Golden Years

How looking back gives us reasons to be cheerful

Mike Press
12 min readJan 18, 2024

Don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere, angel.

Look at that sky, life’s begun

Nights are warm and the days are young

David Bowie, Golden Years

Those of us entering retirement now were born in the golden years, inspired by their values and ideals, and bringing what we learned then and through subsequent experiences to our own golden years. The years ahead give us opportunities to apply our optimism and knowledge to new challenges.

This perspective fueled the idea of reuniting with our peers from fifty years ago, who were part of a unique and somewhat unconventional degree programme at Middlesex Polytechnic — the BSc in Society & Technology, known as Soc & Tech. The course, initially housed in the old Mechanics Institute building on Ponders End High Street and later relocated to a disused canteen at Trent Park College, on the very edge of London, was a pioneering venture in interdisciplinary education.

In an effort to rekindle connections and share experiences, we invited fellow alumni and as many former staff members as we could track down to contribute to a commemorative book. Each participant was given up to 1,000 words to reflect on why they joined Soc & Tech, their most memorable moments, and the course’s impact on their subsequent life journey. In the end, thirty five people contributed to the book. This project was more than a trip down memory lane; it was a step towards understanding how these reconnections could empower us to approach the coming years with positivity and creativity.

An open door

What stands out from our project is how the course, and the Polytechnic system in general, offered an open door to people from a whole variety of backgrounds to rush through and benefit from higher education. Former course leader Jonathan Powers explained how the intention was to “create an environment and develop the means whereby the students who come to study are able to become independent actors, and thinkers, who learn for themselves.” This objective, combined with the course’s cutting-edge, interdisciplinary curriculum and the inclusive education policy of that era, played a key role in the students’ personal and intellectual development, often overcoming significant barriers.

Many students entered the course from environments characterised by a culture of failure. One individual recalled attending a primary school where “everyone had failed their 11+”, a scenario far from unique. Another spoke of their time in a Secondary Modern school where “nothing was expected of you, so I did very little.” Prior to the course, several described their lives in terms of low expectations, dead-end jobs, failed exams, and a general sense of being written off.

In stark contrast, Soc & Tech represented a nurturing and nonjudgmental space: “I never felt judged; I always remember it as such a constructive and supportive experience.” This sentiment was echoed repeatedly, with many describing the experience as life-changing and communal: “It let me escape my upbringing, showing me that another way of life was possible, and introduced me to interesting people, some of whom I’m still in contact with fifty years later.” The experience was all-encompassing: “It felt like one long discussion, where the lines between class, coffee break, and socializing blurred. It was a continuous, vibrant conversation, debate, and argument about the most pressing issues of the day.” And it was transformative: “My classmates shifted my worldview from being a factory worker to something entirely different.

Through that open door streamed factory apprentices, office workers, lorry drivers, electricians, and individuals who had struggled academically at school or had been let down by other courses. On the other side of that door, they discovered a world rich with collaboration, enlightenment, activism, and ideas, leading them to futures they could not have imagined before. That door has now closed.

History makers

It has been said that people make their own history — they explore and define alternative futures based on their hopes and aspirations. These futures are also shaped by the ideas and inspiration transmitted from the past. We build on the history of others to create a new future for ourselves. That is much how Soc & Tech worked. The book shows how we all made our own histories. We each used the course as a starting point — bending it, adapting it, and subverting it. A vital part of that subversion was influenced by other factors from the wider world at that time.

My argument here is that the creation of our course — and our engagement with it — coincided with a unique historical moment when alternative futures became vivid and viable. We were at the moment of peak optimism, providing a positive spirit of experimentation that influenced our actions, thoughts, and aspirations. Reading all the accounts in our book, I can see how that spirit has underpinned and driven what people have subsequently done and how they have written about themselves.

In the early 1970s a series of significant developments unfolded, each contributing to the alternative and critical discourses around society and technology. These events, marked by the convergence of societal shifts and technological advances, reflected a period of exploration, dissent, and the questioning of established norms. They took place at the very end of what historian Eric Hobsbawm describes as his golden years — the 1945–75 period when it was believed that ways had been found (or could be found) to solve (or minimise) the economic, social and political problems of capitalism — or design viable alternatives to it. To use Hobsbawm’s term, the period after 1975 was the landslide where — to put it crudely — all political optimism slid out of view. But ours was an education and inspiration rooted in the peak optimism moment of those golden years, and we are joined to it by a golden thread of constructive discontent that could serve us well today. Back then, all the news aligned — new left, new age and new technology all jostled with each other for attention and commitment from a new generation — and in us they fused together.

Between 1970 and 1973, three magazines were launched that reflected this new thinking for new times and — above all — positive strategies for change. From 1973 Spare Rib provided a focus for feminist debate and discussion around radical and collective strategies for change. If we’re looking for a fundamental shift in the tectonic plates of ‘the left’ in the post war period, then Spare Rib — and the movement it was part of and gave a focus to — is it.

Also launched in 1973, Undercurrents billed itself as “the magazine of alternative science and technology”, reflecting the growing interest in both alternative technologies and the politics of science. Finally we had from 1970 The Ecologist and the 1972 book which spun out of the magazine — Blueprint for Survival — which made the case for small, decentralised communities and human-centred technological systems. Alongside these magazines in the early 1970s were countless books that were part of this new thinking around peak optimism. Three other initiatives were also crucial.

Opened in the autumn of 1973, the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), was a beacon of innovation nestled in a disused slate quarry near Machynlleth, North Wales. It probably didn’t seem like much of a beacon of anything at the time, but its beacon-status is established by it being — 50 years on — still there. As the doors of CAT swung open, it symbolised a departure from the conventional trajectory of technological progress. Here, a community of thinkers and pioneers sought alternative paths, exploring sustainable and eco-friendly technologies. The ethos of CAT emphasised the need for a more harmonious relationship between technology and the environment. Di Clift, Martyn Glasbey and Dave Connor mention CAT in their contributions to our book, and its ideas underpin many of the activities described by others.

Just months before CAT opened, across the Atlantic at Xerox PARC in California, the landscape of computing was undergoing a paradigm shift. The development of the first computer with a ‘desktop’ Graphical User Interface (GUI) plus mouse marked a departure from the command-line interfaces that had dominated computers. This innovation foreshadowed a more user-friendly and visually intuitive approach to technology. It took a few years and the enterprise of Wozniak and Jobs to show just how revolutionary this approach could be, and I type these words on the latest descendent of their invention: my Mac. Andy Savery, Geoff Napier, Pete Holt, Richard Duncombe and Dick Warn write directly about their work with the micro. Mind you, while mice and icons were the thing in Palo Alto, in Ponders End we still used punch cards.

In November 1974 a different yet related narrative was unfolding within an office at Whitehall’s Department of Industry. At a meeting with members of the Lucas Aerospace Joint Shop Stewards Combine Committee who were facing massive job losses, Tony Benn suggested that they embark on a unique venture — a workers’ plan for the company. This proposal sought to empower the workforce to actively shape the technological direction of the company. The workers’ plan at Lucas Aerospace exemplified an alternative discourse that challenged the traditional hierarchies and decision-making structures within industrial settings and — significantly — proposed the idea of socially useful production. Bill Evans was to become a part of this story.

So there we have it. Within that very period Soc & Tech was just getting off the ground we had new, bold and above all constructive ideas you could purchase at your local newsagent. For a modest 30p you could buy a future based on fraternity not patriarchy. Alongside this we were shown working prototypes of alternative technological futures. We had a future based on sustainable energy, agriculture and living systems. We had a future based on human-centred digital technology and computing for the people. And we had a future where the inherent creativity and inventiveness of working people could design the systems and products of industry along socially useful lines. Arcadia was already being built. And we would build a part of it in Ponders End.

Constructive discontent

Photo: Andy Savery, Edmonton, 1975

And if we couldn’t build it — we’d squat it. In London during the 1970s, an estimated 20–30,000 people were squatting in empty dwellings. This was partly a response to the actions of speculative landlords, developers and local councils who in some cases were leaving whole streets of houses empty, earmarked for eventual demolition. The squatting movement provided physical spaces for experiments in collective living and community activism to develop. Squats didn’t just provide affordable housing, but places that provided women’s centres, refuges, bookshops, food shops and art centres. They also created spaces where feminist and LGBT communities could flourish. In London’s East End, Bengali families suffering violent racist attacks and denied decent housing occupied empty properties around Whitechapel. Their use of squatting as direct political action led to the GLC providing them with tenancies in safe neighbourhoods.

Soc & Tech students were active participants in all of this. The built environment was a technology that could be reinvented, redesigned and repurposed to address alternative social objectives. Margaret Gibson and Nik Nikloff were two of those who launched the Habbarfield Housing Cooperative, which negotiated with local authorities in North London to provide short term housing — a form of ‘licenced squatting’. From Walthamstow to Barnet, the cooperative secured homes for hundreds of individuals, in what was a practical and political response to London’s housing crisis. Some of the houses even had inside toilets, although one house I lived in didn’t have any toilet at all. Then there was the enormous house that was well blessed with inside toilets, but somewhat wanting in terms of bedrooms. It was there, in a novel twist on the en suite concept, that I ended up living in a toilet for a few months in 1978.

Soc & Tech was an education of constructive discontent. God knows we had enough to be angry about, and not just the shortage of affordable housing. But we converted anger into an energy — a constructive, creative energy — and we carried on using that energy in the lives that we each went on to make. We were (and still are) constructivists — in the sense not only that we apply a practical, positive approach, but in the more theoretical sense that we are adept at constructing new understandings and knowledge through experience and social discourse, integrating prior knowledge with with new information about the challenges and opportunities we encounter.

The course’s success (and perhaps a reason for its eventual demise) was its flowering at that very moment of peak optimism in our political culture. We all benefited from that — from the opportunities and ideals of the polytechnic system, the vision of those who created our education and — of course — from being with each other as each individual responded in their own way to the new ideas and possibilities of that time. It was an ideal, perhaps unique time to be a constructive discontent.

Optimism gives us agency

Our project of reflection and re-connection holds immense value, not just as a means to take stock of our current position and the journeys we’ve followed but also as a potential catalyst for new collaborations and mutual inspiration. While the future outcomes of this are uncertain, one thing is clear: it serves as a potent reminder of a vital lesson for our future endeavours.

I’m with Angela Davis on this. She articulates the necessity of optimism, echoing Gramsci’s sentiment: “I don’t think we have any alternative other than remaining optimistic. Optimism is an absolute necessity, even if it’s only optimism of the will and pessimism of the intellect.” This perspective is more than just philosophical rhetoric; it is supported by recent research underscoring the significant impact of optimism on the health of older adults. Studies have consistently shown that optimism is intricately linked to improved physical health and a reduction in chronic illnesses. Older individuals who cultivate optimism are more likely to adopt healthier lifestyles and possess enhanced capabilities to navigate the complexities of ageing.

Optimism transcends mere emotion; it is a lens through which we view the world. Acknowledging this does not negate the formidable challenges we face, whether it’s war, poverty or the climate crisis. Rather, optimism is indispensable because it ignites the hope and resilience necessary to tackle these issues. It propels us into action, bolstering our conviction that favourable outcomes are attainable, even amidst adversity. Optimism is a driver of innovation and problem-solving, spurring us to seek solutions. Importantly, it underpins our mental well-being, which is crucial for sustaining long-term efforts in addressing these complex problems. Optimism has a profound social dimension, promoting collaboration, building trust and cultivating environments where ideas and support flourish. Optimism isn’t about overlooking challenges; it’s about believing in our collective capacity to surmount them. This lesson is exemplified by our former tutor and now climate activist for Extinction Rebellion, Dick Warn, who demonstrates that optimism endows us with agency. Optimism, therefore, is not mere wishful thinking; it’s a catalyst for action.

We were intellectually and politically born in an era marked by unprecedented optimism. Despite encountering challenges, setbacks, disappointments, and failures in building the futures we once envisioned, our only viable path forward is one of unwavering optimism. This enduring optimism is not just a buffer during times when our personal health poses formidable challenges; it is also a guiding force as we transition from work-focused lives to redefining our purpose and responsibilities within our families and communities. It fortifies our resolve to believe in the possibility of a different, better future. The potential for change and improvement was real then, and it remains just as potent now.

In summary, our journey of reflection and re-connection is not just a pause for introspection; it is an active engagement with the lessons of the past to forge a hopeful, optimistic path forward. Such optimism is essential in navigating the complexities of our personal health, societal responsibilities, and global challenges. It is a powerful tool that not only enhances our individual well-being but also shapes our collective future. By embracing a passionately optimistic outlook, we equip ourselves with the resilience, creativity, and determination necessary to face life’s challenges and seek out new, positive futures. The optimism that sparked our intellectual and political awakening remains. It provides the resolve to believe that there’s still a different future out there to find.

That future involves opening a long-shut door.

Once there were mountains on mountains

And once there were sunbirds to soar with

And once I could never be down

Got to keep searching and searching

David Bowie, Station to Station

Our book Look Back in Candour is available from Amazon.