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Published: February 18th 2021
I was born in 1951 and treasure my memories of the 1950’s and 60’s. For some reason, the other day, I began thinking about the great English names of the 1950’s who are still alive. I wrote down the ones that sprang instantly to mind and then Googled them to see if I was right. One of the names – Terry Downes, the boxer - turned out to be dead (he died in 2017), but the rest of my names are still with us. Most of these people had an impact on me, in the 1950’s, when I was too young to be interested in politics or literature. All the names, bar two, are connected with either sport or music.
I remember Tommy Steele (born 1936) because of his song ‘Little White Bull
’, which my sister liked, and because he was often on TV. ‘Little White Bull
’ was released in November 1959 and was constantly on the radio. His toothy grin and elfin looks made him stand out.
Cliff Richard (born 1940) reached the peak of his popularity with ‘Summer Holiday
’ in 1963, but he came to prominence in the late 1950’s. He dominated the British popular music scene
in the pre-Beatles period of the late 1950's to early 1960's and was the U.K.’s answer to Elvis Presley. I never enjoyed his music much (I preferred his backing group The Shadows, who did not find fame in their own right until the 60's), but Cliff was a household name in the 50’s.
That’s it for music. The rest of my 1950’s survivors, except for the last two, are sports stars.
In the late 50’s, Christine Truman (born 1941) was the darling of British tennis, a household name throughout the land. She was quintessentially English in her appearance and good manners. She symbolized old-fashioned English values: modesty, courtesy, graciousness in defeat. Her best year was 1959, when she won the French Ladies' Singles but she never managed to win Wimbledon. The couple whose house we stayed at in Hayling Island were named Truman, and I remember my parents remarking on the connection with the tennis player.
Brian London (born 1934) was a famous boxer of the late 50’s. He became British Heavyweight Champion in 1958. I remember him best for his fight against Muhammad Ali in 1966, but London’s heyday was the late 50’s. His lantern jaw
and rugged face made an impression on the younger me.
The greatest British sportspeople of the 1950’s still alive today are Lester Piggott, the jockey (born 1935) and Sir Bobby Charlton, the footballer (born 1937).
Piggott won the Derby twice during the 50’s. I used to hear his name all the time on the radio and TV and see his picture in the newspapers. His brilliance as a jockey was offset by his inability to speak intelligibly.
Bobby Charlton is probably the most famous English footballer of all time. He survived the Munich Air Disaster of 1958; he starred for England in their 1966 World Cup triumph; in 1968 he helped Manchester United become the first English club to win the European Cup. Alas, Bobby is now suffering from dementia.
Ray Illingworth (born 1932) was, arguably, the finest ever English cricket captain. He began his career with Yorkshire aged 19 and won his first England cap in 1958. His interesting surname used to catch my eye whenever I scanned the cricket scores.
Although I'd never heard of him in the 1950’s, Leonard Barden (born 1929) was a leading figure in British chess. He twice finished
joint winner of the British chess championship – in 1954 and 1958. I came to know Barden later through his chess columns in The Guardian
, which he has been writing for an astonishing 64 years. Although chess is not, strictly speaking, a sport, I am bracketing Barden along with my other sporting icons of the 50’s.
Another English chess champion of the 50’s, whom I only discovered later, was Jonathan Penrose (born 1933). He won the British Chess Championship a record ten times between 1958 and 1969.
David Attenborough (born 1926) is today regarded as a national treasure. I vaguely remember him presenting ‘Zoo Quest’
on TV in the late 1950’s but, unlike Christine Truman and Lester Piggott, he was never mentioned in our house.
And I almost forgot the most famous person of all: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth 11 (born 1926). When I was born in 1951, her father was King. I was too young to be aware of her coronation, but she was big news throughout the 50's. I remember her visiting my home town, Reading, in 1957. When people in our road heard that the Queen’s car would be passing through Cemetery Junction at a certain time, they rushed out to get a glimpse of her. The Queen has always been a revered figure but even more so in the 50’s.
The only two of these names likely to be known outside of the U.K. are those of the Queen and David Attenborough. None of the others, not even Cliff Richard or Lester Piggott, would be recognized by, say, an American born in 1951.
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