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17 January 2016

The danger of nostalgia: looking back at 1956

Violence and prejudice is rife in two studies of the pivotal year of 1956.

By Andrew Marr

He is the summit of sex – the pinnacle of Masculine, Feminine and Neuter. Everything that He, She and It can ever want . . . this deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love . . . Without doubt he is the biggest sentimental vomit of all time . . .

Thus William Connor, the hugely popular Cassandra of the Daily Mirror, welcoming Liberace to Britain in 1956.

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to abolish the Negro race, proper methods should be used. Among these are guns, bows and arrows, slingshots, and knives . . . [American whites] have been pressed and degraded because of black, slimy, juicy, unbearably stinking niggers . . .

Thus declaimed a popular handbill issued in Montgomery, Alabama, in the same year.

To any modern reader, both quotations must now seem disgusting. Connor, one of Britain’s best-loved mainstream journalists of the 20th century, a man who campaigned memorably against the death penalty, may have felt he was on safe ground in expressing a homophobia so widespread, it had come
to seem common sense. The Alabama handbill used extreme language even for its time and place: but again, it expressed visceral feelings widespread among its audience.

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Historical figures rarely look stupid or wicked because they are far outside the mainstream of their time, but more often because they give a voice to feelings that thrum and ripple on the street: the prejudices and hatreds so common that they are barely even noticed.

On sexuality and on race, we are no longer our parents’ children. So what’s the point of returning to the muck? Is it to make ourselves look and feel better – “the enormous condescension of posterity”, as E P Thompson famously put it – or is it to shock ourselves with how quickly things change, and thus to make us question our own unquestioned beliefs?

Here we have two books that both claim the year 1956 as a hinge in modern history, a creaking twelvemonth. It is a year marked by cracks and fissures in Soviet communism, and by the retreat of colonialism and racism in the face of national liberation movements and civil rights campaigners.

The year thing is, of course, a publishers’ cliché; and this reader was only half persuaded. There have been lots of revolts, and Youth is forever being impertinent. You could make just as good a case for 1960, or 1963, or 1964 – or just about any year, if  you can scrabble between a couple of important events to find the beginnings and ends of others.

Simon Hall calls it “the world in revolt”, while for Francis Beckett and Tony Russell it is “the year that changed Britain”.What is unarguable is that 1956 was dominated by a coincidence of international disasters that threw a spotlight on both East and West – the Suez crisis, which divided Washington and London, and humiliated Britain and France; and the brutal crushing of the Hungarian uprising, which followed the communist-shaking “secret session” attack on Stalin by Nikita Khrushchev. Yet these things were linked coincidentally, not consequently. Between them, Hall interleaves other events, from the first successes of Martin Luther King to fighting in French
Algeria and the early, underwhelming stages of the Cuban Revolution.

He is workmanlike but often illuminating. I learned much about the Polish response to the unmasking of Stalin, and Hall’s account of the Hungarian uprising is a small masterpiece. Yet in the end it felt like a higher form of scissors-and-paste, with insufficient tough-minded analysis and comparison. The situation of people taking to the streets in segregated Dixie and that of Poles confronting Soviet troops are similar only on the surface. Different forms of oppression, different traditions and radically different opponents produced very different results. The same goes when you move from the French in Algeria to the British in Cyprus – violent decolonisation around the same sea, but different in almost every other way. Who did better? Who did worse? Why? Events follow one another and sometimes coincide: to demonstrate that they are profoundly connected, however, more work needs to be done.

The book by Beckett and Russell is more limited in its scope, and a lot jollier. Much of this is familiar territory – Harry Pollitt, Look Back in Anger and, yet again, the disgrace of Suez – but the authors have a great eye for the unexpected and the unintentionally comic as the hierarchies of postwar Britain come apart. I certainly haven’t read a better account of the visit by the Soviet leaders Bulganin and Khrushchev to Britain, marred by the disappearance of the hapless submersible spy Commander Crabb while investigating their Russian cruiser in Portsmouth harbour and by the malicious behaviour of the official British translator.

To match the “outsider” Colin Wilson with the rising novelist Angus Wilson was a clever stroke. Beckett and Russell have a great reporterly flair, from which certain other modern historians could learn; Beckett brilliantly fillets the most shocking parts of Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin, and he has dug out old communist songs about Harry Pollitt, and his personal secrets, which made me gasp.

Indeed, there is no point in a book of this sort unless you find out things you really didn’t know. I hadn’t realised that Britain set a world speed record in 1956 with the Fairey Delta 2, travelling more than 300mph faster than any American plane. I had forgotten how hostile the sainted cultural critic Richard Hoggart was to that well-known menace, the milk bar. And it is interesting to read about Tony Benn feeling furious after Hungary about “the hated Scarlet banner of the Communist Government”.

The only problem with this book is that the authors, knowing almost too much about the details of popular culture, cram in so much eye-catching information that it all becomes a bit of a blur. Not a grey blur, however. Like Simon Hall, they insist that our view of the 1950s as boring and cramped is unfair.

Up to a point, chaps. Yes, 1956 was a turbulent year. We have established, I think, that many things happened. In merely technical terms, I don’t remember it well (I was born three years later). But in rural Scotland, culturally, it remained 1956 until at least 1967, and in the Angus Glens for much longer than that. Throughout Britain, the sentimental-imperial, hat-tipping, stifling atmosphere, increasingly being poked through by American culture and shocking world events, was certainly grey and was only just starting to turn bright colours.

It wasn’t a heroic year. Neither West nor East seemed morally attractive. The counterculture was just getting going and bigotry was all around. As the two quotations at the top of this piece remind us, the mid-1950s were not a gentler, kinder time. Perhaps the point of these books is that we need to be shocked, from time to time, at our own earlier selves. The danger is nostalgia: for Spam fritters and Corgi toys and Tommy Steele. Well, we don’t want that. We are no doubt idiots and villains in 2016 just as we were in 1956 but, thank goodness, in our own way – in a new way. 

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This article appears in the 13 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie