Sunday 23 October 2016

Books: The year that saw the post-war world change utterly

1956, the world in Revolt, Simon Hall, Faber €20

Published 25/01/2016 | 02:30

Momentous: Hugh Leonard premiered his play The Big Birthday in 1956 the same year as the The Hungarian uprising -pictured.
Momentous: Hugh Leonard premiered his play The Big Birthday in 1956 the same year as the The Hungarian uprising -pictured.
1956 - The World in Revolt by Simon Hall.

A refreshing alternative to the stack of 1916 centenary publications on the Irish market is 1956, The World in Revolt by Simon Hall. It's not a year that features prominently in the Irish calendar - in 1956 it was barely 20 years since a referendum approved the Constitution, with its aspirations for nationhood and goodwill to all men, in which we replaced the imperial neighbour with the clergy as god of all things.

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Elsewhere in 1956, movements of disenfranchised people gathered in streets and city squares, spearheading protests against totalitarianism. It was post-war Europe and pre-moon America. Hall's historic survey is necessarily chronological; starting in January in Montgomery, Alabama, and the bomb assault on the home of Martin Luther King.

At this time the US was the most powerful country in the world; consumerism had surged in the post-war boom, pandering to a new, suburban middle class. But millions of others lived as second-class citizens, cut off from prosperity and oppressed beneath white supremacy.

Hall handles this period with a very engaging narrative, honing in on the greater impact of local events, a device he carries through each chapter. In February he charts the uprisings against the French in Algeria and the condemnation of Stalin by Khrushchev in his four-hour speech 'On the Cult of Personality and its Consequences'. The ensuing riots with thousands jailed for "crimes against the state" in hindsight proved to exact a far higher cost on the Soviet Union's European empire.

In March 1956, Hall takes us back to the American South where violence has broken out over desegregation at the University of Alabama and the new Massive Resistance movement develops. Still to come were the two events that most Europeans consider the defining moments of 1956: the Suez crisis and the doomed Hungarian uprising. Those students resisting Soviet oppression in Budapest, who may have been inspired by Khrushchev's "secret speech", saw their fight aligned with that waged by their Polish counterparts in Poznan.

This is a vivid history written with the benefit of TV footage, interpreted through a broad analysis of memoirs and contemporary journalism. There is texture and depth, rarely found in such a sweeping survey of our times. While there is little hitherto unknown about this year in history, the novelty is in the way Hall lays it out.

I believe that the literature of a given period best reflects the rhythm of discontent. Fittingly, Hall has included Allen Ginsberg's masterpiece, Howl, published that year. The epic poem marks the birth of the Beat generation and 1960s counterculture.

Hall's emphasis is on social history - and there are other creative events of the period that link it closer to the present. Ian Fleming's Diamonds are Forever was published in 1956, Arthur Miller's View from the Bridge and our own Hugh Leonard's The Big Birthday. Hall also discusses Look Back in Anger by John Osborne and the emergence of the 'Angry Young Men'. Even more resonant today is the music born in 1956, when the pulsating rhythms of Fats Domino and Elvis Presley set off rock'n'roll riots. The new freedom of expression in dance and movement gave birth to the adolescent, a new psychological age between childhood and adulthood that had been traversed without question until the wars - 1956 was all about questions.

The author is a lecturer in American history at the University of Leeds, and sees 1956 as the year "that would transform the post-war world".

The unsettled but collective will of peoples in Africa, America, western Europe and the Soviet bloc unshackled itself from the will of political masters, always ending in bloodshed, more often resulting in a further degree of autonomy. Much of it is a sad reminder that thousands are still crossing seas in search of freedom and safety.

The book is an essential reference point for contemporary racial violence and police brutality in the US. It even highlights the relatively short distance we have come in the quest for female equality today. It proves that in many ways we have not come that far, yet in other innovations we have surpassed the wildest imaginings of the time, other than that dreamed of by of Alan Turing, who died in 1954, and Steve Jobs, who was born in 1955.

Hall's book is a welcome tribute to heroes and heroines of all faiths who sacrificed their lives for the freedom of others.

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