I’ve just reviewed two books about the year 1956 for the LRB. I hope they publish it (they don’t always); if not I’ll put it up here. The 1950s have a bad reputation in historical retrospect, as a time of relative post-war austerity, still, a stifling social environment for most people, especially women, the tragedy of Suez, the repression of the Hungarian uprising, and Jim Crow in the USA. There was no colour TV; most people didn’t own cars; the diet (in Britain) was frightful; you still had deference, hanging, and beating in schools; and the Empire was going down the drain. Photos and films from the period are all in black, white and (predominantly) grey. We had to wait until the 1960s for things to perk up. (Or to perk down, if you’re an old-fashioned conservative.) The year 1968, in particular, was the turning-point. From then onwards, until comparatively recently, the sun began to shine. No-one, writes the author of one of these books, would want to return to the time before then.
I don’t agree. I remember the 1950s. I was 15 in 1956. I found it an immensely stimulating decade (quite apart from the natural biological stimulus of adolescence), and greatly to be preferred to our own in many ways. Of course I was privileged: ‘selected’ to go to a ‘good’ school, with prospects of a ‘good’ university after that; missing ‘national service’ by a whisker; and – perhaps the most important thing – male. It was women who were most disadvantaged in the 1950s, and whose condition has improved most since. I’m lucky to have been a boy – and not gay. Gays also had a terrible time in the 1950s. (See the very black-and-white film Victim, starring Dirk Bogarde – courageously, in view of his own closet homosexuality.) Yes, the food was lousy, we were beaten at school, and the rest of it. All that is perfectly true. But there were two things that compensated, massively.
The first was the existence of obvious social and political ills to react against, providing material for the new ‘kitchen-sink’ theatre of the time, for example, and the new popular music – ‘skiffle’ and ‘rock and roll’. John Osborne, Arnold Wesker, Harold Pinter, Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, some of the earliest modern political satirists, and most of the genuine cultural revolutionaries usually associated with the following decade all started up around 1956, in clear – albeit sometimes dumb – reaction against convention and the ‘establishment’, and shocking our elders to their cores. More overtly politically, there was the emergent Civil Rights movement in America; and anti-imperialism, anti-capital punishment, anti-apartheid and ‘Ban the Bomb’ campaigns in Britain. These were clear, concrete ‘causes’ to attract the young (and many of the old: Bertrand Russell, for example) at that time; something really to bite on, as opposed to today’s vaguer and more complex targets, like ‘inequality’ and ‘austerity’. That was thrilling. I remember. (I was in anti-apartheid and CND.)
The other compensation was that all these causes looked achievable. However bad things might have been, they seemed to be getting better. That was because they were. Civil Rights were progressing, albeit slowly, in America. Hanging in Britain was just about to come to an end. Despite Hungary, the Soviet Union was disowning the cruder kinds of Stalinism. We in Britain were already starting to ‘liberate’ our colonies, a process that was made to appear smoother and more consensual than it really was. (See my ‘Imperial’ books.) Things looked promising for gays, with the Wolfenden Report (1957). Feminism appears to have been a bit behind the other ‘causes’ – it certainly didn’t make the limelight – but at least women could work now. In fact anyone could work. There was virtually no unemployment (1.8% in 1956, I think). Anyone who wanted could have a job, and ‘privileged’ people like me had a choice of them. (I swithered between jobs in academia, the Foreign Office, the theatre and the BBC. I could have walked into any of them; not because I’m particularly talented, but because they were all recruiting like mad.) The few disadvantaged were rescued by a pretty generous welfare state, and all of us could call on the brilliant new NHS, at its peak then, for first-class medical treatment, free.
All this was buttressed ideologically by a wide-ranging – almost universal – belief in the inevitability of social and political betterment, through the United Nations, the friendly old Commonwealth, and the welfare state: the ‘progressive’ stage of our domestic history. No-one dreamt that we could ever regress from that. The Labour Party was pretty progressive – enough for me, at any rate. Even the Tories, who were in government for most of the 1950s, embraced the welfare state, and even boasted of extending and improving it. The welfare state would have a wider beneficial effect, too, by providing a compromise position for those unattracted by both American-style capitalism, and Soviet communism. This, and decolonisation, made ‘progress’ inevitable on the international front, too.
Which puts the finger on the main difference – for me – between the 1950s and the 2010s: which is that sixty years ago there was hope, whereas there seems to be very little of that today. That hope may possibly have been misplaced, even naïve – though I think that if Britain had taken a different path from the 1970s onwards (a Swedish path, perhaps) things might have turned out differently. (That is, if it had been possible to take a different route; i.e. reckoning without the global capitalist juggernaut.) Today, it seems to me, there’s very little of this kind of hope. That’s why these two books about 1956 were so deeply nostalgic for me. I’d swap my colour TV – even my iPhone – for a tot of hope, any day.