The Reading Room

A Northern Wind: Britain 1962-65

David Kynaston

Published: 2023, Bloomsbury Publishing

For my book review this month I must first declare my interest as a born and bred Yorkshireman arriving in “God’s own county” in 1960, so it’s no surprise the title of this book immediately resonated and attracted my eye when I recently visited the Cheltenham Literature Festival but that aside, it’s a great read and highly recommended to all.

Kynaston’s 600-page book goes into painstaking detail about every aspect of British and Northern life during the four year period between 1962 and 1965 but his easy, very readable style make the pages fly-by. I love how he mixes a variety of subjects taken either from local or national newspapers, private diaries, correspondence and blends them all together to make a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience. So much so that I regularly found myself transported back to my childhood in Yorkshire as if it were yesterday. On the other hand, as I read and reflect, it seems not much has changed for the challenges of Government and for the people living in Britain over the last 60 years. The North/South divide was much debated then as it is now, reflected in an article in the Guardian back then which commented that “The North is crippled with the burden of the industrial revolution to an extent that the South hardly begins to understand.” Serious housing problems, neglected schools, an underfunded NHS, struggling industries, a declining population, a government clinging on, railways in crisis… This latest volume in the Kynaston’s mighty history of post war Britain may sound horribly familiar!

The book doesn’t cover the whole decade of the 60’s, of course, merely the period between October 1962 and January 1965. The month of October 1962 was in itself hugely significant culturally. Saturday 6th October 1962 witnessed the simultaneous release of both the first Beatles’ single, Love Me Do and the very first cinema release for the very first James Bond film, Dr. No starring Sean Connery. It was also the month during which, thanks to the Cuban Missile Crisis, humanity came closer to wiping itself out than at any time before or since. Current global conflicts make me wonder if we aren’t yet again heading for this same self-destruct button.

The year 1963 saw the government of Harold “Supermac” Macmillan dealt with a severe blow by the eruption of the Profumo Affair which shook British society to its foundations. By October 1963, Macmillan, who was approaching seventy, had lost all appetite for the job and used the excuse of a perfectly treatable bout of prostate cancer to make a sharp exit from Downing Street (he went on to live until 1986). With no formal arrangements to elect Tory leaders yet in place, the subsequent “contest” to succeed the old man quickly turned into a farce, the skeletal Sir Alec Douglas-Home somehow emerging as leader, despite still being in the House of Lords at the time of his appointment…… It seems Tory leadership battles haven’t changed in their ability to be farcical events! Subsequently and not surprisingly a youthful Harold Wilson won the next General Election for the Labour Party. Today, a politician who always wore a raincoat and smoked a pipe would risk seeming like an odd ball. But in 1963, these things when added to the new leader’s heady, intoxicating, arguably slightly meaningless talk of the “white heat of revolution” helped make Wilson seem like the harbinger of a new, exciting, more technological and meritocratic new age. Despite this, he only just managed to knock the stiff, untelegenic Sir Alec off his perch, leading Labour to victory with a single figure majority.

But that’s enough about politics! The book also provides a unique insight into almost all aspects of British life through the TV they watched, the newspapers and magazines they read, the music, the sport and the thoughts and feelings of people both famous and ordinary through their letters and diaries. It is a reminder that history is not always what we remember it to be and that people’s perceptions and attitudes back then might not be exactly what we would now expect them to be. For example, as some reflected idly on the return of Dixon of Dock Green “like an old friend coming into the house every Saturday”, others discussed the possible implications of the contraceptive pill – “this is not a subject which a woman will discuss over morning coffee – even with her closest friends,” wrote Jean Rook in the Yorkshire Post. The Beeching Report was published. The Great Train Robbery happened. On the night of President Kennedy’s assassination, Beatles fans went to see the Fab Four perform at the Globe Theatre on Stockton-on-Tees. Mods and Rockers fought on Brighton’s beaches. The first episode of Top of the Pops went out. Some took an instant dislike to its first ever host: “What an odd-looking individual…like something from Dr Who…Mutton dressed as lamb.” Sometimes the effect is similar to reading a Twitter feed. The host on that occasion was the 37-year-old Jimmy Savile.

With the perspective of sixty years, Kynaston also highlights prejudice at every level. For example he explains how travel chaos hit Bristol when a boycott followed the city bus company’s refusal to employ minority ethnic crews, one of several race flashpoints of the early 1960s. Despite the talk of prosperity common to the era, A Northern Wind is a chill reminder of calamitous social management, not least in the replacement of solid Victorian terraces by high-rise housing. Kynaston notes that even then, some were having second thoughts about this modernist dream, with its emphasis on style and impact overlooking the needs of the prospective tenants. Not much to cheer in education, either, where the continuing unfairness of the 11-plus, the unloveliness of secondary moderns and the “barrier to democracy” represented by private schools kept British society more or less benighted. “Ultimately,” writes Kynaston, “this was an issue about social class.” It always is. The 1960s was still a conservative age, still hidebound by deference at one end of the class spectrum and complacent in its privileges at the other. Of course, there were outliers of independence, in Katharine Whitehorn’s forthright columns at the Observer and in novelists who took the social temperature: “the days are over, thank god, when a woman justifies her existence by marrying” (Margaret Drabble).

The book concludes on two seismic moments, one a beginning, one an ending. Labour’s election victory in 1964 was not the landslide expected, but a majority of four: thus, a country still suspicious of change. The latter was the death of Churchill, at 90, in January 1965, which few would dispute as the passing of an era. His funeral at St Paul’s brought London to a standstill and the country to a reckoning. It marked “the final act in Britain’s greatness”, wrote one journalist, who also called it “a gesture of self-pity”; “sobering”, wrote an elderly diarist, “but we have been pronounced dead before and been buried and there has been a resurrection”.

Robin Sellers

October 2023

The information contained above and in other entries in the Ocean Dial Book Review Series is intended for general information and entertainment purposes only, and should not be relied upon in making, or refraining from making, any investment decisions. No information provided herein should or can be taken to constitute any form of advice or recommendation as to the merits of any investment decision. You should take independent advice from a suitably qualified investment adviser before making any investment decisions.

The CEO Factory: Management Lessons from Hindustan Unilever

Sudhir Sitapati

Published: 2019, Juggernaut Books

For six decades Hindustan Unilever has remained among India’s top five most valuable companies. No other Corporation in the world has done so well for so long. For the first time comes a book that decodes how this great business works – from a director of the company who has spent his whole career there.

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Seven Decades of Independent India: Ideas and Reflections

Vinod Rai

Published: 2022, Penguin Books India

Has democracy in India fulfilled the aspirations of its people? Have institutions delivered? Have public policies succeeded in making substantial differences to living standards? Is the country secure on its external borders? Would the country become an economic powerhouse? And can India be a leading power in the years ahead?

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Ikigai – The Japanese Secret to a Long and Healthy Life

Hector Garcia & Francesc Miralle

Published: 2016, Cornerstone

We all have an ikigai. It’s the Japanese word for ‘a reason to live’ or ‘a reason to jump out of bed in the morning’. It’s the place where your needs, desires, ambitions, and satisfaction meet. A place of balance. Small wonder that finding your ikigai is closely linked to living longer.

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