Why I’d rather be living in 1962: The smoking was ghastly… but PETER HITCHENS revels in his youth 


Last week, our brilliant book reviewer Craig Brown asked: ‘Would you prefer to be living back in 1962?’ He had been prompted to ask this question by the annoying Left-wing historian David Kynaston, whose new book, On The Cusp, describes the Britain of almost 60 years ago.

Like David Kynaston (born, as I was, in 1951), I can remember the era he describes. Britain at that time felt strangely secure, even though it was in fact about to undergo five revolutions: in music, sex, politics, education and taste. 

It was especially safe for children, and we were allowed to roam the suburbs and the countryside, on foot and by bike, quite unsupervised in a way that now seems utterly impossible. But it was so.

People sometimes mock my view of the past as a Ladybird Book idealisation of a Britain that never was. 

But when the Ladybird artist Harry Wingfield died, it was the Left-wing Guardian that wrote: ‘His work was based on photographs he took of children playing on the new West Midlands council estates around where he lived. He drew what he saw, and his pictures showed the realities of these children’s lives.

The year 1962 was especially safe for children, and we were allowed to roam the suburbs and the countryside quite unsupervised in a way that now seems utterly impossible (stock image)

‘The offspring of respectable workers, they dressed neatly, were obedient, and conformed to the stereotypes of the time, with Peter helping Daddy and Jane giving Mummy a hand in the kitchen.’

And I would say this was still very much true of the same estates in the South Midlands and Yorkshire, where I used to go on Sunday mornings, as a student Trotskyist in the 1960s and 1970s, trying in vain to foment revolutionary feeling. I still reckon the sale of council houses and the break-up of these largely happy, peaceful places was one of the worst mistakes we ever made.

‘Just how good were the good old days?’ asked Craig, who was born in 1957 and can’t really claim to remember 1962.

It is a silly question. There were no good old days, then, before or later. We live in an imperfect, dirty, unfair world and always will, and if you search the whole past of mankind for perfection you will not find it.

People who believe all movement is forwards and upwards, and that all change is progress, such as David Kynaston, will find misery in the past, but miss the happiness and the contentment. They need to do so to justify the endless messing about they inflict on us.

But they will also pass quickly by the new miseries which have replaced the old ones.

So you can either say you don’t really care, that everything remains more or less the same, and that people are always moaning about the country going to the dogs, always have, always will. Or, like me, you must give an honest answer to the question. So yes, I think I would rather be living in 1962 than in 2021, let alone in 2022, which looks pretty unpromising to me.

Historian David Kynaston's (pictured in 2018) On The Cusp, describes the Britain of almost 60 years ago. Like David Kynaston (born, as I was, in 1951), I can remember the era he describes

Historian David Kynaston’s (pictured in 2018) On The Cusp, describes the Britain of almost 60 years ago. Like David Kynaston (born, as I was, in 1951), I can remember the era he describes

To understand this properly, you must see the difference between how much richer we are in goods and gadgets and things, and see how much poorer we are in areas not so easily noticed or measured. You must also wonder how 2021 would look if we had chosen our future more wisely in the years after 1962.

You can point to the material improvement that built the better hospitals and ignore the moral decay that has led to so much more vicious crime. You can say – as I do – that, had we been better governed, we would still have the improved care, but we would not have the knife crime.

You can rejoice at the huge variety of foodstuffs that we can now easily buy, compared with the dull diet of then. And you can be pleased by the ready availability of takeaway meals. But at the same time, you have to notice how few children ever sit down at a table with their families for a meal, and how few families, as we once knew them, now exist at all.

Nothing will persuade me that, in general, children are better off without fathers, or benefit from their parents splitting up, however warm, comfortable and filled with computer games their homes may be.

No doubt people like David Kynaston will say: ‘What about the naked racial prejudice, the terrible teeth, the incessant smoking?’ To which I would reply that I hate prejudice as much as they do, and regard my campaigning against it in the 1960s as one of the good things I did at that time.

But the prejudice has not vanished just because it is better hidden and people have learned to keep it to themselves. What’s more, new prejudices and bigotries – especially against politically and morally conservative people and views, and sometimes nakedly against the old – have arisen which are quite open and unashamed.

Poor children’s teeth seem to me to be nearly as badly decayed and inadequately treated as they were then, with far less excuse. The British Dental Journal reported in 2018 that tooth decay was the main reason children aged five to nine were admitted to hospital (some 25,000 of them), and in 2017, the youngest who needed this treatment were two children less than a year old.

The smoking was ghastly and it is still incredible to me that cigarettes were advertised on TV until quite recently, long after their terrible effects were known. But it is still common, and on top of it we now have marijuana, both of them promoted by product placement in films and on TV.

Yes, there was violence then, but I do not think there was anything like as much knife crime as we have now. And our hospitals in 1962 could not – as brilliant surgeons now do all the time – save the wounded. They lacked both the skills and the equipment.

It is still incredible to me that cigarettes were advertised on TV until quite recently, long after their terrible effects were known. But smoking is still common even now (stock image)

It is still incredible to me that cigarettes were advertised on TV until quite recently, long after their terrible effects were known. But smoking is still common even now (stock image)

But the knives used by the killers today are no sharper or longer or easier to get than they were 60 years ago. What has changed lies in the minds, and perhaps the readiness to take drugs, of those who wield them. Here is a paradox. If we had the hospitals of 1962, and the crime and drug problems of now, our homicide rate would be terrifyingly higher than it is.

The violence is much greater, but fewer die of it. Is this an advance? Or is it a major decline we have managed to hide from ourselves? We haven’t moved from imperfection to perfection, we are just imperfect in a different way. So why do I choose 1962 over 2021?

Partly it is because I remember the serene peace of Britain before the age of the motorway, and before car ownership went mad.

In 1962, we had not quite reduced the railways to a rump and plastered the landscape with motorways and bypasses.

Children still walked and biked to school in large numbers. Buses were cheap and fast. Especially in the countryside, there was still actual silence much of the time.

In that countryside, human voices or the noise of animals happened against a background of profound quiet. In the towns, individual cars might have been noisier but there were actual intervals between them.

Now, in almost every place except the most uninhabited and remote regions, there will always be the distant grind and scour of traffic, and aircraft noise mixed in, not to mention the sinister, dispiriting glow of artificial light on almost every horizon, violating the night and blotting out the stars, those great reminders of what really matters.

And I would choose to live in 1962 because we had not yet destroyed so many things we can now never replace.

Even David Kynaston recognises that the 1960s saw the wrecking of towns and countryside alike by a frenzy for ugly concrete modernity, during which many lovely buildings gave way to tat. And I doubt we shall ever be able to rebuild the railway lines that Ernest Marples, even then, was planning to rip up.

Then there were the state grammar schools of England and Wales, and their equivalents in Scotland, which took centuries to create but wiped out in months. When these were gone, it was very hard to hope that Britain, as I saw it as a child, would ever be Britain again.

In 1962, we might have chosen the wrong future but we had not yet brought it into being, and blocked up all the gateways, and broken down all the bridges, that might have led us away from our worst mistakes.

A REMINDER OF WHAT CRAIG BROWN WROTE LAST WEEK…   

Just how good were the good old days? Given the choice, would you prefer to be living back in 1962?

In his short book On The Cusp: Days Of ’62, David Kynaston offers a snapshot of Britain in the summer and autumn of 1962, a time when the nation was, as the title has it, on the cusp, ‘a country where doors and windows were about to be pushed open a little wider’.

Old ways were set to be pushed aside to make way for a more egalitarian, more mechanised, less traditional society. 

With his eagle eye, Kynaston selects details and incidents that serve as emblems of larger shifts in the zeitgeist.

He starts by listing the goings-on in a single week in June 1962. 

In On The Cusp: Days Of '62, David Kynaston (pictured in October 2009) offers a snapshot of Britain in 1962. Old ways were set to be pushed aside to make way for a less traditional society

In On The Cusp: Days Of ’62, David Kynaston (pictured in October 2009) offers a snapshot of Britain in 1962. Old ways were set to be pushed aside to make way for a less traditional society

England were in the World Cup quarter-final against Brazil, but there was no coverage of the match on either of the two television channels: instead, the BBC showed hymns from the Tabernacle Welsh Presbyterian Church in Bangor, followed by Wagon Train and then a Swedish circus.

In Brighton, hooliganism was out in force, with leather-jacketed motorcyclists ripping apart boats in order to light bonfires on the beach.

At the Alcan aluminium works in Banbury, members of the National Union of General and Municipal Workers held a secret ballot to answer the question ‘Should coloured workers be admitted to the factory?’ – 205 answered yes, and 591 answered no.

On the Thursday, the comic actor Kenneth Williams was horrified by the licentious goings-on he witnessed in Hyde Park.

‘Full of girls who sit up, bending over their male companions who are lying down, receiving their kissings and caressings. It is disgusting to watch.’

A fledgling group from Liverpool, The Beatles, made their second radio appearance, on a programme called Teenager’s Turn – Here We Go.

At his progressive boarding school, the 14-year-old Gyles Brandreth noted in his diary that the school doctor was ‘old and grumpy… The girls say that he takes his time putting his stethoscope across their chests and is quite creepy!’

More reassuringly, on Coronation Street, dull and dogged Ken Barlow could be seen talking a suicidal girl out of throwing herself off a factory roof.

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