Getting away from the dreadful events in France and Turkey, and from the clown at the FO, this is a reminder of how things used to be. It’s a version of a review article I wrote for the LRB, but which I don’t think they’re going to publish now. It’s based on two recent books: Francis Beckett and Tony Russell, 1956. The Year That Changed Britain; and Simon Hall, 1956. The World in Revolt. Happy days?
‘There’s a dreadfully misplaced nostalgia for the ’50s,’ write Beckett and Russell at the start of their book,
mostly to be found among expensively educated children of Thatcherism. They see the ’50s as a glorious Indian summer, before free love and protest and egalitarianism, and 1956 and then 1968, came along to ruin it. Sometimes Thatcher’s children sound as though they want to take us back to it – but they have never been there. If they had, they’d know better.
Well, I was there, and I have to say that I found the 1950s rather exciting. Reading this book, with its accounts of the horrors of the age – snobbery, smog, bigotry, National Service, beatings in schools, awful food, gloomy Sundays, stifling sexual attitudes: all quite true – I started to wonder why. Of course I’m only one person, and a pretty lucky one at that. I’m not a woman, for a start. People of my generation were also unaware then of the joys to come – Chinese takeaways, reality TV, seven-day shopping, the LRB – which make the 1950s seem duller in retrospect. But this isn’t the only reason. That is hinted at in these books, both of them centred on the events of 1956, or thereabouts. (Beckett and Russell cover just Britain, Hall ranges more widely.) There’s a good case to be made that it was then – far more than in 1968, for example – that many things began to change quite fundamentally. And the start of a period of change is always more exhilarating than its – usually disappointing – end.
On the international front 1956 really was momentous. In Britain it is mainly remembered for the Suez Crisis, often taken as the defining moment in the fall of her empire; but overall the most significant event was probably Khrushchev’s supposedly ‘secret’ speech to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in Moscow in the early hours of 25 February, criticising in retrospect the ‘cult of personality’ that had grown up in the party recently, and in particular the personality of the late Josef Stalin. That, when it got out, released an ‘orgy of public criticism’ of the Soviet Union in her oppressed eastern European satellites, beginning in Poland, and of genuine hope that things might change for them: not, it should be noted, away from communism, but towards a more liberal and – the optimists claimed – ‘genuine’ kind. There were huge demonstrations in Poland and Hungary, prompting Tony Benn to write in his Diary: ‘Everyone in the world is breathless with hope that this may lead to a rebirth of freedom throughout the whole of Eastern Europe.’ But not their Soviet masters, who regarded them as having got out of hand: ‘it begins with a demand for freedom of the press’, claimed the Czech deputy premier, ‘and ends with freedom for capitalism’. This turned out to be prescient, of course, to the regret, no doubt, of those of the original brave dissidents who survived until 1989. The Soviets were also nervous of their satellites’ leaving the Warsaw pact; and suspicious of ‘foreign imperialist agents’ and indigenous Fascists: neither of which fear was entirely paranoid, Hall maintains, in the light of ‘Radio Free Europe’, and the strong showing of Hungary’s explicitly fascist Arrow Cross Party in the 1940s. Anyway, the Soviets weren’t having any of it, and brutally crushed both uprisings in the course of the year. ‘All youth is rising and being mowed down’, wrote Violet Bonham Cater. She blamed Eden’s ‘folly’ – the Suez aggression – for having ‘distracted the attention of the world from this tragedy. I cannot forgive it.’ One happy result, for Britain, was the asylum she gave to 21,000 Hungarian refugees in the aftermath, greeted with enormous goodwill by their hosts, and repaying the country handsomely. Apparently it wasn’t quite so happy for the refugees, who were ‘dreadfully disappointed to find a poorer and dingier nation than the one they had left.’ And that, write Beckett & Russell, ‘was before they had tasted the food.’
One way or another these events affected all the other ‘big’ happenings of that year. The Soviet Union, and by association communism itself, of whatever type, were largely discredited almost everywhere as automatic foci for left-wingers, leaving young British idealists, Beckett and Russell suggest, without a natural ‘home’ ever after: only a sterile choice between the squabbling splinters that remained, of which the CPGB was now only one. ‘The Hungarians,’ proclaimed the New York Times in November, ‘have put a brand upon communism as a philosophy of life and government from which it can never recover.’ From now on the main vigour of dissident youth was channelled instead into single-issue politics, like CND (founded the following year) and later the Vietnam movement, with the less vigorous opting for John Osborne-like cynicism – ‘there are no good causes left to die for’ – or for the new musical culture – ‘rock’n’roll’ – as a diversion. In America it obviously stiffened the resolve of Red-baiters – Senator McCarthy had only very recently been dethroned – some of whom saw a communist conspiracy lurking behind the Civil Rights movement of the period, which was peaking just then with the Montgomery bus boycott; but also of liberals aware that racial segregation in the South was making it difficult for the USA to occupy the moral high ground in response to events in eastern Europe. Martin Luther King was canny here, with impeccable anti-Communist credentials and his insistence that desegregation was the patriotic American thing to do. The Cold War and this recent alarming ratcheting up of it hung over almost everything.
To a great extent the crisis was inter-generational. Both these books emphasize this. It was the young (preponderantly) reacting against the conventions of the past: bureaucratic communist in the east, capitalist and racist in America, aristocratic in Britain, imperialist in northern Africa, killjoy everywhere; all of which were supposed by the mid-fifties to have outlived their relevance, especially so long after the end of the war which had seemed to – as is the usual pattern with great wars in history – shake things up. In Eastern Europe the specific targets were shortages and Russian tyranny; in the USA Jim Crow; in Britain the hold that the Old Etonians still exerted over their supposedly democratic country; and in Egypt and other colonies or partial colonies a system of rule – formal imperialism – which most enlightened people could plainly see was already on its last legs. Beckett and Russell have coined a choice expression for those who could not read the signs: ‘the harrumph tendency’, they call them; which, ridiculous as these people seem in retrospect – and were made to appear even at the time, for example in the character of ‘Major Bloodnok’ on The Goon Show – could be frustratingly effective in blocking, even if it was only for a while, the abolition of hanging and homosexual law reform. Both of these reforms were seriously mooted in Britain in 1956, with abolition of the death penalty passed in the House of Commons but then rejected in the Lords, at that time ‘composed of hitherto unknown rustics, who thought, perhaps, that abolition was in some way a threat to blood sports.’ (This is one of Beckett & Russell’s best jokes.) Eden’s quite mad Suez adventure was also kept going by these men and women. Without them, and their fellow old reactionaries and procrastinators in Washington and Moscow, the modern age might have come sooner than it did.
On the other hand that still left – pace Osborne – plenty of ‘good causes’ to fight for, or at the very least bad causes to fight against, which is what made it such a stimulating time for many young men (or, in my case, boys) of that generation. Less so, I have to admit, for young women, who scarcely feature in these books, apart from Hall’s short chapter on the women’s march on Pretoria in August 1956 to protest against the extension to them of the hated pass laws. Feminism seems to have been slumbering then, though I may be wrong. For us young and progressive males, however, the Day appeared to have arrived. (Actually I wasn’t at all progressive at that time, supporting Eden over Suez, I remember; but I was only 15. And we had just switched from the good old News Chronicle to the Daily Telegraph at home.) We had our welfare state well set up; the new National Health Service was ‘in its best shape in its history’, according to Beckett and Russell; there was full employment (an astonishing 98.8% in 1955, though one imagines the relative lack of women in the labour market partly accounted for that); decolonization nicely on track, with two more colonies (Sudan and Ghana) liberated that year, though there was still much to be done on that front (Cyprus, for a start); and a pretty healthy Labour party, with some heroic recent achievements behind it, for non-doctrinal socialists to become enthusiastic about and active in. The abolition of the death penalty, easier divorce and the legalization of homosexuality were there for the grabbing.
Resistance to ‘progress’ was crumbling, but still vociferous enough to be worth taking on. Simon Hall makes much of the savage backlash against school integration in the American South, by whites worried that ‘the social fabric of our community’ was about to ‘be destroyed by a group of Negro radicals who have split asunder the fine relationships which have existed between the Negro and white people for generations’ (sic). Even President Eisenhower could understand white parents’ concern ‘to see that their sweet little white girls are not required to sit… alongside some big overgrown Negroes’. In Britain there was the noisy but ridiculous League of Empire Loyalists, who enjoyed a brief notoriety at this time. There was resistance too in North Africa (the violently intransigent pieds noirs), Cyprus (EOKA), South Africa, and of course by the Soviet puppet rulers and their secret police forces in eastern Europe. But all these causes seemed to be good and winnable, which made the struggle worthwhile; while simultaneously providing the protesters with a rich seam of satirical comedy (like Major Bloodnock, and five years later Private Eye) to cheer them on. The marching and demonstrating were fun as well: out of doors, social, serious. (I got into that a couple of years later, with CND.) ‘Progress’ seemed to be the dominant and irreversible trend of the time. Martin Luther King spoke encouragingly of ‘the rushing waters of historical necessity’. Hence all the harrumphing; a desperate, defensive cry if ever there was one, like a dying elephant.
The music was fun too. 1956 was the year when Bill Haley and His Comets and Elvis Presley first made it into the British charts with Rock around the Clock and Hound Dog respectively, competing rather powerfully with How Much is that Doggie in the Window, sung by Patti Page; and Liberace, or ‘the biggest sentimental vomit of all time’, as ‘Cassandra’ of the Daily Mirror described him, for which Liberace sued the Mirror – and won. It’s a sign of the times – the present time, that is, rather than the 1950s – that so much is made of this in these books, especially Beckett’s and Russell’s. By contrast, there’s not a word in either of them about the ‘classical’ music being composed then – Britten, Shostakovich, Martinu, Messiaen, Vaughan Williams, Bernstein, Poulenc, Kabalevsky’s Song of the Party Membership Card…. – which surely merits a footnote at least.
What popular culture’s relationship to the other developments taking place in 1956 was, however, is not explored here, apart from the obvious: that it expressed a vague spirit of revolt. The Montgomery bus boycott that started in December 1955 and the Budapest Rising of October 1956 were also expressions of revolt, but the connections between the music and the political activism here are not clear. These were very rarely ‘protest songs’. Likewise there were few if any explicitly ‘political’ novels or plays in 1956, at any rate in Britain; the critic DJ Taylor surmised that this was because ‘young writers seemed too committed to a sceptical and empirical attitude to be roused by political causes.’ (Again, I stand to be corrected on this.) But of course politics doesn’t need to be explicit. Just as contemporary American rednecks liked to claim that rock’n’roll was a cunning communist plot to demoralize American youth, ready for the Soviet tanks to move in, so Peter Fleming, elder brother of Ian, and a terrific harrumpher, thought he espied a Soviet ‘sixth column’ behind the trivialization of popular culture generally in his day. (This was in a novel published in 1952. The plot’s main agent was a figure spookily reminiscent of the late Terry Wogan, although the latter wasn’t to come on to our TV screens until the 1970s.) The Soviet gerontocracy harboured similar suspicions – this time with the capitalists as the plotters – about jazz and rock’n’roll. Fears like this may have lain behind the more strictly musical criticisms of this genre that were voiced in the 1950s: Frank Sinatra’s characterization of it, for example, as ‘phony’ music, ‘sung, played and written for the most part by cretins (There was a lot of this.) But it required a very conspiratorial frame of mind to believe that subverting the moral fabric of the nation was the deliberate motive behind rock’n’roll. Still, that could have been a side effect. More likely, however, is that it was a means of escape for the young from the world the oldies had imposed on them. There’s probably little more serious to say about it than that. (PS. I’ve nothing against it. I was hooked on it too.)
Beckett and Russell, in a nice conceit, begin their book by imagining ‘a tourist from the twenty-first century’ visiting 1950s Britain, and the shocks that he or she would encounter there. I guess that the greatest shocks would be for the women: essentially unliberated in 1956, second-class citizens, objectified, bound to the home, the only carers of small children, excluded from most responsible public jobs, demeaned in so many ways (if not idealized soppily), liable to be beaten and raped within marriage with little recourse except to hit back, as Ruth Ellis did – and she had just (in July 1955) been hanged for it: all in all not something I imagine most modern women would want to go back to. On the other hand, for Beryl Hinde of Enfield – born in 1933, so hardly one of ‘Thatcher’s children’ – ‘the ’50s were wonderful years. There was plenty of work and plenty of employment. People were happy.’ I couldn’t imagine being unemployed after school, either. And there were other compensations. One that Beckett and Russell lay great emphasis on is ‘the erosion of automatic respect for politicians, for ministers of religion or teachers, [and] for those who are richer or older than we are’ that was a feature of the mid-fifties. Yes, that was probably an important legacy, certainly in the field of popular culture, although it is worth mentioning that this was a charge that had been leveled against ‘the young’ periodically for centuries past. Another legacy, of Suez in particular, was the confirmation that Britain’s imperial time was up, though few of us outside the League of Empire Loyalists and the Daily Mail (just as choleric then as it is today: our twenty-first century tourist would not notice much difference there) bothered much about that; and the realization that we could no longer do anything as a nation if America didn’t want us to, which of course was the reason Eden had to pull out of Suez. That has bugged us ever since.
For me, however, the big thing about 1956 is the survival – from wartime – of a sense of hope, at least for men; of the idea that things could and probably would get better, for us individually, as a society, and as a world, if we went on as we were doing then: knitting the country together, becoming more social-liberal, and conceding to our colonies the freedoms we claimed for ourselves. Harold Macmillan, who succeeded Eden after the latter’s well-deserved fall after Suez (despite his own pro-Suez stance), proved expert in directing this, managing, as Beckett and Russell put it, ‘to make great change at headlong pace feel like a gentle amble over a grouse moor.’ That was the main thing distinguishing their world from ours, and feeding my emphatically non-Thatcherite nostalgia. There hasn’t been much hope around since her.