Sunday, July 8, 2012

Never Had It So Good

Never Had It So Good:  A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles

I’m surprised, and yet not surprised, that I didn’t review this book’s sequel, White Heat, which covers the years 1964-1970.  The only elegy I could give to it was my article in TTZ13, “How Bazaar,” which was inspired by White Heat and how Polly fitted into the dolly-bird type. The reason I’m not surprised I didn’t get around to a review is because Dominic Sandbrook’s tomes are monumental in size (literally and figuratively) and scope, making getting through their combined 1,600 pages a real achievement.  I was probably too busy getting on to the next thing to write the review that White Heat deserved.  

I do, however, recommend reading them in reverse order the way I did.  It’s a bit like seeing the culmination of someone’s life story and then going back in time to see how their parents met.  (Similar to the process of everyone being familiar with William Hartnell’s end-of-career crotchety-ness by the time he left Doctor Who in 1966; very few know the utterly fascinating story of his youth and maturity as I have found by reading Jessica Carney’s Who’s There?)  Of course, I am reading both these books for enjoyment but also in order to understand one year, 1963, as best as I possibly can, and it is my belief that in order to do so I must understand what came before and what happened afterwards.  So, although it is a lot of time to invest, Sandbrook’s two books have helped me do that in a way that I feel is, if not exhaustive, at least comprehensive.  

Sandbrook’s thesis is that neither were the 1960s as revolutionary as most people claim, having built upon, of course, trends from the 1930s; also, he tries to show that many of the events the press would claim riveted the psyches of the general public were a blip on most people’s radars.  (You might be forgiven for coming away from Sandbrook’s books thinking the only thing on Britons’ minds in the 1950s and 1960s was gardening!)  However, Sandbrook builds up his arguments by way of a comprehensive picture of the political, cultural and intellectual sides of the life of the nation as a whole.  For me personally, the political sections are very tough-going; nevertheless, he emphasizes narrative and character, making them far less boring than they could be.  (I think I learned more about politics in reading these books than the rest of the books I’ve read combined.)  

Sandbrook begins the book with the Suez Crisis of which, I must admit, I knew absolutely nothing; in terms of American history, it probably wouldn’t even garner the status of a footnote.  President Eisenhower told his speechwriter, “Of course, there’s nobody, in a war, I’d rather have fighting alongside me than the British . . . But—this thing!  My God!”  Harold Macmillan dominates this book, as much as his successor Harold Wilson will come to dominate the second instalment.  For both characters, Sandbrook reserves a certain sort of restrained fascination.  Macmillan (“Supermac”) is characterized as “an American’s Englishman—the slight exaggeration of a type” who nonetheless has killer political instincts.    Sandbrook presents portraits of other key political figures (in both book); one striking such one is Enoch Powell (“the father of Thatcherism”), whose extraordinarily serious work ethic can be summarized: “When invited by a Birmingham contemporary to come and have some tea, he replied, ‘Thank you very much, but I came here to work.’”   

As in White Heat, Sandbrook is at pains to illustrate that, even if Macmillan suggested that “most of us have never had it so good,” many more were still in severe poverty.  He has a whole paragraph on the primitive bathing habits of many Britons up until about 1954, which sounds practically Victorian, “Usually the members of the family bathed one after the other, topping it up with pans of hot water, but the bath water inevitably became ever cloudier and dirtier, so that the last bather effectively wallowed in the family dirt.”  In such a climate, it’s easy to see why a consumer-based affluent society would have been so desirable for so many.  The result, however, quickly made some disenchanted with the “Americanization” of the culture.  Its advertising absurdity—which is one reason I’ve always found the 1950s in the US so incredibly boring and bland—is illustrated in an advertising campaign which claims that Horlicks can save a broken marriage and cause a woman to become a fabulous dinner party host once more.  For every woman for whom the corralling influence of radio programs emphasizing her postwar role in the home drove her insane[1], there was one like this:
I often feel at the end of the day that all my efforts have been of no avail.  I remember all the polishing and cleaning, washing and ironing, that will have to be done all over again, and like many other housewives I wish that my life could be a little more exciting sometimes. But when the evening fire glows, when the house becomes a home, then it seems to me that this is perhaps the path to true happiness.    
Sandbrook is in his element when he describes some of the important intellectual movements of this period, including the “Angry Young Men,” whose writing, frankly, sounds like pointless waffle to me (though I do like Philip Larkin’s poetry).  Kingsley Amis, the bizarre Colin Wilson, and John Osborne are all identified with this movement though they didn’t know each other and didn’t work together.  Also, there was the “kitchen sink drama,” which was the specialty, it turns out, of Sydney Newman, which unfortunately was a rather misogynist genre, excluding all but Shelagh Delaney.  And then there was New Wave cinema.  To Doctor Who fans, arguably the most important film of this tradition is This Sporting Life, which got William Hartnell cast as the Doctor.

The chapter The End of Empire is an important look at independence for British colonies (1956-1963) and how this impacted the British public as well as the policy-makers themselves.  This, of course, caused the first rush of immigration from the West Indies, though as the book points out, “Thousands of men from the West Indies had already been to Britain.  They had served in the British imperial forces during the Second World War[2], where they had been well trained, well paid and given assistance with their board and lodging.  It was hard to return to the backbreaking, threadbare and authoritarian world of the islands after the excitement of, say, London at the height of the struggle against Nazi Germany.”  Many years ago, when I was still in high school in Albuquerque, one of my friends came back from having spent the summer in England.  He said he had never seen such anti-Black racism in his life as he did in England.  This really surprised me; after all, Britain had no War over slavery nor a civil rights movement.  However, this was before I knew about the Notting Hill riots:  “although popular tradition in the twentieth century held that Britain was a uniquely tolerant and welcoming haven for foreign refugees from poverty, oppression, and persecution, the fact was that immigrants were usually objects of suspicion, prejudice and contempt.”  

We saw a film recently called Made in Dagenham which celebrated the women workers of the Ford Dagenham plant who went on strike in the later ‘60s.  However, their “victories” have the slight shine of nostalgia to them when you examine the entire union situation of the early ‘60s.  The film I’m All Right, Jack satirizes union activity to the point that “there is no place for an honest and virtuous individual in the modern world of consumerism, greed and special interests.”  The early ‘60s also expressed disdain for the “Establishment,” by such entities as Private Eye, That Was the Week That Was, and Beyond the Fringe.  And let’s not forget the birth of CND.  

There is good amount of coverage on the subject of TV, such as the launch of commercial television in the UK[3], though slightly less emphasis on what was on the TV (though, as I suspect Sandbrook is a Doctor Who fan, that show is not ignored and earned quite a bit of discussion in White Heat; I also learned a lot about Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars).   I also suspect Sandbrook is a Beatles fan, as he is circumspect about their origins and rise in Never Had it So Good and wrote eloquently on their subsequent musical experimentation and ascension in White Heat.  His writing about the Beatles is among his most entertaining, and I think it’s fair to say he finds John Lennon overrated, plugging the virtues of Ringo in this book (in a survey in February 1963, Ringo’s favorite songwriters are Burt Bacharach and “McCartney and Lennon” and his ambition is “to be happy”) and bigging up Paul’s genius in White Heat.    

I’ve never been a fan of Bond.  The movies are boring, and I see little appeal in Bond’s character (even as played by Sean Connery).  I did read Casino Royale and quite enjoy it but was rather shocked by the misogyny and racism.  It’s good to know that I am not alone in my bemusement for Bond, though even Umberto Eco has said that the appeal “consists of finding [oneself] immersed in a game in which [one] knows the pieces and the rules—and perhaps the outcome—drawing pleasure simply from the minimal variations by which the victor realizes his objective.”  The book draws to a close with the Profumo scandal, the bowing out of Macmillan, the zenith of Beatlemania, and Bond himself.    

[1] I take this more from Stephen Barnard’s chapter in Women and Radio than from Sandbrook.
[2] I did learn from The Woman's Century that “colored” West Indian women were turned away from wartime roles by racist organizers, though some determined women did get through the rigorous application process.
[3] Though Sandbrook repeats the truism that the reason Grace Archer was killed off on The Archers was so the BBC could compete with the launch of ITV.  The real reason, as revealed in William Smethurst’s The Archers:  The History of Radio Drama’s Most Famous Programme, was because he wanted the block the actress’ union activities. 

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