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on 13 November 2015
Carries on Dominic Sandbrook's tour-de-force into the Wilson Government and the disappointments' of the sixties. How the reforming zeal of the party which had just been elected to Government over Alec Doulas-Home's Tories was replaced by backbiting and cynicism as they stumbled to defeat against Edward Heath and against both the odds and the perceived wisdom of the day. But in between what a ride, from the Beatles at the height of their success and how this affected all of their rivals and contemporaries to the bright young things of "Swinging London" and the photographers, models and film stars that, for a short while at any rate, contributed to the glamour.
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on 9 September 2017
As Described
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This is the second volume of Dominic Sandbrook's history of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. The first book, "Never Had It So Go," took us to 1964 and this looks at the history of Britain from 1964 - 1970. This book begins with the funeral of Winston Churchill - that monumental leader, who had led the country through war. The national mood, indeed, was one of self-pity and there was a sense of decline. However, there was soon to be an outpouring of new music, design, technology and talen and England - or, perhaps, specifically, London, was about to swing... I say London, because, as the author is always reminding us, for most people England was most certainly not swinging. Plays, such as "Cathy Come Home," highlighted homelessness and poverty and, for most people, they may have read about the nightclubs and counter culture of London, but they did not experience it first-hand. In Sunderland in the mid-Sixties, nine out of ten privately owned houses had no indoor toilet and three quarters of houses had no bath. Of course, the after effects of war meant there was still a lot of slum housing being used and the country was still re-building. The late Sixties would see the beginning of tower blocks and housing estates which would bring their own social problems in the next decade.

Like the previous book, the author tends to alternate chapters on political and economic matters with social history, which helps the book flow seamlessly between more weighty issues to more frivolous ones. Political issues concern Ted Heath and Harold Wilson, Mary Whitehouse and the permissive society, the Moors Murders, the 1967 act which decriminalised homosexuality, racial tension and education reforms; specifically the (in my opinion, disastrous) promotion of comprehensive education and attack on the grammar school system.

Socially, of course, it was a time of huge change. Musically, there was the meteoric rise of the Beatles; including their success in the United States, which opened the floodgates for other British acts to pour through. This book concentrates mostly on the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (including the notorious Redlands drugs bust), but also looks at other acts, such as the Kinks and the Who, and of music as a source of national pride. Along with music, there is the British film industry, the theatre and television; a new generation of photographers, such as Terence Donovan and David Bailey, models such as Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy, fashion, sport - a minor event called The World Cup - and art and design. Sandbrook pulls in just about everyone, from Mary Quant to Terence Conran, Michael Caine and the Krays, in his examination of this decade. It was a time of classlessness - or, rather, a new class of youth and ability - of the counter culture and drugs. However, only a minority of people went to nightclubs such as the Bag o'Nails, the Ad Lib and the Scotch of St James's, to sit alongside the `in crowd.' For most people, the swinging Sixties was something they read about in magazines.

I really enjoyed both this book, and the previous one. The author makes history readable, enjoyable and, often, very funny. If you are looking for a good introduction to this decade, these books will give you a thorough account of all the major events in Britain - from politics to social history. If you are interested in reading on, "State of Emergency" by the same author, looks at Britain from 1970 - 1974 and continues with, "Seasons in the Sun," (1974-1979).
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on 30 September 2014
Haven't read yet - but am looking forward to doing so
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VINE VOICEon 20 December 2009
I find it hard work reading long books these days as there are so many more distractions than there used to be.
However this book - and it is certainly long - was a pleasure to read. Written in an easily accesible style, it actually told me lots of stuff I didn't already know, which is a rare feat.

The book covers almost every aspect of the 60's in Britain, focusing predominantly on politics; indeed Harold Wilson is the central figure, but it also covers music, television, fashion, architecture, housing, sport, morality, the start of the troubles in Northern Ireland which really exploded in the 70's, and a host of other areas. I even learnt a good deal about music, an area of the 60's I thought I knew all there was to know about.
The chapters on the early troubles in Northern Ireland were particularly enlightening. For example, although I knew the British army was initially welcomed by the Catholics and the first soldier wasn't killed until the early 70's, I didn't know that the first murders were committed as far back as 66 and they were committed by Protestants as was the first killing of a police officer. I also already knew that the so called Reverend! Ian Paisley was a deeply bigoted and unpleasant man, but I didn't realise how bad he actually was!

The research Dominic Sandbrook must have put into this work is phenomenal and there are literally hundreds of references. Just skimming through them at the back of the book was exhausting; for the author to have read them all is remarkable.
Even if you thought you knew all about the 1960's, as I did, there is something new to be learnt here,
Highly recommended!
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on 9 August 2010
Dominic Sandbrook must have read pretty much everything written about the swinging sixties in this compelling, compulsive and hugely entertaining revisionist history of the 1960s, though in truth (in line with Larkin) his 1960s begins in 1963/4 and covers pretty much all the social, political, cultural and technological narratives that fuelled these crucial years. The result is a dense but compelling piece of work that manages to convey the political machinations of the increasingly paranoid Wilson years whilst also providing considerable social and cultural contexts such as the rise of The Beatles and an almost exhausting range of less predictable fare. The stories and anecdotes are the lifeblood of the book saving it from becoming just another cut and paste History and Sandbrook has a thesis as well. For him the 1960s were years of continuity more than change and the so called "swinging" aspects of the 1960s that supposedly represent a cultural revolution according to Historians such as Arthur Marwick have been overstated. The influence of iconic 1960s personalities; brandnames and cultural phenomena were both geographically limited and socially blunted by class distinctions and a population that still connected very much with traditional values and was still essentially conservative by nature. Sandbrook is writing in what is fast becoming a crowded market. Andrew Marr has managed the whole century in two volumes whilst Brian Harrison has recently published volumes on the same period as Sandbrook. David Kynaston also weaves a similar patchwork in his micro Histories-Austerity Britain and Family Britain and like Sandbrook intends to cover the period up to Thatcher. It is therefore to Sandbrooks credit that i am eagerly awaiting the next volume of his narrative covering the first four years of the 1970s-State of Emergency out in September. He managed to make Dull Alec (David Frosts description of Sir Alec Douglas Hume) interesting and Wilson(smart alec), equally fascinating. Nice to see a historian giving room to more than the obvious cultural icons.
Overall a triumph and well worth a look- start reading and you will be hooked. White Heat is red hot.
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on 15 January 2011
White Heat is an extremely readable, detailed (if occasionally factually inaccurate) history of England in the first Wilson years of government, that draws on an enormous range of source materials. Its central thesis is cast in a highly conservative (capital or small C will do) interpretive mould. Sandbrook finds it hard to say much good about the government (George Brown is treated to a particularly savage behavioural analysis, and not much credit is given his intellect or policy, though much to his inebriation and petulance). Mr Sandbrook is dismissive of any ground-breaking or revolutionary elements in the arts or popular culture of the time. His argument here, though is seductive but fallacious. Effectively it boils down to this: British people didn't really care for or embrace anything new brought to them in the Sixties like the Rolling Stones, recreational drugs or the pill; they preferred to have a nice cup of tea and a sit down in front of the Black and White Minstrel show. Of course, while statistically this can be argued, from an historical point of view it's a highly reactionary position. You can't judge the significance of an event or cultural change by the immediate response to its introduction, but you can by its persistence beyond the "shock of the new". Whilst much of what is depicted here is fleeting or ephemeral, so much of the culture of the sixties set the ground for subsequent attitudinal change that continues to this day. Sandbrook does himself a disservice by eschewing impartiality and inserting judgmental phrases such as "extraordinarily", or "disturbingly" when he wants to trivialise an event, in an effort to influence the reader to his way of thinking. One can't fault the book's readability, though, and at least it avoids the paint-by-numbers generalisations of (the admittedly popular) Andrew Marr's simplistic volumes.
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on 9 May 2009
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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on 11 March 2012
This book covers all of the 'happenings' in the 60's (64 to 70) Harold Wilsons government to architecture, music, and fashion. I found it surprisely easy to read.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in that era, whether you lived thru it or not !
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on 25 August 2006
When somebody has written a book of such excepptional quality as Never Had it so Good, you always fear for their next one. How, you wonder, could Sandbrook maintain the levels of energy and irony that made that such a delight? And yet he has - perhaps has even exceeded them. Perhaps as bookshelves warp beneath their combined weight there will be carpers who wonder if they couldn't have been squeezed into one volume, but that is to miss the point: what makes Sandbrook's two books on the sixties so important is that very breadth. All life, it seems, is here.
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