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.
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.
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.
Dominic Sandbrook is a storyteller without rival. His histories are enthralling: you sit up very late, not wanting to put the books down. Besides being a very talented reader-friendly writer, he is an accomplished academic-researcher so it is not an outrageous claim to suggest this is surely the best social history of Britain from the mid 1950s to the early 1960s.
The author manages to cover, in depth, many subjects: social change, domestic politics, the rise of consumerism, emerging British popular culture, the rebuilding/expansion of towns and cities, international affairs, the end of colonialism, the world of work and industry, a babyboom, shifts in literature and the arts. And he does this without becoming boring or “highbrow”. If only more historians could, as here, clearly explain just how shifts in economic policies can affect the average person. Or how broad social changes affecting youth aspirations could generate the Shadows and the Beatles. The book explains the "how" and "why" of lived history so effectively.
I rate “Never Had it So Good” even higher than Sandbrook's succeeding volumes because of the way Sandhurst has structured this book. It is a narrative history organised chronologically. Yet each chapter is thematic, which means you can jump about and read them in any order, while the book retains its shape. Few historians have such a gift. - For me, a 6 star book.
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).
on 3 March 2014
After seeing Dominic Sandbrook's recent TV documentaries on the Cold War and the 1980's I was impressed enough to want to check out what he had to say about the 1960's. As he explains in the introduction Dominic Sandbrook began this book when he was lecturing at University and its the first he ever wrote. He has gone on to write about the second half of the 60's, as well as two books on the 70's and is currently writing about the 1980's. Considering the size of each of these books thats quite an achievement.
The style of the book is a lot like Andrew Marr's History of Modern Britain. There is a lot of political and economic history interspersed with more general social history. I found some of the politics hard going in places, after all if it had no real effect on peoples lives who cares what the politicians were up to. It is interesting looking back how many times the mechinations at the heart of government really don't have much effect in the long run.
The most interesting elements for me at least were the details about how people lived - the clothes they wore, the music they listened to, the food they ate. The fact that Berni Inn was considered the height of cultured cuisine is quite amusing to read. Considering the fact that Mr Sandbrook is the same age as myself I was impressed that he has managed to capture some sense of what life was like in the early 60's. Writing social history like this is always difficult, even if you remember the 60's you only remember things from your own viewpoint. What this book attempts is to give a general impression of life in that era.
This is a very long book, and as I said I think some of the sections on politics could have been shorter, but because its so long it makes sure not to miss anything. Despite its length the style of writing is clear and quite readable so it doesn't seem like a chore getting to the end. When you do though you will probably want to read his next book "White Heat" which covers the second half of the 60's.
If you want to read about modern British History then Sandbrook is your man. This is one of a series of books tracing Britain from the 1950's towards the present day. He always manages to write in a totally accessible way without ever trivialising the material. This book does not cover a very long time but there is so much to read that it draws you in and helps you to understand how Britain today has been influenced by the events of nearly 60 years ago.
on 13 November 2015
Moving effortlessly from the Suez crisis and the fall of Eden to the election of Wilson and a reforming Labour Government, Dominic Sandbrook delivers on the premise that this was what that epoch was really like and only by understanding the past can we understand how we came to be where we are.
An excellent addition to an excellent series.
on 28 August 2015
This book is a highly readable and fascinating history of Britain from 1956 (Suez crisis) to 1963 (Profumo scandal). But the politics for me isn't the fascination. Rather its the way Dominic Sandbrook not only effortlessly weaves backwards and forwards between political history and social history but also uses the latter to explain the former. So at the end we have the old, tired and ill Prime Minister Harold MacMillan confronted not only with a seemingly endless series of sex and spying scandals but much more seriously confronted with the emergence from nowhere of something fresh brash exciting and new which gripped the nation - Beatlemania. In fact throughout the book pop music forms the unheard sound track. One of the best stories in the book is told by the journalist Alan Watkins. In what would now be called "the green room" after a TV show Watkins is chatting idly to Bill Haley of "rock around the clock" fame when another guest, a famous politician "loped purposefully across the room" and said "Mr Haley may I shake your hand". The action having been performed they chat affably. Later Watkins asks the politician why he did that? The reply "Surely the answer is obvious. He is the most influential character of our age". The politicians name? Enoch Powell.
Sandbrook points out that while this period and especially the rest of the 60s is often characterised as one of intense change in fact Britain was (and remains?) a very conservative (firmly with a small "c") society. Indeed one of the for me most interesting parts of Sandbrook's highly readable book is the way that the same themes in 1956 still dominate 59 years later. Muddled thinking about Britain's role in the world and in Europe in particular. It was in this period that American Secretary of State Dean Acheson famously said "Britain has lost an empire but not found a role". I am not arguing for or against the EU but the UK managed to be half in half out. Through complacency and confusion we miss the start, decide to join belatedly and half heartedly only to be vetoed cynically by De Gaulle. Macmillan looked so broken hearted on this happening that De Gaulle said he felt like saying "ne pleurez pas, milord". As Sandbrook points out the British establishment - dominated by Old Etonians who came under fierce attack as a cabal of aristocrats plus ca change! - had simply no idea of how to tackle the fundamental issue of the UK economy - dismally low productivity. So they looked (without any basis for doing so!) to the EU as an instant economic panacea, a "with one spring he was free" approach to economics.
Sandbrook hits on another theme with tremendous resonance right now - immigration. He shows that Britain was mainly a nation of emigrants and that the large inflow of immigrants was new and of course was to have a huge impact (much of it positive, most notably on our truly appalling post war cuisine!) on society. Largely forgotten today was the often hostile and unpleasant reception the immigrants (mainly at the point from the Caribbean) received. Signs saying "no blacks" were common and it was a miracle that nobody was killed in the savage 1958 Notting Hill race riots. Jump forward and irony of ironies this area is now noted not for the craziness not of its mobs but of its multi million pound house prices....
Sandbrook skilfully brings out what for me is the most interesting part - social and cultural change. And if I had to single out one driver of change from the book it would be the BBC. Under a leadership committed to advancing the morally permissive ideas of its Director General Hugh Greene BBC TV made an enormous impact, rapidly elbowing aside radio and becoming a dominant influence in shaping cultural norms. Under the impact of TV a number of long established cultural pillars of the UK experienced a steep drop in attendance. Most notably as Sandbrook points out those two historic rivals - the church and the pub.
Firstly Sandbrook brings out the extent to which ideas matter because they shape the future. Probably the single most important idea of this period was affluence - that money can make you happy. This was to have tremendous power in the Thatcherite era to come and we are all Thatchers children!. Affluence also was closely linked to a new phenomena - the "teenager". Powered by demographics easy cash and the media teenagers and "yoof" were to have a formative influence on society which again is still felt today. The very tile "Never had it so good" a famous quote from Macmillan sums up the era. Money became or at least displaced God for many. How did the church react to its new rivals? There was a runaway theological best seller by the Bishop of Woolwich (John Robinson) with his notorious "Honest to God" which sold over a million copies and helped popularise the truth (which is still sadly I suspect the case today) that some of the most senior clerics of the church don't really believe their own message. From a Christian perspective then also the battle of ideas matter as well and shape the future.
Secondly this book shows how difficult it is to make predictions about the future which has a habit of taking an unexpected turn. Not just financial markets but life! The story of the four young lads from Liverpool being told by Decca that guitar groups were on the way out is well known. Deserving greater currency is that the music business as a whole was equally convinced that a new genre was going to dominate. Highly popular garnering large and growing sales and beloved by intellectuals this movement predicted one leading music critic "the way things are...it looks like the sixties may well come to be labelled the decade of.....Trad Jazz". Or who could have predicted how wildly successful a new TV series would have been, launched inauspiciously the day after JFK was assassinated. The story was set in dreary London of 1963, and told of a grandfather and granddaughter living in a junkyard who unwittingly transport the whole cast back to a freezing Palaeolithic landscape. They are then seized by a tribe of cave dwellers desperate to rediscover the secret of fire. It sounded unpromising but 813 episodes later, Dr Who is still going strong. As Yogi Berra said "Its tough to make predictions especially about the future" or as Tony Blair (did or didn't) say "I never make predictions. I never have and I never will".
In summary, a well written book if a little long. Anyone (like me) born in the 60s will find it riveting, especially as it captures the lives of our parents (well most people's, perhaps not mine!)
on 17 August 2013
A detailed and consummately well-written account of a recent past, which I lived through but without having this much grasp on the period. Sandbrook's histories of modern Britain are essential reading.