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?
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.
Where Frostquake triumphs is as metaphor – a network of images that describes how Britain was beginning to unfreeze from the 50s. Nicolson does best with anecdotes that lie far from the beaten track. Grace Coddington, still at this point a model rather than a Vogue editor, is photographed in the Daily Mirror demonstrating how, by wearing a polo neck under your woolly jumper, you could be both “with it” and warm. Bob Dylan, singing at the Troubadour that Christmas, is heard later explaining that one of the benefits of having long hair is that it keeps you toasty. And down in the depths of Hampshire, there are the New Forest ponies that have given up being picturesque and are holding up stray humans to demandtheir food.
The fact we happen to be living through another, different kind of paralysis adds an extra layer of fascination to this book.
What kind of release or Covidquake are we about to experience, if and when this nightmare ends? In what precise ways will we go crazy?
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.’
In Frostquake Nicolson invites us to see the worst winter of the century as a catalyst for social change in a nation that had entered the final months of 1962 in the grip of Edwardian deference and morality, yet emerged the following spring riding the first floods of the Swinging Sixties. In January icebergs had floated into the Mersey as the Beatles recorded their first No 1 (Please Please Me). The Rolling Stones were turned down for an appearance on the BBC because “Mick Jagger sounded too ‘coloured’”. Wilfrid Brambell, famous as the crafty old rag-and-bone man in Steptoe and Son, was convicted of “smiling at another man” in a public lavatory.