Dwarf (radical paper); Black and White Minstrel Show; ‘Blueprint for Survival’; BOSS; A Bouquet of Barbed Wire; Brain Salad Surgery; Brentford Nylons; calculators, pocket; Camping and Outdoor Life Exhibition, Olympia; Carlos the Jackal; Carry on Emmanuelle; Castaneda, Carlos; The Collapse of Democracy; The Comedians (TV show); The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady; Crowther, Leslie; Dead Babies; Doomwatch; Feather, Vic; The Flumps; Free Wales Army; Freud, Clement; George and Mildred; Gleneagles Hotel, Torquay; Golden Wonder crisps; Green Goddesses; Harris, ‘Whispering’ Bob; Hawkwind, Warrior on the Edge of Time LP; Hill, Geoffrey; Holder, Noddy; Idiot International (radical paper); Ivor the Engine; John Curry Ice Spectacular; Lane, Carla; League of Empire Loyalists; Liberty and Property Defence League; Little Black Sambo; McGahey, Mick; Mahirishi Mahesh Yogi; Maplin sands, plans for new airport on; mugging; Nabarro, Sir Gerald; Newton-John, Olivia; Pershore, rural dean of; Petition for Public Decency; Phillips, Big Jeff (pornographer); Pizzey, Erin; Puffin Book Club; Purves, Peter; Rinka the Great Dane; Robin’s Nest; Robinson, Derek (‘Red Robbo’); Quatermass; Showaddywaddy; Simmonds, Posy; Suck (Dutch underground newspaper); Survivors; swearing; Thrower, Percy; vacuum cleaners; Vesta ready meals; Von Däniken, Erich; Weighell, Sid; Who Killed Enoch Powell? (thriller); Wombles (band); ZX80 minicomputer

It’s the stuff of a thousand pop-culture retrospectives, to be sure, but with a strong current of fear and paranoia running right through it. And somehow all the more comic and unsettling for being laid out like that, in an orderly, alphabetical list.

***

All of which got me wondering about indexes in general – a subject to which I had never given a lot of thought, beyond occasionally cursing a bad one. Does an index have a point, beyond the banal but indispensable one of helping a reader to find stuff? Can an index ever count as literature? And what makes for a really useful, satisfying, or entertaining example of the form, like the two we have been looking at? (I ought to stress that Sandbrook’s indices – which I will assume he compiled himself – are very well constructed and user-friendly as well as continuously amusing.)

Of course, there are those who’ll try to tell you that the art of the indexer is now as obsolete as that of the farrier or the coracle maker. In the age of the computer-generated index and electronic full-text search, doesn’t the old-fashioned back-of-the-book list have, at best, a quaint artisanal appeal? Well, if that’s the case someone ought to be mounting a Campaign for Real Indexes (and while we’re at it, for Real Source Notes, the omission of which from any serious work of non-fiction is a disgrace). In the first place, a decent hand-crafted index will usually get you to the info you require much more efficiently than its digital equivalent. A computer-generated index can never really be more than a bare concordance of words and page numbers and, as we all know, digital search has a way of leading you up any number of blind (or at least, very short-sighted) alleys. But there’s more to it than that; a really good analytical index is also satisfying on an intellectual or aesthetic level. An index has an important taxonomic function – if the job is well done, the entire content of the book (and therefore of its subject field) will be laid out before you in a beautifully elegant hierarchy of concepts and sub-concepts, categories and sub-categories. I have heard authors say they never really knew what their work was about until they saw it indexed.

However, none of this can explain the browsing appeal – occasionally, the sheer entertainment value – of a really good index. I suppose any large, lively subject becomes potentially funny, if you strip it to bare bones and try to anatomize it; in its vitality and profusion, it will be constantly escaping any logical scheme that you can impose. Also, there’s the way in which an index aspires to an almost ghostly ideal of reason – only to have this undermined by the arbitrary nature of alphabet order, with its odd juxtapositions and strange feats of serendipity. You could get all post-structural and say that the A-Z arrangement – an accidental product of language – works against the pure conceptual order that is the Platonic dream of the indexer (if Derrida and the other big-shot Deconstructionistas never wrote about indexes, they really ought to have done). Oh, and a magpie mind and a witty way with words will go a long way too.

All this is pre-eminently true of Sandbrook’s indexes, which set out everything I half-remember or have since heard about the 1970s – but then give the whole thing a marvellous twist or twerk, sending the pieces of the kaleidoscope flying into new patterns and relationships. An anthology of the best bits follows (SOE indicates State of Emergency – the book about the Heath years – and SITS Seasons in the Sun – the one about Wilson and Callaghan):

Amin, General Idi: (SOE) Guardian praise for 254; hit on the head with a hammer 254; offers financial aid to UK during three-day week 593

Amis, Kingsley: (SOE) abandons sentimental mollycoddling of women 413: (SITS) accuses Kenneth Tynan of conniving at his execution 148:

Betjeman, John: (SITS) terrible Silver Jubilee hymn 631

Blackpool: (SITS) dearth of bread and cheese in 476

Booker, Christopher: (SOE) on masculinity 396-7; on Milton Keynes 365-6; unlikely to wear skimpy red pants 399

Britain: (SITS) Hughie Green’s call for national renewal of 179; military coup, possibilities of 124-49

Callaghan, James: (SOE) hairstyle of 399: (SITS) embarrassed by nudity 46; as a gnarled tree 463; shocked by impersonation of homosexual cook 462

Castle, Barbara: (SOE) wears a trouser suit 407

Creme Eggs: (SITS) see Thatcher, Margaret

Crosland, Anthony: (SOE) falls asleep on television 214: (SITS) tells Hattersley to fuck off 432

Daily Mail: (SOE) urges greater sexual experimentation 600

Devlin, Bernadette: (SOE) makes a fine mermaid 261

Doctor Who: (SOE) giant maggots in 206; giant rat in 348; supports European entry 163; supports 1974 miners’ strike 601: (SITS) more popular than Militant 306; people running interminably up and down corridors in 371

Donoughue, Bernard: (SITS) believes polytechnic lectures are a bunch of wankers 302

Elizabeth II: (SITS) washes the dishes 420

‘Fanfare for Europe’ (SOE) (to mark British EEC entry): 170-72

Fawlty Towers: (SOE) contributes to Anglo-German relations 174

fluorescent bat-wings: (SOE) see Gabriel, Peter

Gabriel, Peter: (SITS) wears an obscene monster suit 539

Gladstone, W.E.: (SITS) bugged portrait of 74

Greer, Germaine: (SOE) talks about breasts at Cambridge dinner 383-4; writes gardening column for Private Eye 384

Healey, Denis: (SOE) promises to squeeze speculators until the pips squeak 622; tucks Barbara Castle under armpit 407: (SITS) does the choo-choo train 504; tells the left to go and fuck themselves 423

Heath, Edward: (SOE) disappointed by Himmler’s handshake 136; as a frustrated hotelier 53; massacres French language 150; massacres Mozart 42; peculiar voice of 17-18; plays the piano for Union bosses 105: (SITS) leans nonchalantly on an Italian deep-freeze 425; stacks books on his chairs to stop Thatcher sitting down 257; stares at Thatcher with undisguised hatred 238, 328; unconvincing attempts to look cuddly 158

housing: (SOE) horrible decoration of 336-8

industrial unrest: (SOE) Rigsby’s views on 98

Jenkins, Roy: (SOE) big smooth head 157; called a Fascist bastard 166; hopes Labour will lose 1974 election

Jones, Jack: (SOE) denounced by Benn as too right-wing 623; as Soviet agent 103

Joseph, Sir Keith: (SITS) declares support for lavatories 235; as a saloon-bar Malthus 233-4; warns of Soviet threat to nation’s campers 235-6

Lambton, Anthony: (SOE) as a vigorous gardener 469; three-in-a-bed romp 470

Larkin, Philip: (SITS) admires Thatcher’s pretty face 254; trenchant views on immigrants 631; trenchant views on lower-class bastards 741

lavatories: (SITS) see Joseph, Sir Keith

Longford, Lord: (SOE) strangled in Copenhagen sex club 196; watches girl take off her knickers 453

MacLeod, Ally: (SITS) predicts Scottish world Cup victory 529; puts up a new corner unit to hold the World Cup 530; returns from World Cup empty-handed 534

Mason, Roy: (SITS) as an amateur necktie designer 122

masturbation: (SOE) see Thatcher, Margaret

Maudling, Reginald (Reggie): (SOE) has brandy for breakfast 64; eats baked potato and caviar 512; watches A Clockwork Orange 448: (SITS) drinks a jug of Dubonnet and gin 669; likens Thatcher to a grub 670; summons up enough energy to be quite rude 670

Moore, Roger: (SOE) questionable dress sense 398

obscene vegetable matter: (SOE) see Whitehouse, Mary

Paisley, Ian: (SOE) heavy breathing of 503

Palin, Michael: (SITS) fails to eat a piece of cheese 96; fails to eat some pickled onions 96; fails to have his car mended 96; fails to write a novel 261-2; thinks it is cold 723; thinks it is hot 697

piles: (SITS) see Benn, Tony

Poulson, John: (SOE) incapable of designing a brick shithouse 509; sacks employee for having a beard 509

Powell, Enoch: (SOE) sings Te Deum 635

Revie, Don: (SOE) urged to call out Bingo numbers in Arabic 569

Scanlon, Hugh: (SOE) fails to breed goldfish 103

Scargill, Arthur: (SOE) unsuccessful holiday in Bulgaria 144

Silly Burghers of Sowerby Bridge: (SOE) 444

Sun: (SOE) as pro-European 162; banned from Sowerby Bridge 444

Thatcher, Margaret: (SOE) on masturbation 422: (SITS) and chocolates 783; makes a mess of some Cadbury’s Creme Eggs 791

Thorpe, Jeremy: (SITS) contracts gonorrhoea from Greek prostitute 442-3; plans to have his ex-lover eaten by Florida alligators 444; wades ashore from sinking hovercraft 159

Waugh, Auberon: (SITS) claims that pensioners are being mercilessly raped 758; claims that Wilson is a KGB agent 72; declares war on dwarves, ugly women and New Statesmen journalists 792; stands for the Dog Lovers’ Party 455-6

Whitehouse, Mary: (SOE) alarmed by obscene vegetable matter 461

Whitelaw, Willie: (SOE) horrified by pork pies 53; looks into abyss 126

Williams, Kenneth: (SOE) disdains the English working man 121; disdains Porridge 49; disdains The Good Life 212

Williams, Marcia (Lady Falkender): (SITS) fellow aides’ plans to murder 60; ‘lavender list’ 436-40; rows about lunchtime arrangements 57-8, 165, 172

Wilson, Harold:  (SOE) views on cheese 139; elaborate getaway plans 634, 637; plans to sail up the Clyde in lighthouse-keeper’s uniform 84-5; wades in shit for three months 159: (SITS) burglaries 63, 67, 71, 74; compared with George Smiley 76-7; compares himself to a big fat spider 452; complains of ‘the squitters’ 38, 418; coup hysteria 141; and the KGB 68-73; on Morecambe and Wise 431; paranoia 66-7, 68, 73-4, 418, 452-3; polishes off five brandies 39; polishes off six brandies 39

women: (SOE) expected to reduce men to chattels 414; mollycoddled by Kingsley Amis 452

Hilarious bonkers stuff. But isn’t there also, from our perspective – forty years on, and peering back across the great gulf of the Thatcher times – a strong pull of sadness too? Nostalgia be damned and perhaps I’m just imagining it: but doesn’t this long roll-call of once potent names carry the same inexplicable pathos as the lists of ships in Homer, of knights in Malory, of pagan gods in Milton? If for no other reason than that almost everyone here – et tu Tony – is dead.

Jonathan Law is a writer and editor of reference books at Market House Books.

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  1. Worm on Monday 7, 2014

    These are absolutely fantastic! Next time I see Mr Sandbrook presenting one of his popular history shows on BBC4 I shall look at him in a new, more favourable light.

    It’s not an index, but surely the very apogee of dead-pan reference is Viz’s Profanisaurus, which has on many occasions reduced me to tears of mirth

    A quick google reveals this index to be quite a good (bonkers) one:
    http://fretmarks.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/probably-best-book-index-ever.html

    • jonathan law on Monday 7, 2014

      That Samuel Butler index is quite a find, Worm.

      I think my favourite entries are: Adipose cushion of Italy; Beds, good, their moral influence; Converting things by eating them; Dentist’s showcase mistaken for relics; God is not angry with the plover for lying and likes the spider; Matchbox, a frivolous; Painting, not more mysterious than conveyancing; Pantheism lurking in rhubarb; Potatoes easily bored; Toeless men; Universities, an obstacle to the finding of doors; Yawning of a parrot.

  2. Brit on Monday 7, 2014

    Genuinely LOL-producingly funny. There are so many hilarious ones that it’s hard to pick a winner, but if pushed I might go for Denis Healey.

  3. Brit on Monday 7, 2014

    Though Michael Palin is damn close.

    • jonathan law on Monday 7, 2014

      Palin is surely the winner, although Heath comes a close second. Apparently that “frustrated hotelier” thing is quite true; as PM he had a recurrent fantasy of giving it all up and running a small hotel in Broadstairs or somewhere. One can only shudder at the sub-Fawlty nature of such an establishment — only open three days a week but with lots of opportunities for romantic candle-lit dinners?

  4. worm on Monday 7, 2014

    Maggie Thatcher’s one made me do a LOL

  5. malty on Monday 7, 2014

    Longford is a hoot, was it Myra Hindley? Greer was, is the antipodean equivalent of Tony Soprano’s sister. Many of those names drift in and out of my consciousness like a brocken spectre on the Hirondelles ridge, in fact Francis Pakenham was as immense a plonker as Benn, a feat that I had thought nigh impossible.
    I view the seventies as that period just before the analogue world changed into the digital, guilty as charged, hurling us head-first into the digital vortex with no visible exit, from thermionic device to the steps of the nand gate. It began with a union led suicide mission and ended in a mess entirely of it’s own making.

  6. Banished To A Pompous Land on Monday 7, 2014

    “invariably drawn by Cummings, Jensen, Jak and the rest with strobing eyes and the body language of a mad Nazi robot” An image rather usurped by the late 70′s by Norman Tebbit thanks to Spitting Images and Steve Bell.

  7. Gaw on Monday 7, 2014

    A minor work of genius – I wept with laughter. I also suspect we have now read the definitive Heath bio.

  8. BenSix on Monday 7, 2014

    JG Ballard’s “The Index” is a joy.

  9. Backwatersman on Monday 7, 2014

    More taxonomy than indexing, strictly speaking, but I think Borges deserves a mention here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celestial_Emporium_of_Benevolent_Knowledge “Animals: those belonging to the Emperor …”

  10. Backwatersman on Monday 7, 2014

    Now I think of it, the index to Michael Bywater’s “Lost Worlds” is very droll.

    Nottingham, accent, denounced
    Oblivion, personal, inevitable, celebrity a struggle against
    Occam, his razor, reluctance of people to use
    Offensive, infantility of finding things
    Oil, snake
    Onan, the sin of, as cause of brain strain

    And much more in that vein.