Sunday, April 17, 2005


Bingo and Blackpool

I have a reflexive eye-roll when I encounter shows and books about the 1960s, because I find the repetition of the same tiresome bromides to be utterly enervating.

Which is why I am so delighted by this review of Dominic Sandbrook -- a "young historian who was not yet born when the 1960s ended" -- and his very promising-sounding new book Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain From the Suez to the Beatles in today's Times of London. It points out that our lazy cultural stock imagery for any era (60s America?: Cue Kennedy, Beatles at LaGuardia Airport, bombs dropping out of B-52s, Woodstock crowds, etc.) only reflects the shiniest slivers of a much more vast and complex mosaic.

Take, for instance, Great Britain in the years leading up to the Beatles:

Sandbrook believes that the British experience of the late 1950s and the 1960s was much more complicated, diverse and contradictory than has been claimed. He is surely right. The Sound of Music comfortably outsold any Beatles album. More people went to church than football. People did not revolt, but voted for socially conservative men such as Harold Macmillan, Wilson and Edward Heath. He seeks to rescue these untold millions of unsung people from what the historian E P Thompson called "the enormous condescension of posterity". There was no single national experience. There were millions of late 1950s and 1960s just as there were millions of wars. It depended where you were. People who spent the decade in Welshpool or Wolverhampton would not remember it for Lady Chatterley's Lover or the Pill, but for bingo, Blackpool and Berni Inns. There was a fundamental continuity in British life. As John Lennon observed: "The whole bullshit bourgeois scene is exactly the same except that there is [sic] a lot of middle-class kids walking around London in trendy clothes . . . apart from that nothing happened except that we all dressed up."

Sandbrook is resolved, however, that his book will not be all dressing up, but will strike a balance between cultural and political narrative. In his chapter The Affluent Society, he begins with some stark statistics: in 1950, nearly half our homes had no bathroom. It was a profoundly unequal society; nearly 90% of the population owned less than 4% of the wealth... Perhaps, though, Sandbrook has found the hinge on which our history in the 20th century will swing. I particularly enjoyed his modest coda: one Saturday in 1963, a million of us would rush out to buy the latest hit record. But a staggering 19m were looking forward to a day pottering in the garden.

Sandbrook's already written a refreshingly counterintuitive history of Senator Eugene McCarthy, which has just been released in paperback. Perhaps he can come back come over and write a US decade-history to shake US pop historians out of their lazy assumptions. (Please?) In the meantime, he's writing about second half of Britain's 1960s in his planned 2nd volume. Neither of which, incidentally, I see listed on Amazon US... you have to go to Amazon UK to find a British edition. Will some US publisher please pick these books up?

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