THIS was the roof of the world. We had reached the perimeters. The nuclear age, the Cold War, a frozen tundra of energies locked in bias and thwart. A general tension prevailed. At deeper levels, the poets and artists got on with their business.

To some people, the 1950s are grey years. But on the surface, the scene was far from gloomy. Sherpa Tensing and Edmund Hillary touched the ceiling of the sky in 1953, an event made memorable by a photograph, and by Hillary’s one-phrase summary of it, a masterpiece of 20th-century vernacular: “Well, we knocked the bastard off!” 

This was a statement as thoroughly modern in its brevity as the voluminous prose tales by H Rider Haggard or Charles Montagu Doughty’s 700-page Travels in Arabia Deserta had been thoroughly Victorian.

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Superficiality is characteristic of the modern world. Spectacle conveyed in a soundbite.
In the same year Everest was “conquered”, Churchill took over Britain as Conservative prime minister and sanctioned the televising of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth.

The state event was to be a household spectacular, as glorious – though not yet as colourful – as contemporary Hollywood swashbuckling films such as the fabulous Scaramouche. 

The televised coronation was designed to re-assert the unity of British peoples and the British state and its legacy is still with us, both in the soap-opera Windsors and in the soap opera first conceived as Florizel Street to be broadcast as a 13-episode series in 1960. If you published the collected scripts of Coronation Street, you’d have a blockbuster far bigger than anything Dickens ever imagined but far, far more superficial.

Popular forms and literature have always been in cahoots, and the 1950s and 1960s saw a redeployment of literary strategies in the context of new technologies. But the best writers stay true to the deeper sources and questions of art and to do that they must sometimes seem as if they are deliberately turning away from neon and glitz.

No-one in the 1950s turns further away than Samuel Beckett. In the gloom of the country road, a tired tramp pauses before a boy arrives to tell him and his pal that Mr Godot won’t be coming, again, this evening: “Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries ... But habit is a great deadener.”

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The greatness of Beckett’s (above) writing is his refusal to allow complete deadening to happen. There is a passage near the end of the first part of his novel Molloy which, for the way it delivers comedy in the grip of the grave’s cold forceps, simply can’t be beaten:

It seemed to me important to get out of this forest with all possible speed ... It was winter, it must have been winter, and not only many trees had lost their leaves, but these lost leaves had gone all black and spongy and my crutches sank into them, in places right up to the fork ...  And I still remember the day when, flat on my face by way of rest, in defiance of the rules, I suddenly cried, striking my brow, Christ, there’s crawling, I never thought of that ... But before I go on, a word about the forest murmurs …

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But the comedy wears off and the world-weariness of Beckett’s tramps or Eliot’s Prufrock might become no more than a popular posture, deadened by habit. Then Stevie Smith (above) reminds us that art has another agenda too:

Shall I tell you the signs of a New Age coming?
It is a sound of drubbing and sobbing
Of people crying, We are old, we are old
And the sun is going down and becoming cold
Oh sinful and sad and the last of our kind
If we turn to God now do you think He will mind?
Then they fall on their knees and begin to whine
That the state of Art itself presages decline
As if Art has anything or ever had
To do with civilization whether good or bad.
Art is wild as a cat and quite separate from civilization
But that is another matter that is not now under consideration.
Oh these people are fools with their sighing and sinning
Why should Man be at an end? He is hardly beginning.

Conviction like that was hard earned for Smith but it’s the answer that had to be delivered to those who, on the one hand, condemn the popular arts as no more than superficial decoys and, on the other, piningly lament the degradation of “high art” in the age of consumerism.

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Something similar is behind Adrienne Rich’s (above) famous poem Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers – where “Art” is certainly “wild as a cat” and carries on courageously defiant in the face of the superficial, the supercilious, or the super-sexist oppressor.

Aunt Jennifer’s tigers prance across a screen,
Bright topaz denizens of a world of green.
They do not fear the men beneath the tree;
They pace in sleek chivalric certainty.
Aunt Jennifer’s fingers fluttering through her wool
Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.
The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.
When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
The tigers in the panel that she made
Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.

The poetry takes into enduring forms the permanent symbolic power of the needlework. But, prophetic of the tides of change, Louis MacNeice was also in the 1950s emphasising the value of the art of language when he addressed a short poem To Posterity:

When books have all seized up like the books in graveyards
And reading and even speaking have been replaced
By other, less difficult, media, we wonder if you
Will find in flowers and fruit the same colour and taste
They held for us for whom they were framed in words ...

Something of the trembling trepidation of the freezing Cold-War world can be heard in that, as well as the affirmation of a continuity in the language of literature. Something analogous can be heard in Benjamin Britten’s Lachrymae. 

The title derives from the song by the composer of the first Elizabethan age, John Dowland, but Britten’s sequence breathes the uncertain air of a pacifist who had lived through an era of world war. 

When Dowland’s tune finally emerges fully at the end of Britten’s piece, it’s like meeting a friend 
after long years of absence, a face coming clear through the fog. The doubts slip away. A continuity
is there again.

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Britten was committed to making music more widely heard and played. He believed that the appreciation of music could be fostered among children and amateurs as well as professionals, without the excesses of either inane populism or snobbish elitism.

That commitment and belief was also part of a growing international movement through the 1950s, a radical egalitarianism.

In England, this might be understood from very different ends of the literary spectrum. The novelist William Golding (below) had affirmed a continuity with the past even as he rejected its imperial pretensions, in Lord of the Flies in 1954. In 1955, he took a much longer perspective in The Inheritors and tried to imagine the dawn of consciousness in language.

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What would it be like to start again, as if from the beginning? Golding’s Neanderthal characters experience and describe things happening to them for the first time and the reader discovers these things with them. 

Sometimes it’s difficult. Puzzles can be hard and require patience. Here is Golding’s character on the threshold of evolving into a human being as he experiences the physical cost of real compassion, and sheds tears:

There was a light now in each cavern, lights faint as the starlight reflected in the crystals of a granite cliff. The lights increased, acquired definition, brightened, lay each sparkling at the lower edge of a cavern. Suddenly, noiselessly, the lights became thin crescents, went out, and streaks glistened on each cheek. 

The lights appeared again, caught among the silvered curls of the beard. They hung, elongated, dropped from curl to curl and gathered at the lowest tip. The streaks on the cheeks pulsed as the drops swam down them, a great drop swelled at the end of a hair of the beard, shivering and bright. It detached itself and fell in a silver flash.

Golding never mentions eyes or tears but the description is sharply focused and developed. The slow progress of understanding what’s happening represents exactly the gradual and irreversible development of the character’s humanity.

What would it be like to start all over again? It was a question being asked in a very different way as another kind of recognition of humanity was happening in England at about the same time.

Throughout the 1950s, some 300,000 West Indians, mostly Jamaicans, arrived in Britain, encouraged by offers of work.

Many found jobs with London Transport and in the Health Service, others were unemployed. Louise Bennett’s song, Colonization in Reverse, is another rejection of imperial superiority – at least as profoundly justified as Golding’s but much, much funnier.

Wat a joyful news, Miss Mattie,
I feel like me heart gwine burs
Jamaica people colonizin
Englan in reverse. [....]
Dem a pour out a Jamaica,
Everybody future plan
Is fe get a big-time job
An settle in de mother lan.
What a islan! What a people!
Man an woman, old an young
Jus a pack dem bag an baggage
An tun history upside dung! [....]
An week by week dem shippin off
Dem countryman like fire,
Fe immigrate an populate
De seat a de Empire. [....]
What a devilment a Englan!
Dem face war an brave de worse,
But me wonderin how dem gwin stan
Colonizin in reverse.

The 1958 race riots in Notting Hill were still to come, and the racism and reactionary imperialism that were still very much part of English culture were to be challenged even more radically in the 1960s. 

Yet Bennett’s verses happily portend independence movements in various Commonwealth countries. And there was hopefulness elsewhere too.

Dylan Thomas, in passionate rage against mortality and the death of his father, turned a word like “gentle” into the hardest of sounds in his angry poem Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night. 
But around the same time, Ireland’s greatest painter, and one of the century’s greatest artists, Jack Butler Yeats, as if in answer to Thomas’s – or Samuel Beckett’s – despair, in a work simply entitled “Shouting” depicted three characters walking airily through an Irish landscape, heads cocked back, hands to the sky, simply crying out in the sheer pleasure of being alive and breathing.

In the Soviet Union, after the death of Stalin in 1953, the possibility of breathable air returned in a way that is surely part of the fluency and ease so carefully evoked in the slow movement of Shostakovich’s cautiously paced, ultimately joyous, second piano concerto in 1957.

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The ethos of possibility, of a new beginning, is the cradle of the 1950s from which grew the NHS, the vision of a fair society, with less of a gulf between the rich and the poor, and the many and various virtues – as well as the many liabilities – which have evolved through to our own era in the 21st century. 

Yeats had summed it up already, in his novel And to You Also, in 1944: “The knowledge of Good and Evil! Without blasphemy, I hoped that Christ had died that we might forget it.”

Jack Yeats’s painting, “Shouting,” Shostakovich’s piano concerto, and many other works of the 1950s, speak of an evolving sense of what hopefulness must be made of. 

The oppositions between despair and progress, the forces of reaction and those pressing forwards with some visionary purpose towards what the future must be, in the aftermath of the Second World War and the nuclear age now upon us – these things were being worked out most carefully by the writers, artists and composers of the era – as they always are.