It was the year I turned ten. I didn’t yet realize how grey the world was, how limited; these were things I would discover over the coming years. But this year, no, this was a year for watching Dixon of Dock Green (I hated it even then: so dull, so full of nice people being nice) and Thank Your Lucky Stars (which I loved because I didn’t yet have an inkling of how much better pop music could be). I was ten, my world was limited to the television (I saw nothing wrong with the Black and White Minstrels except for their choice of music, and was irritated by Billy Cotton’s Band Club without being able to say why), to football in the street (that, I think, was the year I got a Manchester United football kit for Christmas; how quickly that ended, not because of any imagined danger, our road was wide and quiet, but because I didn’t enjoy football), and to beginning to think about going to the big school (I read a lot of school stories, and as a result was starting to think about Manchester Grammar School; well that never happened).
My horizons were narrow in that narrow little year, but then, I suspect everyone’s horizons were narrow. We none of us saw how it was all going to change, how dramatically, how radically, how quickly.
Which is David Kynaston’s thesis in his latest book. The previous volumes in his magisterial “Tales of a New Jerusalem” have been big books. So big, indeed, that they have been broken into two volumes each by the time they make paperback (the most recent one, Modernity Britain, had been published in two volumes even in hardback. And within that expanse they had covered a lot of ground: Austerity Britain took us from 1945 to 1951, Family Britain from 1951 to 1957, Modernity Britain from 1957 to 1962. But the new volume, On the Cusp: Days of ’62, is slim, barely 200 pages, and its focus is limited to a few short months in the middle of 1962. It opens, as the last volume ended, in the middle of June 1962, roughly at the point when Anthony Sampson’s Anatomy of Britain was published. It ends, very precisely, on 5th October, with just two people paying to watch the Rolling Stones perform at the Woodstock pub in North Cheam (oh how redolent of Tony Hancock and the whole black and white feel of 1950s Britain that address is).
On the Cusp follows the pattern that Kynaston has made his own in these books. He takes us day-by-day, month-by-month through the period under consideration, gives us headlines, the shape of political and economic affairs, looks at the books and essays of the time to get a sense of how these political and economic affairs were being viewed. But he intersperses all of this with diary entries, often culled from Mass Observation, to give us the picture of people shopping, going to the cinema or theatre, watching television, listening to music. There’s a lot about what was on television, because that was what was coming to dominate people’s leisure time. 1962 was when Steptoe and Son and That Was The Week That Was were first aired (saw them both, loved them both), and also Hugh and I, the first of the seemingly interminable and resolutely unfunny Terry Scott comedies that I hated from the start. It is oddly off-putting at first, a mass of seemingly disconnected information, quotes from ordinary people and from people who were about to become famous. On that storied day in October 1962, as the book ends, for example, we learn that Sandra Goodrich (15, the future Sandie Shaw) was working in a Ford factory in Dagenham; Glenda Jackson, 26, was being described as “pale and edgy” in a review of a play by the Watford Observer; Tom McGrath, 21, founding editor of International Times, was running a jazz club in Glasgow; John Ravenscroft (23, future John Peel) was selling crop hail insurance in Texas; Sandy Denny, 15, was at school in New Malden; and “Roy Strong (27, future youthful extrovert director of the National Portrait Gallery) was an assistant keeper there and still living wholly in the past”; and so on, four pages of such glimpses. And yet the more you read, the more you become attuned to the sights and sounds and smells and feel of quotidian reality in that now long gone age.
There’s a chapter that focuses largely on agriculture and on rural living, and another that looks primarily at life in Wales. We see the Night of the Long Knives, but don’t really see how fragile the Macmillan government was. On the surface this is still the 1950s, a Britain that hasn’t changed, that isn’t going to change, that sees no point in changing.
And yet …
We get the first oblique references to Christine Keeler, a diary column in Queen magazine that named no names but refers to a chauffeur-driven Zil arriving at her front door as a chauffeur-driven Humber leaves from her back door. It is not public yet, but the Profumo scandal is about to burst, and bring the government down with it. There is a letter written by someone senior at Bovis referring to Councillor Smith, who is T. Dan Smith. It is not public yet, but the whole corruption scandal in the North East is about to burst. There are people living in slum housing whose landlord is Peter Rachman. It is not public yet, but the scandal of the slum landlords is about to break. And we see the Beatles recording their first single, “Love Me Do”, which is released on 5th October. And we see the lukewarm response to The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, the latest example of gritty, northern, New Wave cinema (everything was New Wave in the 50s and early 60s, from films to fashion, science fiction was late getting in on the act). But on 5th October, the same day that the Beatles release their first single, Dr No is released, heralding a new wave of fast-paced, glamorous, colourful British cinema.
The Sixties is about to begin in earnest.
And me, I turned ten just two weeks before “Love Me Do” and Dr No appeared simultaneously. I have vivid memories of seeing the Beatles on Thank Your Lucky Stars, their first appearance on national TV in Britain. I also have a vivid memory of watching Dr No in the cinema; but I was only ten, I couldn’t have done – but I can remember it. All of that was to come in the next year. But 1962 was when it all changed, did we but know it.