Nothing quite changes the way you view your place in the world like the discovery that events you remember, that seem current, are actually history, the stuff of research and archives and theories and uncertainty. This uncomfortable readjustment has been most vividly brought home to me by reading Dominic Sandbrook’s Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles. It’s huge, superbly written and fascinating, and it covers the years between 1956 (when I turned four) and 1964 (when I was in my first year at Grammar School), and it’s written by someone who wasn’t born until ten years after the events he relates.
It is a book that constantly triggers memories. At one point, discussing labour relations in the late 50s, he makes a passing reference to a printers strike. My father was a compositer, that is he designed forms for boxes and cartons at a packaging company, as such he was a member of the print union, and I suddenly had a vivid memory of a period when he was home when I left for school and still there when I got back in the afternoon. I can’t have thought about that period, that strike as I now recognise it, for near-enough fifty years.
There are repeated incidences of such memory triggers throughout the book, and also corrections of false memories, particularly from the early sixties when I was starting to take an interest in politics. For example, I was baffled to discover that Harold Wilson’s famous ‘white heat of technology’ speech was made before the 1964 election that brought him to power; if challenged, I would have sworn he made it mid-term. But it makes sense when you see it in context: Wilson comparing the forward-looking, modern Labour Party with the old-fashioned incompetence of the Conservative Government in which amiable duffer Alec Douglas Home had just manoeuvred himself into place as Harold Macmillan’s successor.
At the same time I learned a lot of things I didn’t know before about events such as the Night of the Long Knives, the Profumo scandal, and Home’s succession to the Conservative leadership, even though I had followed these events closely in the papers and on TV at the time.
But if all this gives the impression that this is a political history of the period, it isn’t. Nor is it a narrative history, or even a particularly chronological one. It is discursive and tangential, following a lot of hares, cultural, literary, social as well as political. Although he starts with a chapter on Suez, he then immediately backtracks to cover the post-war Labour government, and the Conservative governments of Churchill and Eden. In any particular chapter, however, he is liable to look back as far as the war or leap forward as far as the 1970s. And in doing so he will raise subsidiary topics that in turn need a similar flashback or flashforward. A chapter on the spy scandals of the late fifties, for example, begins with the defections of Burgess and Maclean, then uses their homosexuality as the springboard into a discussion of social attitudes to homosexuality in Britain at the time, then goes on to discuss the spy in popular culture with particular attention to the success of James Bond, before coming back to deal with the Vassell case. It is fascinating how this wide ranging and digressive approach can show up different things. For instance, the glamour of the James Bond films and the flash and fantasy of The Avengers on TV is used as evidence in a discussion of the public’s growing tiredness and disillusion with the Edwardian manners and attitudes of the Macmillan government.
There is acute literary criticism in a chapter that clearly distinguishes Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin from the Angry Young Men, while demonstrating how these diverse literary movements reflected attitudes towards the establishment (and Amis’s support of popular culture, James Bond and science fiction, is placed in the context of his desire to distance himself from the literary establishment of the day). This is picked up later in a chapter on the satire boom of the late 50s and early 60s. A discussion on Conservative handling of the economy is reflected in a chapter on the new spending power of the teenager, which in turn leads to chapters on rock n roll and the birth of the Beatles. The film I’m All Right Jack serves to introduce a discussion of the emergence of Peter Sellers as an actor, an overview of the state of British film making, and a discussion of labour relations (the printers strike).
Only in the last few chapters, which take us from Macmillan’s clumsy handling of the economy, to the blunder that was the Night of the Long Knives, to the Profumo scandal which was closely followed by revelations about Kim Philby and then by Macmillan’s sudden illness which prompted the leadership race and the emergence of Home, does the book acquire a chronological drive. But it is none the worse for its meandering approach. There are unexpected heroes and villains that emerge. From what I read here, the rehabilitation of Macmillan as one of the great PMs of the century is badly in error; R.A.B. Butler, proclaimed ever since the 60s as the best PM we never had, appears so incapable of making a decision that he would make Gordon Brown look assertive; and Hugh Gaitskell, that other great lost PM, comes over as being as mired in the past as his Conservative opponent. On the other hand, Enoch Powell, whom I have always regarded with a distaste verging on nausea, comes over as not only highly intelligent but as one of the most principled men in the Conservative Party, and unexpectedly human. (There is a charming vignette of him on the night he and Ian MacLeod tried to unite the Tory Cabinet to prevent Home becoming PM. It was also the day of his daughter’s seventh birthday, and he spent the evening entertaining her birthday party by showing cartoons for which he supplied all the voices, before he and MacLeod did their machinating surrounded by deflating balloons.)
Never Had It So Good is the first part of a diptych, with a second volume, equally as large, covering the rest of the sixties. I can’t wait.
First published at LiveJournal, 18 June 2008.