Francis Beckett, co-author of 1956: The Year that Changed Britain, on changing attitudes to sex in the '50s

  • October 02, 2015 10:00
  • Francis Beckett

Philip Larkin was wrong: sexual intercourse did not begin in 1963; it began in 1956. So did the ’60s, though no one really noticed this had happened until the Beatles released ‘Love Me Do’ in 1962.

It was the year of the invasions of Hungary and Suez, of home-grown British rock ‘n’ roll, of Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ revealing the crimes of Stalin, and of Look Back in Anger and the angry young men. It was – so Tony Russell and I maintain in our book about 1956 – the year in which the world we now live in was born.

Before 1956, women were expected to see sex merely as a commodity to be traded for a wedding ring. In David Lodge’s 1987 novel How Far Can You Go?, Dennis and Angela wait for many years for their wedding, while they get their degrees, he does his National Service, they get jobs and save money. In 1952, he puts a hand on her breast outside her blouse. In 1953, he strokes her leg to stocking-top height. In 1954, he puts a hand inside her blouse and onto her bra.

But the governing class lived by different rules. Sexual intercourse only began in 1956 for the hoi polloi; toffs had had it for years. The early ’50s were remarkably tolerant about the peccadilloes of celebrities and the political and upper classes, so long as they were conducted discreetly.

The same politicians who upheld laws against homosexuality quietly covered up for their colleague Tom Driberg, whose exploits with men were common gossip in the Strangers’ Bar.

It was well known in political circles that Harold Macmillan’s wife had for years had an extramarital affair with Robert Boothby, and that the fourth and youngest of the Macmillan children, Sarah, born in 1930, was biologically Boothby’s child. In the circles in which they moved, it does not seem to have affected the way in which Macmillan, Boothby or Lady Dorothy were regarded.

So sex was, after all, not invented in 1956. It was democratised in 1956, and not without controversy. A few months after the May production of Look Back in Anger, its author John Osborne showed that he could see dimly a revolution brewing in the relationship between men and women – and it was a revolution this revolutionary playwright did not like at all. ‘What’s gone wrong with women?’ he asked in the Daily Mail in November:

‘Never before have women had so much freedom, so much power, or so much influence … It seems very obvious to say that women have arrived, that at last they are coming into their own, but what is not so obvious is the price we are all paying for it.’

Despite John Osborne, the freedom of Tom Driberg to have homosexual affairs, and Lady Dorothy Macmillan to have heterosexual ones, started to spread down for the first time to the middle classes, while the Wolfenden committee worked on its report recommending the legalisation of homosexuality.

Politicians now know they cannot get away with any behaviour that those who elected them cannot. In fact, as we write, politicians are probably judged by harsher standards than any other people today.

1956: The Year that Changed Britain by Francis Beckett & Tony Russell is out 13 October and available to pre-order here.


In Defence of ‘Call Me Dave’

  • September 25, 2015 09:00
  • Iain Dale

Well, this week certainly has not been dull. And as with any roller coaster ride, it’s had its highs, its lows – and I’m still a bit dazed. I published, and was then damned!

Some of you will say: “Serves you right, you shouldn’t publish books that question anything about David Cameron or his government”. To that, I reply: ‘bollocks’.

I run a non-partisan publishing company, which publishes current affairs books across the political spectrum. This week, I’ve been accused of being a Tory lackey and, at the same time, totally disloyal for publishing a biography of the Prime Minister which dares to offer the odd criticism and private revelation.

I got a bit annoyed on Sunday night when I realised that neither the Sky News or BBC newspaper reviews were covering the Daily Mail’s front page with the first extracts from Call Me Dave. They always get frit when faced with a contentious story such as so-called ‘Pig-gate’. The lawyers go into a frenzy and the editors always play safe. It’s a shame that the paper reviewers on the two channels didn’t question it. It’s happened to me before and, on one occasion, I told the producer that we were supposed to be previewing all the papers, and that if we weren’t allowed to even mention a particular story I’d refuse to go on altogether.

I don’t like being censored. And this comes to the crux of the matter: whether the ‘Pig-gate’ story – an anecdote in Call Me Dave that caused such a global sensation that it almost broke the internet – should have been printed at all. I am still in no doubt that it was right to keep it in the book. Whether it would have made the credibility threshold for a newspaper is a side issue. It is in a book, not a newspaper. When I first read it in the manuscript, I certainly noticed it was only single-sourced – but the authors were entirely upfront about that. Contrary to much of the sloppy reporting of the story, it was never presented as fact.  I was comfortable with the way it was written up and, more to the point, so were the lawyers.

What would the reaction have been had I insisted it were taken out?  Had anyone found out, I’d have been accused of censoring something and protecting my so-called ‘Tory mates’. You’d think from the reaction that Lord Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott, aided and abetted by me, had accused the Prime Minister of murder (or something). It is no more than a tale of student high jinks – and the authors leave readers to judge for themselves whether it happened or not.

The sight of a former News of the World political editor getting on his high horse amused me greatly. Look in the bloody mirror, mate. The irony seemed to be lost on him.

As you see, I am a great believer in a publisher’s role being to publish and not write the books which he takes on. I have published many which say all sorts of things I disagree with – even loathe and abhor. But I am a publisher, not a censor.

If something is libellous, I will intervene. If I think a fact is wrong, I’ll question it. If I genuinely think something has been misinterpreted then, again, I will question an author about it. But a biography has to be a full account of someone’s life, warts and all. That’s what Call Me Dave is. The fact that the Mail has chosen to publish more or less only the critical bits is not something that I or Michael or Isabel have control of.

This book is a serious work. It is certainly far more than its serialisable parts, as those who bother to read the entire 600 pages will no doubt confirm. I guarantee now that several of the reviews will commence with words roughly as follows: “I was expecting this book to be full of tabloid trash. Yes, the bits in theMail are certainly in the book, but it’s a really balanced account of the Prime Minister’s life.” That’s certainly what the reviews ought to say.

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The other thing that has royally pissed me off this week is that this is some sort of vanity publishing exercise subsidised by Michael. Let me lay that one to rest too. He has exactly the same terms as any other of our authors. Same royalties. Same terms and conditions. There has been no subsidy to Biteback Publishing. Not a penny. The only difference is that he is giving his royalties to military charities.

Some people have even been to look at our Companies House accounts and discovered – shock horror – that in our first few years we made financial losses. Name me a publishing company that hasn’t. This, apparently, was further evidence that we are just an Ashcroft toy, given that he has invested a seven figure sum in the company.

What a pity these people have no idea how business works. This money is not a gift. It is not a subsidy. It is an investment which he expects to recoup. It is now close on two and a half years since he put a penny into Biteback. We were profitable during the last financial year, and we will be in this one too. Michael has got where he is today not by being a charity, but by investing in businesses that he thinks have a good chance of making a profit. I like to think that we are repaying that faith.

Michael is a perfect investor. On not a single occasion has he sought to either influence the direction of the business or dictate whether I publish a book or not. Never have I even consulted him over whether I should commission a book. Indeed, I’ve on several occasions published books by his sworn enemies – Denis MacShane’s Prison Diaries being one.

The only occasion I can recall when I felt I had to ask his views on something was when Peter Hain and I were being sued by the Attorney General of Northern Ireland. This could have cost the company a lot of money, and ended up with Peter and me in prison. While the prospect of visiting us in the Maze amused him no end, he had no hesitation in endorsing my strategy to fight this outrageous case, and in the end we won.

I realise that people have a certain view of how business operates and how a relationship between a businessman and someone like me must operate. As ever, truth is stranger than fiction. I’m sure people imagine he pulls my every string, with me performing the role of a puppy dog puppet. These people don’t know me very well, and they don’t know Michael.

The first time I met him was back in 2003 when he had written a book, Dirty Politics, Dirty Times, on his battles with The Times. He called me in to read the manuscript and ask what I thought. I was locked in his boardroom for two hours. “Jesus, I thought, what am I going to say if I think it’s total crap?” It wasn’t – but if it had been, I’d have told him. When I had finished reading it he asked for my comments. “Two thing,” I said. The first was a minor detail, but then I said: “The bit about Tom Baldwin taking cocaine… Your lawyers will tell you to take it out. If you do, you’re not the man I think you are.” He looked me straight in the eye, smiled, and said: “I think you and I are going to get along, Mr Dale.” And we have. Famously.

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As a publisher, I don’t normally give details of print runs for books that I publish, partly because it’s a mug’s game. You never get it right, and you virtually always print too many or too few. But in the case ofCall Me Dave, I’m going to make an exception and give a big ‘f**k you’ gesture with my middle finger to all those who wittered on Twitter about it being in the remainder bins on Day One.

Most political biographies do well if they sell 5,000 copies. Some – whisper it – don’t even make it into four figures. But I knew with a serialisation in the Mail that this book was destined to do somewhat better. Our biggest selling book to date has been Damian McBride’s Power Trip. We did an initial print run of 5,000 copies but had to reprint on the day of publicatio,n such was the demand. In the end it has sold around 24,000 copies in hardback, paperback and eBook.

Anyway, back to Call Me Dave. My initial intention was to print 6,000 copies and see how it went. But on the first day of the Mail serialisation I doubled it to 12,000. Over the week, the orders from bookshops and other outlets (including one major supermarket chain) have flooded in – and I mean, flooded – with the result that on Wednesday morning I counted up the pre-orders which totalled a massive 33,000.

So I took a deep breath and told my colleagues to order an initial print run of 35,000. That’s three and a half times more than our previous biggest print run for a book. I don’t believe for a minute that all will be sold because all books are subjected to a rate of returns, but 10,000 of these are firm sale, so that’s not a bad start.

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An early sign of whether a book is going to do well is to look at the Amazon sales rankings. It’s actually quite rare for any political book to make it into the Amazon Top 100, let alone the top 20. By Tuesday morning the book was at Number 12. So it is competing with bestselling novels and cookbooks. Biteback has only twice had books in the top 20 before.

Anthony Seldon’s officially approved Cameron at Ten peaked, I believe, at around 92. Hey ho. Amazon use algorithms to guess how many they’re going to sell of a book pre-publication. Sometimes it panics me, because they order huge amounts, and I think to myself: “They’ll never sell that many.” But they do. So that’s another 4,000 sold then…

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One other amusement for me were the tweets that reckoned I was only publishing this book because I once worked for David Davis and must thus loathe David Cameron. Oh dear. I’ve never once published a book because of any supposed political agenda that I might have. I have none whatsoever with this book, except for it to sell as many copies as possible – just like any other book.

Cameron came up to North Norfolk for a day when I was a candidate there. We maintained good relations during the leadership contest. If we’re in the same room, we always have a very jovial chat. Four years ago, he rang me to ask if I would go and speak to his Patrons club. He rang me the morning after I’d been there, and we had a 20 minute chat.

The thought that he and I are enemies is laughable. I am sure there are people in Number Ten who are not exactly gruntled at the events of this week, but I would be very surprised if either they or the Prime Minister broke off diplomatic relations. They’re bigger than that.

Call Me Dave is published 5 October, click here to pre-order your signed copy!


Robert Dale, author of How to Be a Parliamentary Researcher, talks about the crucial role of researchers in Westminster and how to get ahead in a career in parliament

  • September 18, 2015 13:00
  • Robert Dale

Thousands of young people every year apply to work as an MP’s parliamentary researcher. It’s a glamorous role: you’re based at the heart of the Westminster Village; you see famous politicians and celebrities on a daily basis; and you’ll have the power and responsibility to exert significant influence over the Member of Parliament you work for.

Other books that Biteback have published have added to the air of intrigue and mystique about those who work for MPs. Power Trip by Damian McBride is especially brilliant, and I know many political staffers who have found it to be hugely resourceful and informative.

However, How to Be a Parliamentary Researcher is the first book to take a close look at the work of a parliamentary researcher. So: who are they; what do they do; and how can you beat the competition to become one?

In short, the role requires you to do a bit of everything. From speechwriting and media relations to diary management, bag-carrying, overseeing your MP’s Facebook page and Twitter account, and running their errands. It’s different, exciting and fast-paced every day. More importantly, though, parliamentary researchers are playing a hugely important role in our democratic system: they allow their MPs to listen to, engage with and understand their constituents better than ever before. It is partly for this reason that John Bercow MP, the Speaker of the House of Commons, in his foreword to my book calls parliamentary researchers the ‘unsung heroes of the Westminster Village’.

The new parliament brings new MPs, all of whom will have been busy over the summer setting up their offices in Parliament and in their constituency, recruiting staff to work in both. Some are still going through this process – a search on w4mp (a popular space where MPs can list vacancies in their offices for free) shows there are about twenty roles currently being advertised.

Should you wish to apply to one of these positions, the MP will be looking to see that you’re committed to their party and have a genuine desire to work for them. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know everything about how Parliament works – no one does when they first start, not even new MPs.

Your commitment can be demonstrated by any work experience, campaign participation (knocking on doors, phone banking, leaflet delivering) or student politics that you may be participating in. If you don’t have experience in any of this, it would be worth getting involved in the local elections taking place in your area next May.

You must also tailor your CV and covering letter to the MP. For each role they advertise, an MP is likely to receive about 200 applicants. Every MP and their office should be thought of as a small business, with its own unique brand, targets, priorities and culture; invest some time in going through Google, the MP’s website and their record on TheyWorkForYou.

While it may be tempting to go ‘fishing’ and send your CV and covering letter to all MPs who have vacancies, you will achieve much better results if your approach to each is tailored. An MP wants to feel that you are interested in working for him or her, not just anyone who will give you a job.

Having worked in Parliament myself, I know that it’s worth putting in this extra effort. Your reward will be landing yourself a job right at the heart of British politics, and one that will support you in acquiring the skills, knowledge and friends that will form the foundations upon which to build a successful, productive and fulfilling career.

"A great resource for anyone beginning their career at the heart of British politics." – Professor Tim Bale

"This book is filled with the theoretical and practical guidance necessary to help demystify Parliament and make it more accessible to anyone who aspires to work at the heart of our vibrant democracy." – The Speaker, John Bercow MP

How to Be a Parliamentary Researcher by Robert Dale is available at the Biteback Publishing website and under our two week price promise!


BITEBACK ACQUIRE Comrade Jeremy: A Very Unlikely Coup: How Jeremy Corbyn Stormed to the Labour Leadership

  • September 12, 2015 11:45
  • Sam Jones

Biteback has acquired World rights to Comrade Jeremy, the biography of the newly-elected Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, by journalist Rosa Prince.  

Until recently, Jeremy Corbyn was barely known outside political circles, yet today he has ridden a wave of popular enthusiasm to win the Labour Party leadership by a landslide.

How did this very British iconoclast manage to snatch the leadership of a party he spent forty years rebelling against? Who is he and where did he come from? And what exactly happened over the space of an extraordinary summer to propel an old lefty called Jeremy to inspire and excite hundreds of thousands of people, and breathe new life into the socialist ideals he has, almost alone, held true to for so many years? From Corbyn’s cosy rural upbringing, through three marriages – including his decision to divorce one wife for sending their son to grammar school – and his long espousal of contentious causes, including Irish republicanism and a free Palestine, Comrade Jeremy is the story of the most unexpected leadership contest ever to take place in modern British politics.

Rosa Prince said: ‘Jeremy Corbyn's unlikely journey to the leadership of the Labour Party is one of the great adventures of modern British political history. I am so honoured to have been trusted with the task of telling his extraordinary story.’

Iain Dale said: ‘The 2015 Labour Leadership election has been a riveting episode, and Jeremy Corbyn’s unlikely victory will go down in political history. Love him or hate him, Corbyn is a fascinating character, and I’m delighted that Biteback will be publishing his remarkable story.’

Comrade Jeremy will be published in January 2016, and supported by a major press campaign.

For more details please contact  020 7091 1260


Biteback Acquire My Way: Berlusconi In His Own Words

  • September 10, 2015 09:00
  • Vicky Gilder

Iain Dale has acquired UK rights to My Way: Berlusconi In His Own Words by award-winning journalist Alan Friedman for Biteback Publishing from Caroline Michel at PFD.  

Inspired by the Frost/Nixon interviews, and written with the full co-operation of the billionaire media mogul turned Prime Minister, My Way is the life story – warts and all – of the man who has dominated Italian politics for the past twenty years.

Having started his career as a cruise-ship crooner, Silvio Berlusconi went on to become a real estate tycoon before starting the world’s first commercial television network, and turning AC Milan into a world-class soccer club. And that was all before he entered the squalid swampland of Italian politics, becoming Italy’s longest-serving Prime Minister, and generating, arguably, the most controversy of any world leader today. In a series of candid and revealing interviews, he spills the beans on everything from the infamous bunga-bunga parties to his most secret moments with world leaders including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Vladimir Putin, Mikhail Gorbachev, Tony Blair, Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel and many others.

My Way will be published in October, and supported by a major press campaign.

Iain Dale said: ‘Silvio Berlusconi is undoubtedly the most colourful character to have graced the world’s political stage in recent years. Alan Friedman has done a remarkable job at really getting Berlusconi to open up about his astonishing life and career. The result is a book full of candid insights and fresh revelations, and I am delighted that Biteback will be publishing it.’

For more details please contact  020 7091 1260