The year of Dr. No – and rural poverty

On the Cusp: Days of ’62

David Kynaston, Bloomsbury, 239 P, £18.99

KEN BELL admires a study of 1962, but wonders why that year was singled out for attention

David Kynaston must be the premier social historian of post-war Britain writing today, and his latest book is a fine, standalone work which really captures the air of a country that was about to change beyond all recognition.

The first three volumes of his putative series that will take the British national story from 1945 to 1979, Austerity Britain, Family Britain and Modernity Britain are house-brick sized volumes that really capture the themes embodied in their titles, and take the reader from 1945 to the early months of 1962. The next volume, which we have been waiting for since 2013, is to be called Opportunity Britain and will take the story from late 1962 to a point in 1967. However, that has not been written so what we have to keep us going is this short volume which argues that the starting point for the 1960s was October 1962 when the first James Bond film (Dr. No) and the first single by the Beatles (‘Love Me Do’) were released on the same day.

The Beatles clearly embody much of the 1960s, as do the Rolling Stones who also played one of their first gigs before a paying audience of two in a North Cheam pub “while four people stood outside listening for free”. However, it was far from certain in 1962 that either of those two groups would amount to anything at all, but the same cannot be said of what must surely be the real start to the 1960s which came about the year earlier in 1961.The contraceptive pill was only prescribed by the NHS to married women until 1967, but it was available on a private prescription from its 1961 introduction. That, along with the five-point geometric haircut invented by Vidal Sassoon in 1965, and the miniskirt of 1966, must embody the hedonistic spirit of the decade that only ended with the oil crisis in 1974. The music was background noise to the glorious New Britain that actually began with the Pill.None of those factors are mentioned by Kynaston, who instead chose to concentrate on three themes not discussed in his earlier works – rural life, industrial Wales, and immigration.

Life in the agricultural regions began to change in 1947 with the Agriculture Act:

On the one hand, cheap food for urban consumers without a heavy reliance upon imports; on the other hand, price-support manipulation, capital grants, subsidies and so on for the farmers. 

It was a system that worked very well, especially for the large-scale farmers, in what we think of today as agri-business. But the lot of the rural poor remained drab and miserable. Kynaston illustrates this with the tale of two spinster sisters, both in their 50s, who had pooled their limited resources to buy the farmhouse where they had both been born. They kept a few cows and other livestock. Water was brought in from a well, the cows were milked by hand and the resulting milk was churned by them into butter which was sold to their neighbours. The sisters’ way of life died with them as the young left the countryside to seek better wages in the towns and the urban middle class began to move into the vacated villages.

The old squirearchy became irrelevant, with only a few from the old order hanging on in greatly reduced circumstances. At the same time, as farm-sizes increased, the number of actual farmers and farm workers fell. Although farmers were involved in local politics and many of them served on district councils where they sat as the replacements for the old manor house caste, many stopped doubling up as local politicians because running their farms as businesses took up far too much time. Thus the professional, middle-class incomers began to run life in the rural areas, for better and for worse.

Over in Wales, coal was still king, but the throne looked decidedly wobbly. Oil was taking over as a means of heating and steam engines were giving way to diesel ones. Luckily for the Welsh, steel making boomed, as did the ancillary industries that relied on steel, so a redundant miner had few problems finding work that was a lot cleaner, a lot safer and often a lot better paid than mining. Few in Wales objected to pit closures; that would come decades later when mining had become the only game in many Welsh towns. Politics was dominated by Labour who had run Wales as a fiefdom for most of the century. By the 1960s that had led to the usual story of civic corruption and local cronyism, but demands for change were muted at best. The desire for Home Rule was a minority interest, mainly amongst the declining numbers who spoke Welsh. It is true that the Welsh Language Society was formed in 1962 to fight for the language, but Wales in that year still looked like the country that had been formed by the valleys, the mines, the chapels, the temperance societies, the unions and above all the Labour Party. Given that Wales is still dominated by Labour, one might ask what was really so special about 1962 in the country’s long history?

Opposition to non-white immigration was fairly widespread, with some managers at some factories letting the immigrant workers go first if there was a retrenchment. As one manager pointed out, “there would be a riot” if he hadn’t done that. The unionised workers were often opposed to the new influx as they saw the incomers as a tool that would be used by management to cut the wages. Peter Rachman was still alive and still letting out properties to West Indians most landlords would not rent to. Kynaston suggests that much of the opprobrium that settled on Rachman later came about not by his actions, but by those of his underlings who found him his tenants and collected the rents. Rachman set a rent, and the underlings increased it substantially, so that they could rip off both Rachman and the tenants. Opposition to New Commonwealth immigration was widespread but inchoate, as both main parties supported the government’s policy. Sometimes a hard line was attempted, as when a Jamaican shoplifter was deported back to her home country – something today’s government cannot seem to manage – but by and large a lid was kept on popular discontent via a quiet agreement between the two parties. It is hard to tell what has changed since then, to be honest.

One error that has crept into the text is a reference to my old tutor at Ruskin College, Oxford, Raph Samuel. Kynaston refers to him as “Ralph (later Raphael) Samuel,” but he was never called by that name and was known to everyone who knew him as Raph. That minor caveat aside, On the Cusp is a worthy addition to anyone’s shelf, and reminds us of just how close and yet so far away we are from the early 1960s.