Glimpses of Britain in the summer ’62. The actor Kenneth Williams “disgusted” in Hyde Park by the sight of men receiving “kissings & caressings” from their female companions; a sharp polio outbreak in Dundee; health minister Enoch Powell wanting hospitals to allow daily visiting; the TV soap Compact fading out considerately when a pregnant character’s labour pains began; Harold in Steptoe and Son causing a sensation by using the swear word “bleeding”; BBC’s Richard Dimbleby welcoming “our friend Telstar” as the first live pictures were beamed from across the Atlantic; a survey of teenage consumption finding that boys on average spent almost 15 shillings per week more than girls; London’s magnificent Coal Exchange briefly open to the public before the wrecking ball arrived; a former Tory MP receiving a four-year prison sentence for homosexual offences; sixteen-year-old Syd Barrett, future inspirational genius of Pink Floyd, caned for “absences”, shortly before leaving his Cambridge school for good; colour slides, as exhibited by district nurse Miss Punshon, among the attractions at the annual church fete at Loders Court in Dorset; and in Blackpool, still unrivalled home of the traditional British seaside holiday, Thora Hird starring at the Grand Theatre, Ken Dodd at the Opera House, Arthur Haynes in a record-breaking season at the Winter Gardens, and of course Sooty and Sweep at the South Pier’s Rainbow Theatre.
On the Cusp, the latest in my post-war sequence Tales of a New Jerusalem, is largely about four months – the four months before, on 5 October 1962, the premiere of the first James Bond film, Dr No, coincided with the release of the first Beatles single, “Love Me Do”. That particular day, I would argue, represents as good a date as any to mark the real start of that semi-mythical period, “the Sixties”. And through a wide range of sources – especially diaries and local newspapers – I try to give a flavour of what Britain was like just before a major wave of change. A moment in time in a sense utterly remote; yet also, in some distinct ways, feeling like the day before yesterday.
Including by 1962 the vexed question of Europe, as Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government awaited the outcome of its recent application to join the European Economic Community, created five years earlier and widely known as the Common Market. But at this stage in what would be the long and tragi-comic saga of Britain’s relationship with its nearest neighbours, it was the Conservatives who were pushing for Britain to join and Labour which was largely against. Macmillan’s grand geo-political design was that membership would enable Britain to be the indispensable link between Europe and America, while in a TV address to the nation he projected Britain-in-Europe as a symbol of progress and modernity, an end to “old disputes” and “obsolete conceptions”. By contrast, addressing Labour’s party conference at Brighton, his opposite number Hugh Gaitskell won a standing ovation as he warned of the end of “a thousand years of history” if Britain were to join. And the great British public, what did they think? Certainly no talk of a referendum, but opinion polls suggested a small majority in favour, though with what the shrewd observer Mollie Panter-Downes described as “a steadily increasing rumble of doubts”. Yet at this point, most would probably have agreed with the diarist Anthony Heap. “What a bore the Common Market has become!” he reflected. “Personally I’ve no strong feelings in the matter one way or t’other.”
Sadly, the same did not apply to non-white immigration from the Commonwealth, where almost all the evidence points to those immigrants – mainly from the West Indies, India and Pakistan – being viewed and treated on a negative spectrum which ranged from mistrust and suspicion at one end to outright hostility at the other. During these four months alone, trade unionists employed at an aluminium works in Banbury were asked in a secret ballot, “Should coloured workers be admitted to the factory?”, and voted 591-205 against; anti-black supporters of Sir Oswald Mosley were on the “Keep Britain White” march, including in Dalston’s Ridley Road; four consecutive nights of race riots in Dudley saw armed white men behaving (in the police’s words) “like a pack of ravening wolves after their prey”; not so far away in Smethwick, the future Conservative MP Peter Griffiths was stirring up trouble; while as for housing, the discrimination against non-white immigrants was systemic (whether from local councils or private landlords) and the conditions almost uniformly appalling. “You would telephone for a flat or a room, mostly, and the person would say, ‘Yes, it’s vacant, come and get it,’” recalled Eric Huntley, who had arrived from Guyana some years earlier, about his ongoing experiences in north London. “And then you’d get there, it was so obvious that when you got there, as soon as she saw your face it’s gone.”
In what was still an overwhelmingly monocultural society, with non-white residents comprising barely 1 per cent of the total UK population, this was particularly so in rural Britain. There, the consequences of the 1947 Agriculture Act – essentially, the provision of cheap food for urban consumers through price-support manipulation, capital grants, subsidies and so on for the not always especially grateful farmers – were by 1962, for better or worse, being played out. These included rapidly increasing mechanisation (tractors, combine harvesters, milking machines), a much-reduced need for manpower, ever more relentless emphasis on size (above all in England’s eastern counties), and the application of science in many and varied forms, such as genetic, nutritional and chemical. About to be published was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, instantly acclaimed as a powerful indictment of how an agricultural juggernaut was wilfully destroying nature and biodiversity, symbolised respectively by the disappearing hedgerow and the disappearing peregrine. But as yet, in a society where the modernity zeitgeist still seemingly ruled, there was little sign of any political will, or indeed serious wider demand, to take on and reform that mighty juggernaut.
Instead, where there was increasing impatience from that zeitgeist was with the public-school-and-Oxbridge-educated Establishment, viewed by many as too old, too amateur in approach, and too out of touch with the rest of society. Anthony Sampson’s Anatomy of Britain, published in June, was a best-seller, chiming in with that critical mood as it portrayed a country badly in need of an infusion of hard-headed, unsentimental, classless professionalism – the very antithesis, in other words, of the Macmillan’s Edwardian, grouse-moor image. Appropriately, this was the cricket season which saw, just a few weeks after Sampson’s book, the final iteration of the contest at Lord’s between the Gentlemen (i.e. the amateurs) and the Players (i.e. the professionals), a fixture going back to 1806. Even more potently, David Frost and co were limbering up with That Was The Week That Was, not starting for real until November but already being piloted. Two years on from Beyond the Fringe, the first great irreverent breakthrough of the satire movement, this would be the TV programme – loved, loathed and feared in roughly equal proportions – which more than any other defined the rest of the decade.
Is there a direct line to be drawn from the coruscating TW3 through to the populist, anti-Establishment vote for Leave in the 2016 referendum? More plausible perhaps, as a connection across the half-century, is the way in which by 1962 a newly reinvigorated debate about the North-South question, relatively quiescent since the inter-war slump, anticipated the anti-London aspect of that vote and indeed presaged the current “levelling up” agenda. “The idea that over the past few years two Englands have taken shape, one in the North and the other in the South, unequal socially and economically, has become our major domestic preoccupation,” Geoffrey Moorhouse would note soon afterwards in his Penguin Special, The Other England, against a background of the traditional staple industries (coal, cotton, steel) in palpable decline, accompanied by large-scale population drift southwards. It was no wonder that many northern city councils were by now pinning their hopes on large-scale urban redevelopment – all too often with disastrous consequences not only for the city centres themselves, but for the cohesion of working-class communities. Did popular culture potentially offer an alternative route to a northern renaissance? British cinema’s New Wave, majoring on emphatically non-southern social realism (including in 1962 itself A Kind of Loving, with This Sporting Life and Billy Liar both in production), was already raising general awareness of the north; so too Coronation Street, twice-weekly on ITV since December 1960; and soon the rest of Britain was about to hear a distinctive sound from Merseyside.
A “refreshing, do-it-yourself approach” was how the Liverpool Echo greeted the imminent release of “Love Me Do”, that historic Parlophone single’s first review. Certainly the pop world – and indeed the wider cultural world – needed by autumn 1962 the raw energy of the Beatles. Big hits that summer had included Elvis Presley’s “Good Luck Charm”, Cliff Richard’s “I’m Lookin’ out the Window” and Mike Sarne’s “Come Outside”; average age on a typical edition of Juke Box Jury was in the mid-thirties; and novelty records like Charlie Drake’s “My Boomerang Won’t Come Back” were still on teenagers’ lips. Even so, it was unlikely all to happen overnight. Playing on that legendary October 5th, in the back room of a pub in North Cheam, were a recently formed rhythm ‘n blues group called the Rolling Stones. Only two people paid to see them perform, while four people stood outside listening for free. In what remained deep down a socially very conservative country, resistant to change and obstinately believing that British was best, the “real” 1960s were off to a patchy start.
David Kynaston is a bestselling and acclaimed historian and author of City of London: The History, Austerity Britain: 1945-51, Family Britain: 1951-57 and Modernity Britain 1957-62 (2 volumes). His latest book is On the Cusp: Days of ’62. He is currently a visiting professor at Kingston University.