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The 1940s, celebrated so memorably in Peter Hennessy’s superb Never Again (1992), was Britain’s heroic decade, as the ‘finest hour’ of the Second World War was followed by the momentous and courageous reforms of Attlee’s Labour governments. In comparison, the Fifties may well seem anti-climactic. Its best-remembered event, the Suez Crisis, was a fiasco, and the ‘never-had-it-so-good’ affluence merely camouflaged rapid decline relative to the economic rivals whom Britain, rather snootily, refused to join in the Treaty of Rome. Even sexual intercourse, at least according to Philip Larkin, did not begin until 1963.
The Fifties can’t quite match the Forties, and it is perhaps only to be expected that Having It So Good does not sustain the brilliance of Never Again. Yet the decade, as reflected through Hennessy’s multi-faceted mind and informed by his insatiable curiosity, emerges as a ‘relatively golden age’. Dull to live through, he insists, it certainly was not. And dull to read this book it certainly is not.
Nevertheless, it’s not hard to find faults. There are stylistic infelicities – with ‘highheels’ and ‘underway’ as single words and inelegant phrases like ‘hurls itself into thrill’ – and several sentences are so convoluted they seem to have been dictated extempore rather than carefully crafted. Also the print is significantly smaller than in similarly fat Penguin blockbusters, the long (and, alas, unindented) quotations uncomfortably so.
Perhaps the main problem is that Hennessy simply has too much to say and has made little attempt to confine himself to the Fifties. He cannot, for instance, resist quoting at length recently declassified documents relating to Attlee’s work in the Forties, while Robert Walpole makes an appearance as, bizarrely, does Colin Cowdrey’s arm, broken in a Test match in June 1963. The book is remarkable for its huge number of parenthetical clauses and actual parentheses. The opening chapters, thematic and historiographical, will be particularly taxing for those without a decent existing knowledge, as Hennessy almost seems to be deliberately avoiding chronological sequence. It is hard to fathom why, in dealing with the pre-Fifties background, he almost always prefers a plethora of details to succinct generalizations. Admirers will call Hennessy ‘fertile’, while critics may prefer ‘undisciplined’ and perhaps even ‘garrulous’.
Furthermore, the book is intensely personal. Hennessy calls himself a ‘conscious figure’ in his account, and it must be doubtful whether any other work of modern history uses the word ‘I’ quite so often. His first clear memory dates back to 1951, when he was four, and key events of the decade, like the Coronation in 1953, are ‘deep-etched’ on his memory. And if Hennessy was not an eyewitness, he personally has interviewed many of the main players. There is no false modesty here, and no hint of self-effacement. The effect of such egotism might be alienating, but strangely it is not. Instead we are carried along by his, sometimes eccentric, enthusiasm.
Hennessy evidently enjoyed living through the 1950s, and reliving them in his research. It was almost, he writes, as though there was ‘an unplanned full enjoyment policy which ran alongside full employment’. The first half of the decade was a serene period, when expectations were high and ‘Britishness was beyond debate’. Is this the voice of nostalgia? Certainly not everyone would agree with the charity of his judgements, that for example Churchill’s last premiership was simply his ‘mellow’ phase rather than the witness to what Winston himself called ‘the advance of surly decrepitude’. Nor would many people glory quite so enthusiastically in social ephemera, in the ‘number one’ records of the time or its radio and TV programmes. He includes a lengthy description of the first advert on commercial television (‘It’s tingling fresh. It’s fresh as ice. It’s Gibbs SR toothpaste’). But far better Hennessy’s élan than a grumpy-old-man approach (though the diaries of that unsurpassed Jeremiah Malcolm Muggeridge are hard to beat as entertainment).
Also, Hennessy’s determination to see things from the perspectives of the time, and not to misuse hindsight, is laudable. Thus the ‘Geometric Conceit’, which saw Britain at the ‘triangulation point’ of the Atlantic-Empire-European relationships, was an understandable illusion in 1950-54. The Empire was still real, Europe was ‘a vague and far from entrancing notion’ and ‘global reach’ a ‘natural expectation’. No wonder Suez was such a shock to the establishment.
Hennessy does not like his politics ‘neat’. Instead he has aimed ‘to convey the smells, feel and sound of an age’. He achieves this best in his chapter ‘Dam Bursts’, showing that the Swinging Sixties were produced by ‘a confluence of swirling rivulets’ already apparent in the late-Fifties. The roles of Sir John Wolfenden, Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, the Angry Young Men and others are assessed in the loosening of what Rab Butler called the ‘Victorian corsetry’ restricting the nation. Yet the star of the book is undoubtedly a man paradoxically ill at ease in the materialism of Britain in the late-1950s. ‘If you don’t believe in God,’ he mused, ‘all you have to believe in is decency … Better decent than indecent. But I don’t think it’s enough.’ This was the man Enoch Powell described as that ‘old actor-manager’, Harold Macmillan.
‘Supermac’ seems an unlikely hero for the Attlee Professor. Even his vaunted success as Minister of Housing in 1951-54 was, we can now see, at the expense of education and health. Yet Hennessy shows that he easily outshone the ‘feeble and foolish’ Butler in the race to succeed Eden, and he even contrived afterwards to make Suez seem ‘a kind of victory’. In addition, he is simply so quotable. (See, for instance, his brilliant diagnosis of the ‘trouble with Anthony Eden’ and his wonderfully prejudiced assessment of the Germans.) Most important of all, Hennessy identifies him as essentially a ‘never againer’, a man of the centre-left, one of the key figures in the ‘New Deal’ that marked the 1940s and 1950s.