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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Getting some perspective at last, 9 May 2009
This review is from: White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties 1964-1970 (Paperback)
As Sandbrook points out in his introduction, histories of the Sixties tend to follow tedious rituals of romanticising or demonising. Certainly, until recently it has been impossible to discuss the era without being drowned out by a mighty roar of self-celebration from the main players. We are now, however, far enough away for some perspective to creep in: history is being written by people not even born when the decade ended, and with less of an axe to grind.

A welcome step in the right direction, then. Sandbrook rightly points out that "Swinging London" was largely about the adventures of a few hundred affluent individuals in the fashionable bits of London, whilst the rest of the capital - never mind the rest of the country - watched from outside, sometimes with interest but sometimes with their main attention elsewhere, in urban landscapes that too often reached 1970 still looking as they had in the 1930s. He is full of valuable correctives to the lazy, clips-show histories of the period, pointing out, for instance, that mini-skirts took years to reach shops in provincial cities; that the resolutely non-swinging fishing was the most popular sport of the era; that the Grosvenor Square protests against the Vietnam war, discussed ad nauseam, in fact formed part of an anti-war movement that fizzled out within weeks and achieved little beyond that moment of televised mythology; that more people watched "The Black and White Minstrel Show" on TV than saw the Stones in Hyde Park; and that far from "the Establishment" trying to hold back forces of popular cultural revolt embodied in the pop stars of the era, when two Rolling Stones were jailed following the famous Redlands bust it was figures from the reviled Establishment that felt the punishment too severe whilst public opinion, including that of young people, was largely behind the sentences. (These examples are chosen to demonstrate Sandbrook's willingness to challenge received pictures of the decade; they should not be taken to imply that he is another rubbisher of the period and all it stands for.) In short, it's evidence-based history rather than the recycling of cliché.

The time now elapsed since the events has other benefits, too: not merely the acquisition of perspective, but also the arrival of sources not available before. As well as the regular release of government papers, Sandbrook has benefitted, for instance, from the ending of the Troubles in the north of Ireland, which have allowed sources on both sides of the divide to come clean about activities at the time (the civil rights movement, apparently, began as an IRA front but then was "infiltrated" by ordinary people who took it over and gave it a momentum outside the control of its originators - the reverse of the more usual situation in which popular discontent is harnessed by agitators).

It's a fascinating read which achieves the seemingly impossible task of throwing up new facts and slants on this most discussed of periods. If I have any reservation, it's that it doesn't quite live up to the promise of the introduction. The core of the book is the story of the Wilson government as seen from within - the sort of detailed scrutiny of cabinet minutes that Peter Hennessy has specialised in. It's a fascinating story, setting out the odds against which that government worked (contrary to the clichéd picture of sixties prosperity, they battled one economic crisis after another, struggling to get financial assistance out of the USA whilst avoiding being dragged into Vietnam). We hear from the usual suspects about Swinging London, along with doses of perspective about the extent to which this phenomenon actually affected people. And we do, as Sandbrook promises, hear from the people growing up in Hull or Belfast or Bournemouth, for whom, as J.G. Ballard said "the sixties were an exciting period that I saw on television." I could, however, have done with even more of the latter, with perhaps more mining of archival or oral history sources. For example, discussion of the legalisation of homosexuality includes one testimony from a gay man who had married, failing to understand his own feelings, but there is a massive social change there of which Sandbrook scarcely scratches the surface, sticking chiefly to published contemporary opinions from society's opinion formers. The same could be said of other areas of social history in the book: whilst touched upon, they generally take second place to the political history.

Not perfect, then, but a gripping read, whether you remember the sixties with fondness, gnash your teeth when their protagonists appear on TV, or are simply interested in evidence-based history. There will be other histories of the period that make use of the perspective of distance but this is a worthy start to the process of stripping off cliché and replacing it with proper historical writing.
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Initial post: 5 Dec 2012 11:30:06 GMT
Excellent review - thanks. I've just started this book myself (well, I'm 200 pages in!) and am thoroughly enjoying it. I've previously read Sanbrook's first volume covering 1956-63, and am pleased to see he has continued in the same fashion.

And it's good to know, for anyone interested, that the author will write at least one more book in the series following the latest (1974-79) offering. I contacted him via his website and he confirmed that he will cover 1979-84 in the next volume, and leave himself the option of either ending it there or writing one last book to cover up to the end of the Thatcher years.

Posted on 11 Jul 2014 13:35:35 BDT
I read this book by Sandbrook and was unable to find anything that supported the following remark which you make: "the ending of the Troubles in the north of Ireland, which have allowed sources on both sides of the divide to come clean about activities at the time (the civil rights movement, apparently, began as an IRA front but then was "infiltrated" by ordinary people who took it over and gave it a momentum outside the control of its originators - the reverse of the more usual situation in which popular discontent is harnessed by agitators."

Although he mentions that the old IRA were able to profit from the attacks on the PD by Loyalist thugs and Northern Irish police thugs at Burntollet, he nowhere suggests that the PD was an IRA front. The most interesting revelation was the absolute ignorance of mainland politicians of the state of affairs in Northern Ireland. They knew more about Vietnam than they knew about Northern Ireland.

It's interesting that Thatcher devoted a section of her book 'Statecraft' to the resolution of ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia, and had nothing to say about the resolution of a far more pertinent conflict in Britain. One more example of mainland ignorance and indifference in equal proportions.
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