I don’t wish to tempt malign fate but I must point out that this winter could actually be a lot worse. Imagine, on top of the pandemic, the sort of January in which food lorries can’t get through snowdrifts reaching 23ft in places, where millions of homes have lost their water supply because of pipes frozen in temperatures that sometimes plunge to negative four degrees, and where striking power workers have deprived homes, workplaces, schools and hospitals of heat and light for several hours each day.
That is the winter evoked in Frostquake, Juliet Nicolson’s entertaining panorama of life in Britain during the original “beast from the east”: the Siberian weather front that brought the great freeze of 1962-63. And the mother of all cold snaps it was too. The snow that started falling on Boxing Day didn’t thaw until the first week of March.
Like the author, I was eight at the time. And although I came from a rather less exalted family than the Nicolsons of Sissinghurst Castle, many of the childhood memories she recalls strike resonant chords in my raddled old brain too. I also crept to and from school in smogs so thick you couldn’t see a yard in front of your face, equipped only with a pocket torch and a scarf tightly tied over my mouth and nose. It would be black from poisonous sulphur dioxide fumes within minutes. And the worst of those December 1962 smogs, the one that Nicolson records as killing 90 people in 24 hours, was merely a curtain-raiser to the horrific winter that followed.
The snow that started falling on Boxing Day didn’t thaw until the first week of March.
Other memories I share with her are less traumatic, but no less revealing of a Britain stuck in a paralyzing limbo. More than 20 years after the Blitz London was still a city full of air raid shelters, inside which we kids played hide-and-seek, and strange confectionery concoctions lingering from the 1930s — pink sugar shrimps, gobstoppers, sherbet fountains — that proved as catastrophic to the teeth as they were addictive to the tongue.
Even our family lives — the Nicolsons and Morrisons — turn out not to be as dissimilar as the chasm between our respective social stations might suggest. One theme running through Nicolson’s book, surely metaphorically, is her childhood observation of her grandfather Harold Nicolson frozen with grief through that terrible winter and then gradually thawing into acceptance of the death of his wife, Vita Sackville-West. Another is the gradual disintegration of her parents’ marriage over the same period.
Exactly the same sense of emotional wreckage poorly camouflaged by deathly silences also pervades my boyhood memories of my parents. And that was very 1962 too — this chronically buttoned-up, fake-stoic attitude to pain, loss and betrayal, allied to a disastrous belief that couples who had grown to hate each other should stay together “for the sake of the children”.
Alongside these domestic observations, however, Nicolson paints a much wider picture of an entire nation frozen into inertia. At the height of the freeze, she writes, you could walk a full mile out to sea over frost-encrusted waves from the beach at Herne Bay in Kent. Such conditions inevitably brought tragedy as well as a sense of wonder. On Dartmoor no fewer than 2,000 ponies perished under snow drifts. In Essex a milkman, heroically determined to deliver his customers’ daily pinta, was found frozen to death at the wheel of his float.
Shaken to the Core
Such grim details are compelling in themselves, especially recalled as we face our own winter of mass distress, but Nicolson also has a striking hypothesis to unfurl. It’s her contention that the terrible winter of 1962-63 coincided with a “frostquake” in British society — a violent bursting apart of traditions, social conventions and ruling elites caused by stresses that had built up over a long period.
In pursuit of proof she expands her dramatis personae to take in all sorts of characters in all sorts of situations, from a convent schoolgirl called Joanna Lumley, swooning over the scruffy boy bands emerging from Liverpool, to the 34-year-old Harold Evans, a campaigning editor of a regional newspaper in northeast England. Wonder what became of them?
Thus she explores the impending social revolution from many angles. I don’t quite buy her notion that a single winter, however harsh, changed everything. What’s undoubtedly true, though, is that some of the startlingly awful prejudices that were rampant in 1962 had been robustly countered, if not completely eradicated, by the end of the Swinging Sixties.
The notion, for instance, that it was OK for white entertainers to black up their faces on The Black and White Minstrel Show, which my mother and an astonishing 20 million other people never failed to watch on BBC TV every Saturday night. Or that it was fine for a national newspaper, the Sunday Mirror, to stir up hatred of gay men (who were still subjected to criminal prosecution) by publishing a pullout guide called How to Spot a Homo. Or that it was perfectly legal for London landlords to put up signs proclaiming “No blacks, no Irish”.
A violent bursting apart of traditions, social conventions and ruling elites caused by stresses that had built up over a long period.
Occasionally you feel Nicolson has widened her horizons too far. Harold Macmillan’s Bahamas meeting with John F Kennedy to discuss Polaris submarines, although amusingly recounted, was hardly central to Britain’s changing social values. And some of Nicolson’s longer digressions have been covered very often and very well elsewhere. At least her lengthy recounting of the Profumo affair is saved by one startling throwaway sentence about the libidinous minister for war. She reveals that, at Sissinghurst 30 years after his fateful liaison with Christine Keeler, “I found myself alone with him when he suddenly pinched my bottom”. I presume she wasn’t sleeping with a Russian military attaché at the time, otherwise history might have repeated itself.
Alas, there are no new revelations in her long, starstruck account of the rise of the Beatles, for whom she developed a schoolgirl crush that is clearly still going strong after nearly 60 years. Visiting Paul McCartney’s boyhood home (meticulously preserved by the National Trust) she declares: “I felt like Howard Carter looking for the first time into the tomb of Tutankhamun.” Good grief, even if you felt that, why would you put it in writing?
She redeems herself with a sparkling account of the young Bob Dylan’s brief and entirely unsuccessful visit to London during that snowy winter. On the recommendation of WH Auden, no less, a BBC drama producer called Philip Saville flew Dylan all the way from New York to play the part of “an anarchic songwriter” in a new TV play. It didn’t go well. “As soon as the cameras began to roll,” Nicolson writes, “Saville became the last to realise that Dylan could not act.” His lines were immediately cut to almost nothing, but he was allowed to open and close the play with an earnest little ditty he had recently penned — “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Nicolson also claims that during that London trip Dylan was booed off the stage of the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm because he was too stoned. I can’t quite believe it. My teenage recollections of the Roundhouse, admittedly from a few years later, are that you would have been booed off if you weren’t.
Juliet Nicolson reveals that, at Sissinghurst 30 years after John Profumo’s fateful liaison with Christine Keeler, “I found myself alone with him when he suddenly pinched my bottom.”
Obviously Nicolson finished her book last March because she ends with a bucolic evocation of country life during that first lockdown, when humanity retreated and nature reclaimed town and country alike. “The skies were blue, blue, blue, devoid of aeroplanes, not through mankind’s choice, but for its survival. And the birds were going crazy in the sunshine.”
Her point, I think, is that out of catastrophe can come change for good: a social revolution in 1963; perhaps an environmental awakening in 2021. “We might become kinder, more tolerant, begin to understand better the value of our planet Earth, and start to love those we love even more fiercely,” she writes rhapsodically.
Reading those hopeful words now, though, in a midwinter made bleak not by blizzards, but by a seemingly endless battle against a virus that apparently thinks faster than we do, Nicolson’s optimism strikes one as wildly premature at best. She might have matched the present national mood of desperate despair better if she had ended her book with the most harrowing yet touchingly written of her pen portraits.
It’s of Sylvia Plath, abandoned by Ted Hughes, left alone in the middle of that bitter winter with two small children and a “gnawing, voracious, consuming sense of worthlessness”, turning on the gas in her Primrose Hill flat.