Close look at time of troubles
A week or so short of The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee it is instructive to consider who has been her favourite prime minister during her long and eventful 60 years on the throne. Sir Winston Churchill, perhaps? Harold Macmillan? John Major? All Tories these, note, which party one might presume the monarch to support.
Given her famous discretion, it is unlikely we shall ever have a definitive answer. I sense the ring of truth, though, about the claim in Dominic Sandbrook’s magisterial new book on the 1970s that it was Harold Wilson.
Sandbook’s huge tome Seasons in the Sun (Allen Lane, £30) is concerned in its early chapters with the dying days of the Wilson government, before going on to consider the terrible times — as many saw them — under James Callaghan and the eventual election of his successor Margaret Thatcher (not a favourite with Brenda, of course, being altogether too queenlike herself).
Verdicts on the principal participants are sometimes sharp. Though there are a number of references, for instance, to the kindness of Wilson, Mr Sandbrook waits until the acknowledgments to put the boot in firmly. Before thanking those who helped with the book, he suddenly rounds on the late prime minister, calling him “a pudgy, shabby Little Englander locked away with his fears and fantasies”. Ouch!
For those of us who lived through the period (I was in my mid-twenties) the book conjures it to mind as if it were yesterday. Sandbrook himself was only a toddler at the time, but his rigorous research and sound judgment have resulted in a work astonishing in its detail and narrative sweep.
Of course, this is what historians do. David Kynaston has, for instance, presented in two fine books a panoramic picture of the years immediately before and after our shared birth date of 1951.
Politics provides the framework to Seasons in the Sun but its title suggests the wider themes that it also embraces.
As aficionados of 1970s pop will know, Seasons in the Sun was a No 1 hit for Terry Jacks in April 1974, shortly after Wilson’s return to power.
In search of a bone — any bone — to pick with Sandbrook, I could complain that he quotes with evident approval — well, certainly no attempt at contradiction — critical opinions that it was “tasteless kitsch”, “the unsurpassed nadir of pop music”.
In fact, like much of the work of the great Belgian balladeer Jacques Brel (of whose Le Moribond this was an English translation), the account of a dying man looking back on the fun of his early life was more witty and celebratory than doomy (though this was clearer in the chirpy, up-tempo original). Unfortunately, the song turned out to have an affecting prescience in later years with its writer’s own early death from cancer.
Music, theatre (though not much), literature and film all feature in Seasons in the Sun. So, too — and here again the title appears to have relevance — does the weather. In 1976, Britain sweltered in the driest and hottest summer on record.
This famously ended in cloudbursts that followed soon after the appointment of Denis Howell — the affable sports minister with an uncanny similarity to ‘Sunny Jim’ Callaghan — to an added position as minister for drought.
In this connection, it is interesting to note what happened a year later when — still wearing his hat as minister for water resources — he came to Oxfordshire to open the £5m Farmoor 2 reservoir.
Smiling broadly, he boasted about a special relationship with the Almighty that had brought an end to the 1976 troubles.
Reporting on the day for the Oxford Mail and Times, I observed that this relationship was clearly undergoing a strain.
Freak wind began as his speech ended. I wrote: “A fierce gust blew down a giant marquee seconds before guests and water board officials were to have sat inside it for tea. Everyone ran for cover, bearing urns of tea and plates of cakes and sandwiches, which were then installed in the clubhouse of the Oxford Sailing Club.
“That, at least, was immune from the elements — but not, alas, the members themselves. They were forced to abandon a yacht race, started by a pistol shot from Mr Howell, when strong wind caused most of the boats to capsize.”
In closing, I must tell you that Seasons in the Sun is hugely recommended. Adding to its appeal, perhaps, is that he is a ‘local lad’, living in Chipping Norton. His mini-biography on the dust jacket notes cheekily, however: “Sad to say [he] has never been invited to join the infamous phone-hacking set.”