More from Books

A beastly cold country: Britain in 1962

30 January 2021

9:00 AM

30 January 2021

9:00 AM

Frostquake: The Frozen Winter of 1962 and How Britain Emerged a Different Country Juliet Nicolson

Chatto & Windus, pp.356, 18.99

Like this author, I was happily snowbound at a beloved grandparent’s house during the big freeze that began on Boxing Day 1962 and ended in early March the following year. I was in Sussex, she at Sissinghurst in Kent. Juliet Nicolson, then eight, describes the morning of 27 December: ‘The snow was still there, turning the landmarks of the garden — the walls, lawns, statues, urns — into something unrecognisable but unified. The sight was beautiful.’ Her grandmother, Vita Sackville-West, had died in June, leaving the house to Nigel Nicolson, Juliet’s father. It was his family’s first Christmas there.

In The Perfect Summer: England 1911 Nicolson wrote of an earlier period on the cusp of social change. Perhaps the changes she describes in Frostquakewould have happened anyway, but she imaginatively uses that ten-week freeze to highlight many of Britain’s then moribund laws and attitudes and their imminent collapse: the criminalisation of homosexuality, the acceptance of casual racism — landlords stating ‘No blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ — and the reluctance of the press to expose the misdeeds of the powerful.

Any hint of homosexuality could shatter a career. On 6 December 1962, Wilfred Brambell, the star of Steptoe and Son, appeared at West London Magistrates Court for ‘smiling’ at another man through the window of a public urinal. In October, John Vassall, a foreign office clerk who’d worked in the British Embassy in Moscow, was imprisoned for 18 years ‘for spilling classified beans after being blackmailed with compromising photographs’. (The Sunday Mirror later published tips on ‘how to spot a homo’: he would have ‘an over-consuming interest in youths’ and might ‘wear silk shirts and sit up at chichi bars with full-bosomed ladies’.) On 20 December, Norman Josiffe (Scott) went to Chelsea police station to confess his ‘horrible affair’ with Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberal MP. No evidence was found then against Thorpe, and the compromising letters Josiffe produced were ‘forwarded to the assistant commissioner of Scotland Yard and locked in the office safe, along with other uncomfortable documents concerning other leading figures of the Establishment’.

Not everyone kowtowed. The previous year Peter Cook and Nicholas Luard had founded the ironically named Establishment Club in Greek Street. (There is no mention in Frostquake of Luard, who twice bailed out Private Eye, started that year by Richard Ingrams, Christopher Booker, Willie Rushton and Andrew Osmond — Luard bought it from Osmond in 1962). Rivetingly, Nicolson cites one Establishment performer who flopped — an unknown Australian comic. John Betjeman, though, in the audience, pronounced Barry Humphries’s act ‘sheer genius’.

Nicolson’s writing is energetic and absorbing. By accumulating tiny details she brings a multitude of scenes to life. Like her, I watched Andy Pandy, Bill and Ben and Sooty on a black-and-white TV; graduated to Thank Your Lucky Stars with the Birmingham-born teenage Janice Nicholls pronouncing, of a new favourite record ‘Oi’ll give it foive’ and lived through the Profumo affair. At 13, I thought ‘osteopath’ was an exciting sexual perversion. Mary Whitehouse, then a teacher in Shropshire, was probably accurate in her quoted remarks here about other adolescents’ excited imaginings: ‘She knew of 14-year-old schoolgirls who were simulating sexual positions during their school milk break and were planning careers in prostitution.’

Christine Keeler, before going to London, lived in a caravan. ‘In 1961, 15 million people still lacked a plumbed-in bathroom. In 1963 six million Britons shared a lavatory with others in their street.’ Keeler broke boundaries by having two black boyfriends, ‘Lucky’ Gordon and Johnny Edgecombe.

Inevitably, the author covers some old ground. I would have liked less on the Beatles, preferring the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. (Dylan, Nicolson relates, was brought to London in December 1962 by Philip Saville to play an anarchic folk singer in The Madhouse on Castle Street, a BBC play by the white Jamaican Evan Jones.)

I thought I knew enough about Sylvia Plath, but the description of her lonely last days with two infant children, in freezing weather in her rental near London Zoo, is heartrending. Similarly, Nicolson writes tenderly of her grandfather’s grief at his wife’s death and how ‘Hadji’ would read Kipling to her and her brother. The children surely kept him afloat.

Other topics include the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kim Philby’s defection to Moscow, the Soviet double agent George Blake’s 42-year prison sentence, and John Blume, a millionaire thanks to his cheap washing machines. And some grim casualties: 2,000 Dartmoor ponies buried under snow.

Not everything changed. Thirty years after his ‘penance’ at Toynbee Hall, Profumo, visiting Sissinghurst, slyly pinched the author’s bottom.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments