The year 1956 was when the old Britain died and a new one was born. It was the year that so many of the old assumptions were shattered: that Britain was a great power; that being British was something special; that politics and political dogmas and doctrines such as socialism could make the world a better place; that the British Empire was strong and benevolent and forever; that British theatre mirrored the unchanging values of the upper and middle classes; that British music was gentle and tuneful, unlike the raucous rock 'n' roll which seemed to have gripped the US. It was the point at which a single generation combined the instinctive radicalism of the young with the freedom to express it that had been denied its predecessors but had no particular idea what to do with it. The Attlee revolution in welfare, the National Health Service, universal unemployment pay and sickness benefit, things that Britons have taken for granted ever since, these made the bridge across which Britain walked from the end of the Second World War to the 1968 demonstrations against the conflict in Vietnam. The first flourish of all that was good and all that was bad in the sixties is to be found in 1956.
On January 1st, 1956, Britain saw itself as a great power with an empire. If you had said in almost any company that within a decade the Empire would cease to exist, you would have been laughed at or patriotically punched. Five days later, Lonnie Donegan's Rock Island Line entered the charts and a few days after that a 15-year-old John Lennon walked into a Liverpool record shop and bought it--a precious, fragile 78 rpm disc, the first he had ever purchased and which he took home with infinite care and ceremony. After he had listened to it over and over again, he begged and pleaded with his mother until she gave in and bought him a guitar on which Rock Island Line became the first piece of music that Lennon learned to play.
Until then, the British music industry relied on American imports for the new music, like Rock Around the Clock, recorded in 1954 by Bill Haley but not heard in Britain until a year later. Rock Around the Clock was utterly different from what young Britons had been dancing to and it was inherently subversive: the word 'rock' was a euphemism for sexual activity and 'rock around the clock' was a boast of sexual prowess. It was the fearsome approach of music that sounded, to men and women brought up on crooners, like a declaration of war.
Five months later, on May 8th, at London's Royal Court Theatre, John Osborne's Look Back in Anger received its premiere and completely changed the world that British theatre reflected. It announced the end of what the critic Kenneth Tynan, himself a sixties icon, once called the 'dododramas' set in Colonel Bulstrode's library somewhere in Hampshire.
Tynan wrote: 'I agree that Look Back in Anger is likely to remain a minority taste. What matters is the size of the minority. I estimate it at roughly 6,733,000, which is the number of people in this country between 20 and 30.' It was only in the 'long 1960s', beginning in 1956, that he could have made so foolish and generationally arrogant a statement and be taken seriously. It was the beginning of an era in which youth believed it was right because it was young.
The next month, June, Britain heard about Nikita Khrushchev's so-called 'secret speech' in which he denounced, in compelling and horrific detail, the crimes of Stalin: the regime of torture and mass murder that the Soviet dictator had run throughout the thirties right up to his death in 1953. Suddenly, the sons and daughters of young idealists who had turned to Communism in the thirties and forties had to look elsewhere for hope and inspiration. There were many homeless idealists, ripe for the shibboleths of the sixties.
In July President Nasser of Egypt announced his intention to nationalise the Suez Canal. …