1965: The Year Modern Britain Was Born by Christopher Bray, book review

The Sixties didn't begin when we think they did – or so this revisionist cultural history claims

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The Independent Culture

It's said that the Sixties really began in 1963, and there have certainly been books devoted to that momentous year of the Kennedy assassination, the "I have a dream speech", the Profumo affair and The Beatles. It's said that the Sixties reached their peak in 1967, the year of free love and cultural experimentation. And there have certainly been books devoted to the Summer of Love. I also have a tome entitled 1968. One cannot ignore the year of student revolt.

But now Christopher Bray is claiming that we should look to 1965 as, to quote the book's sub-heading, "the year modern Britain was born." The idea takes a bit of getting used to. The Summer of Love has more of a ring to it than the summer of consumerist relativism, to borrow a term from the publicity for the book. And yet, to take just one of the many splendid vignettes, it's clear that a new world order was arising. Bray describes the wedding of gangster Reggie Kray, and he notes: "On 19 April 1965, when Reggie married Frances Elsie Shea... he had the event photographed by none other than the country's most famous snapper, David Bailey, who arrived at the church in a blue velvet suit with matching blue Rolls-Royce, for all the world like Cecil Beaton recording the Queen's Coronation of 12 years earlier."

It was indeed a year when class structures crumbled, a new aristocracy came to the fore with working class lads like Bailey, The Beatles and Michael Caine at the forefront. Was it a year – the year – when Britain really changed? Only up to a point. For sure we are still affected today by some of the legislation, the Race Relations Act, the abolition of the death penalty and, perhaps above all, Education Secretary Tony Crosland's introduction of comprehensive education (he reportedly said in private "that he was bent on the destruction of "every fucking grammar school in this country").

But it was in the cultural sphere that change was really accelerating. The Beatles with the LSD-influenced Rubber Soul were swapping straightforward love songs for an imaginative introspection and existentialism, Dylan was stretching the boundaries of the pop song with his bile-splattered narrative "Like A Rolling Stone", Bridget Riley was conquering New York with her pre-psychedelia psychedelic paintings, John Fowles produced his astonishing The Magus, Dennis Potter and Ken Loach took television drama to a new level, Edward Bond's Saved, in which a baby is stoned, shocked the censors and the theatre-going public. Above all it was the first year that the words pop and culture could be used together without attracting ridicule – except perhaps from the self-appointed champion of the old order, Mary Whitehouse.

But sometimes I feel Bray tries too hard to stand up his thesis. He cites the Moors murders, saying they left the country reeling. But I would say that it was 1966, with the gruesome details coming out in the trial, that left the country reeling. He cites the appointment of Roy Jenkins as Home Secretary, the architect of legislation on homosexuality, divorce, abortion and censorship. But it was that legislation in subsequent years that changed the nation, not the appointment in itself. Jenkins was only made Home Secretary in the last days of 1965. And his assertion that this was the year that feminism came into the mainstream takes some believing. Surely this was the year of "dolly-birds" (what a horrible, far-off phrase that sounds now) and mini-skirts. Yes, as Bray says, 1965 saw the publication of Sylvia Plath's posthumous poetry collection Ariel in Britain and Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in America. But the episode of Mad Men in which Peggy and Joan sit discussing Ariel and The Feminine Mystique has yet to be written.

Bray does though strike fertile ground in examining in some detail R.D. Laing's experimental psychiatric community in London's East End to look at how traditional notions of the family were, if not crumbling, then being questioned. He is interesting too in exploring the nation's ambivalence to the growing prominence of the car.

London was beginning to swing, but that is not among Bray's preoccupations. Jean Shrimpton and Mary Quant's influence was of a different order to R.D. Laing, but it was there. And he has the journalist's weakness of occasionally emptying his notebook and not seeing the wood for the trees. He is absolutely right to see the death and funeral of Sir Winston Churchill as a significant watershed, between an old and new Britain. But it's odd to then digress with a six-page history of the Churchill family. He mentions only en passant that the American President, Lyndon Johnson, failed to attend Churchill's funeral. Now that really would have merited further investigation.

Bray, at least, unlike many chroniclers of the Sixties, does not fall for many of that decade's myths. Even though he was only three years old at the time of the year he is writing about, he recognises that while change was all around it took a long time to displace – if it ever fully did – the old order. And while that change didn't happen in neat 12 month cycles, that doesn't prevent this from being an entertaining and evocative account.

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