I picked up a hardback copy, in good nick, of Bernard Levin’s “The Pendulum Years: Britain in the Sixties” (Cape, 1970) in a second hand bookshop in Whangarei, NZ. I can’t walk past these great, shambling, labyrinthine shops stacked floor to ceiling with fusty old books as if by some sufferer of Diogenes Syndrome. I’m looking for two items – a hardback Casino Royale and a hardback Moonraker, to complete my Fleming collection. I didn’t find them. But you know how it is; you spend so long in the shop that it becomes an embarrassment if you don’t buy something. Hence, The Pendulum Years. You know you’ve got a problem if you buy a book you’ve already read. But I thought it worth the revisit. How perverse, to cross half the world and then read about a place 12,000 miles and fifty years away. I was curious to know if Levin’s thesis had stood the test of time, that the sixties in Britain were characterised by a tension between the pull towards the future and the pull towards the past.
It’s an enjoyable read. I always admired Levin’s outspoken journalism. Yet I found myself to be more critical on this reread. The title of the book is misleading. I doubt if its preoccupations were the preoccupations of most of the inhabitants of these islands at the time. A more accurate title would be, “The Pendulum Years: Metropolitan London in the Sixties”. Then I found myself irritated by the tone; everything is described with an air of supercilious above-the-battle ironic detachment. No wonder somebody threw a punch at Levin, live on air on That was The Week That Was.
Yet some of the chapters are spellbinding. Vassall, the Profumo affair, Churchill’s funeral. I’d single out Wives and Servants, Levin’s description of the prosecution of Lady C under The Obscene Publications Act. Levin sat through all six days of the trial, a feat of endurance in itself. His account is brilliant, and very funny. The chapter well exemplifies Levin’s theme of past v future. It is hard to imagine from our current perspective that Lady Chatterley’s Lover might have continued to be suppressed. Levin’s notion is that change in the sixties was unstoppable, that a nostalgic longing for Britain past, real or imagined, was futile.
But then there are lacunae. Science is the obvious one. It was after all in 1962 that F R Leavis, in his Richmond Lecture launched his vicious attack on C P Snow following Snow’s 1959 Rede Lecture on “The Two Cultures”. There really was a tension between the roles of science and the arts in the sixties. Mr Wilson wanted to re-forge Britain’s greatness amid “the white heat of technology”, but little of this gets a mention. And occasionally Levin is just plain wrong. He thought the Beatles’ output would be ephemeral!
If Levin never became “establishment”, he mellowed, as perhaps most enfants terribles do. My favourite of his books is Enthusiasms, in which he ditches his Vanity Fair view of human affairs and exalts his great passions, from music to Shakespeare to friendship even to the life spiritual, with – well – an enthusiasm that is unalloyed.
As for final judgment on The Pendulum Years, I’m not so sure even after all these years that Britain, the country I flew back into on March 1st, in some respects has changed so very much. There have been 53 Prime ministers since Robert Walpole. More than a third of them were educated at Eton, including the present incumbent. The first duty of the establishment is to perpetuate itself. At this, for better or for worse, Britain has proved extraordinarily successful.