White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties Dominic Sandbrook

Little Brown, pp.878, 22.50

The Sixties are there in the first sentence of the first chapter of this social, political and cultural history of the decade:

On the first day of October 1963, as the earliest whispers of dawn were edging across the cliff tops of the Yorkshire resort of Scarborough, the new leader of the Labour party nervously paced up and down the carpet of his hotel suite.

They are there in the first sentence of the second chapter:

Shortly after four o’clock on the afternoon of Friday, 16 October, a sleek black Daimler eased through the rain into the forecourt of Buckingham Palace.

And in the first sentence of the third chapter:

Just before eleven o’clock on the morning of Friday, 8 October 1965, Harold Wilson’s car drew into the narrow streets of Fitzrovia for the official opening of the new Post Office Tower.

Over-dramatised, over-metaphorical (‘whispers of dawn’, a car ‘easing’ itself through rain), breathless, these were the accents of the 1960s’ ‘major’ articles in the Sunday Times. It was a decade when papers, politicians and pop stars wanted everyone to know that a great deal, chiefly as a result of what they themselves did, was going on.

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In old age, haggard and wistful, they still talk about the Sexual Revolution, the Pop Revolution, the revolution of technology (Wilson’s White Heat which gives this book its title): there were revolutions everywhere in the Sixties. All I know is that I was alive then, and if all that was going on, then I wasn’t part of it. I think I lost my virginity, but I can’t be sure. Appealed to for corroboration in later years, all the other witness to this momentous event would say was, distractedly, ‘Sort of.’ Which would have been a better title for this history. It was a ‘sort of’ decade.

Dominic Sandbrook’s burrowing among what people thought happened, and what did, produces some very strange facts. They are supposed to have been what the Rolling Stone Bill Wyman, a historian, called ‘the epochal Sixties’, and he should know, having kept a record of the 600 women, or whatever it was, he slept with in the course of them.

The Sixties are supposed to have been the decade of liberal reform carried out by Labour government, in particular by its home secretary Roy Jenkins, the languid aristocrat with the curious vowels, who was neither languid (he spent much of the decade plotting against his leader), nor an aristocrat, but whose vowels were curious. Sandbrook has this quote from Aneurin Bevan: ‘No boy from the Valleys who has cultivated that accent could possibly be lazy.’ I should like to bring this to the attention of Lord Gowrie, the Henry Higgins of our day.

But what I didn’t know until I read this book was how completely Labour distanced itself from such reforms, whatever they said later. Hanging, homosexuality and abortion did not appear in any of the party’s manifestoes, and in each case the legislation affecting them started as a private member’s bill. There was no government initiative. As for hanging, when it was abolished for a trial period of five years Jenkins was not yet home secretary; when it was permanently abolished he had left the Home Office.

As for comprehensive education, the politician who closed more grammar schools than any other was not Tony Crosland or his successor Ted Short: it was Margaret Thatcher. In this decade of photographers and pop stars nothing was quite what it seemed.

There was the Stones concert in Hyde Park, when the pop group mourned the death of Brian Jones, one of their number. Jagger, in lipstick, rouge and eye-shadow, quoted Adonais, Shelley’s lament for Keats, and hundreds of white butterflies were released which presumably perished immediately in the exhaust fumes of London. I was there. What, again, I didn’t know until I read this book was that the Stones had already sacked Adonais, and the concert, according to Philip Norman, who knows about such things, was ‘possibly the Stones’ worst musical performance ever’. You tend not to notice such things when you are a witness to history.

But the trouble with White Heat is that it is too ambitious. When you read a chapter about politicians, followed by one on pop stars, then a third on politicians, you tend to confuse the two, given the author’s distaste for all of them. You end up like Nabokov’s Pnin, who found he could not distinguish between adverts and articles in colour magazines. But perhaps this was Sandbrook’s intention.

At 250 pages this could have been a comic classic on either species, especially when the Cabinet minister George Brown is running around. His entry in the index alone is a masterpiece:

Dances the frug; fights Eli Wallach; fights Richard Crossman; becomes Foreign Secret- ary; insults Belgian Army; insults President Sunay; leaves National Plan on back seat of a Mini; threatens to hit Wilson; tries to dance with the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima.

The entries under ‘misbehaviour and drinking’ are long. A companion volume on the even more absurd pop stars, especially the Beatles and the Stones, would have been just as comic, if more ambitious.

As it is, I found this book, at 878 pages, very long. Sentences like the following, on Edward Heath and the sea, did not help:

His sailing interests were regularly mocked by both his colleagues and newspaper commentators, but in an age of one-track career politicians, they gave him an unusual sporting hinterland.
Sort of.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated