The writer of contemporary history has a number of advantages over his colleagues who deal with the more distant past. It is not only that the profusion of media in recent decades supplies abundant first drafts of that history. There are also the twin forces of living witnesses and the author’s own memory. In this entertainingly written and generally even-handed account of roughly the first third of the reign of the late Queen – from her accession in 1952 to the arrival in Downing Street of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 – Matthew Engel deploys all of those forces.
In a narrative into which is woven the events of high politics in those years but is heavily, and refreshingly, reliant on the social history of the period, the author incorporates his own experiences and those of colleagues, friends and even his Herefordshire neighbours. The result is an immediately credible, and at times highly personal, picture, recognisable to anyone who has lived through all or part of the period, and an ideal primer for those too young to recall it who want to begin to understand why we are where we are.
Engel divides his text into three tranches: the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. He represents the first decade as one in which change proceeds at a slow burn. Britain is still a society of docile housewives, National Service, capital punishment, illegal homosexuality and bomb sites, all of which have gone within another ten years. The signs of change are clear by the late 1950s: the advent of rock and roll; the start of tower blocks, designed by utopian architects and embraced by rapacious property developers; the restriction of hanging to the most serious murders; the Wolfenden Report on homosexual law reform; the gradual expansion of opportunities and equality for women.