ON THE CUSP is a snapshot of Britain during the summer and early autumn of 1962. Four volumes of David Kynaston’s monumental History of Post War Britain 1945-79 have already been published, bringing the story up to June 1962. This scrapbook of extracts from diaries, books, and newspaper articles, interspersed with song lyrics and references to popular TV programmes, describes a country on the edge of fundamental social and economic change.
Many previous writers have sought to pinpoint the genesis of the “swinging sixties”. Philip Larkin in his poem “Annus Mirabilis” opted for a year later. Both the poet in Hull, however, and the historian agree in emphasising the profound shift in popular culture.
Significantly, Kynaston begins with a diary entry from June 1962. “Dad and I went to church.” Bishop John Robinson appears occasionally in the rest of the text, but I could not find any reference to Michael Ramsey, who had succeeded Fisher as Archbishop of Canterbury the previous year. Widespread churchgoing and chapel attendance was part of Churchill’s Britain: the old world that was disappearing.
Many social commentators seemed to agree that it was a time of stagnation. Anthony Sampson, whose Anatomy of Britain was published in 1962, concluded that the key institutions of the country were not fit for the modern world. Harold Macmillan’s Edwardian style was beginning to grate.
In some areas, however, change was happening at bewildering speed. There was a plethora of urban re-development schemes, and many towns and cities were being built back worse. The author does not obtrude excessively, but cannot resist asking whether “Britain’s architects of the early 1960s were made of the right stuff (including the necessary humility) to create a legacy which over the ensuing years would nourish rather than damage the human spirit.”
Agriculture was another area in which modernity and the technological future had been eagerly embraced, with consequences we have learnt to rue. This was the period of rural de-population, the disappearance of hedges, ponds, and ditches, and the felling of copses, all with the laudable aim of achieving short-term increases in production. In June 1962, Rachel Carson published the seminal manifesto of the modern ecological movement, Silent Spring.
Another apostle of modernity whose activities caused some controversy in 1962 was Dr Beeching. Like many others, he was convinced that the future lay with road transport and was busy “rationalising” Britain’s extensive railway infrastructure.
There is no doubt, however, that it was a watershed year for popular culture. On Friday 5 October, very soon after cutting their first disc at Abbey Road, the Beatles played a gig at the Co-op Ballroom in Nuneaton. The very same night, the first Bond film, Dr No, had its première at the London Pavilion, while the Rolling Stones were playing in the back room of the Woodstock pub in North Cheam. Only two people had paid to hear them perform, but there were four outside listening for free.
It was also the year in which the first generation of 11-plus successes, beneficiaries of Rab Butler’s 1944 Education Act, entered university. On 30 October, Ruth Adam, in an article in The Observer, sought to capture the values and ambitions of the new grammar-school elite. There is no “wistful nostalgia” for school days; instead, these privileged 18-year-olds had the unsentimental confidence of a meritocracy. She described the grammar-school product: “Classless, agnostic, politically uninvolved, his only guiding light for years has been this passionate aim to get a university education. To him university is the only certain good. He is not so certain just what it is that he is to be educated for.”
It was a different world, and Kynaston’s brisk narrative evokes it. The next part of his post-war history will run from October 1962 to May 1967, and has the working title Opportunity Britain. I hope that there will be room for one of the medical innovations of 1962: John Charnley’s first successful whole-hip-replacement operation at Wigan Hospital. Sixty years later, he deserves to be remembered as one of the great benefactors in the fight against pain.
Much else has simply passed into oblivion. As the philosophic Emperor Marcus Aurelius said, “Time is like a river made up of events and the current is strong; no sooner does anything appear than it is swept away and another comes in its place, and will be swept away too.”
The Rt Revd Lord Chartres is a former Bishop of London.
On the Cusp: Days of ’62
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