Highs and lows. The Sixties may have been a good time to be a photographer or guitarist, but for most people life carried on much the same. By Robert Winder

Never Had It So Good: a history of Britain from Suez to the Beatles

Dominic Sandbrook <em>Little,

The low point in this encyclopaedic history of the 1960s comes in the first sentence, when it emerges that Dominic Sandbrook has chosen to begin with the Lady Chatterley trial. It is a nerve-racking start. Books about the Sixties, whether they swoon over the dawn of a sexy new era of personal freedom or jeer at its wanton indiscipline, are eleven a penny, belonging to the same publishing category as books about the "unknown" Marilyn Monroe (with hitherto unpublished photographs!!!) or giddy memoirs of life in Tuscany. Those of us who spent the Sixties working our way out of nappies have rarely enjoyed the eulogies the decade has inspired. Another jog around this thoroughly besieged block is a grim prospect.

Fortunately, Sandbrook is bluffing - lulling us, we might say, into a false sense of superiority. After a neat demonstration of the extent to which the Lady Chatterley trial was not quite the simple victory of liberation over stuffiness that it usually seems, he declares that he wishes neither to celebrate a "golden age of hedonism" nor to wring his hands over our decline into greedy promiscuity. Instead, he wants to rescue the 1960s from the myth-makers, to drain away the corny symbolism in which the decade now comes ready-coated. In short, he wants to complicate matters - an admirable and refreshing ambition in an age thirsty for simple answers.

Sandbrook begins, quite rightly, by disputing the neat parameters of chronology. His "Sixties" begin in 1956, with a gripping narration of the disaster at Suez. In this, the first of two projected volumes, he moves from that low point in diplomacy - when Britain's postwar impotence and clumsiness became inescapable - through the rapid resurgence up to 1963. Throughout, he emphasises that the Sixties were not only a time of miniskirts, music, photography and naughty fun (nice, well-publicised luxuries for the university classes), but also a time when Britain was rising above the austerity that had dogged it since the Second World War: rationing did not end until 1954.

It was a time when a surge of new citizens from the Caribbean and India was struggling to win over a shocked and surly local population, and a time when an amazing range of technical innovations was genuinely changing life. Not all of these were brand new, but this was the period in which they went mass-market. Cars, televisions, freezers, supermarkets, the Pill, jet aircraft, space - this was the time when these staples of our contemporary existence first took hold.

The book is a masterpiece of diligence. A glance at the endnotes is enough to make anyone gasp. And Sandbrook has distilled it into a sharp and fluent prose that swirls elegantly from episode to episode. Everything feels fresh: the fastidious yet rapid withdrawal from the colonies, the birth of sullen, everyone-out trade unions, the loosening of British food, the first chill of the cold war, the political calculations of Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and Hugh Gaitskell, music in Liverpool and the growth of gangs.

A slightly perfunctory chapter on literature takes Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin and Colin Wilson to be the representative writers of the decade - an orthodox but rather plain view, given that other figures whose work was arguably more resonant (Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, Iris Murdoch and William Golding) were all busy at the time.

And on other occasions Sandbrook seems a touch over-loyal to the familiar notion of the Sixties as singular, radical and unprecedented. In truth, these were good years to be a photographer or a guitarist: all those models, all those bright magazines. However, if you were a miner in Durham, a farmer or a mechanic in Derbyshire, or a nurse in Hull, life did not seem to have changed so suddenly. The way those young people carried on in London hardly made a dent in the garden centres and bowls clubs where "Orpington Man" - yesterday's version of Worcester Woman or Middle England - brooded, after mowing the lawn, on where to cast his floating vote.

Thus, in the end, Sandbrook's Sixties do run along quite steady rails: they are squashed, as Larkin put it, between the Chatter- ley trial and the Beatles' first LP. Having trawled energetically through contemporary newspapers, he is obedient to what people (or journalists) thought important at the time; and his impressive narration of the period's set texts sometimes leads him to treat them too easily as documentary evidence. In his chapter on espionage, for instance - a boom industry in the years he is describing - he relies mainly on expositions of Ian Fleming, Len Deighton and John le Carre. An account such as this might have regarded these as brilliant but fanciful re-creations, and looked a little harder at the real men and women trading information and fear across the increasingly dense Iron Curtain.

By the same token, there is more about Christine Keeler than there is about the arms race; more about Stephen Ward, the high-society pimp, than about the postwar architects beginning to glower over Britain's town centres, or about Dr Beeching wrecking the railways; more about David Frost than about lordly cricketers such as Len Hutton (knighted in 1956), Colin Cowdrey and Fred Trueman (175 wickets in 1960). It ought to fit Sandbrook's thesis that sportsmen, builders and engineers are as substantial a part of history as notoriety junkies and TV celebrities. Some might even say they play a larger, less ephemeral role, whose importance we count on historians to weigh. The people who pioneered the deep freeze, opening up the path to ready-meals, out-of-town superstores and a revolution in domestic life, might have changed the world more boldly than Ringo Starr. In staying close to the headlines of the time, Sandbrook gains much in period flavour, but sacrifices many of the benefits of hindsight.

It is easier to carp, however, and imagine things differently, than it is to assemble a book as spacious, fluent and coherent as this. And it is a relief to encounter a version of the Sixties that treats the rose-tinted recollections with scepticism. Sandbrook doesn't quite state it, or has not yet, but he seems to imply that the much-vaunted rebel aesthetic was little more than a perk of prosperity. For the first time in decades, teenagers had the wherewhithal to enjoy life. They were luckier than their parents, who had memories of real hardship, but who seemed merely drab and tight-fisted: saving string, reheating mash. But no one likes to count themselves merely fortunate; the Sixties generation attributed their joie de vivre to moral superiority over their uptight predecessors. The exuberant optimism of the so-called Swinging Sixties was not progress - just a luxury. Not everyone had fun.

Robert Winder's Bloody Foreigners: the story of immigration to Britain is published in paperback by Abacus (£8.99)