‘Back in the US of A’

Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History

by Devin McKinney
Harvard University Press, 420 pp., $27.95

The Beatles
The Beatles; drawing by David Levine

There is something very English in the marriage of boredom and catastrophe, and the England that existed immediately after the Second World War appears to have carried that manner rather well, as if looking over its shoulder to notice that lightning had just struck a teacup. Reading the work of V.S. Pritchett or the absconded Auden, you pick up the notion that Europe had just come through a spell of bad weather, as though the only important question emerging from the war was about how it might have affected the course of English normality. The great horror was that things would remain the same, second only to a fear that things would never be the same again. The mood is captured nicely in “1948” by Roy Fuller, a poet who happened to spend his life working for the Woolwich Equitable Building Society:

Reading among the crumbs of leaves upon
The lawn, beneath the thin October sun,
I hear behind the words
And noise of birds
The drumming aircraft; and am blind till they have gone.
The feeling that they give is now no more
That of the time when we had not reached war:
It is as though the lease
Of crumbling peace
Had run already and that life was as before.
For this is not the cancer or the scream,
A grotesque interlude, but what will seem
On waking to us all
Most natural—
The gnawed incredible existence of a dream.

England appeared then to be a country of old men, a place in which dreams were routinely gnawed down by broken teeth, while America in 1948 appeared to the English like a stately pleasure dome, housing this great new phenomenon, the teenager, and busy with every kind of plan for the future, from abbreviated hemlines to the hydrogen bomb. The compulsions of teenagers have come to so dominate the world that we might sometimes forget they used not to exist. In 1900, for instance, 20 percent of American kids between ten and fifteen were in full-time employment and, even as late as D-Day itself, Andy Hardy represented a world where young people did useful things and had fun before going to bed alone at ten o’clock. What was the teenage market in 1945 but comic books, bobby pins, and the Toni home perm? But in 1948 the transistor radio was invented (kids could suddenly listen to music in their own rooms), and the 1948 Cadillac came with tail-fins and a radio console, a vehicle customized for teenagers and featured in a blazing new magazine called Hot Rod.1 It was also the year of the Kinsey Report. Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town was first aired in that summer of 1948 and it would eventually promise a world in which the likes and dislikes…


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