History books The 60s? The supposedly socialist film director Lindsay Anderson sounded like Colonel Blimp reviewing a shabby working-class regiment when he lamented the backwardness of British proletarian life. The middle-class leaders of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament were as convinced that the British could continue to lead the lesser breeds as the most diehard empire loyalists. There are hundreds of killer quotes and anecdotes. Except in war, I have never visited any foreign country.
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Dominic Sandbrook makes much of that strange, now forgotten flowering of folk music in his wide-ranging history of the Macmillan era, which aims to cover both culture and politics. Starting with Lonnie Donegan and skiffle and Elvis Presley and ending with the arrival of the Beatles, his book discusses many more familiar political stories in between. He writes with the advantage of a fresh eye, as he was not born until What was it really like half a century ago? The memories of those who were there, now mostly grandparents and well over 60, are inevitably varied and anecdotal, the intimate and personal often looming larger than the political and the cultural.
Suez I remember as a volunteer cadet in the Royal Navy. My ship was diverted to the Mediterranean and I was left behind in Plymouth harbour on a battleship too vulnerable to go to sea, with David Dimbleby in the adjacent hammock. I also recall Hugh Gaitskell, the leader of the Labour party, speaking at my and his old school and being accused of treachery by superannuated masters for his opposition to the Egyptian invasion.
Yet to start with Suez and to end with the Beatles suggests an awkward, rather forced change of category. A book on the "Wilson years" will be published later. Sandbrook does his best, but he lacks the literary talent to cover such a wide canvas and keep the reader awake.
This is an ambitious work, but it is establishment history with few surprises. No attempt is made to reinterpret the era from the perspective of the 21st century. The story of Christine Keeler is retold at length for the umpteenth time, yet there is nothing on Ruth Ellis and the campaign against capital punishment, nothing on Jonas Salk and the end of the scourge of polio. There is plenty on music but little on sport. Those who are soccer-mad today will be amused to learn that it was of little general interest in the 50s.
Yet it brought him a majority of in the election of What a Lovely War, first staged in Of course at the time we thought that Macmillan was dreadful, but since his successors have all proved to be much worse, he has gained in stature over the years. The impact of foreign affairs — or any sense of the importance of the outside world — is almost entirely lacking in this book, which is very much a history for little Englanders.
We get Suez but little reference to Hungary. There is nothing about the Cuban revolution or the Algerian war, and no reference to Sharpeville. Indeed foreign countries only come into their own when the Beatles grace Hamburg with their presence. Yet in my own memory the period stands out as perhaps the last occasion when the British elite followed events abroad with a keen interest.
When I was at Oxford in the late 50s, the two largest political clubs in the university were the United Nations Association and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, both oriented towards foreign policy. Most of my contemporaries fell under the spell of the United States, especially during the brief Kennedy era. Young people longed to escape from the British imperial twilight, and they loved America for its classlessness.
If anyone gets round to writing a history of the Harkness fellowships, which creamed off the future British elite and sent them off to American universities, they will uncover the reason why the "special relationship" survived so long after its sell-by date. Yet he constantly downplays this development and fails to measure its significance. This, after all, was the era that marked the import of American comics, jazz and rock music, as well as of commercial television and the concept of the teenager.
Suez itself was the moment when the British liberal elite, not least the Manchester Guardian, welcomed the American veto of our independent foreign policy. Television-watching on a mass scale arrived coincidentally with the start in of ITV, an advertising-financed channel that specialised in popular programmes imported from the US, notably comedy shows and quizes that established a pattern rapidly followed by the BBC.
Influential but now neglected figures such as Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart railed against the creeping Americanisation of British culture, but their jeremiads did nothing to halt the incoming tide. The legacy of that era is with us still.
We've never had it so good! DOMINIC SANDBROOK on a divisive decade
A few other biases were, however, present. Macinnes comes in for much stick for being a posh class tourist and for exoticising and positive-stereotyping West Indian immigrants. And this, generally, is readable and marvellously comprehensive. Those chapters served as a barometer and I was confident that this was generally a very good and comprehensive overview of politics, culture and society of the time, albeit one focused on England rather than "Britain". I became very aware of reading a historian from the same generation as myself: all the same basic concepts are here which reflect what I was taught, most of which I still like to apply: everything is multifactorial and the product of numerous social, cultural and political currents; individuals can be very interesting but in the greater scheme of things they have relatively little power; there is the scrupulousness not to generalise too much without stats, especially when something is particularly novel; and a scepticism about being presented with big sweeping theories.
Dominic Sandbrook makes much of that strange, now forgotten flowering of folk music in his wide-ranging history of the Macmillan era, which aims to cover both culture and politics. Starting with Lonnie Donegan and skiffle and Elvis Presley and ending with the arrival of the Beatles, his book discusses many more familiar political stories in between. He writes with the advantage of a fresh eye, as he was not born until What was it really like half a century ago?