Snow started to fall on Boxing Day 1962, heralding one of Britain’s coldest winter spells. A 10-week freeze saw temperatures fall to their lowest since 1814. The average for January 1963 was -2.1C; Braemar, in Scotland, at one point recorded -22.2C. People, animals and trucks were trapped by snowdrifts. There were warnings that New Forest ponies might attack anyone carrying food. Misery was worsened by strikes over pay by power station workers, causing electricity cuts. On January 14 the leading article in The Guardian began: “People are dying in Britain now because of the cold.”
This disruption occurred in a nation on the cusp of social, political and cultural change. Structural pillars of class and entitlement were starting to fragment, as were old ways of doing things. The initiative was passing to a new, more liberal generation.
It is tempting, as Juliet Nicolson does in this entertaining account, to link weather events to the social revolution. The hardships, she suggests, “encouraged, even enabled change; the very effect of shutting down empowered a thawing. Forces of social change that had been building over many years now found their moment of release as they broke through the icy surface.”
Sadly, this appears a questionable thesis. Virtually none of the changes and events she describes owes much to snow and ice. The closest is the suicide on February 11 1963 of poet Sylvia Plath, dismayed by the relentless cold, though she was in such a depression following the collapse of her marriage to Ted Hughes that the weather seems incidental.
That does not make this a bad book. Most of it is descriptive. Nicolson sensitively weaves topics such as the Russian nuclear threat, the travails of Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan, satirical television programme That Was The Week That Was, the Profumo affair, the fashion revolution and The Beatles’ rise to stardom with her memories as an eight-year-old.
Nicolson is the grandchild of writers Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. Her father, Nigel, had inherited Sissinghurst, the romantic Kent castle that they revived, on the death of his mother in June 1962. Juliet is frank about Harold’s paralysing grief and her parents’ deteriorating relationship. Nigel worried about how to pay for Sissinghurst’s five gardeners, cook and chauffeur. That was in a country where 15m people still had no plumbed-in bathroom.
The book’s strength lies in colourful, often serendipitous, detail. At Paignton Zoo, keepers mounted 24-hour patrols in case apes tried to escape across a frozen moat. Cars were able to drive across the River Thames at Oxford. At the Snake Pass in Derbyshire, a perilous 200-foot icy overhang was detonated by gelignite.
The newly formed Rolling Stones found their gig income disrupted by the freeze. Keith Richard took shots at rats with a revolver kept in a lavatory cistern. Mick Jagger, studying finance and accountancy at the London School of Economics, planned to become a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times, basing himself between Paris and London. Bob Dylan, visiting London for the first time, opined that “it’s warmer to have long hair”.
A worn-out Macmillan looked increasingly ill-equipped to deal with a changing world, not least because “the only television at Birch Grove, his home in Sussex, was in the servants’ hall”. After France’s General de Gaulle blocked Britain’s application to join the EEC, Macmillan wrote in his diary: “All our policies at home and abroad are in ruins.” Harold Wilson became Labour leader after Hugh Gaitskell’s unexpected death on January 18. A year later he was prime minister, ushering in a period of reforms including the decriminalisation of male homosexuality, abolition of the death penalty and an act outlawing racial discrimination.
Nicolson draws a parallel with the Covid pandemic, hoping that it might prompt people to embrace a kinder, more tolerant future echoing the reshaping of 1962-63. Not everything in history fits a pattern, though. Sometimes stuff just happens.
Frostquake: The Frozen Winter of 1962 and How Britain Emerged a Different Country, by Juliet Nicolson, Chatto & Windus RRP£18.99, 356 pages
Brian Groom is a former FT assistant editor. His book ‘Northerners: A History. From the Ice Ages to the 21st Century’ will be published next year by Harper North
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