The Sixties as we know them began in 1963, which tends to leave 1962 in the shade. But this was a year of seismic events and cultural firsts. Matthew Engel travels back in time

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2012

On a cool English summer’s day in July 1962, a young middle-class couple called Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting were married in Oxford and drove to begin their honeymoon by the Dorset coast. The wedding was conventional in an era when convention was followed rigorously. What happened on the wedding night, however, departed from the norms. It was what did not happen that was so unusual. Through a combination of gaucheness on Edward’s part, naivety on Florence’s and an excess of English reticence from them both, they failed to complete the physical procedure that customarily follows a marriage, with devastating consequences.

Edward and Florence (born circa 1940) did not exist as such. They are the creations of Ian McEwan (born 1948) and the central figures of his much-admired short novel “On Chesil Beach” (published 2007), which is how we know the precise sequence of events on this private occasion. It is the kind of story in which no detail is an accident, and that includes the year in which it was set. When I phoned to ask about it, McEwan seemed quite pleased that someone had noticed.

Had what didn’t happen happened (and had they existed), the Mayhews might now be enjoying visits from their grandchildren, and looking forward to their golden wedding in 2012. 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.