Paraffin Winter is a murder mystery available as an ebook. The novel is set in 1963 - for a glimpse of life in the early sixties, read on.
The Profumo Affair
In 1961, John Profumo, the Conservative Secretary of State for War, had an affair with a ‘showgirl’ called Christine Keeler. At that time, such matters were usually considered private, and ignored by the press. Although the affair was short-lived, it so happened that, at the same time, Keeler was also having an affair with Yevgeny Ivanov, a Soviet naval attaché based at the Russian Embassy. The consequences for national security seemed too obvious for this ‘private’ matter to remain private.
Nevertheless, it was not until March 1963 that George Wigg, a Labour MP, in collaboration with senior Labour party figures, including Harold Wilson and Tom Driberg, accused Profumo of the affair in the House of Commons (where statements are exempt from libel laws). Profumo initially denied it, but now the story hit the press. Profumo was eventually forced to admit that the affair took place, and resigned as a government minister in June 1963. Harold Macmillan resigned as Prime Minister, in September 1963, after an official report on the matter. It was said that his health had been affected by the scandal (although he continued as an active member of the House of Lords as the Earl of Stockton until his death in 1986).
Valerie Hobson, a former British Hollywood actress, and John Profumo’s wife, stuck by him throughout the crisis. After Profumo’s resignation, he and Hobson dedicated their lives to charity work, washing dishes and helping out in a homeless shelter in the East End of London.
The Profumo Affair changed the attitude of the press to the private lives of MPs and other public figures. After this, it was no longer possible for those in the public eye to assume that their personal lives were beyond scrutiny. It was the beginning of the end of the cover-up of the ‘private’ misdeeds of those in public life, which had gone on for centuries.
Bottled beers were popular in the early sixties, with the first canned beer (Long Life) new to the market. Hand-pumped draught beer was still available, but was already fast disappearing, to be replaced by fizzy keg beer. This was often poor quality and low in alcoholic strength - at that time, brewers did not have to reveal the strength of their beer. One brand (Watney’s ‘Starlight’) was eventually outed as so low in alcohol that it could be sold in sweet shops as a soft drink. This led to organisations such as the Campaign for Real Ale successful lobbying for the re-introduction of hand-pumped, ‘real’ beer in most pubs, by the 1990s. Lager was a specialised drink, only available in bottles, not drunk by many people.
Babycham was introduced in the 1950s as the first alcoholic drink marketed specifically for women. It was described as a ‘champagne perry’ giving the impression that it tasted like champagne, although is actually made from pears. The brand was revived in the late 1990s, and is still going strong.
In the early 1960s, working class British people rarely, if ever, drank wine, beyond possibly a glass of German Liebfraumilch or Riesling on special occasions. Liqueurs like Tia Maria or Drambuie were popular, as were spirits, notably the ubiquitous Johnnie Walker whisky. Although many people kept a limited range of alcoholic drinks at home, trips out to the pub to drink were more common, with many more local, street corner pubs still operating, and no breathalyser – people hardly even considered whether they should drink and drive, they just did.
Motoring in 1963 was more of a DIY experience than it is today. Most working class people didn’t have a car, and if they did, it was usually old and kept running with bits from scrapyards, so it was important to understand how a car worked. Most cars needed minor servicing every 1,000 miles, with more major servicing every 5,000 miles. If you scraped together enough money to buy a car, it’s unlikely you’d be able to afford to get it serviced in a garage, so this was a job to be taken on yourself. Car handbooks usually had details of what servicing was needed and when, so it was a job most could tackle. And because there were fewer cars around, second-hand cars held their value much better than cars do nowadays – a ten year old car in good condition wouldn’t have dropped much below half its original value.
The car in the picture is a 1952 Austin A30 four door, like the one Ronnie buys. It was a popular, reliable vehicle (there are plenty of them still running). But batteries were unreliable and had a habit of suddenly failing, especially in cars with six volt electrics. So a starting handle was essential – this engaged with the front end of the crankshaft, in a notched spiral lug that pushed the handle forward when the engine started. However, if the engine backfired, and turned suddenly backwards, the handle didn’t disengage – this could break your thumb if you weren’t careful!
In spite of all that, motoring was arguably more of a pleasure, simply because there were fewer cars on the roads. It was still possible to find quiet, country roads where you’d have the place to yourself. Progress could be slow, there were few by-passes around towns and only one motorway (the M1 opened in 1959). But there were no yellow lines and few parking restrictions – you could drive into the middle of town and park outside the shop you needed to visit. By 1963 however, more people were buying cars, and vehicles such as the Austin A30, Morris Minor and Ford Popular had brought motoring within the grasp of working people. By the end of the decade, traffic jams and crowded roads were commonplace, and the joys of peaceful motoring largely disappeared.
Paraffin heaters were commonplace, and were a cheap and effective way of keeping a room warm. There were two kinds: ones with a wick that burned the paraffin, and ones that had a capillary burner, burning the paraffin on a metal mesh dome. These were the ones that made an occasional ‘gloop-gloop-gloop’ sound as the paraffin ran through to the burner. The primary disadvantage of paraffin heaters was that, as they were unvented, they produced large amounts of water vapour, which condensed on cold windows and walls. They could also get knocked over and cause sudden, intense fires. Later versions were fitted with safety devices that extinguished the flame if the heater was tipped from vertical.
Coal was delivered to most houses, and stored in an outside bunker. Typically, only the most commonly used room would have a coal fire burning, although all rooms in older houses would have had a fireplace. Fires were only lit in bedrooms when someone was ill. Water was often heated in a ‘back boiler’ behind the fireplace, a way of using the heat from an open coal fire to make hot water. It was a cheap way to heat water (using heat from the fire that would otherwise go up the chimney) but it took more than an hour to produce a usable amount. Wall mounted gas fuelled water heaters were also used, typically in flats that didn’t have open fires. These were usually known as ‘Geysers’, and had a reputation for exploding when the water boiled.
Paraffin from the UK is what’s known as kerosene in the USA, where ‘paraffin’ usually means paraffin wax. In the 1960s, it was a cheap and popular domestic heating fuel, used in portable heaters, often delivered door-to-door.
There were three main brands of paraffin: Esso Blue, Aladdin Pink (from Shell) and Regent Green, which was the least common. Esso Blue was advertised on television, and was consequently probably the most popular. Television adverts featured a cartoon ‘paraffin man’ called Joe, and an ‘Esso Blue’ jingle. Each brand claimed to be better than the others, of course, saying they produced less smoke or burned longer. But there probably was little or no difference between them, beyond different coloured dyes used in them (paraffin is colourless, like all petroleum distillates).
The paraffin-fuelled sump heater used by Ronnie was a common way of keeping the oil in a car engine warm overnight, and consequently less thick. This made the car easier to start. Paraffin is useful as a relatively safe domestic fuel because, unlike petrol/gasoline, it doesn’t burn at room temperature unless it’s adsorbed onto a wick or warmed to produce a vapour. Nowadays, by far the biggest use of paraffin/kerosene is as fuel for jet aircraft.
This was a time when children were treated to delights such as sweet cigarettes and sweet tobacco, to make sure they got the habit early. Many a child was happy to receive at Christmas a special chocolate ‘junior smoker’s set, including sweet cigarettes, chocolate cigars and a chocolate pipe.
There was a wide range of loose sweets, weighed from big jars, including sweet peanuts, sherbet lemons, acid drops and lemonade powder (which made your tongue bleed!). Other popular pocket money confectionery included Spangles (pre-wrapped boiled sweets that came in a huge variety of flavours), barley sugar sticks, liquorice bootlaces, mini bars of chocolate (costing a penny each), penny chews, fruit salads and black jacks (small chews, four for a penny) jamboree bags (large paper bags containing a couple of dolly mixtures, a stick of liquorice, a joke, and a useless plastic toy – never good value), and polo fruits. Polos (still around today, as mints) had a hole in the middle. Spangles were square, with a dimple in the middle – hence the kid on the estate’s joke about ‘what do you call a virgin polo mint’ …
But the most popular brands of confectionery in the early 1960s were much the same as today: Crunchie, Bounty, KitKat, Opal Fruits (now Starburst), Mars, Milky Way, Caramac, Smarties, Fruit Gums and Fruit Pastilles were all available in 1963. Indeed, eight out of ten of the most popular confectionery brands in the UK have been available for more than 50 years.
Wilson and Gaitskell
Hugh Gaitskell became leader of the Labour Party in 1955, following the resignation of Clement Atlee after defeat of the Labour Party in the general election. Gaitskell was on the right of the Party, defeating the left-wing Aneurin Bevan in the leadership election. The late fifties and early sixties were marked by factional battles between the left and right in the party, while Labour remained in opposition.
In 1962, Gaitskell became ill, and battles for the leadership of the party began again. Following Gaitskell’s death in January 1963, Harold Wilson was elected party leader. Wilson was the left’s choice for leader, defeating the more right-wing James Callaghan and George Brown in the leadership election. Indeed, there were rumours that the sudden death of Hugh Gaitskell had been a KGB assassination, to get Wilson into the leadership. Some even alleged that Wilson himself was a KGB agent. At the 1963 Labour Party conference, Wilson made his most famous speech, on the coming scientific and technological changes that would affect society, saying: "the Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated measures on either side of industry".
Following scandals such as the Profumo Affair, the Tory government was thrown from office in the 1964 general election, and Harold Wilson became Prime Minister. Although he never quite lived up to the left’s expectations, his government introduced many new measures to create a fairer, more equal society, and sweep away the old orders of the class system and social privilege. Wilson’s governments abolished the death penalty, legalised male homosexuality (female homosexuality had never been illegal), legalised abortion, abolished theatre censorship, and eventually introduced the Equal Pay Act and Race Relations Act, beginning a series of anti-discrimination measures that we now take for granted as part of a civilised society. Sadly perhaps, his second term of office is remembered more for his own personal deviousness and paranoia (he became convinced that MI5 were plotting against him). But his government helped to bring about the social and technological changes that were to shape the UK for the rest of the twentieth century and beyond.
By the end of the war, Britain’s rail network was worn out, pretty much unmodernised since it was built in Victorian times. To deal with this, the Government nationalised the entire railway network in 1948. This was followed in 1955 by a major investment programme, making a commitment to replace all steam power with diesel and electric. By 1963, this programme was well underway – the last steam trains were phased out in 1965. However, the signalling and other infrastructure was still antiquated.
By the beginning of the 1960s, it became clear that massive investment in the railways hadn’t stopped them losing money. So in January 1963, the Government appointed Richard Beeching to cut costs. His final report proposed the closure of 2,000 stations, 250 passenger services, and removal of associated branch lines. Many of the cuts proposed by Beeching were carried out, and although the infrastructure, signalling and rolling stock have been gradually improved, the rail network continued to be cut throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties.
Since then, with a revival in need for sustainable public transport systems, the folly of many of these cuts has been realised. In spite of renewed investment in the railways in recent years, the comprehensive rail network that Britain once had can never be rebuilt.
Everyone over the age of about ten seemed to smoke in the early 1960s. They smoked in cinemas, cafes, pubs, restaurants, buses, taxis, trains, workplaces .. everywhere. Smoking was prohibited in a few places (on the lower floor of buses and in designated railway carriages, for example) but was otherwise ubiquitous. Cigarette smoke was in pretty much every enclosed public space. So although only around half the adult population smoked in 1963, everyone had to inhale it. Cigarette advertising was everywhere, with cigarettes the most widely advertised product. Different cigarette brands were aimed at different demographic groups – Kensitas were marketed to women, whereas brands like Capstan and Woodbines were aimed more at men.
Although the health risks of smoking became clear during the 1950s, the tobacco industry was powerful and refused to acknowledge that smoking was bad for you, with some brands claiming that cigarettes were actually beneficial to health. Cigarette advertising frequently linked smoking to healthy lifestyles.
From the mid-sixties, as people became aware of the dangers of cigarette smoke, smoking did begin to decline, but it was not until the 1970s that the tobacco industry acknowledged the health risks. And in spite of the increasingly dire warnings on cigarette packets, bans on advertising and smoking in public places, and universally-known dangers to health, more than twenty percent of the adult population in the UK still smokes tobacco.
After the fuel shortages arising from the Suez Crisis in 1956, people started to want more fuel efficient cars. For a couple of years, the market was dominated by German-built ‘bubble cars’, made by ex-aircraft manufacturers Heinkel, Messerschmitt and BMW.
To compete with the bubble car, BMC (British Motor Corporation) introduced the Morris Mini, known as the ‘Mini Minor’ (implying it was a small version of the Morris Minor) in 1959.
The car was revolutionary in design, using a transverse engine with the gearbox in the sump. This saved a lot of space. The car also used rubber blocks for suspension, instead of conventional metal springs. To save further weight and space, the cars were very flimsy, and had sliding windows to allow space in the doors for storage. The Mini became fashionable very quickly, with customised Minis being driven by Peter Sellers, Britt Eckland, John Lennon, Marianne Faithfull and many others.
By contrast, the mini skirt was not introduced until 1965, by fashion designer Mary Quant. Some shorter skirts did begin to appear in the early sixties (like the Chanel dress that Veronica gives to Jenny), but the mini skirt did not become a popular fashion item until 1967.
Before Britain ‘went decimal’ in 1971, the currency was based on pounds, shillings and pence. There were twelve pennies in a shilling, and twenty shillings in a pound. So there were 2.4 old pennies to a new, post-decimal penny.
The smallest unit of currency, the farthing (a quarter of a penny) had been abolished in 1952. By 1963, the coins in circulation were: halfpenny (or ha’penny); penny; threepence (pronounced, and sometimes spelt, thruppence); sixpence (sometimes called a ‘tanner’); shilling (sometimes called a ‘bob’); a two-shilling piece (formerly known as a florin, but this was antiquated by the 1960s); and a half-crown (two shillings and sixpence). Crowns were only issued to celebrate special occasions, and were not generally in circulation.
In notes, there was a ten shilling note (brown), a pound note (green), and a five pound note (blue). As now, a pound was known as a ‘quid’. There were also (and still are) some other colloquial terms used for sums of money, originating from London, including a ‘pony’ (£50), a ‘monkey’ (£500), and a ‘grand’ (£1,000).
Confusingly, some goods and services, for example furniture and professional services, were priced in guineas. A guinea was one pound and one shilling.
In 1963, people did their regular shopping in small, corner shops, or local shopping arcades. Nevertheless, supermarkets were becoming more dominant, and were getting bigger. Sainsbury’s opened the first self-service supermarket in 1950, although they were also the last supermarket to convert all their shops to self-service – the last counter service Sainsbury’s didn’t close until 1982. But by 1963, even the main supermarkets were still small, with shops in smaller town centres. The era of large, out-of-town hypermarkets had not yet dawned.
Many local shops were very enterprising, carrying a wide range of goods. A small, local general store would often sell a wide range of groceries, as well as hardware and gardening products. By the sixties however, most goods were produced and distributed by national suppliers, with locally sourced produce already disappearing.
In larger town centres, department stores dominated. These sold pretty much everything, although some specialised more in one particular area (fashion, for example) than others. Bournemouth had five department stores: Bobbys, Plummers, Brights, Beales and Bealsons. Most of these big stores were independently owned, but were later bought up by chains such as Debenhams and House of Fraser, and many were closed.
The vacuum-powered devices for giving change, as described in the book, were also commonplace, as shop assistants didn’t have access to cash registers. Instead, they took the money from a customer, and sealed it in a container with an invoice. This was put into a tube, where it wooshed off up to the cashiers office. Here, the invoice was checked, stamped as paid, put back into the container with the change, and wooshed back down to the shop floor. The process was spectacularly time-consuming, originating in a less rushed and more contemplative age.
Gingham dresses, pleated skirts and smart tweed suits were all fashionable for women in the winter of 1963. Trousers (‘slacks’) were beginning to appear for women, but these were still seen as something casual to wear around the home. In spite of the cold, women were expected to wear skirts or dresses when going out or in the workplace. Later in 1963, Cathy McGowan (fashionable presenter of ‘Ready Steady Go’, a TV pop music programme) caused a storm when she presented the show wearing a trouser suit. Many women bought their clothes from readers’ offers in popular newspapers, or from catalogues. Every neighbourhood had its catalogue ‘rep’, who took their neighbours’ orders for clothing.
Youth fashion hadn’t yet appeared. Young women wore the same clothes and fashions as older women. If anything, fashion for young men was catching on sooner, Italian suits with narrow lapels and thin ties starting to appear, the 1950s teddy boys morphing into mods. These were very different from the demob suit that most men over 35 still owned (demobilisation suit – given to returning troops at the end of the war).
The beehive hairdo was considered to be the ultimate smart look, although pixie cuts and longer hair flipped up at the end were also popular. And in spite of the release of the film ‘Cleopatra’ with Liz Taylor in heavy, pronounced eye make-up, the ‘Cleopatra’ look diminished, replaced by a softer, paler look, although still with strongly emphasised eyes.
On the Paris catwalks, the domination of Yves St. Laurent was waning, with other designers becoming popular. Models showed off straight, sleeveless dresses with only a hint of ‘fit’. Suits were often collarless, fitted lightly or not at all, often unbuttoned to hang open from throat to waist. Coats were made the same way but more so, using thick tweed to combat the cold winter. Hemlines were still at or below the knee, although some designers were experimenting with shorter skirts, like the flapper-style Chanel dress that Veronica gives to Jenny.
However, for working class women in the UK, Paris fashions were of little consequence, beyond their influence on what was in C&A’s post-Christmas sale. Clothes were relatively expensive compared to nowadays, and their routine daywear was more likely to have come from a 9/11d Daily Mirror readers’ offer.
At the beginning of the sixties, popular music was
at a turning point. The fifties had seen new styles of music aimed at
young people emerge, with skiffle music popular in the UK, along with
Rock and Roll music imported from the USA and home-grown acts such as
Cliff Richard and the Shadows. But although skiffle was popular with the
more rebellious young people, it didn't reach the mainstream, nor did it
become properly established. Music critics, particularly the older ones,
saw it as a passing fad.
Although by later standards, music from the early sixties seems pretty tame, it was considered to be dangerously passionate at the time, compared to the sweetly bland mainstream of the 1950s. In 1961, Helen Shapiro became suddenly very popular with young people - boys, in particular. At the age of fourteen, she had two number one hits in the UK: "You Don't Know" and "Walkin' Back to Happiness"; and, indeed, her first four single releases all went into the top three of the UK Singles Chart. Before she was sixteen years old, Shapiro had been voted Britain's 'Top Female Singer'. The Beatles' first national tour of Britain in the late winter/early spring of 1963 was as her supporting act.
The Beatles released their first single, 'Love Me Do', in October 1962, which reached no. 17 in the UK official charts. This was followed up by 'Please Please Me', in January 1963, which reached no. 2. This record brought the Beatles to national attention and began their superstar careers, although was not without its controversy - some interpreted the lyrics as a reference to oral sex. Early 1963 saw the beginnings of modern 'pop' music, with the 'Merseybeat' sound, including other Liverpool musicians such as the Searchers, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and others. Until then, 'pop' musicians hadn't released LPs of their music - LPs were mostly classical, easy listening, or music from shows. All that changed when The Beatles released their Please Please Me LP, which instantly went to number one in the UK charts, and changed popular music forever.