The Lost Years

What happens when business as usual is suddenly suspended?

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March 11, 2021

When the snow began to fall on England’s leaden landscape on Boxing Day 1962, the thrill of the Christmas holidays felt complete. Fierce winds sweeping across Europe from Siberia brought the icy weather, whiting over the countryside fields and the city streets, leaving them glittering. Children and adults of all ages were entranced. But not for long.

Over the following ten weeks barely a day elapsed without snow falling and freezing and falling, bringing with it an unexpected, extended and for some unwelcome suspension of ordinary lives. Vast drifts, sometimes wind-whipped to the height of four grown men, wreaked havoc with transport: roads became impassable, train tracks iced over, airports proved unusable with up to a foot of snow burying the Gatwick runways. Farmers tried desperately to save their starving animals as well as their livelihoods. Dartmoor sheep became unreachable, lost in snowy hillocks and turning cannibalistic. Supermarkets ran out of supplies, villages were cut off, pubs remained silent and whole communities found themselves locked in.

The relentlessness of the weather — and not knowing when its restrictions would end — had a debilitating effect on national morale. The young, in particular, grew restless as the winter dragged on; as any parent who waved a teenager off to school on Monday can tell you, they’re not made to sit indoors for weeks on end. In 1962, young people’s nascent dissatisfaction with the old way of doing things began to accelerate towards what, two years later, the American writer and style-setter Diana Vreeland termed a “youthquake”.

By this point, a Conservative government had been in place for 12 years, led since 1957 by Harold Macmillan — a distinguished veteran of both world wars. His Edwardian-moustachioed, tweedy image contrasted powerfully and not inspirationally with the youth and glamour of President Kennedy on the other side of the Atlantic. Meanwhile the UK was creaking with centuries-old prejudices concerning class, race, religion and sexual choice. With nothing else to do that frozen winter — with time to envision an escape route from convention — the new generation decided things had to change.

Just as the current pandemic has fermented movements led by young people — from the “ditch the algorithm” protests to the BLM marches — so the silence of the winter of 1962-3 lit a fire under causes for social justice. And just as current technology has enabled an ingenious explosion of creativity — from web-based campaigning to socially-distanced theatrical productions, not to mention pioneering methods of screen-based education — so the youthful, innovative, enquiring media of the early 1960s inspired its cooped-up audiences.

Satire, for instance, boomed. In the student-blotting-paper pages of Private Eye — which had been founded the year before by Peter Cook and a bunch of his young, clever friends — a new generation of bright young things took aim at the establishment. And while Private Eye provided an alternative to the conventional, buttoned-up, libel-fearing press, television also reached out to a newly captive audience reluctant or unable to brave the snowy conditions outside. Presented by 23-year-old Cambridge graduate David Frost, That Was the Week That Was launched in December 1962 on the BBC. The live satirical programme, a quasi-forerunner of Have I Got News For You, regularly attracted 12 million viewers, targeting the sacred trinity of Church, Monarchy and Government.

The satire boom fed off the rumours that had been drifting through the previous months, but gathered momentum that winter, surrounding one of Harold Macmillan’s ministers. John Profumo MP, the Minister for War, was said to have slept with Christine Keeler, a 19-year-old model, who in turn was suspected of sleeping with a Russian naval attaché, who had passed on cabinet secrets to his own government. Tangled up with these allegations were stories about Keeler’s friends, whose suspected drug-dealing, gun-toting criminality only enhanced the drama, and whose portrayal by the media often buttressed racist stereotypes. As the scrutiny of the alternative media — buoyed by its surge in popularity among a captive audience — crept ever closer, Profumo’s denials of the rumours became ever more implausible, until the truth finally exploded in the House of Commons in the summer of 1963.

Less titillating was the death of Sylvia Plath, in February 1963, when it felt as if the ice would never melt. The challenges of the miserable weather exacerbated the despair of the 30-year-old poet, whose marriage to Ted Hughes had collapsed the year before. As Plath struggled alone to deal with burst pipes and oppressive cold, while taking care of their two tiny children, existence became impossible to sustain. And hers was not the only famous and shocking death to occur that winter. In January, the health of Hugh Gaitskell, the 57-year-old leader of the Labour party who suffered from a precarious heart condition, was devastated by a voracious virus. He died shortly afterwards.

Gaitskell was replaced by a different sort of politician. Harold Wilson was a Yorkshireman. He had not been to public school and, unlike the Prime Minister, did not speak or think in a language that would have been familiar to Victorians. His “ordinariness” was symbolised by his pipe, mackintosh and preference for tinned rather than smoked salmon. While the Financial Times remarked on his “political acumen and cool toughness”, the Daily Telegraph admired his “plain living and high thinking” and his “youthful bubbly quality”. Wilson had an agenda of reforms that aimed, for instance, to tackle racial discrimination and decriminalise homosexuality. If elected Prime Minister, he promised, he would address the social iniquities of his country. He spoke for the underdog. He spoke for a youth given a new lease of life as temperatures crept up.

But above all it was the rhythm of music that sustained the young’s spirits that freezing winter. In the gloomy Liverpool greyness — icebergs had been seen floating in the River Mersey — awareness of the glitz and energy across the sea was acute. Cool young men known as the Cunard Yanks worked as waiters and dishwashers and porters on the freight and passenger ships that criss-crossed the Atlantic. They brought back from New York evidence of a bigger, better, faster, shinier, sexier world packed with blue jeans and huge cars and, above all, the exhilarating release of music, personified in the uninhibited hip-thrusting Elvis Presley.

Bootleg jeans and bootleg records sold on the streets by the Cunard Yanks were snapped up by young Liverpudlians who thought and moved and sang and danced and lived to the musical beat that thumped out of Liverpool’s hundreds of clubs. Above ground, elderly residents found themselves gingerly negotiating the icy slabs of the city’s sloping pavements; the relative underground warmth of the cellar-based clubs guaranteed packed-in crowds, especially in the Cavern, where a band of four tousle-haired friends were sending their audiences crazy.

And down in the capital, the future talent and fame of another band was incubating in a scruffy flat at the unfashionable end of London’s Kings Road. Mick Jagger, a student at the London School of Economics with ambitions to become a Financial Times correspondent; Brian Jones and Keith Richards shared rooms, girls, spliffs, money, a rifle for taking pot shots at visiting rats, food parcels that Keith’s mum sent from Dartford and an ambition to make it as musicians. As less plucky bands cancelled gigs in London pubs and clubs due to the restrictive weather, the Rolling Stones seized every offer to be stand-ins. And as word spread that they were sizzling, their young audiences braved the extreme cold to hear this sexy, uninhibited sound. Fan numbers began to surge.

The radio became a honeypot for those trapped by the snow and desperate for a visceral connection to the music of their generation. Radio Luxemburg became the principal audio-stage for the new pop bands. And even if you could not get through the ice to hear these bands perform live, television delivered the upcoming pop groups to the growing number of screens in sitting rooms. Twice during the winter, the four convention-oblivious lads from Liverpool, with irreverent charisma, sublime love songs and fringes long enough to rival a Grenadier’s busby, seduced viewers of ITV’s Thank Your Lucky Stars. And on 6th March 1963, when the Meteorological Office announced that the frost had disappeared from every part of the country, the Beatles’ second single “Please Please Me” hit the top of the pop charts. After three months on ice, the youthquake of the 1960s began.

As the restrictions imposed by the Covid pandemic begin to melt away, another generation will burst back into action. Months of isolation have left young people frustrated; the effects of that frustration, now that they are reunited, could be destructive or creative, or a bit of both. Will pupils accept the return of exams, which the pandemic did away with? And will they continue to campaign against the inequality exposed by the algorithm that replaced them? Will university students continue to turn over stones in search of historic racism? Or, after remote learning has stripped universities back to their most basic form will they reject them altogether? After all they’ve been through, how can we expect the young to respect the status quo? As this convulsive, world-wide hiatus ends, they will be set free, clamouring to be heard.