When I get older…
The Beatles are top of the pops and Harold Wilson is inside No10. The past catches up with the present in Joseph Connolly’s fab new novel
27 April, 2017 — By Gerald Isaaman
London in the Swinging Sixties
ELECTION years are defining moments, which some fear while others welcome. So it is a remarkable coincidence that Joseph Connolly’s new novel focuses in part on 1964, the year Harold Wilson won a majority of four seats for Labour as we danced to the Swinging Sixties songs of The Beatles.
Connolly, only 14 then but now 67, had no idea his novel would be published just as Theresa May shocked the nation, as well as her own Tory MPs, with a U-turn general election.
Those heady days were the only ones he spent away from his native Hampstead, being a boarder at the Oratory School, and despite his considerable research to recreate the passionate 1960s he has missed one fact. The Swinging Sixties description came from a newspaper headline extolling the activities of Catherine and Helen Jay, the joyful twin daughters of Hampstead’s iconic politicians Peggy and Douglas Jay, the elegant girls declared to “hit every go button in the swinging 60s”.
“It is ironic that the only time in my life I have not lived in Hampstead was the Swinging Sixties,” says Connolly. “By the time I returned, all oscillations were practically extinct. I certainly wasn’t free – it was a pretty traditional boarding school – so I read about the Sixties that were happening elsewhere, and dreamed of being a Beatle.”
Indeed, though later generations have become admirers of Connolly’s captivating comic and compelling skills, they too missed out on the momentous cocktail of life: mini-skirts, cheap booze, contraceptive pill, the birth of the Beatles, Carnaby Street, fashions by Mary Quant and Biba, and gangling Twiggy.
Prime minister Wilson, from nearby Hampstead Garden Suburb, introduced his “white heat” of technology mission and the late Ben Whitaker became Hampstead’s first Labour MP in a sensational victory over Tory minister Henry Brooke, then dubbed “the most hated man” in Britain.
Connolly sets the scene brilliantly by opening with a Wordsworth quote: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!” followed by Lennon and McCartney’s When I’m Sixty-four. His central theme revolves round a man named George, who is aged 19 in swinging 1964, and the same person, now celebrating his 64th birthday in 2010, when Dorothy from his nostalgic past literally catches up with him.
“The Swinging Sixties was, of course, a joyous decade,” Connolly points out, insisting that this, his 14th novel, is not autobiographical. “But what I really wanted to do was contrast the attitudes and behaviour of the same man, 45 years on, by alternating each chapter between them.”
Looking back he admits: “I was pretty apolitical – ie ignorant. In my household, Harold Wilson was a bogeyman. So I didn’t like him, without knowing why. He gave the Beatles the MBE though, which at the time I thought was fab.”
It is those fab days that he captures so well in his own inimitable style that maybe gushes a little too much, his dashing prose unlike that of any other contemporary writer. He has even earned himself fans in France and elsewhere to prove it.
“I wanted to be a pop star,” his hero insists. “Who didn’t? Dreamed of my debut single shooting up the charts, and me in an Italian mohair suit rather self-consciously miming it on Top of the Pops: that was new in 1964. We were all so ridiculously excited when it first came on. And most of the groups – they were pretty much all our age, you see, so anything was possible. I wanted to be interviewed by Cathy McGowan on Ready, Steady, Go!”
Come 2010, he poignantly tells us: “Old age, though… it was never meant to come. And particularly not now, when I’m hardly feeling up to it… I look in the mirror (not often – I don’t seek it out) and what I expect to see there is that fresh-faced and eager young man with longish thick hair, who still, I know, is lurking within me.”
As for today’s politics, Connolly is hesitant again. “I thought it was shameful when Cameron resigned, having manoeuvred himself unnecessarily into a position where he had to, although he had sworn he wouldn’t, whatever the outcome of the EU referendum” he says.
“I thought at first that Theresa May had been over-promoted, but I’m reasonably impressed now. Labour must be seething – they assumed the election would be in 2020, thereby giving them plenty of time to dump their utterly woeful leader.”
And he adds: “There is so much that no one foresaw, Trump being the biggest of them. I don’t worry about the larger picture – because I know I can do nothing about it. Simplistic, but effective for peace of mind. I don’t see a third world war coming … but then these days, no one sees anything coming.
“At least, if it happens, no one will be called up, and London won’t suffer a protracted Blitz. It will be a very short Blitz – giving everyone in Hampstead who has just paid out three or four million for a two-bed flat just enough time to feel a little silly, but also smug that they will never be required to pay back the mortgage.
“The future? Lordy, there’s never as much of it as there used to be. I hope to do a lot more work, have a lot more lunches and fun – and cross my fingers for the next generation.”
• This is 64. By Joseph Connolly. Riverrun £19.99