Chronology: 2

With the main evidence presented, it is now possible to return to the chronology in its full guise as a containing narrative.

July 1966: They think it’s all over

The need to project the Western Front as memory-made-real across the London landscape seems to have reached a climax in the first half of the 1960s. Then, around the middle of the decade, a turning point was reached. In purely architectural terms this moment is often narrowed down to the collapse of the Ronan Point tower block in 1968, when five people were killed. However, in broader cultural terms I would place the moment a little earlier, back to a single month, that of July 1966.

The mood had been set a couple of months before when, on 15th April, Time magazine dubbed the capital Swinging London. It was referring to the hedonistic mood of the times but, instead of seeing this solely as a positive expression of pent-up emotion and creativity, the moment can be seen as half of a more bivalent process which had a negative aspect rooted in the experience of Britain half a century before. This is reflected in architecture in the contrast between the futuristic plans of the Archigram group with their Plug-in City and the gloomy trench-alleyways of Darbourne & Darke’s Lillington Gardens. According to this perspective, mid-Sixties London can be seen as a more bipolar place, swinging almost manically from enthusiasm for the present and a bright future, to lament for that same present and its lingering past.

To narrow down the moment, on the 1st of July 1966, commemorations were held for the 50th anniversary of the first day of the Somme, when 20,000 men were killed in the fight against German forces, the worst day in the history of the British Army. Many of those at the memorial services were survivors. All through July further acts of commemoration were held to mark other dreadful days and losses on the Somme.

Coincidentally, July 1966 was also the month of the football World Cup, the only time the competition has been held in Britain. And at the end of the month, on the 30th of July, England played, of all teams, West Germany in the final at Wembley. England won 4-2 and most Britons were jubilant. Famously, the final words of television commentary were: ‘They think it’s all over. It is now.’

In this month, past, present and future seem to have aligned in a moment of tension. The 1st of July on the Somme in 1916 was often recollected for its footballing heroes, lads who chased a football across no-man’s-land into the storm of steel launched at them from German machine-guns. Exactly fifty years later, even as the memorial bells tolled – what passing bells – the last day of July became famous for its footballing heroes, lads who chased a football across the no-man’s-land of London’s turf, gazed upon by thousands, to finally break through the defences of German opposition. Even that victory, in its last-gasp, extra-time excitement seemed to mirror the final victory of 1918.

The number one hit single on the last day of July, 1966, was by Chris Farlowe and the Thunderbirds: Out of time.

July 1966 seems to mark the point at which people in Britain accepted that the past could be left behind. Through historical studies and books, the war had been reassessed and pent-up anger released; through music, wrenching grief had been voiced; through architecture, the trenches had been rebuilt, gazed upon and lived in; and through the metaphorical world of football, victory, of sorts, had been achieved.

Around the same time, Churchill, architect of so much of the First World War, died. Le Corbusier and Mies, architects of the Modern Movement, soon followed. In 1968, Ronan Point fell.