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26 January 2022

Frostquake


I’ve just finished reading a good book. It’s called Frostquake, by Juliet Nicolson, and it’s got nothing to do with metals, commodities or economics, but it is a fascinating piece of social history, and well worth a read. 

Nicolson points to the very harsh winter of 1962/63 as a defining point of the change in British society from the remnants of the Victorian age to a more modern and inclusive one. There’s quite a lot of evidence in support of this. Harold Macmillan, coming to the end of his term, was the last UK Prime Minister born in the Victorian age (his successor, Alec Douglas-Home just sneaked into being an Edwardian) and the last one to have served in the First World War. His cabinet was still dominated by voices from the 1930s, and despite “you’ve never had it so good” was struggling to come to grips with the ending of the Empire, which had dominated British politics for generations past. He was also ill, and out of touch with the turmoil of a society finally beginning to emerge after the continued strictures that followed the end of  World War Two. (Up to a point, actually; I only once heard Macmillan speak, at a dinner in Oxford in 1973, when he was 80. An audience of 1970s undergraduates would not have been seen as his natural habitat, but as he spoke, you could have heard a pin drop, so impressed were we with his rhetoric. So there was life in the old dog, even as things conspired to end his premiership.)

The book looks at the changes happening in the early sixties. Increasing commonwealth immigration, and the rise of “ethnic” localities, like Notting Hill and parts of the West Midlands, the shift in the music scene from well-behaved bandsmen to self-confident, working-class pop/rock bands, the rise of satire on the TV - even the fusty BBC, with That Was the Week That Was, as an example. And all this leads up to the scandal that - more than anything else - broke the mould: the story of John Profumo, Christine Keeler and the exposure in the press of the behaviour of the up-until-then ruling classes. There’s lots more, but you need to read it, not have me précis it.

Now, was the harsh winter actually the cause of all these changes? No, of course it wasn’t. But viewed from sixty years away, it looks almost like a watershed, with things prior to that winter flowing backwards towards the Victorian era, and after it rolling forward to a society which looks more familiar. Less deferential, more meritocratic. One question posed by Nicolson towards the end of the book is whether or not the events of the last couple of years will constitute a similar jagged fracture in societal development; the jury will probably still be out on that one for some time to come.

So we come to the most interesting bit. Juliet Nicolson is pretty much of an age with me - in fact, I think we must have been contemporaries at Oxford, although I have never met her, despite the fact that she was at the same College as my (then future) wife. But that meant that as I read this book, it kept bringing memories of that time to mind. Not that our childhoods were exactly similar - she is, after all, the grand-daughter of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, and spent a large part of her childhood in the beauty of Sissinghurst. But things I hadn’t thought of for years came back. I’ll just give one example. She writes about the dreadful smog in London before the big freeze, and how you couldn’t see inches in front of your face. The route home from my prep school then could include a short-cut across a disused golf course ( I imagine it was from before the Second World War; it’s probably a housing estate now) onto which backed the gardens of our house. What came back to me was that I got lost in that smog there one day on my way home, and blundered around for ages struggling to find the garden gate. I was forbidden by my mother to take that short cut again…..I hadn’t thought of that for years and years. There’s other stuff, too; before, being driven through London, one was accustomed to seeing great gaps in rows of buildings, where bombs had landed twenty years earlier; as the sixties rolled on, those gaps became new construction sites, and then new buildings.

So yes, I absolutely get the point of this book; that winter was a pivot. Is it as fascinating if you don’t have some sort of memory - particularly, I would suggest  - as a child? That I don’t know, but it is in the Sunday Times bestseller list, so it can’t only be being bought by a narrow cohort of people in their late sixties, very early seventies. As I said above, it’s a good read, and very well written.


Frostquake, by Juliet Nicolson, is published by Vintage (Penguin Random House).            

  

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