Book review: Modernity Britain Book Two A Shake of the Dice 1959-62, David Kynaston

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Book review: Modernity Britain Book Two A Shake of the Dice 1959-62, David Kynaston. Published by Bloomsbury.

They sometimes say that if you can remember the nineteen sixties, you weren’t there. Well, I genuinely wasn’t there, I know this for a fact. But after reading this, the second part of the third volume of David Kynaston’s masterful collection of books spanning the period from the Attlee victory in 1945 to its bitter denouement in May 1979, I sort of feel like I lived through it.
Or at least the first part of the Sixties. For this book takes us to the half way point in Kynaston’s saga. It is a nation in transition. The colossal changes of the Sixties have not quite began at the end of the book. The Beatles are no longer The Quarrymen. They have been to Hamburg but they have not fully taken off yet. Dudley Moore and Peter Cook’s names are getting mentioned but the satire boom has not yet really got going either. John Profumo is still just another minister in the government. Harold Macmillan is still in office although his hold on power looks less secure by 1962 than it did when the book starts after his General Election triumph of October 1959. Labour’s Hugh Gaitskell meanwhile survives a party crisis, a challenge from Harold Wilson and a brief Liberal Party revival after their sensational 1962 Orpington by-election win. But neither Mac or Hugh will turn out to be leading their parties by the time of the 1964 election.
This is a nation poised between the “Never had it so good” years and the “white heat” of another Harold’s technological revolution. Big important issues such a immigration, slum clearance, tower block building and the issue of British decline are being faced and in some cases botched. But it is Kynaston’s mixture of the lives of the stars, the stars of the future (new Tory MP Margaret Thatcher of Finchley begins to make her presence felt), the perfectly ordinary which makes these books such a delight.
In 1961, for example, rising Carry On star Kenneth Williams (then in his mid-thirties) complains of the heat. On the same day, the future Princess Diana is being born. In 1960, Labour politician Michael Foot asserts boldly (and probably wrongly) that “Like it or not, the most spectacular events of our age is the comparative success of the Communist economic systems…the achievement by any reckoning is stupendous”. Barbara Windsor, the 23 year old star of Joan Littlewood’s “Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be” scoffs at the idea that she might return to the Theatre Royal shreiking: “Are you kidding? I’m finished with all that ten quid a week lark. I’m not in this business for art’s sake, you know – I’m in it for the money. Besides, I’ve got too many expenses to keep up. I’ve just bought a telly.”
Beloved Dixon of Dock Green actor Jack Warden has an easy solution to the “problem” of a group of teenagers he sees loafing on the street. “Bring back the birch,” he says.
This is a marvelous book. Roll on the undoubtedly still more eventful next volume.

Book Review: Modernity Britain Opening The Box 1957-59 by David Kynsaton

ImageThe Fifties are often remembered as a serene and peaceful, even slightly boring time, but as David Kynaston’s book reminds us, it wasn’t all like that.

The Notting Hill riots of 1958, for example, were amongst the most serious racial disturbances of the century.  British football reeled from news of the Munich air disaster which seemed to have robbed English football of the talented names that had seemed set to dominate the Sixties. The Wolfenden Report, meanwhile, recommended decriminalisation of homosexual behaviour. This wouldn’t actually happen until 1967.

The beauty of David Kynsaton’s book, the first of two making up Modernity Britain covering 1957-1962 (his previous volumes Austerity Britain and Family Britain detailed the period from 1945 to Suez) is how they seem to cover nearly everything that happened in the UK at the time. On the one hand, we get the big, obvious events: Macmillan pulling the Tories back after the disaster of Suez to a landslide victory in 1959, the emergence of CND, the moves towards the major town planning projects which would dominate the Sixties.

But we also get welcome snippets of popular culture. Paddington Bear made his first steps onto the literary scene, Nigel Pargetter is born in The Archers and Pete Murray introduced the first episode of Six-Five Special in the following manner:

“We’ve got almost a hundred cats jumping here, some real cool characters to give us a gas, so just get with it and have a ball”.

Elsewhere, almost sixty years’ perspective enables us to identify the national institutions of the future, making their first cautious steps into public life. Vanessa Redgrave and Judi Dench graduate from Drama College although the latter’s Ophelia is poorly received by some. Thirty year old Bruce Forsyth took over hosting of Sunday Night At The London Palladium after Tommy Trinder is sacked. Meanwhile, rising Labour star Anthony Wedgewood Benn (still quite moderate at this point) helps with an early Party Political Broadcast and the young Margaret Thatcher secures the Tory candidacy for Finchley and ultimately wins the seat. A teenager called Cliff Richard also started making waves threatening the musical domination of Tommy Steele.

We know now which buds will grow and prosper and which will wither away, making this fascinating stuff. Roll on the second half of Modernity Britain which will doubtless feature the emergence of the satire boom, the end of National Service and perhaps a little more about the promising teenaged Liverpool skiffle band, The Quarrymen, mentioned fleetingly once or twice here.