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The cool wind of change


'There were moments in 1963 when Britain was seemingly on the verge of a nervous breakdown,’ writes historian David Kynaston in his fascinating and immersive new book A Northern Wind. The breakdown was the result of an economic decline matched by what many saw as moral decay where politicians and elected officials could not be trusted (sound familiar?). The two-and a-bit years the book covers saw seismic changes that would alter the country for ever.

In some 600 pages Kynaston covers the unspooling years in almost day to day detail from the monumental to the banal. The sources include newspapers and books of the time and also sociological studies, Mass Observation records, political speeches and personal diaries from ordinary people.

As the story opens Britain is being rocked by an almighty political scandal that saw the ‘Old Boy’ Conservative government torn asunder. The following year there was a general election and Labour won, scraping in with a tiny majority of four, the Tories slinked away exhausted in the face of an exciting new PM, the promoter of the ‘white heat of technology’, Harold Wilson.

Incredible as it seems now, the pipe-smoking Wilson was less than a year older than JFK and to an extent was regarded, like him, as a vigorous, thrusting, energetic new broom.

The Tory defence minister John Profumo (described by one observer as ‘a slippery eel’) had been discovered sharing a ‘woman of easy virtue’ (Christine Keeler, just turned 21) with a Soviet attaché. The story of spies and sex and potential breaches of national security was like something out of the current cinema sensation: James Bond in Dr No.

The post-Cuban Crisis ramifications of injudicious pillow talk at a time when the cold war was at its most frozen was alarming. And the British press – the coverage was simultaneously indignant and salacious – was slavering over every detail.

The poet Philip Larkin caught the mood when he wrote: ‘Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three/(which was rather late for me) -/Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban/And the Beatles’ first LP’. Keeler’s friend Stephen Ward was accused in court of living on immoral earnings and was at the heart of what’s long been recognised as one of the country’s most shameful miscarriages of justice. Ward was sacrificed to save the bacon of several Establishment figures.

If nothing else the case helped usher in a new age where deference was out and individualism was in. As TV’s David frost said at the time if wartime austerity had meant “doing your bit,” now it’s “do your own thing”. In the West End the play Alfie saw Glenda Jackson playing one of the famous lothario’s ‘birds’. The new pop group the Beatles were playing seaside towns like Margate.

Suddenly working-class heroes were everywhere – novelists and playwrights, pop stars, footballers, actors and filmmakers. Many were from ‘the North’ of the book’s title (north meant anywhere outside a 25-mile radius of London). Names like David Hockney, George Best, Cilla Black, Joe Orton, Shelagh Delaney, Lulu, Sean Connery, Peter O’Toole, Diana Rigg, Ossie Clarke, Alan Bates, Glenda Jackson, Harold Wilson and… Jimmy Savile all helped shape and sow the seeds of the fab, swinging all-colour scene to come.

Meanwhile it was a black-and-white world of reinforced concrete – tower blocks, plate glass universities, adventure playgrounds, shopping precincts and relief roads (many crumbled and have long since been demolished).

Readers of Kynaston’s book will need to get their heads around outmoded concepts like the Clean Up TV Campaign, Green Shield Stamps, Z-Cars, pirate radio, the Wednesday Play and Pinky and Perky. Not to mention only two black-and-white TV channels (no streaming, no catch-up, no binge-watching). Instead, millions tuned in to the gritty Coronation Street or, on the other side, The Black and White Minstrel Show with dated ditties from the blackface male singers.

The brave new world of Britain in the early 1960s was still pockmarked with casual racism and everyday sexism and homophobia despite the promise of a ‘classless society’ (the levelling-up of its day).

The youth of the country were seen as ‘rudderless’ and out of control. The homosexuals, prostitutes and unwed mothers depicted in TV drama were perceived by some as a window on the moral decay of the nation. There were drugged out teenage mods and rockers running amok at the seaside and evil child-killers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, still in their twenties, were beginning their murderous spree.

In November 1964 the popular Sunday paper the News of the World (deceased) high-handedly attacked the long-haired Rolling Stones describing them as ‘four indolent morons [who] enjoy wallowing in their own repulsiveness’.

Forty years later, the lead singer was knighted by the queen and 13 years after that the newspaper’s proprietor married one of Sir Mick’s exes.

All things change and we change with them. ■

X: @KenWilson84

Info: A Northern Wind by David Kynaston is published by Bloomsbury (£14.99)

Extremely short skirts appeared in Britain in the summer of 1962, worn by so called “Ya-Ya” girls


The story of spies and sex read like something out of the current cinema sensation: Dr. No


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