Wednesday 31 May 2017

The Glorious '50s

I have been thinking about how so many of the books that have shaped my imagination and formed my appreciation of Albion were published in the 1950s.

The Chronicles of Narnia are an obvious example: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (1950), Prince Caspian (1951), The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952), The Silver Chair (1953), The Horse and His Boy (1954), The Magician's Nephew (1955) and The Last Battle (1956).

So too the three parts of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (July 1954), The Two Towers (November 1954) and The Return of the King (1955).

Roger Lancelyn Green's classic retelling of the Arthurian mythos, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, was published in 1953, with his Adventures of Robin Hood following three years later.

Rosemary Sutcliff's stories of Roman and post-Roman Britain first appeared in the 1950s, most notably The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), The Silver Branch (1957) and The Lantern Bearers (1959), while Colin Wilson began his prolific career with The Outsider (1956), Religion and the Rebel (1957) and The Age of Defeat (1959).

I would also add that Alan Garner's Alderley Edge novels, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Moon of Gomrath, came out at the start of the next decade, in 1960 and 1963 respectively. In his collection of essays, The Voice That Thunders (1997), Garner suggests that the generation of children's writers that emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War, including Susan Cooper (The Dark is Rising), Sutcliff and himself, were greatly influenced by the strong sense of good versus evil the war inculcated in people's minds.

This clear delineation between good and evil and right and wrong (or, in Wilson's case, between a life oriented towards meaning and a life immersed in trivia) is highly marked in all the writers listed above. So too is a yearning for stability and peace - the good order established by Aragorn after the War of the Ring or the longing to rebuild Roman Britain that animates Aquila in Sutcliff's The Lantern Bearers.

The 1950s are routinely derided today for precisely this quality of uncomplicated simplicity. They are damned as 'boring' and 'grey'. Traditionally-minded types are lambasted for 'wanting to take us back to the 1950s.' Viewed from 2017, however, after five decades of social and economic liberalism and a growing sense of chaos and insecurity, the stability and simplicity of the '50s looks very attractive indeed. It could also be the case that the limited work and entertainment options people had in those days - the lack of choice and the absence of technology - helped forge a slower, more reflective mental climate, more conducive to creative endeavours than the fast and furious 'marketplace' we live in today.

It is a craving for this kind of rootedness, I believe, that lies behind the recent wave of political populism, which has made so many waves across Europe and the US. It seems to me, however, that the 1950s was a decade peculiar to itself in many ways - a period of suspended animation, where the horrors of the war had not yet properly sunk in and where the pyrrhic nature of Britain's victory and Europe's complete loss of power had not yet been consciously acknowledged (though Rosemary Sutcliff's elegiac reflections on the decline of Roman Britain suggest an unconscious awareness on her part at least of the UK's changed status).

We can learn a great deal from the decade though. A Christian renaissance in this country will need to base itself on the two pillars exemplified by the '50s - the stability, security and simplicity we have lost in a bewildering haze of complexity and choice, and the imaginative flair illuminated so well in these great books. 'Keep your feet on the ground but your eyes on the stars', in other words.


Bruce Charlton said...

As a late teenager and young man I had 'a thing' about the fifties - and even used-to dress in a version of that style (corduroy jackets with leather patches, roll neck pullovers etc); so I agree with your general point!

I would add the the fifties in England actually lasted until 1965 - in cultural terms. I can remember the change, which was very fast - 1966, 67 and 68 were each very different years - and this can be tracked in the evolution of The Beatles, who to an extent were ahead of the curve and leading (not to their credit, really, since it was a down-curve).

However, I don't think the era really serves as a basis for the future; so much as being the last time that there was much in the way of serious thinking (there was a resurgence in the early 70s), and being the time when (in retrospect) we can see that the wrong future was decided upon: more materialism, the sexual revolution, the politics of personal/ group resentment etc.

Also, it was the last time when English poetry was in a broadly healthy state - which signifies something.

William Wildblood said...

John you've just listed many of the books I grew up with and I certainly agree with you about their inspiring quality. This was probably the last truly Christian decade in this country and the last before relativism really took a hold. Perhaps that has something to do with it. Even those who weren't full Christians themselves would certainly have been completely part of the Christian mindset. Of course we shouldn't and can't go back to that time. There was a lot wrong with it too but we need to recapture something that was thrown away in the heady excitement of the '60s not to mention the way that played out in later decades.