1962: a volcanic year

The Sixties as we know them began in 1963, which tends to leave 1962 in the shade. But this was a year of seismic events and cultural firsts


Matthew Engel | January/February 2012

On a cool English summer’s day in July 1962, a young middle-class couple called Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting were married in Oxford and drove to begin their honeymoon by the Dorset coast. The wedding was conventional in an era when convention was followed rigorously. What happened on the wedding night, however, departed from the norms. It was what did not happen that was so unusual. Through a combination of gaucheness on Edward’s part, naivety on Florence’s and an excess of English reticence from them both, they failed to complete the physical procedure that customarily follows a marriage, with devastating consequences.

Edward and Florence (born circa 1940) did not exist as such. They are the creations of Ian McEwan (born 1948) and the central figures of his much-admired short novel “On Chesil Beach” (published 2007), which is how we know the precise sequence of events on this private occasion. It is the kind of story in which no detail is an accident, and that includes the year in which it was set. When I phoned to ask about it, McEwan seemed quite pleased that someone had noticed.

Had what didn’t happen happened (and had they existed), the Mayhews might now be enjoying visits from their grandchildren, and looking forward to their golden wedding in 2012. For most real people who remember 1962, the 50-year mark will not necessarily be a moment of celebration. It was not that kind of year. 

We can expect 2012 to be punctuated by the customary anniversary articles. Politically, 1962 is remembered above all for the Cuban missile crisis (October), in which President John F. Kennedy and the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev led the world as near as it has ever come to instant destruction. The Berlin Wall had just gone up, and all year Khrushchev veered between confrontation and calming. John Glenn’s orbit of the Earth (February) established that America would not allow the early Soviet lead in space to go unchallenged. On their Himalayan border, China and India really did go to war, briefly (October-November). In a referendum (April) the French overwhelmingly and finally ratified their tormented retreat from imperialism in Algeria. Adolf Eichmann was hanged in Israel (May), the last reckoning with a major Nazi figure. 

The new Coventry cathedral was consecrated (May) to replace its bombed-out predecessor and become perhaps the only well-loved post-war building in Britain. Marilyn Monroe died (August), aged 36, in circumstances that have never lost their morbid fascination. David Bailey and Jean Shrimpton did their first Vogue shoot (January, for the April issue), bringing youth and attitude to some starchy pages. Rudolf Nureyev, newly defected, danced with Margot Fonteyn in “Giselle” to loud acclaim at Covent Garden (February). In South Africa, Nelson Mandela was jailed (November) for five years, which turned into 27. In Albany, Georgia (July), Martin Luther King was jailed for two weeks. The Telstar satellite began relaying flickering TV pictures across the Atlantic amid great excitement (July). And Richard Nixon failed in his attempt to become governor of California and angrily announced, 12 years prematurely, that he was quitting politics: “You don’t have Nixon to kick around any more.” All these events made global headlines.

Not an easy year to sum up, then. Time’s choice for Man of the Year, Pope John XXIII, was an unusually subtle and discerning one, reflecting the modernisation and humanisation of the Catholic church that was happening beneath the headlines. Fifty years on, however, modernity and humanity are not the most obvious characteristics of Catholicism. The lasting importance of 1962 stems from what was happening well below Time’s radar screen. The volcano that spewed forth all the debris that we think of as the 1960s was bubbling under, waiting to explode. And the vulcanologists were sound asleep. 

Even Khrushchev’s decision to allow the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch” (November), to highlight the evils of Stalin’s labour camps, made little impression in the West. No one can have foreseen how Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” (September) would inspire the environmental movement. Nor did anyone spot the future impact of Anthony Burgess’s nihilist novella “A Clockwork Orange” (May): “clumsy...tawdry...aimless” – the Times. The author came to hate it too, but the film, made and then withdrawn by Stanley Kubrick, gave it a lasting resonance.

And even after the Canadian academic Marshall McLuhan began to be hailed as a visionary for understanding the significance of the electronic media, no one grasped the importance of the prediction in his 1962 book “The Gutenberg Galaxy”: “A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organisation, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.” Most of us would not hear the word “internet” for another three decades.

No one guessed that the first James Bond film, “Dr No” (October), would spawn 23 more, and counting. Roy Lichtenstein’s cartoon strips and Andy Warhol’s soup cans landed on the art scene (November), but left the establishment unimpressed: “like a joke without humour told over and over again”, said the New Yorker of the soup cans, “until it carries a hint of menace”. At least Warhol got some attention, which was more than could be said when Bob Dylan gave the first public performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind” at Gerde’s Folk City downtown in the West Village (April). Let alone when the Rolling Stones played their first gig, at the Marquee Club in London (July). 

The invention of sexual intercourse, as Philip Larkin explained and for which the Stones may have been partially responsible, did not happen until 1963. There is some evidence that this may not be literally true. But Larkin was clearly correct in recognising 1963 as Year Zero of a new era of frankness and freedom. For “On Chesil Beach”, McEwan chose the previous year advisedly. “I have often thought ‘Could I write that novel and set it now?’ ” he said. “I don’t think it would be entirely impossible, but it would have to be two young Muslims, perhaps someone marrying a cousin he hasn’t met from a remote village in Bangladesh. My Chesil Beach couple were almost the last of a line. A few years later and it would have been unlikely.”

When Edward and Florence were married, the Pill was only just starting to move into wide usage, its side-effects still uncertain. “It’s a 1962 subject which is probably second only in importance to the nuclear bomb,” shouted Audrey Whiting in the Daily Mirror, then Britain’s biggest-selling daily, in a double-page spread billed as “the first real inquiry into a revolution in marriage”. Note the word “marriage”. Very 1962. 

One can still see a formality gap between many of the wartime children who went to college at the start of the decade and the denim-wearing, tie-spurning, plain-speaking baby-boomers who came next. But McEwan touched on another point. Originally, he was planning a novel about the Cuban missile crisis, only to end up writing something microcosmic instead. He is convinced there is a connection. “Cuba was a watershed,” he thinks. “That feeling when you just survive a nasty accident and feel liberated because something really awful didn’t happen. It leaves you with a new kind of freedom.”

Looking back at the papers for that last week in October, it is hard to sense that. Their tone seems almost disembodied. They make Cuba sound little different from all the other trouble-spot crises of the era that filled the foreign news pages…even such long-forgotten items of business as the affairs of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland or “President Frondizi defies the army”, whoever and wherever he might have been president of.

Yet Cuba represented far more than that. The comfortable sense we mostly have now that nuclear war is unthinkable did not exist in 1962. In the preceding half-century, the unthinkable had already happened twice, in the form of horrific world wars. Why not a third? As a child (born 1951), I absorbed, as unconsciously as one absorbs the certainty of death, the likelihood that it would come suddenly, violently and soon. Yet I don’t remember losing any sleep about it. As Tom Lehrer, the marvellous mathematician-cum-satirist who was a cult figure of the time, sang: 

Oh, we will all fry together when we fry
We’ll be French fried potatoes by and by
There will be no more misery
When the world is our rotisserie
Yes, we will all fry together when we fry

It turns out I was not alone. McEwan, an army child sent away to boarding school, felt the same: “I remember being pretty sure it was going to happen, but kept writing my weekly letter home with the sports scores. I thought the world might end pretty soon but I didn’t want to worry my parents.” The writer Jenny Diski (born 1947 and author of the wish-you-were-here memoir “The Sixties”, 2009) remembers endless teenage conversations that went something like this: 

“What are you going to do before the bomb drops?”
“Have sex – you don’t want to die a virgin, do you?”

Across the Atlantic the screenwriter Howard Schuman (born 1940) endured “those ludicrous take-cover drills” which in the late 1950s became as much part of American school routine as the Pledge of Allegiance: “I had very severe nuclear nightmares over and over again.” They receded, but in October 1962 the nightmares returned with a vengeance. 

Not every child was as badly affected. The journalist Michael Goldfarb (born 1950), who, like Schuman, now lives in London, was growing up in suburban Philadelphia, blessed with a very American sense of invulnerability. “It never occurred to me that we might be killed. But English friends have said it. London was still scarred from bomb damage, and the prospect must have seemed much more real in Europe. Nothing could hurt us.”

Paris, less than two decades on from the liberation, was even further from peace: in January and February a series of bombs went off there, planted by the OAS (Organisation of the Secret Army), the hardline soldiers opposed to Algeria’s independence. 

But for a moment now America had the shakes. Perhaps the most talked-about (if not best-remembered) book of the year was “Fail-safe” by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, a thriller based on the notion of nuclear war happening by accident. On Sunday October 21st the New York Times carried a news story in which a Pentagon official insisted that the scenario painted in “Fail-safe” was “virtually impossible”. 

The following evening, President Kennedy made, in the paper’s words, “a speech of extraordinary gravity”, telling Americans that the Soviet Union was building offensive bases in Fidel Castro’s Cuba and demanding that Moscow “move the world back from the abyss of destruction”. And thus the United States began blockading Cuba and the ultimate week of nuclear brinksmanship began, reaching crisis point by the Wednesday. In Washington, the radical polemicist I.F. Stone told supporters: “Six thousand years of human history is to come to an end. Do not expect to be alive tomorrow.” 

As the UN Security Council met, a diarist wrote in the New Yorker: “For a whole day we waited for something to happen, gauging, minute by minute, in something like pain, our ignorance of what the next minute might bring.” Also in New York, Howard Schuman thought: “These are all my fears come true.” But then he went out and bought tickets for a Broadway musical, “Little Me”, for a date after the expected general incineration. “I’m a one-man dichotomy,” he admits. Jenny Diski was sitting alone on the beach in Sussex, wholly convinced that she was about to die: “I was reading ‘Crime and Punishment’ and ‘Jude the Obscure’, so I was that way inclined.” 

On the Wednesday night, most of the ships carrying missiles to Cuba turned back, prompting the famous comment from the secretary of state, Dean Rusk: “We were eyeball to eyeball and the other fellow just blinked.” From then on the tension eased gradually until, the following Sunday, Khrushchev agreed to dismantle the bases and, not insignificantly, America pledged not to invade Cuba. 

It all left curiously little trace, though Kennedy’s perceived staunchness held the Democrats in good stead in the midterm elections two weeks later. The where-were-you-when moment of that era – the equivalent of 9/11 in this century – did not come for another year, when JFK was assassinated. “It often amazes me that the folk memory of the Cuban missile crisis is so weak,” says Ian McEwan. “To this day it seems an unconsidered event.” It was certainly a turning point: the fear of nuclear annihilation diminished from then on; and most teenagers began worrying less about getting fried and more about getting laid.

Even before the crisis, the prospect of planetary obliteration did not seem to worry our slightly-elders. Todd Gitlin (born 1943) later became one of the decade’s best-known chroniclers with “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage” (published 1987). He was then a student activist at Harvard. This was not a mainstream activity: “We were basically oddballs,” he explains.

Gitlin was one of the main organisers of a national anti-war rally in Washington on a bitter February afternoon. About 8,000 students turned up, carrying placards of excruciating politeness. “Turn Towards Peace”, “Think – Don’t Imitate the Russians” and “Who’s for Peace? Indiana Students”. The New York Times had a wonderful picture of demonstrators outside the White House. Some of the young men are wearing ties; one of the women, bearing the slogan “Shelters Will Not Save Us”, is dressed, despite the weather, in skirt and high heels, as though she were Jackie Kennedy. 

So the president sent out a couple of flunkeys (“white-gloved,” thinks Gitlin) to provide them with coffee. If any single incident sums up 1962, that could be the one. Americans, especially if they were Harvard men but even if they weren’t, were presumed to be on the same side. A few of the protest leaders were later invited in to meet officials at both the State Department, where they felt patronised, and the White House, where they were more cleverly flattered. One of JFK’s advisers, McGeorge Bundy, explained to Gitlin with a world-weary air: “Politics is the art of the possible.” “It was the first of seven million times I’ve heard that phrase,” says Gitlin now.

Seen through the broken glass of later anti-war demos, all this civility seems unimaginable. But Vietnam was then only slightly above President-whoever-of-Argentina on the global news agenda, even though 1962 was the year when the number of United States “advisers” there climbed from 700 to 12,000. And the classy coffee gesture and the all-college-men-together talks inside the White House played directly to the protesters’ weak spot. Essentially, they liked the president. Their midterm attitude towards Kennedy was similar to the modern liberal view of Barack Obama: admiration and affection mitigated by suspicion and some exasperation. 

Howard Schuman, then doing a degree at Berkeley on the West Coast, was also an activist. “JFK came over to make a speech in ’62,” he recalls, “and we decided to picket it instead of going to hear it. But, to tell the truth, most of us wanted to hear it, because we found him charismatic, witty and thoughtful.”

Kennedy did not have to face the highly personal rage from the right that besets Obama. That still had other outlets. At the University of Mississippi (“Ole Miss”), desegregation had just been declared by court order. When the new college year began in October, 3,000 troops were brought in to enforce it and allow the admission of a single black man, James Meredith. In the ensuing turmoil, two people died and hundreds were hurt. According to the (London) Times: “Meredith walked to his first class this morning amid shouts of ‘Come on nigger, smile’ and ‘The blood is on your head’. But the slight 29-year-old student of political science made only one comment: ‘This is not a happy occasion’.” Though the Times referred to “Meredith”, the other characters in the story were called “Mr”. 

The president dutifully enforced the law, even if his position on civil rights was equivocal. The white South still voted Democrat and had helped give him his dubious victory in 1960. His instincts and his calculations were not necessarily in sync on this issue. Today, this all seems unimaginably primitive: in 2002 James Meredith’s son, Joseph, was awarded a doctorate by Ole Miss, and named the leading student of his year, and no one did anything but smile. These times would form the backdrop to Kathryn Stockett’s novel “The Help” (published 2009), which has become an international bestseller and a Hollywood film. Stockett’s 1962 is very different from Ian McEwan’s, but equally valid. 

Nonetheless, it is worth noting that the political history of the 1960s has been written largely by and about the left. In 1962, an unusually strident right-wing Republican senator, Barry Goldwater of Arizona, was starting to make speeches and waves that would lead to his presidential candidacy in 1964 and his hefty defeat by JFK’s successor, Lyndon Johnson. Which is another story. But there is an argument that Goldwater’s rise had a more lasting impact on modern American politics than any anti-war protest.

“In 1962, no one dreamed Goldwater would be the Republican candidate,” according to Michael Goldfarb. “No one had any idea what power there was in the West.” The east coast, he says, was barely conscious of California until two of New York’s three baseball teams, the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, moved there in 1958. “Until then people thought California was a place you made movies and embarked for war in the Pacific. And Arizona…?”

Only the spread of air conditioning in the 1950s had made it slightly more habitable than the moon. When Goldwater was born, in Phoenix in 1909, Arizona was not even a state. But, from his failed run at the presidency, there stemmed Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Sarah Palin and heaven-knows-who-might-be-next. 

The other cultural revolutions that lay ahead were still dormant, and would not even really be part of the Sixties. Homosexuality was still covert in all but the most artistic circles. Howard Schuman escaped conscription by telling the draft board about his sexuality: “My father was what we used to call a New York Post liberal, and he just loved that story, that I pretended to be gay.” The possibility that his son was being honest appeared not to cross his mind.

The position of women at the time is best gleaned from minutiae. A Punch cartoon of a newspaper office showed the foreign desk with ringing phones and busy men rushing about doing important things. Next to them was the women’s page, where a silly thing with a bouffant and bangles was calling over, waving a letter: “Any suggestions for ‘Jilted’?”

In March 1962 Baroness Wootton, an academic sociologist who had become one of the first women to sit in the House of Lords, wrote to the Times saying she had received a letter from a university asking for a reference, specifically asking for a judgment “of the likely influence of Dr Hilda – as a man upon his students and colleagues”. 

The sisterhood, however, did not always help itself get taken seriously. The following appeared, amid the adverts for domestic help, in that venerable British institution the Lady: “Toes are sharp. Toes are once again rounded. Boots have returned to fashion. Shoes are increasing in popularity. Heels are high…are mid-high…are low…are stiletto-styled…are stacked. What’s the truth of the footwear situation? Now is the time to get the news into perspective.” That was the edition dated October 24th, the very day Jenny Diski sat fearfully on the beach.

But in other respects, the change was imminent. In the first week of January, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by the Tokens was top of the charts in America, and Danny Williams’s version of “Moon River” in Britain. Both songs have proved highly durable, but would not now be described as cutting-edge. “Moon River” was followed by “The Young Ones” by the even more durable Cliff Richard and the Shadows. 

Cliff (born 1940) had come to prominence in 1958 as the British answer to Elvis (though his fame has never dimmed, his life and career would head in very unElvis-like directions). This was five years ahead of the great explosion of British popular music. “In a funny way it was a disadvantage,” notes the lyricist Sir Tim Rice (born 1944). “They were told they had to be all-round entertainers if they were to last: singing more adult songs, with orchestras, wearing a bow-tie, that sort of thing. Heading for Frank Sinatra territory.” 

Their records, including Cliff’s, hardly ever made it into the American charts. Britain’s popular music was in thrall to two separate cultural hegemonies: that of the United States, which was the overwhelming influence on youthful tastes, and the BBC which, bar the quasi-legal service from Radio Luxembourg, was the only source of music on the radio, and heavily constrained by “needle-time” agreements with the Musicians’ Union. Pop on the BBC was confined to a few hours a week on the Light Programme, notably “Saturday Club” and “Pick of the Pops”. Tim Rice remembers Record Retailer magazine listing the most-played records: “the No.1 would have about 11 or 12 plays a week”.

There was a strange drabness to youth culture in the opening chapter of the Sixties. The edgy mid-Fifties cults of James Dean, the Angry Young Men, skiffle and coffee bars had passed; Bill Haley was old hat; Elvis had come out of the army and launched his ludicrous movie career. The British chart sensation of 1962 was a yodelling Australian, Frank Ifield. Another No.1 hit, “Come Outside” by Mike Sarne, concerned a bloke at a dance trying to get a bit of quick “slap-and-tickle” from his girlfriend because he had to get her home by 10.30. Most pop stars of 1962 looked as if they could be trusted to keep that sort of promise. 

Didn’t anyone see what was coming? “No,” Tim Rice says. “The vital ingredient of any big cultural shift is that no one can see it coming. There didn’t appear to be a lot of teenage angst.” Researchers who investigated the attitudes of youth found themselves shocked by what the British educationalist Wayland Young called their “servility”. Ferdynand Zweig, who surveyed students at Oxford and Manchester universities, said they were in danger of becoming “cautious adults at 20”. 

Yet in a sense it was obvious. There were signs in the late Fifties that the teenage market was becoming more powerful. And in its first issue of 1962 the American music-business weekly Billboard reported that sales of singles had hit an all-time high the previous year. The baby-boom had peaked in 1947, and mere demographics were bound to make the young more important. But few people grasped that. Special credit should perhaps go to a French senator, André Maroselli, who predicted in a 1962 essay that this growing generation would “inevitably” lead “the revolution of the Sixties”. 

By the end of the year even broader hints were being dropped, but no one was rushing to take them. Culturally if not politically, the revolution would be largely British-led. Already the postgraduate wit of “Beyond the Fringe” (Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett) had reached Broadway to great acclaim, and New York cinemas were filled with gritty films depicting the working classes of northern England being blunt with each other (“A Taste of Honey”, “A Kind of Loving”, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner”). “The suffering of the lower orders in England”, sniffed the New Yorker, “is becoming a hackneyed subject.” 

In November, the spirit of “Beyond the Fringe” reached the BBC with the first edition of the satirical programme “That Was The Week That Was” (TW3), introduced by David Frost, which would transfix Britain for the next year. Those who were not around at the time sometimes catch old editions and wonder what the fuss was about. Well, firstly, it was the fact that these first glimmerings of the move from youthful servility via irreverence to rebellion were actually happening on the staid old BBC. And secondly, the timing was just magic. The weary and very unKennedyesque Conservative government of Harold Macmillan was about to enter its scandal-ridden final phase.

And something else was going on. I had just about given up my comics to read the New Musical Express, British pop’s leading weekly. On October 26th, just after Khrushchev blinked and we all started to breathe a touch more easily, my copy arrived and, weirdly, I can remember it to this day. 

The paper ran a weekly profile called “New to the Charts”, and this one focused on a group whose single “Love Me Do” had just crept into the lower reaches of the Top 30. It was headed “Liverpool’s Beatles wrote their own hit”, which was then considered as novel as a talking dog. The piece comprised a few bland paragraphs: “Why are they called the Beatles? The boys laughingly put off the question by saying ‘The name came to us in a vision’.”

I bet that was John Lennon. And that little article was indeed a vision – one that was to prove far more influential than any of the words expended the same week on the sombre confrontation off the shores of Cuba. Before long protesters would cease being excruciatingly polite and rock singers would give up trying to be Frank Sinatra. The Beatles, who had gone along with the earlier conventions of pop, turned out to be the major catalyst in overturning them. Sexual intercourse would not just be invented but would catch on big-time, even among the Edwards and Florences. Everything was about to happen. Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

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