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Book Review - 1956

1956: The Year that Changed Britain (Biteback) by Francis Beckett and Tony Russell

According to Francis Beckett and Tony Russell, the lasting legacy of 1956 was “the decline of deference”. In their absorbing social study of the year, the pair look at changing music and cultural tastes, as well as national politics and wider global events, such as the Suez Crisis, Nikita Khrushchev’s astonishing denunciation of Stalin at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and his violent crushing of the Hungarian uprising.

During this pivotal year, they argue, events small and large helped to shape the British people and change their values for ever. Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech”, followed by his actions in Hungary, contributed to the decline of the British Communist Party: “some 7,000 people - more than a quarter of the membership – left the CPGB… To leave the CPGB was more than just to change your political allegiance; it was to abandon your faith and your friends.”

Meanwhile Hungarian refugees were welcomed throughout western Europe. According to sociologist Frank Furedi, “We were the poster refugees everyone wanted to help. There was genuine affection for us.” Sadly, the British were less tolerant of people with dark skin who, during the same period, were routinely referred to as “‘nips’, ‘wogs’, ‘dagos’, ‘yids’, and ‘niggers.’”

Beckett and Russell also cover music, sport and leisure. Bill Haley and the Comets popularised rock ’n’ roll and encouraged the rise of the teenage consumer. Teenagers bought records and hung out at coffee shops – “an essentially Italian idea”. When the film Rock Around the Clockwas released, “outbreaks of hooliganism” were reported at cinemas across Britain.

In 1956, the annual coach outing was still a popular pastime for working-class Brits, while seaside resorts and holiday camps were coming back into vogue. Air travel had increased – a new short-haul terminal had opened at Heathrow in 1955 – and overseas holiday packages were becoming more popular. According to Vladimir Raitz of Horizon Holidays, European travel brought about “a social revolution; the man in the street acquired a taste for wine, for foreign food, started to learn French, Spanish or Italian, made friends in the foreign lands he visited – in fact became more ‘cosmopolitan’ with all that that entailed.”

Despite this cultural shift, there seems to have been little effort to recreate foreign food back home: “Garlic was chiefly used to prevent colds, olive oils, sold in tiny bottles in chemists’ shops, was for clearing blocked ears.” Elizabeth David published four pioneering books introducing Mediterranean cuisine, but postwar rationing meant many ingredients still remained scarce.

John Osborne’s seminal play Look Back in Anger opened at the Royal Court Theatre. His protagonist Jimmy Porter memorably “railed against a world that did not care, and shouted the anguished cry of the postwar generation: ‘There are no great brave causes left’.” He came to represent a cohort of angry working-class men, suddenly unsure of their role in society.

Beckett and Russell cover a lot of ground. Unfortunately, their arrangement of chapters loosely around months of the year is messy. Links between subjects are weak and sometimes jarringly unconnected. The authors’ anecdotal tone is engaging but they also have a tendency for irrelevant asides: when describing the general anxiety among soldiers about receiving call-up papers during the Suez Crisis, they describe one man’s rushed wedding. The married couple spent a night at the Selsdon Park Hotel which, Beckett and Russell tell us in parenthesis, “was to become famous fourteen years later, in 1970, as the place where Edward Heath and his shadow Cabinet hammered out the manifesto identified ever after as the product of a hard-faced individual known as ‘Selsdon Man’.”

Caveats aside, 1956 heralded a period of huge change for Britain. This is an enjoyable and far-reaching study of how it helped define an era.

Originally published by New Humanist