As measured by the biblical formula of three scores and 10, 70 years is a full lifetime. It’s also the epic span of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign of her. Even with a Proustian effort of recollection, less than 7% of the British population will have any memory of the day on 6 February 1952 that George VI died and his eldest daughter became a monarch.
Of that number, only a fraction will recall that the song that topped the charts at the time was Mario Lanza’s The Loveliest Night of the Year. No doubt more will know that Harry Styles is currently No 1 with As It Was, but that achievement is no longer a piece of national knowledge but a leftover token from an earlier era.
Among countless developments, the second Elizabethan age has seen the rise and demise of popular music. Its creative pinnacle came in the 1960s-1970s, which – not coincidentally – was the period of greatest social upheaval, when deference and class hierarchies began to crack.
Countless fashions have come and gone since the Queen took the throne, yet she has had to embody the idea of continuity, as represented by the stability of her image on banknotes and postage stamps.
Her own transformation from a tentative 25-year-old to a 96-year-old matriarch has been realized with such determined gradualism as to create the illusion of constancy. To place her de ella in the context of her de ella peers de ella, she is a direct contemporary of Marilyn Monroe, who was still an up-and-coming actor in 1952, and the subject of scandal for having posed for a nude calendar .
If it’s true that, in the familiar words of LP Hartley, the past is a foreign country, what country is 1952?
The answer is Madagascar, India, Yemen or Mexico, depending on what aspect of life we measure. If we were to take male life expectancy, for instance, back in 1952 it was 66.4 years. Nowadays it is 79 for the UK, and Madagascar is closest to the 1952 figure, with 66.53 years.
Female life expectancy in the UK today is 82.8 years. For those born in 1952 it was 71.5 years, which is roughly the life expectancy of a woman born in India today. If we take per capita car ownership in 1952, the figure would be around 3.5 vehicles per 100 people, which is about the same rate as in Yemen today; in Britain in 2022, it’s almost one vehicle for every two people.
Or what about average annual salary? Currently it’s £31,980 in the UK. In 1952, it was £390 which, adjusted for inflation, is £13,260. That puts it alongside today’s Mexico.
One thing these other nations share is that they are no strangers to poverty, which suggests the UK has come a long way in terms of standards of living over the past 70 years. And, of course, in many respects it has. Yet in the year of the coronation, 13% of the population – approximately 6.5 million people – were adjudged to be living in poverty. Today that figure is 22%, or 14.75 million people.
In 1952, IBM introduced its first commercial scientific computer, the IBM 701. It was severely limited in power and performance and was available to rent for around $12,000 a month (about $120,000 in today’s money). Even the cheapest smartphone today, retailing at £90, massively outperforms the 701, and almost 90% of the UK population owns a smartphone.
We have also become a more unequal society. To take a glaring example, professional football: in 1952, the maximum, capped wage was £14 a week – about double the national average. Today’s highest-paid player in the Premier League is Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who is said to earn a salary of £26.4m, more than 800 times the national average.
But some things in football haven’t changed that much. The 1952 FA Cup final was played between Newcastle and Arsenal, with Newcastle the 1-0 victors. Almost exactly 70 years later, Newcastle beat Arsenal in the Premier League to give the north London team a place in the Champions League.
Football and the BBC Radio series The Archers, which began in 1951, are national dramas that have been running continuously for 70 years. A third would have been the Agatha Christie play The Mousetrapwhich opened in the West End in 1952, but for a Covid-enforced break from March 2020 to May 2021.
There is also, of course, a fourth seven-decade long national drama, starring an understated and indefatigable lead character: the Queen herself.