A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties
Published by Little, Brown (London, 2006)
White Heat is the story of Britain between 1964 and 1970: the years of Harold Wilson’s first government, but also the heyday of the Beatles and the Stones, the Connery Bond films and the Swinging London craze, the permissive society and the Summer of Love.
To some extent the book debunks a lot of the myths associated with the period, and the subtitle is meant to be ironic. For most people in Britain, the Sixties didn’t swing at all. As well as reflecting all the gaudy excitement of the period, I also wanted to reflect the lives of millions of people who felt left out or alienated by the cultural changes of the day. I also had great fun writing about the various disasters that befell Wilson’s reforming government, although of course they weren’t funny at the time.
Almost without my planning it, the real star of the book turned out to be not John Lennon or Paul McCartney, or Mary Quant or Twiggy, but Wilson’s deputy, George Brown. Whenever I tried to push him back in his box, he clambered out again, usually steaming with drink. The story about him propositioning the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima is almost certainly invented, but it was too good to leave out.
Dominic Sandbrook’s White Heat (subtitled A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties) is a mesmerising piece of reportage — detailed, authoritative and written with the kind of vividness that brings the period to vibrant life, both for those who lived through it, and for those to whom it is as remote as ancient history. And weighing in at nearly a thousand pages, it is as comprehensive as one could wish, dealing with revolutions in the arts (the Beatles, of course, are central — and iconic — figures here), as well as the relentless bloodletting in Northern Ireland, and political scandals in Westminster (the John Profumo/Christine Keeler affair being the most significant).
The book quotes on its jacket Harold Wilson’s much-repeated comment “Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution” — and Sandbrook, taking his title from this quote, makes the strongest possible case for this being a revolutionary period — even if several of the revolutions involved (such as the hippie-inspired ‘Summer of Love’) actually came to nothing. The changes in society during this period were seismic: cultural and political (as mentioned above), but also technological. In the sports arena, Britain featured a resounding World Cup triumph in 1966).
In many ways, as the author demonstrates, Britain became a significant player again in this era and featured once again on the world stage in a fashion it had not achieved in the 1950s. But the outward accoutrements of these revolutions in society nurtured some clandestine (and less palatable) undercurrents, and Sandbrook anatomises these with quite as much skill as he devotes to the more celebratory sections of the book. The range of references involved is quite stunning, and the period concentrated on (1964 to 1970) is not likely to receive such a comprehensive airing again.
“Never Had It So Good was just so excellent, I simply couldn’t wait for the follow-up. … Now the story continues to 1970, and it is absolutely riveting. Sandbrook has a very easy style – not annoyingly gossipy, but always lucid and readable … Every conceivable aspect of the decade is dealt with here – it is the real deal: social history at its finest. I cannot conceive of it ever being bettered or superseded.” Joseph Connolly, Daily Mail
“White Heat is a triumph. Its 800-odd pages successfully integrate a blow-by-blow political history of the era dominated by Harold Wilson with an amazingly full social and cultural history of the same period … The way in which Sandbrook counterpoints his themes is masterly … Extraordinarily enlightening … as this splendid book reminds us, it was fun while it lasted.” Jane Stevenson, Daily Telegraph
“In his compelling narrative of Britain during the 1960s, Dominic Sandbrook demolishes the myth that traditional society was swept aside by flower power, free love and student unrest … Sandbrook’s book could hardly be more impressive in its scope. He writes with authority and an eye for telling detail on every subject he covers … Although the awesome depth of his knowledge is obvious, he is never ponderous. Every chapter is enlivened by humour.” Leo McKinstry, The Times
“A socio-politico-cultural extravaganza on the Sixties. While the key images are given full weight, Sandbrook reveals that most of the nation remained warily conservative. Riveting even if you didn’t live through it.” John Walsh, Independent
“Sandbrook was not around at the time, which may account for his wonderful gift for breathing new life into these all-too-familiar stories, and also for the fresh eye which allows him to take a new angle on all the hoary old myths … He covers every aspect of the ‘swinging Sixties’ … scrupulously careful throughout to avoid either demonising or romanticising what was almost certainly the least distinguished and most worthless cast of characters ever to take centre stage in British history …. An extraordinary story … not to be missed.” Peregrine Worsthorne, Evening Standard
“Only last year, we were knocked out by the young Oxford historian’s first book, a blockbuster on the years 1956-63, Never Had It So Good. This proved a winning format and for readers impatient for another 900 pages, he has followed through on his success in the same easy-to-read style … Sandbrook tells this story with unflagging relish … [and] undaunted zeal … This is history of a commendably inclusive range … There is something for everybody.” Peter Clarke, Sunday Times
“A substantial contribution to our understanding of the social and political history of modern Britain … An outstanding feat on the part of a young man who has not only read, marked and learnt but has also inwardly digested a decade and more of recent British history to the great benefit of the rest of us … If you want an updated version of the Bayeux Tapestry then this is the book for you.” Anthony Howard, Sunday Telegraph
“This second volume lives up to the promise of the first, its lapidary judgements being interspersed with piquant detail and plenty of choice anecdotes … Sandbrook is an inveterate demolisher of myths, though he invariably delivers his crushing blows in a manner that invites reflection rather than contradiction.” Christopher Silvester, Independent on Sunday
“The financial crisis that the Labour administrations of the 1960s stumbled and reeled their way through are the backbone of Dominic Sandbrook’s wondrously all-encompassing account of the decade in Britain … The grip derives from Sandbrook’s sense of drama, the sense of drama from his ability to see both sides of an argument.” Christopher Bray, New Statesman
“The charm of Dominic Sandbrook’s new book, with its minute anatomy of social forms and brilliant parade of charlatans and fools … Sandbrook must be said to have missed the 60s, but he more than makes up for it in homage.” James Buchan, Guardian
“An even-handed 900-page journey through the 1960s filled with verve and snappy storytelling … As sure on political manoeuvrings as he is on fashion and football, Sandbrook sustains a powerful narrative thrust, and has a wonderful era for tittle-tattle … His style is so engrossing and his research so immaculate.” Ed Wood, Time Out
“It skilfully marshals a vast array of facts into a clear and competent narrative … covering not just politics, but the arts, social trends, fashion and popular culture … written with sense and judgement.” Vernon Bogdanor, Financial Times
“As approachable and readable as 20th-century history gets. This is a fascinating period with a plethora of compelling characters, which makes it essential reading for anyone wanting to understand modern Britain.” Kate Bradley, The Bookseller
“His chosen period coincided with a wave of self-conscious novelty and experiment, and the book, well organised and balanced, sets up a counterpoint between public events and developments in fashion, social attitudes and culture (both high and popular)” Adam Mars-Jones, Observer
“Sandbrook has not only digested a huge amount of information but also imparts it with style. The politicians may be the leading lights – and of course the usual suspects (Profumo, Quant, Beatles, Stones) make their appearances – but there’s room too for the more workaday people for whom the Sixties didn’t swing.” The First Post
“Sandbrook is undoubtedly a skilled historian, and it’s in the area of politics his book is at its strongest. And particularly the attention he pays to the “special relationship” between the US and Britain under wily Prime Minister Harold Wilson.” Book of the Week, Nottingham Evening Post
“Admirable flair for anecdotal stories that flow with humour – and some style – through his book” Camden New Journal
“More non-committal, perhaps, than last year’s Never Had It So Good, but no less entertaining.” D. J. Taylor, Books of the Year, Times Literary Supplement
“They say that if you can remember the Sixties you weren’t there. For all those in need of reminding, Dominic Sandbrook’s brilliant analysis of the era looks at political and everyday life as well as the free love, dope-fuelled existence of the pop stars, models and hippies.” Books of the Year, Daily Mail
“An active pleasure to read. This is a deftly written and evocative account of the day before yesterday, a period about which we – including our governing class – know far too little.” Books of the Year, Mail on Sunday
“Humorously written exposition of the creative and optimistic society that emerged after the Second World War, but which could not find the economic answer to post-imperial decline.” Books of the Year, Financial Times
“An epic account of mid-20th century Britain which is hugely enjoyable, funny, contentious, and shows a sharp eye for telling detail.” Books of the Year, Sunday Herald