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4.7 out of 5 stars
Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles
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27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
There are many good things to say about this book. It is well written - indeed it bowls along like a fine novel - informative, entertaining and intellegent. But perhaps above all what most impressed me is the beautiful balance Sandbrook achieves between the political, the economic and the cultural. All of these very different elements are given their due respect and place in his narrative and consequently they combine together to give a vivid impression of what life was really like in the Britain of the late 50s and early 60s.

All of the heavyweight political figures are given sufficient space to make them live as individuals: Eden, for example, a man of high principle touched with arrogance for whom, perhaps, the post of prime minister came at a stage in his life when he was a little past his peak; and Macmillan, the Edwardian gentleman who was a whole lot sharper than he ever let on. Similarly the economics of post war Britain is explained in a serious and meaningful, but never dry, fashion. Cabinet rumbles over inflationary and deflationary budget options contain, in Sandbrook's hands, moments of surprising high drama with resignations and often rather childish temper-tantrums being far from uncommon. Similarly the scandals of the time, and in particular the Profumo affair, are given excellent coverage. It wasn't until I had read this book that I fully understood just why the affair between a fairly low-level minister and the (frankly gorgeous) party girl Christine Keeler rocked the Macmillan government to its very core.

But for me what makes this book a real joy - and what puts it above many other volumes of a similar nature - is the attention given to the cultural figures of the time. There is an excellent chapter on the literary scene with colourful portrayals of Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, John Osborne and Colin Wilson. The ground-breaking genius of the Beyond the Fringe gang is given an excellent account. The emergence of the Beatles as a genuinely revolutionary force both socially and musically is well covered; and the appeal of the Bond films - with their exotic glamour and charismatic, suave lead Sean Connery - to a population often mired in near-poverty and sadly colourless lives is beautifully and articulately explained. If you want to know what really mattered, culturally, economically and socially, to the people of Britain during the years between '56 and '63 whether they were upper, middle or working class then this is the book to get. If you were interested enough in the volume to read this review then I would have no hesitation in recommending you pick yourself up a copy straight away. It's both intelligent and a good read, and you really can't ask for more than that from any book.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on 21 June 2005
This wide-ranging history of only a few years in the fifties and sixties is a clever blend of political, social and cultural history. Because it relies heavily on anecdote and narrative, it triumphantly passes the test of readability. But this is not narrative for narrative's sake: it uses story to present incisive insights into the nature of the times and to correct some of the myths associated with the age.
The politics of the time are brought to life with lively portraits of the leading politicians. The profile of Macmillan, for example, is a gem. The culture isn't confined to high culture but enlivened with memorable portraits of the Beatles, the spy novels of the time and the television shows that enraptured the UK in the seven years covered.
At the centre of the social history is the picture of a newly affluent society which may or may not have sacrificed its traditional or moral values. In the memorable chapter, "Live Now, Pay Later" social and economic history are cleverly woven together. And in "The Provincial All-Stars" you get an equally impressive blend of culture and economics, not to mention a vivid portrait of Kingsley Amis.
This very long history will not be an endurance test for most readers. Like me, they will find themselves returning to it eagerly and even more eagerly waiting for volume 2, which according to this site, is due next year. I can hardly wait!
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40 of 41 people found the following review helpful
on 30 July 2006
For some reason reviews of Dominic Sandbrook's histories of Britain in the 50's & 60's - "Never Had It So Good" & "White Heat" - are duplicated under both titles. A little confusing, but actually sensible as the two books are in fact the first and second parts of a single work. Which is? A brilliant, highly entertaining and extremely well written social & political history of a country in a period of huge change.

"Never Had it so Good" starts in 1956 but also encompasses a much wider overview of the whole of the 50's while, quite wisely, ending pretty sharply in 1963 when "the 60's" - in terms of what the phrase has come to mean - really started. And, the period it explores in assiduously researched detail is quite fascinating: an under-estimated and often forgotten decade of massive change, the individual & combined impact of which on UK society make for thoroughly absorbing reading.

"White Heat" covers the years from 1963 to 1970, picking up seamlessly from where "Never Had it so Good" left off and applying the same diligent research to a period that has already received saturation coverage. A mixed blessing, for the enormous amount of source material causes Sandbrook some difficulties in marshalling it into a cohesive whole. On the plus side, the numerous diaries of key politicians aid him in producing what must be one of the most authoritative political & economic studies of the period, but, on the negative side, the sheer amount of available material on social & artistic events causes him problems in ensuring that things are given their correct level of importance. However, what he does do, quite superbly, is to capture the "feel" of the period: from the accelerating euphoria of 1963 to 1967 to the rapid unravelling of it all into a mood of "gloom & lost hope" between 1968 and 1970.

By the end - all 1,300 pages in total across the two books - you're left in little doubt that Dominic Sandbrook has achieved his goal of producing a definitive work. While "White Heat" occasionally loses its focus, this is a minor criticism of a hugely impressive feat of research & writing that will change your view of the 50's, add to your understanding of the 60's, and entertain and engross you on the way... which are just about the best accolades that can be given to any history books.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 3 July 2006
Well all I can say is what a book!!From the first page of the preface to the last page of the chapter 'On to 1964'I was hooked to this masterpiece.

Never has a book been written in such minute detail without ever becoming boring. After having the book you really are left with the feeling that you yourself have just lived through the 8 year period in question.The follow-up,White Heat 1964-70 is top of my birthday list and boy am I pleased that I only have to wait 7 weeks to start reading the next volume.This Is a classic. Please read it.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on 19 April 2005
Having heard Dr. Dominic Sandbrook speak on the general thesis of his book, Never Had It So Good, at the Oxford Literary Festival (April 10-17, 2005), I was lucky enough to obtain an advance copy of this massive and impressive tome. Sandbrook's view is that the typical picture we all seem to share of the Swinging Sixties is but a myth, a nostalgic vision of the past which, when true, was experienced only by a small and elite section of society. His book explores the hidden pockets of the era as experienced by the masses. He disinters the 1960s of the ordinary and middle class Britons, those locked outside the usually depicted London set, to present a picture of the decade without the glamour and glitter of LSD suffused illusions.
Sandbrook is honest in his intentions. This is a book which looks at the British experience. The author has been accused recently in the New Statesman of 'parochialism' by the former Open University academic, Arthur Marwick. This, however, seems (at least to this reviewer) something of a misplaced criticism. Never had It So Good is clearly and explicitly, to its credit, attentive to the national and regional experience. It is a 'history of Britain', which looks at Britain's place in the world rather than the impact of the world upon Britain.
I can thoroughly recommend this book for both the specialist and the general reader. Heavily researched and lucidly written, Sandbrook's personality emerges from his clever asides and witty observations. Brimming with political, economic, cultural and social history, the book is not simply a compendium of information but a weighty mine of academic content. First rate stuff!!
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on 19 April 2005
This is definitely the best book I have ever read about the Sixties. It covers everything from the political intrigues of the Profumo sex scandal and the threat of World War III to the birth of the Beatles and the origins of Doctor Who. In fact it is hard to think of anything the author has left out and if, like me, you remember the 1960s, this book will bring back all sorts of nostalgic memories. For instance I loved the stuff about children's toys and books, the boy scouts and pop music -- that was my childhood!

Unlike many historians, the author writes in a very lively, entertaining style which makes it all extremely easy to read, and I found it hard to put the book down because I always knew there was going to be something really interesting on the next page. There are even some real laugh-out-loud moments e.g. about the writer Kingsley Amis, which you don't always find in a 'proper' history book, and there's also a great narrative to it which means that you are always keen to find out what happens next.

I definitely recommend this book to anyone even slightly interested in the Sixties or in British history.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on 8 April 2007
How long ago were the Sixties? From reading this you would think that they were about the time of the dinosaurs: the espresso had just been invented, rationing and national service had just ended, and families in large parts of the UK did not have access to running water and electricity. Some of the facts contained in this excellent work are things which those of us born in the 70s are just not aware. I mean there is so much information in this book it is just about impossible to take it all in. This doesn't stop it being compulsive though; OK, in some parts it slows-up (I mean twenty plus pages just on James Bond could be considered overkill) but you cannot put this down, and that's saying something for a book nearly 750 pages long. There are nuggets in here which no-one born past 1950 would be aware of today; there are sections on Larkin and Amis (that's Kingsley for you younger readers)but also on now forgotten writer Colin Wilson, and it is shocking how racism and homophobia were much more prevelant than today. You can complain about the state of Britain under Thatcher/Major/Blair (delete as applicable) but Britain seems a much better place today than some of the scenarios laid out here. I'm looking forward to reading the next volume.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on 3 January 2006
This book is a revelation, particularly for someone who is the same age as the author and therefore wasn't even alive during the decade.
It rescues the 1960s from the realms of the pop star's biographies and certain university lecturer's rose tinted memories of the times.
As someone with a keen interest in the period, it was always frustrating to read magazines, social surveys and books from the era, and then read books from such writers as Arthur Marwick, and find such a disparity between the facts of the time and the wide ranging assertions of some historians.
This book describes the 1960s of my parents and their contemporaries, and not the rariefied lives of Paul McCartney, John Lennon and Mary Quant.
I look forward to the next edition (the late sixties) and discovering that not everybody took LSD in the summer of 1967!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
This book, the first of two giving a social and political history of Britain in the Sixties, has been on my radar for many years. When it finally appeared on kindle, I thought that I could ignore it no longer and decided to finally get around to reading it - I am glad that I did.

Although this is the story of the Sixties, it begins in 1956 with the Suez crisis, and ends as the country heads into 1964. Dominic Sandbrook does a wonderful job of incorporating the cultural and the political. He paints a picture of the country in those post war years, as rationing ended and there was a greater wealth and consumerism. With ITV competing with BBC and supermarkets challenging local shops, people have different choices which affect their everyday lives. However, this is still a society which clings to traditional views and politics. Even as Britain copes with its changed perception within the world, there is a longing for traditionalism and opposition to the influence of the US, especially on the young.

The book begins with Macmillan seemingly safe as Prime Minister, but he is rocked by major events and scandal - particularly the Profumo affair has a real impact on his influence. Along with the Cold War, the threat of atomic war, the European Union, the changing Empire and immigration, satire was also an up and coming influence of public opinion. At the end of this book, we have Harold Wilson as the leader of the Labour Party and it is obvious that political change is coming - and welcomed by most.

Along with major events, we have all the cultural events that were important during those years; from rock and roll to the literary scene, the `Angry Young Men' of film and theatre, television and radio, the Cambridge Spies, James Bond, Harry Palmer, John le Carre and, of course, the Beatles. As we head into the early 1960's, the huge impact of popular music still has to be felt. As late as 1962, there are those saying that Trad Jazz will be the dominant music of the Sixties, until Beatlemania burst onto the scene and into the charts. Of course, in 1964, the British Invasion will begin and London will suddenly swing into the Sixties proper. I look forward to reading the second book, "White Heat," which begins where this finished. This is social history at its best - readable, enjoyable and full of interesting snippets and humour.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Never Had It So Good covers Britain from the years 1956-1963. At over 700 pages it goes into quite a bit of detail. It's the first of two volumes -- the second is White Heat, which continues the story to 1970.

This book was not on my radar but after hearing author Dominic Sandbrook give an hour long talk about his most recent book, State of Emergency: The Way We Were. Dominic Sandbrook, about the early 1970s, I was hooked by his style. He weaves together political history, consumer history, music, movies, books, labor history, and social history into a single, detailed narrative. As a reader who has few qualms about skimming when things slow down or get bogged down in academic jargon, I found myself reading nearly every word of Never Had It So Good.

Starting with the major event in 1956 Britain, the Suez Crisis, Sandbrook proves his ability to make history real. Until I read his account, I did not know anything about the Suez Crisis. I was surprised to find it was fascinating and tragic in a way that the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars of today will probably seem to future generations.

While I enjoyed reading about the politics of the time, I have to admit I was more interested in the advent of television in Britain and how the long post World War II austerity that had lasted into the 1950s finally gave way to the consumerism that had been rampant in America for the past decade. Sandbrook's entertaining history of the Butlin Holiday Camps that were like summer camps for the whole family was also memorable, and so was his informative section on the music that led up to The Beatles.

Only a few sections did not hold my interest. The political battle between Harold MacMillan and Rab Butler was tedious. The Profumo Affair was THE scandal of its time, but you just had to be there, I guess.

Since so much of the period in question was televised, it was fun to look up several of the memorable events that Sandbrook mentions. I was able to find video of David Frost walking off the set of his talk show in frustration over a guest who was an obvious liar and con man, and video of the Beatles singing Moonlight Bay in straw hats on a British variety show. Sandbrook's extensive bibliography was welcome, since there are bound to be several topics in such a large book that the reader will want to read more about.

Now that my eyes have recovered from the eye-wateringly tiny print of Never Had It So Good, I am ready for White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties: 1964-1970. And I am pleased to see that Sandbrook's subsequent books are available as ebooks (with adjustable font size).
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