Peter Hennessy: ‘I plan to die in the National Archives’

Historians in the News

Professor Peter Hennessy leads me past the stacks of books in the library at his home in Walthamstow, east London, to show me something special: a tea towel. It’s no ordinary tea towel, however. If Britain had been blown up by a nuclear bomb in the 1950s, this cream-and-green waffled cotton sheet would have dried Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s dishes.

Emblazoned on the tea towel are the letters TETW. “It’s an elaborate joke,” Hennessy cries. “They stand for The End of The World!” Or Tea Towel, he later confesses. Hennessy retrieved it from Stockwell, a bunker in the Cotswolds chosen as the post-apocalypse refuge for the British government and military of the 1950s and 1960s.

It’s the prosaic bits-and- bobs as well as high political drama that catch Hennessy’s eye. Fish fingers sit alongside Churchill’s cabinet in his new book, Having it So Good: Britain in the Fifties. It describes a society emerging from second world war austerity into shaky prosperity while also eavesdropping on the cabinet meetings of Churchill, Eden and Macmillan – three very different premierships that each had to come to terms with Britain’s relative decline in the world.

Tastes, smells and sounds infuse the account and Hennessy, who was a child of the 1950s, is “a conscious figure” in the book. He recalls the moment when he heard that the Manchester United team had died in the 1958 Munich air disaster – he was playing with a toy car in his Finchley home. A glimpse of a Babycham bottle can still transport him back to that era.

Despite the weight of footnotes, the book is not arid and academic but packed with stories, a reflection of Hennessy’s 20 years in journalism, including spells at the Financial Times and The Times. It was later in life that he decided to make an honest subject out of oxymoronic contemporary history, eventually becoming the Attlee professor of contemporary British history at Queen Mary, University of London, in 1991.

His regular media appearances led one history purist to condemn him as an intrusive egotist who “does not really grasp what is at stake in the writing of history”. But Hennessy is not afraid of taking potshots at the establishment. He once said, of erstwhile friends on the left, now peers of the realm: “They’ve gone from Trotsky to tosserdom in one generation.”...

comments powered by Disqus