The novelist John Fowles was teaching English as a foreign language in North London when the US detected Soviet missile sites on Cuba, raising the prospect of imminent nuclear apocalypse in October 1962. He wrote in his diary: “It is extraordinary, the little effect this is having on people. They do nothing but joke about it… I explained how this part of Hampstead was tilted to receive the maximum blast — huge laughter.” Nevertheless, he observed “hysterical anxiety” underlying it all.
A little over two years later, in January 1965, sixteen-year-old Laurence Marks bunked off school with friends to see Winston Churchill’s body lying in state in Westminster Hall. He noted: “As we get closer to the coffin a woman and her daughter are crying. The woman is actually sobbing. I ask her if she is all right and she blows her nose, dries her eyes and tells me like it’s losing a member of her own family.”
These diarists’ voices are three of many quoted by David Kynaston in A Northern Wind. The fifth instalment of his Tales of a New Jerusalem history of postwar Britain, published this week, draws on immediate first-hand accounts to bring to life the period from October 1962 to February 1965. It describes the impact of momentous events such as the Cuban missile crisis, the Profumo affair and Harold Wilson’s first election victory. And it reveals people’s everyday experiences, including mixed reactions to pop cultural icons such as the Beatles (“fantastic”/“frankly failed to excite me”).
Here, Kynaston explains the thinking behind the broader series, the big themes of 1962-65, his own memories of those years and his approach to history writing.
How did the New Jerusalem series come about?
“The idea came as long ago as 1987, after Margaret Thatcher won her third election. She had been in power since 1979 and was going to be in power for at least the rest of the ’80s. It suddenly hit me — perhaps slightly late in the day — that her coming to power in ’79 was a real line in the sand of modern British history. Epiphany is too grand a word but it was realising that 1945 to ’79 had its own shape and internal coherence as a historical period. I formed the idea of having a crack at that. But I had just signed a contract to write a history of the City of London that was supposed to be one volume and turned out to be four. So it wasn’t until around 2001/2002 that I got to work on the postwar project.
“The underlying idea was to tell the history of a political arc — predominantly a social history, with a political edge. One of the problems of contemporary history, where there are people alive who remember it, is nostalgia. As we get older, we all have some nostalgia for our younger years. At the moment I’m writing about 1965 — I was 13 or 14 and have memories and some nostalgia. But obviously in the fullness of time 1965 is going to become as remote as 1865 or 1765 are now. So it is informed by memories, but the aim is to write something that could be read in the future and have as much objectivity as if I was writing about 1865.”
What is it like moving closer to the present?
“Quite exciting. This really is the time I start remembering stuff. I was born in ’51 and have a very hazy memory of the Cuban missile crisis. I was at boarding school, aged 11. I can picture myself in a particular dormitory. I don’t think any of the boys knew much about it. In ’63 the Profumo affair was a bit of a mystery, but I knew something was happening. And in ’64 I was very much following the election that October. I went to Wellington [College] and had only been there about a month. In the dormitory we would listen to transistor radios late into the night under the blankets. That was the beginning of some sort of political consciousness.”
What were some of the most important events or changes in 1962-65?
“It is very hard to measure or quantify, but I think 1963 was an important year in terms of the erosion of deference. We had already had, by the end of ’62, [TV satire show] That Was The Week That Was, and Beyond the Fringe a couple of years earlier was important as well. But all of that was further cemented with the Profumo affair and the hypocrisy and lies of the Conservative establishment. I don’t know whether people at large were shocked, but certainly liberal intelligentsia opinion was shocked by the way that Stephen Ward was made the scapegoat of the whole thing. Effectively it was a show trial ending in his suicide. It was a terrible, terrible thing.
“A master story of the book is that you have all these things: Beyond the Fringe, TW3, the Profumo affair, a sense of modernity generally in the zeitgeist, and Harold Wilson, who was a brilliant operator in the earlier part of his time as Labour leader — very much a northern, grammar-school meritocrat. Counterintuitively, after Macmillan, the Conservatives had chosen Alec Douglas-Home, completely at odds with the apparent zeitgeist. In theory, you look at all those factors and it should have been a Labour landslide at the election of ’64. And yet Labour only scraped in by a majority of four.
“In other words, for all the changes, it was still a more conservative and deferential, backwards-looking society than, as it were, it should have been. Admittedly, Wilson then got a thumping majority in the election of ’66, but it’s that election of ’64 — whenever I think about that, I’m really struck.”
You say the 1945-1979 arc involves a shift to individualism?
“It struck me when I was researching my book Austerity Britain — looking at Mass-Observation material in particular — that even in the 1940s, the absolute high point of collectivism, there was a lot of individualism. People were at least as concerned, if not more concerned, about themselves than the collective. In terms of attitudes to the NHS, people were undoubtedly pleased when it began in 1948. But they were pleased less because it would mean society as a whole was given proper treatment — the real pleasure was that they were getting something for themselves for nothing, or it seemed for nothing.
“By the Sixties, you have obviously greater affluence and increasing standards of living. You have a sense of the privatisation of lifestyle — the decline of the cinema and pub and the rise of television. Rather than husband and wife broadly living in separate spheres, they are starting to do more things together, the husband even changing the odd nappy. People are starting to live a bit more in their own silos.
“And it also has to do with taste and identity — there is less uniformity. It’s changing but it is a long longterm trend. In the book, there’s a very good photograph of an incident in Oxford Street. Suddenly people have stopped and are looking up at the top of the building. It’s a snapshot of shoppers and they’re all dressed in a very uniform kind of way.”
Was it an optimistic time?
“There is a weird disjunction in the Sixties and Seventies. On the one hand, there’s a broad narrative of national economic decline. The comparison was always West Germany. We did decline in comparison — my mother was German and when I was a small boy her parents lived in Bonn and we’d go there circa 1960 and it was eight marks to the pound. By the end of the Seventies you would barely get three.
“Successive politicians, whether it was Wilson in ’64 or Heath in ’70 or Thatcher in ’79, came in on an agenda: ‘We are going to reverse economic decline etc.’ There was that narrative the whole time and, yet, at the same time, through the Sixties and good chunks of the Seventies, living standards were improving significantly and there was Macmillan’s ‘We’ve never had it so good’. And probably for most people it was that latter narrative, the circumstances of their own life, that mattered more than the national narrative — because people are usually far more concerned about themselves and their immediate family than the fate of the nation.
“There was full employment, broadly speaking, and opportunities were increasing. There is a slightly cartoonish version of the Sixties and social mobility, because of the rise of the Beatles and working-class actors like Michael Caine and northern accents becoming more acceptable. All that is true, but one can’t just assume that there was a huge increase in social mobility — I’m instinctively sceptical about that. Even so, universities were expanding, although it was still only one in ten going, and there was a bit of a buzz around.”
This wasn’t the Swinging Sixties yet, was it?
“Exactly. In terms of youth culture, you haven’t really got hippies on the scene much before ’67 at the earliest. For that druggie feel to the culture and groups like Pink Floyd, for example, you’re talking late Sixties rather than early or mid. When England won the World Cup in 1966, you look at the crowds and they’re all so respectably dressed.
“We’ve tended to look at the Sixties through very youth-oriented eyes. But, of course, youth at any one time is only a minority of the population. And even within youth, most youths are behaving more or less like their parents. For older people, life went on as usual. In the first paragraph of the book, I mention my Shropshire grandparents. What I didn’t say, but could have, is they had definitely heard of the Beatles, but I’m not sure about the Rolling Stones. So one can exaggerate the buzz.”
How much foreboding was there about a possible nuclear war?
“One story that has stuck in my mind is later than the Sixties. It was December 1973, after I left university. I was sharing a flat with friends in Earl’s Court and, one morning, one of the guys in the flat came into my room and said, ‘Look out of the window’. I was half-awake, half-asleep and when he said that, the first thought that flashed across my mind was I was going to look out and there was going to be some sort of nuclear holocaust. And in fact, it was snow — an overnight fall of snow.
“It made me realise that in my subconscious the nuclear thing is still there quite powerfully. But my general take is that people are very good at not thinking about things they don’t want to think about. Humans have great avoidance capacities. I’ve never been completely convinced by the ‘shadow of the bomb’. I don’t think it was in one’s conscious thoughts all that much.”
Did the Second World War still loom large?
“It did for me, because my father was an army officer. He had been at D-Day. There was a sort of shadow memory of the war. And, generally, my take on society — not just British society but that’s the one I know best — is that people tend to look back at the past and want familiar things. After the war, people would say, ‘Ah, it’s like it was before the war,’ and that would be praise — things were back to how they should be after the great interruption or hiatus.
“One of my big themes is to do with all the urban redevelopment in the Fifties and Sixties and how so much of it was not in accordance with people’s wishes, or they did’t even try to find out what people’s wishes were. The centres of whole towns and cities were more or less destroyed and communities destroyed. There’s no doubt from the evidence that what most people wanted was to be in a nice little house with a nice little garden, not up on the 15th floor.
“I think that social historians tend to overestimate the pace of change and there is that great tendency to look at London and assume it’s like that around the country at large. It just isn’t. Not in terms of of ways of life or social attitudes.”
Do you remember the pop culture changes you write about?
“I actually remember the mood I was in when I listened to the Beatles’ Love Me Do in the autumn of ’62. But, for me, the trouble with the Sixties is that I was in boarding school till 1969 and you didn’t really get out. You didn’t see television much. I’ve always felt very envious of friends of my age who were at day schools and watched all that television in the evenings, Ready Steady Go! and so on. There was also always that problem, coming from middle-class families, that it was vulgar to have ITV on — it had to be the BBC.”
Did your research for the book teach you anything unexpected?
“I knew the main stories and themes I wanted to do, so it was more about going deeper into some things. The penultimate chapter is about the trade unions. It’s there because the unions have been important before, but they’re going to be such central players from the mid Sixties onwards over the next 20 years. I have ten portraits of individual trade unionists who were important at the time or are going to become important. And it reminded me that — because the unions were, broadly speaking, the losers of history and history is written by the winners — we still have slightly cartoonish memories or folk memories of the unions at the time of their greatest power in the Sixties, Seventies and a bit of the Eighties.
“To do more research, looking into obituaries and so on, just reminded me that they were real people, interesting people. They had all left school at 14 and really made something of their lives. I was particularly pleased to write that chapter and start to get away from these rather crude, silly versions of the unions at that time.”
Were there individuals you particularly enjoyed writing about?
“On the politics, once Harold Wilson arrived was fun. Moving into the period I’m now doing offers three great diarists. It’s amazing in the same government to have Tony Benn, Richard Crossman and Barbara Castle. Most governments have one good diarist, but this one has three — which is possibly why you get such an impression of personal discord, because it was so diarised.
“In terms of individuals, I was lucky in finding new diarists. Laurence Marks, who became a scriptwriter, was terrifically good writing his diary as an adolescent. In the last chapter, when it came to Churchill’s lying in state, the person I assumed would give me a really good description was Mollie Pater-Downes, who wrote the London Letter for The New Yorker. She did indeed write a description. But I then looked at Laurence Marks’ diary entry — he was 16 or 17 — and thought his was better.
“I remain very faithful to my favourite of the diarists I have used right the way through — Judy Haines, a housewife in Chingford. Unlike most diarists she doesn’t moan too much — I feel when she moans she’s got reason to… There is one diarist, Henry St John who’s completely misanthropic and I try not to quote him too much because he’s too depressing, but he runs through. They are there as a kind of Greek chorus through the whole narrative and I’ve been very, very grateful to have them.”
How do you find all these diaries?
“At the very start of the project I spent about a year and a half just touring around libraries, archives, local studies centres — looking not only for diarists but potential material and places. I picked up some that way. Judy Haines, for example, wasn’t actually Mass-Observation but is now part of the Mass Observation Archive at The Keep just outside Brighton.
“Laurence Marks was pure fluke. I was doing a session at Cheltenham Literature Festival a couple of years ago with Joan Bakewell. She was friendly with Laurence who was there and she introduced me to him and that led to that. Another diarist I use who I like very much is Veronica Lee, now Porter. After I had a piece in The New Statesman about emotional history, she got in touch and told me she kept a diary. So there’s a lot of chance involved. Diaries are the raw, unmediated stuff. They don’t know what’s going to happen the next day, which is so great.
“I should mention this rather extraordinary thing at the Bishopsgate Institute, the Great Diary Project. It began about 15 years ago, but took a while to build up a critical mass. It’s British diaries going back to the 18th century and more or less up to up to the present. For the 1960s, they’ve probably got about 80 diaries, so I’ve just sampled them and decided which ones are useful for me.”
Do you have a fixed working routine?
“Only in the sense that, like many people, I’m usually more alert in the morning than later. Ideally, I will try to do three or four paragraphs in a day. Years ago, my then agent Deborah Rogers said to me that she thought the secret of writing was freshness. She was absolutely right. One knows as a writer that sometimes one is feeling fresh and that’s great. At other times one’s slightly turning the handle and it will be competent and okay, but… So it’s best to take a break and come back again. You know in your bones about that.”
What started your interest in history?
“My prep school had a good history teacher and I was fortunate with my history teachers at Wellington. Perhaps a more interesting way of answering the question is that, on the whole, I didn’t much enjoy the history at Oxford when I was there as an undergraduate. Broadly speaking, it was too starchy and high-political and didn’t really excite me. In my career, post-Oxford, the two big things I’ve done have been to do with the City of London and postwar Britain.
“In both cases, they’ve kind of been a reaction against Oxford. In terms of the City because of that old Oxford snobbishness — it’s probably gone or semi-gone now — against money and business and the vulgarity of it all. And, in terms of the postwar social history, when I was there — it presumably will have changed a lot — social history or history from below just wasn’t on the agenda. So, my debt to Oxford is a slightly reverse debt.
“For pleasure reading, I tend to read novels far more than nonfiction. So in the history I write, I would like to give some of the satisfaction that one gets from enjoying a novel.”
Is there a part of the book you are most pleased with?
“The chapter I’m most pleased with, partly because it was the most sweat to do, is chapter three — an overview of the welfare state by the early Sixties. I had dealt quite a lot with the coming of the modern welfare state in the immediate postwar period, but hadn’t had much about the welfare state through the ’50s and thought it was time to pick up the story.
“And although it’s based on a lot of other sources, rather than my own research — a pulling together of the state of the welfare state done almost as social history — I don’t think there’s anything quite like it. I was conscious of a balance to be struck. I’m really pleased we still, just about, have a welfare state in this country, and an NHS free at the point of use and so on. But in all these different areas of the welfare state by the early Sixties, it was being run from above, without always listening very hard to the concerns of the people using it. It was a paternalistic, be grateful for it, don’t ask too many questions, kind of thing. So it still had a long way to go.”
David Kynaston’s A Northern Wind: Britain 1962-65 is published on 28 September 2023 by Bloomsbury, £30. The photograph at the top of the article shows a billboard poster for Harold Wilson’s Labour Party campaign, London, 1964. Photo: Getty Images.