Strip the myth from history and what will you find?

The seemingly endless list of anniversaries we've been marking this year has shown that accounts of past events are regularly and ruthlessly distorted

Share

It has been a very good year for 50th anniversaries. Please Please Me and the formation of the Rolling Stones have been and gone, together with Dr Beeching, the Profumo affair and the Great Train Robbery. Sexual intercourse, which, as Larkin reminds us, began between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles' first LP, has been duly celebrated. Last week we were invited to remember the assassination of John F Kennedy and, to a much lesser extent, the death of Aldous Huxley, while BBC4 chipped in with a documentary, fronted by AN Wilson, on the life and work of CS Lewis.

The Lewis documentary, with its contributions from Sir Anthony Kenny and its discussions of the nature of myth, was top-of-the-range stuff which, in a more culturally astute age, would have appeared on BBC2 or even BBC1 and given all those cookery shows a run for their money. But how were things going at the lower end of the commemorative ladder?

Well, on Monday, in my capacity as The Tablet's radio critic, I chanced upon the first instalment of a Radio 2 three-parter entitled 1963: That Was The Year That Was. Helmed by an avuncular Michael Grade, this featured a panel of such luminaries of the era as the film critic Barry Norman, the comedy writer Barry Cryer and the disc jockeys Annie Nightingale and Tony Blackburn.

What was remarkable about this endeavour, excellence of the musical selections aside, was how quickly the chronology began to blur. The Beatles were alleged to have been influenced by musicians who had not yet recorded their first album. A list of the pop groups supposed to be contending with them for chart success contained several acts that had not yet come into existence. These are trivial mistakes, but meanwhile there was talk – mostly from Mr Grade, always chippy when it comes to cultural history – of "establishments", the modern age being brought into being and, in a rather startling example of biting the hand that fed you, the old-style BBC's patronising attitude towards its audience.

It was not really Mr Grade's fault: he turned out to have been drafted in to replace Sir David Frost, who had sadly died when the series was in preparation. All the same, as one idée fixe about the 1960s succeeded another, and cliché more or less dripped from the studio wall, many a listener would have begun to reflect that what we had here was not so much history as a kind of mythical projection of it, in which Britain swung, hemlines rose, "satire" conquered reaction and progress marched indefatigably on. At the same time, it was not only a view of the past with all the rough edges sanded down, but, it soon became clear, a perspective designed not so much to establish what actually happened but to perform the rather more equivocal function of buttressing the view that the participants took of the present.

Nearly every decade of British history has this anaesthetising blanket flung over it by the media these days, but for some reason the Sixties fares worse than any. This, we keep on being told, was the decade of free love, progressive politics, kaftans, hippies, Carnaby Street and psychedelic happenings. In fact, modern historians have started to suggest that the Sixties, as conceptualised by journalism and TV, really swung only in a couple of square miles of central London, and that beyond this paradisal resort, provincial life went on much as before. The best-selling album of the 1960s was not Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, but the soundtrack to The Sound of Music. As for all that lefty politicking, Harold Wilson won the 1964 general election by the merest whisker, and the second half of the decade brought a pronounced rightward swing, marked by a Conservative landslide in the local elections of 1968 and Edward Heath's arrival as Prime Minister in 1970.

The decade's real impact, consequently, was felt in the years that followed: it was in the 1970s that all the seeds of rampant consumer materialism and fais ce que voudras sown in the age of Aquarius really began to flower. None of these qualifications, alas, suits the mythologising sheen that popular history loves to apply to the ever more vestigial outlines of the past. It is the same with catchphrases by which great historical figures are now remembered. Queen Victoria never said "We are not amused". "Thatcher the milk-snatcher", that great accusing couplet from the early 1970s, turns out to have been a gross libel: the decision to remove free school milk was opposed by Mrs Thatcher but carried through by the Cabinet of which she was a part. Similarly, James Callaghan, returning to the strike-bound Britain of early 1979 from a summit in Gaudeloupe, did not say "Crisis, what crisis?" to reporters. He produced this much more measured comment: "If you look at it from the outside, and perhaps you're taking a rather parochial view at the moment, I don't think that other people would share the view that there is mounting chaos."

None of this is a complaint about popular history or praiseworthy efforts to render piles of complex data down into a form amenable to the great mass of us who don't possess PhDs in modern history. Neither is it an argument in favour of the Oxford Regius Professor being invited on to Radio 2 every time it decides to commemorate a bygone year. Historical understanding needn't necessarily be formal, and you sometimes suspect that a teenager could gain more of an inkling of the way in which 1960s Britain had begun to change by watching the scene in A Hard's Day Night where the Fab Four are stuck in a railway carriage with a disapproving middle-aged man (Man: "I fought the war for people like you." Lennon: "I bet you're sorry you won") than from half a dozen textbooks.

On the other hand, myth-making of the kind which imputes general radicalism to a rather cosy and short-lived satirical TV programme, or envisages the Sixties as an endlessly enticing compound of dope, dolly birds and nude reviews is not only confusing the punters but patronising them as well, exacerbating the cultural separations that currently afflict us by insisting on real history for clever people and imaginary history for the mob. If they did but know it, Michael Grade and Boris Johnson – who only last week favoured with some edifying remarks on "elitism" – are fighting on the same side.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Political Editor: Mr. Cameron is beginning to earn small victories in Europe

Andrew Grice
Pakistani volunteers carry a student injured in the shootout at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen, at a local hospital in Peshawar  

The Only Way is Ethics: The paper’s readers and users of our website want different things

Will Gore
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'