The Doctrine of Unripe Time

Ferdinand Mount

  • Having It So Good: Britain in the Fifties by Peter Hennessy
    Allen Lane, 740 pp, £30.00, October 2006, ISBN 0 7139 9571 8

When did decaditis first strike? When did people begin to think that slicing the past up into periods of ten years was a useful thing to do? Historians used to deal in reigns and centuries, and it had long been agreed that these might have their own distinctive flavour, including the one that you happened to be living in – Tennyson in 1846 referred, ironically, to ‘a noble 19th-centuryism’. But, as far as I can see, the 1890s was the first tenner to be identified, and quite quickly identified, as having its own inimitable aroma. Eddie Marsh, writing of Rupert Brooke in 1918, says ‘he entertained a culte for the literature that is now called “ninetyish” – Pater, Wilde and Dowson.’

Almost as soon as a decade became a label, there were people who did not wish to have it stuck to them – Arthur Machen, the magus of the fantastic, although a paid-up member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, insisted to the end of his days that he was ‘no part of the 90s’. Others welcomed the affiliation. The 1930s poets owed their instant celebrity to their speaking to and for their ‘low dishonest decade’. Julian Maclaren-Ross was happy to call his recollections Memoirs of the Forties, a decade of which he was so emblematic. But these were artistic and literary lumpings-together, handy tags for something which might in fact have spread over a much longer period (Pater’s most celebrated work was composed in the 1870s and 1980s).

Writing a political or cultural history of a decade is a much more recent endeavour, and a much odder one. There is the obvious objection that significant trends are unlikely to fit neatly within such compartments, the longer durée spilling over at both ends. The itch to dig up single spadefuls of the recent past seems somehow fidgety. Choosing to cover such short stretches at a time naturally leads you to insist on how distinct your chosen decade is from the one before and the one after – or else why write about it in isolation? And behind this there presumably lurks the desire to puff up the times we have lived through, to present them as a uniquely thrilling rollercoaster, in which the ups and downs, the changes of pace and direction, make our own lives more amazing than those of previous generations. There is in decaditis a hint of nervous insecurity.

The decade in question is likely to be one which many readers have directly experienced, or whose afterglow they can remember. For us, the scene is déjà vécu, or to put it more bluntly, stale buns. For the historian of the 1950s this problem is a good deal tougher, because if the 1950s are famous for anything, it is for being dull. Not as dull in Britain as in Eisenhower’s America, but dull nonetheless, not to mention smug. It is not surprising that Peter Hennessy should call his monumental history Having It So Good, nor that Dominic Sandbrook should call his equally monumental recent history of the late 1950s and early 1960s Never Had It So Good. This neatly illustrates the drawback of decaditis: Macmillan’s speech at Bedford football ground on 20 July 1957 points forward as well as back.

Having It So Good is the second volume in a history of postwar Britain: the first volume, Never Again, a history of 1945-51 or the ‘short postwar’, was published in 1992. Hennessy starts off writing what is essentially a social history of these years but then, a quarter of the way through, swerves off to produce something more unusual, a history of high politics under Churchill, Eden and Macmillan that would satisfy even Maurice Cowling’s sense of the level at which politics really does operate and at which political history ought to operate. Almost anyone can piece together a plausible scrapbook of an age, but to make a coherent picture out of what was going on behind the scenes is a more demanding task.

So in the first hundred-odd pages, we hear in Hennessy the hiss of Achille Gaggia’s wonderful coffee machine; we sniff the first whiffs of garlic and olive oil from Elizabeth David’s Book of Mediterranean Food; we hear the first chords of Bill Haley and the Comets. We find, too, the trenchant comments of Richard Hoggart, A.H. Halsey, Anthony Sampson and Michael Young – the Four Evangelists of the 1950s to whom Hennessy dedicates his book. Their increasingly grumpy pronouncements on the ‘shiny barbarism of the new affluence’ pepper the pages of Having It So Good. Of the new milk bars, for example, Hoggart says, ‘Compared even with the pub around the corner, this is all a peculiarly thin and pallid form of dissipation, a sort of spiritual dry-rot amid the odour of boiled milk.’

Hennessy puts all this together with grace and charm. He recalls the terrible false dawn when sweets came off the ration and then had to go back on again, the number of clothing coupons you needed to buy a blouse, the arrival of the Chinese and Indian and Turkish restaurants – ‘an impact on the British palate … not experienced since the medieval world discovered the spice routes’. And he intersperses his own memories: of his youngest sister buying her first pair of two-toned high-heeled shoes, of Eamonn Andrews reading the football results on the radio, of the trolley buses creeping silently through the last pea-soupers before the Clean Air Act of 1956. Occasionally, these personal recollections verge on the winsome: for example, when Hennessy recalls that the sight of a steam express crossing the Forth Bridge on the opening credits of Six-Five Special had particular resonance for ‘little old trainspotting me’. But he relives very well the innocence and modesty of those years, of which the hard-nosed Sir Kenneth Berrill, later head of Margaret Thatcher’s Central Policy Review Staff, remarked: ‘We had won the war and we voted ourselves a nice peace.’

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