The funny thing about decades is that they don’t really start when they say they do. I don’t mean this in the ‘actually the millennium was technically 2001’ sort of way. I mean that era-defining cultural and social shifts don’t happen suddenly whenever there’s a zero or a one at the end of a year.
The sixties were the same. When we collectively think back to them, we imagine they were swinging, economically resurgent, and increasingly liberal. And they were. But not in 1961. At least, not quite.
1961, like the start of every decade, was a transitional time. It had one foot stretching boldly out into the future and its other one still rooted firmly in the past. This was true across Europe, but particularly in the UK, and especially London, which is so iconically connected to the time.
Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had famously - and somewhat optimistically - said that Britons ‘have never had it so good’ in 1957. But even though the economy was on the up, the nation’s post-war recovery was taking a long time to trickle all the way down to every resident of the country, and its capital.
The city’s skyline was starting to change as new towers grew out of the gaps left by the Second World War. But not as many as you might think, and not as quickly either. Mid-century icons like the Southbank were in their infancy, with just the Royal Festival Hall left standing after the Festival of Britain. It would be another two years before the Centre Point office block started to be built on top of Tottenham Court Road Tube station. And another four before work began on the Barbican Estate in the vast Blitz crater that had destroyed almost the whole of the old Cripplegate area in the heart of the city.
Old barges still slowly made their way up and down the Thames. Men still pushed carts laden with fruit and veg through Soho. And, while miniskirts were getting shorter and flares were getting wider, you were more likely to see businessmen strolling around Bank in top hats and tails, Teddy Boys lingering on the corners that hadn’t yet been colonised by teenagers and hippies, and old war veterans in demob suits shuffling down Carnaby Street.
Yet, profound social and cultural change was on the horizon. Test tunnels for the Victoria Line had been completed, the Post Office Tower was beginning to rise above Fitzrovia, and in September police arrested 1,300 protestors in Trafalgar Square after a rally for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
Time is fluid. It slips over, round and past itself in interesting ways. Things don’t change at the same rate or in nice fixed blocks, no matter how we choose to measure them or cut them up into generalised, easy to digest chunks. There’s always a little bit of yesterday and tomorrow mixed in with today - whenever today happens to be.
This makes period writing really interesting for authors, because you can infuse your writing with unexpected details that don’t just help build your narrative world but also inform and surprise your readers.
And for espionage writers, it gives you fantastic real-world and literary source material to play with. 1961 was the year George Smiley was born in Call For The Dead, and the year SPECTRE stole two atomic bombs that James Bond had to get back in Thunderball. It also saw the Bay of Pigs crisis, the construction of the Berlin Wall, and the start of the Apollo space programme. The Cold War was spilling over from the 1950s, and morphing into something new.
But, writing about the past also comes with its own challenges. For one thing, it’s incredibly precious to the people who lived through it and remember it, so you must respect it while also moulding it around the story you want to tell. You have to make sure your research is as accurate as possible, create a world that feels authentic, and keep tight control on your artistic license. Because the absolute last thing you want is to have your characters driving cars that shouldn’t be on the road yet, or riding tube lines that haven’t been dug out of the ground yet…
RED CORONA by Tim Glister is out on 14 January from Point Blank, hardback £14.99
It's 1961 and the white heat of the Space Race is making the Cold War even colder. Richard Knox is a secret agent in big trouble. He's been hung out to dry by a traitor in MI5, and the only way to clear his name could destroy him. Meanwhile in a secret Russian city, brilliant scientist Irina Valera makes a discovery that will change the world, and hand the KGB unimaginable power. Desperate for a way back into MI5, Knox finds an unlikely ally in Abey Bennett, a CIA recruit who's determined to prove herself whatever the cost... As the age of global surveillance dawns, three powers will battle for dominance, and three people will fight to survive...