Winds of Change: Britain in the Early Sixties by Peter Hennessy

My daughter (who has found the history aspect of her degree a bit of a drag) summarised the problem best when she said, ‘Why is it that historians always focus on the wrong things?’ Hashtag notallhistorians of course. Mary Beard, in particular, said in her History of Rome SPQR, for example, that she wasn’t really interested in all the different Emperors. Because it didn’t matter who was emperor: day to day life for ordinary Romans remained the same. And that’s what she is interested in — and so am I.

What I wanted from Winds of Change was a social history about life in Britain in the early 1960s, the years that cover my conception and birth, and toddlerhood. And to be fair, there was the odd tantalising hint of the things that interest me: the state of the food, the general crapness of the country in those post-war decades. But what this mostly is is a book about Harold MacMillan. You’d get to the end of an epic chapter about his Grand Plan to modernise Britain and take us into the then-EEC (the original 6 countries of the EU). And then there would be another epic chapter on more or less the same topic. And then an epic chapter on the dismantling of the Empire and the creation of the Commonwealth.

By this time you’re halfway through and you’ve given up hope. Then there’s the stuff about the nuclear threat and the Cuban missile crisis, which I think has been done to death, really. As has the Profumo affair. Of course there are all the secret cabinet papers and the diaries and memoirs to go through, but really, I learned nothing about Profumo and Cuba that I hadn’t read many times before.

The chapter on 1963 holds out some promise… but not really. There’s a deal of coverage on Beeching’s decimation of the railways (for the reason that they were making a huge loss), but we learn nothing of the impact on ordinary people of there suddenly not being a railway where there used to be one. It’s all back-stage stuff, inside baseball stuff, and I’m not that interested in behind the scenes at Number 10.

It’s all a bit of a drag really. Political manoeuvrings are really not that interesting. It really was, especially in those days, a bunch of men in charcoal suits. What I wanted was more colour. That winter of ’63 – what exactly is this pink paraffin stuff, and what were peoples’ houses like, and how did they live? There’s a tantalising photograph of shoppers lining up to grab a basket at one of the first supermarkets, but I don’t remember reading much about that phenomenon. I remember as a kid when our corner shop, Farrows, ‘went mini supermarket’, but very little discussion of that. Here was a fundamental change in the way people interacted with each other. Being able to mooch around in the aisles instead of asking someone for what you wanted: massive change. Passing mention of how the coming of motorways changed retail. Maybe it all happened over too long a time.

And perhaps that’s the issue: with a tight focus on the last years of Conservative rule before the Wilson government of 1964-1970, this book lacks the broad sweep that would allow is to see how the high street started to die. But also: a tight focus on politicians and their speeches and rivalries takes us away from the day-to-day lives of people in the country. There’s a lot about Enoch Powell and his ideology and his supposed gifts, and mention of his forthcoming ‘rivers of blood’ career suicide, but nothing about what it was like to be a black or brown person living in the UK at that time. Loads about the break-up of the Empire, but nothing about the immigrant experience.

And the problem I really have with all this focus on politicians and what they say in speeches is, well, a speech is a speech. It’s (literally) all talk. What happened is what I want to know. I don’t really care what Wilson promised on the campaign trail. What I want to know is, what was it like to be alive at this time. Sure, I was alive for some of it, but I was pre-verbal, pre-reason, so I would like to know please what chipped-cup Britain, shilling-in-the-metre Britain, oh the branch line has closed Britain was really like. I want to smell the paraffin.

In the end, this was the wrong book for me, and I am the wrong reader.

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