Monday, January 16, 2012

Fifty years ago . . .

1962: FIFTY YEARS AGO, and a time of great changes, the effects of which are still being adjusted to, today. MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE, a fine site run by the Economist gang, has an article by Matthew Engel, "FIFTY YEARS ON: 1962", that is worthy of your attention.

For most real people who remember 1962, the 50-year mark will not necessarily be a moment of celebration. It was not that kind of year.

We can expect 2012 to be punctuated by the customary anniversary articles. Politically, 1962 is remembered above all for the Cuban missile crisis (October), in which President John F. Kennedy and the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev led the world as near as it has ever come to instant destruction. The Berlin Wall had just gone up, and all year Khrushchev veered between confrontation and calming. John Glenn’s orbit of the Earth (February) established that America would not allow the early Soviet lead in space to go unchallenged. On their Himalayan border, China and India really did go to war, briefly (October-November). In a referendum (April) the French overwhelmingly and finally ratified their tormented retreat from imperialism in Algeria. Adolf Eichmann was hanged in Israel (May), the last reckoning with a major Nazi figure.

The new Coventry cathedral was consecrated (May) to replace its bombed-out predecessor and become perhaps the only well-loved post-war building in Britain. Marilyn Monroe died (August), aged 36, in circumstances that have never lost their morbid fascination. David Bailey and Jean Shrimpton did their first Vogue shoot (January, for the April issue), bringing youth and attitude to some starchy pages. Rudolf Nureyev, newly defected, danced with Margot Fonteyn in “Giselle” to loud acclaim at Covent Garden (February). In South Africa, Nelson Mandela was jailed (November) for five years, which turned into 27. In Albany, Georgia (July), Martin Luther King was jailed for two weeks. The Telstar satellite began relaying flickering TV pictures across the Atlantic amid great excitement (July). And Richard Nixon failed in his attempt to become governor of California and angrily announced, 12 years prematurely, that he was quitting politics: “You don’t have Nixon to kick around any more.” All these events made global headlines.

Not an easy year to sum up, then. Time’s choice for Man of the Year, Pope John XXIII, was an unusually subtle and discerning one, reflecting the modernisation and humanisation of the Catholic church that was happening beneath the headlines. Fifty years on, however, modernity and humanity are not the most obvious characteristics of Catholicism. The lasting importance of 1962 stems from what was happening well below Time’s radar screen. The volcano that spewed forth all the debris that we think of as the 1960s was bubbling under, waiting to explode. And the vulcanologists were sound asleep.

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