Review of “A Northern Wind: Britain 1962-65” – A Vibrant and Energetic Performance
Philip Larkin is well-known for pinpointing the sexual revolution in Britain to the year 1963, specifically between the end of the ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the release of the Beatles’ first album. Prior to this moment, sex was seen as a source of contention and shame for the repressed population of the country, with young people feeling pressured to marry and society placing a stigma on sexual expression. However, after 1963, sex became a liberating and exhilarating experience, with individuals breaking free from societal constraints. Larkin, who was in his early 40s at the time, acknowledged that this change came rather late for him personally, but he still labeled it as an Annus Mirabilis (miraculous year).
In 1963, social historian David Kynaston continues his extensive retelling of post-World War II Britain in his book Tales of a New Jerusalem. The fourth installment, A Northern Wind: Britain 1962-65, highlights a significant cultural shift that occurred during this period, which spans only 28 months. Kynaston, who takes a more objective approach compared to poet Philip Larkin, also recognizes this as a pivotal moment between the dominant “Daddy Knows Best” mentality of the 1950s and the emergence of a more liberated and individualistic society in the years leading up to Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power in 1979.
Kynaston’s approach involves collecting a wide range of primary sources, which he both curates and writes about. These sources come from various segments of society, including pig farmers and prime ministers. Some diarists from previous volumes may be familiar, such as Judy Haines, a middle-aged housewife from Chingford, and Veronica Lee, a student at a girls’ grammar school in Crediton. Other notable individuals include future celebrities Gyles Brandreth and Maureen Lipman. The end result is a comprehensive overview, like that of a falcon viewing the Glastonbury festival from above. The amount of detail can be overwhelming at times, particularly when Kynaston presents lists of unrelated events in lengthy sentences full of semicolons. However, this level of observation requires a vast amount of material, and patterns begin to emerge amidst the vast quantity of information.
Kynaston picks up where he left off in early October 1962, with the release of the Beatles’ first single, Love Me Do, and the opening of the first Bond film, Dr No, in British theaters. The political climate of the country is reminiscent of our own time, as it nears the end of 11 years under Conservative rule and is embroiled in tense negotiations regarding membership in the Common Market. The railways are also facing major changes following Dr Beeching’s report. An international crisis involving Soviet missiles in Cuba adds to the already volatile atmosphere, and a government minister, who is a member of the exclusive Bullingdon Club, is found to have lied to parliament (John Profumo). While these events may seem familiar, Kynaston does not explicitly draw modern comparisons, instead focusing on giving readers a glimpse into what life was like in Britain during this time period. He aims to provide an understanding of the country’s culture and atmosphere in those years and explore what changes were on the horizon.
The primary topic is the country’s perception of its ruling class. In the post-World War II era, Britain remained elitist and highly structured. The upper class was primarily made up of individuals from a small number of prestigious schools, where they were taught to suppress all emotion and communicate in a tone that exuded “aloof, condescending superiority”, as described by Ted Hughes. By the early 1960s, this group was being satirized as “the establishment”, especially on the BBC’s That Was the Week That Was, which debuted in November 1962 and was hosted by 23-year-old David Frost, a former grammar school student from Kent. Frost was the perfect contrast to the establishment, appearing on television with a “distinctly unclassifiable accent, disheveled black suit, and overly ambitious hairstyle”, as remembered by the show’s creator Ned Sherrin.
At the start of the 1960s, popular culture in Britain was dominated by figures like Frost, the Beatles, and Dr No. Despite this, the country was struggling and many people were living in substandard conditions. By the end of 1962, over a million homes were considered slums and 4 million did not have basic amenities like a bathroom or hot water. In an effort to improve living conditions, the government tore down traditional terraced houses and replaced them with high-rise buildings, following the American model. Unfortunately, little consideration was given to the residents who had to move into these new developments. The trend of modernizing town centers also led to the destruction of historic Georgian squares, making way for large shopping complexes and multistory car parks to accommodate the growing number of cars on the road due to the changes brought about by Beeching.
The UK society faced various forms of prejudice, including class snobbery. Surprisingly, 16.5 million people watched the BBC’s The Black and White Minstrel Show every week, and “colour bars” were present in all aspects of British life. In 1963, the Bristol Omnibus Company refused to hire black crews, and the Transport and General Workers’ Union turned a blind eye to these discriminatory practices. During the 1964 general election, the Conservative strategy in Smethwick, located in the West Midlands, was shockingly racist. Even newly appointed Prime Minister Harold Wilson criticized the victorious Conservative MP, calling them a “parliamentary leper” and causing a mass walkout by Tory members.
There was widespread discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation. Women, especially those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, had limited opportunities and were expected to prioritize marriage, child-rearing, and domestic chores.
Despite the negative aspects, Kynaston’s sources also reveal positive elements of 1960s Britain. During this time, politicians of various political parties were dedicated to the concept of a welfare state and creating a more equal society. The standard of living was improving rapidly, income inequality was low, and there were ambitious plans for social equality. The government even briefly considered building a new capital city in the north, similar to Brasília in Brazil. There was also a proposal to abolish the public school system, although it was ultimately rejected by the Labour conference.
Wilson’s “white heat of technology” speech captured the prevalent sense of optimism towards the future. The rise of labor-saving devices and the growth of consumerism promised increased leisure time and greater options. The year 1964 saw the launch of the initial Habitat store by Terence Conran, marking the beginning of a new chapter in British design. It was also a period of flourishing arts, with Britain nurturing a diverse pool of talent such as Joan Littlewood, Sylvia Plath, Harold Pinter, Peter Brook, Dennis Potter, Michael Frayn, and Iris Murdoch.
Pop music, particularly the Beatles, were at the forefront of driving social change. John, Paul, George, and Ringo are frequently mentioned in Kynaston’s story, as they rose to fame from Merseyside and captured the attention of the entire country. They were often accompanied by hordes of screaming teenagers, and their antics challenged societal norms while also charming their way through class barriers. At the 1963 Royal Variety Performance, Lennon famously asked the audience in the cheaper seats to clap their hands, while encouraging the well-to-do crowd, which included the Queen Mother, to simply rattle their jewelry. The nation was enamored.
Was Churchill actually still living during these events? He was, but not for long. The book ends with his funeral on January 30, 1965. The time of imperialism and social hierarchy was coming to an end, and the postwar agreement was also fading away. At the time, Veronica Lee was a student living in a shared house in Leeds. She and her housemates had differing reactions to the news of Churchill’s death, as recorded in her diary. “Val and I were quite sad,” she wrote, “but Di called him a warmongering old man.” And so the chapter closed.