The Very Hungry Caterpillar? The Handmaid’s Tale? The Stud? What were you reading in 1969?
PUBLISHED: 14:15 05 January 2019 | UPDATED: 20:38 06 January 2019
One minute you’re curled up, savouring the latest Agatha Christie mystery. The next, 50 years have passed in a flash. Still, looking back at books of yesteryear does raise happy memories
If I had to bet on the year that children’s book The Very Hungry Caterpillar, mafia story The Godfather and The French Lieutenant’s Woman came out, I’d lose my money by some distance. It seems like yesterday (well, mid-1970s at the earliest, surely?) but it was long-ago 1969 – the year America put a man on the moon.
Was it a vintage year for the printed word? Here’s a gallop through some of the additions to the bookshelves that year. See what you remember; what you loved; what you detested.
Some people were a bit sniffy about Agatha Christie (still are) but you can’t ignore someone who earned the title of The Queen of Crime, with whom the slogan “A Christie for Christmas” was indelibly linked, and whose characters (such as Hercule Poirot) still shine brightly.
Christie was 79 when Hallowe’en Party came out in November of ’69. (I remember the skull-cum-apple illustration on my mother’s later paperback copy.) Even though it’s far from being one of her best, it’s still some feat.
Agatha and her publisher also earn brownie points for preserving the apostrophe in Hallowe’en – something almost as extinct now as bricks-and-mortar bank branch-offices. On the plus side, you don’t see so much arsenic and cyanide lying around – temptingly – in pantries, so change and the passage of time isn’t all bad.
The book, by the way, cost 25 shillings, though the jacket covered all the bases by also carrying the figure of £1.25, in preparation for decimalisation 14 or so months later.
While we’re on the subject of murders most foul, 1969 also gave us Ruth Rendell’s fourth Inspector Wexford yarn. In The Best Man to Die, a stockbroker is linked to the murder of a lorry driver. The author, who for a long time lived at Groton, near Hadleigh, later became Baroness Rendell of Babergh. She died in 2015.
There are a lot of people who “discovered” Margaret Atwood only in 2017, thanks to the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. They might be surprised to learn the Canadian author’s first novel came out in 1969 – The Edible Woman is considered a social satire of American consumerism. Not much has changed...
The year also brought Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, a decade after the similarly-autobiographical Cider with Rosie. Lee leaves the Cotswolds, walks (!) to London to play the violin and toil on a building site, and then leaves for Spain.
Other famous literary names writing at a high level five decades ago included Daphne du Maurier. Her novel The House on the Strand was about a man who agrees to test a drug invented by his biophysicist friend. It allows him to slip back to 14th Century Cornwall.
Graham Greene published Travels With My Aunt: the story of the transformation of a staid, retired, bank manager whose life takes an adventurous turn when he goes travelling with lively Aunt Augusta.
There was Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, too – a black-comedy satire about war.
In fact, everywhere we turned in the last year of the 1960s was a book whose title and author remain lodged in our collective psyche.
Henri Charrière was a convicted murderer (though he denied committing the crime) imprisoned in the penal colony of French Guiana. In the novel, inmate Papillon escapes jail. (It’s not clear exactly how much of it is drawn from the writer’s life and how much is “borrowed”.)
In 1973 it was turned into a film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.
John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, his third published novel, was another work adapted for the big screen (in 1981, starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons). The historical story is about the bumpy love affair between an ex-governess and an amateur naturalist.
And to continue the run of filmed fiction, there was Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. It introduced us to Vito Corleone’s New York-based crime family and its operations in the decade after the Second World War, as well as painting a picture of Vito’s life from boyhood. Along the way it planted in the public soundscape Italian words such as omertà (the vow of silence) and Cosa Nostra (the Sicilian mafia).
Fiction seems to have dominated, but we mustn’t forget works such as Lady Antonia Fraser’s ground-breaking biography Mary Queen of Scots. It became an international bestseller and broke records for sales of books about female historical figures.
Also on the academic side was Desmond Morris’s follow-up to The Naked Ape. The Human Zoo: A Zoologist’s Study of the Urban Animal also examined how humans’ biological nature influences our cultures.
There were powerful first-person accounts, too – not least the first of Maya Angelou’s seven autobiographies. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings covered her troubled life up to the time she was 17.
Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness was another book no reader would forget.
He told how in 1943, while a concentration camp inmate, he was sent to the bedside of a dying Nazi soldier who sought forgiveness from a Jew for his actions – dreadful actions. Put yourself in Simon’s shoes and decide what you would have done.
The 12 months of 1969 also saw the publication of:
* Michael Crichton’s thriller The Andromeda Strain, about the outbreak in America of a deadly extra-terrestrial micro-organism
* Angela Carter’s post-apocalyptic Heroes and Villains
* PG Wodehouse’s comic novel A Pelican at Blandings
* Alistair MacLean’s drug-crime thriller Puppet on a Chain
* Kingsley Amis’s ghostly/comic/serious The Green Man, about a publican’s crumbling life
* Paul Gallico’s disaster-at-sea tale The Poseidon Adventure (another that spawned a film)
* A Dick Francis racing thriller, Enquiry
* Flashman – first of George MacDonald Fraser’s The Flashman Papers collection, about the savage bully from Tom Brown’s School Days who’s expelled from Rugby School and goes on to be a coward and cheat as a soldier, and a scoundrel with women
* Melvyn “South Bank Show” Bragg’s The Hired Man – first novel in his Cumbrian trilogy
* Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City – last of five books in her The Children of Violence series. The story is about Britain fracturing after the Second World War… and entering a third global conflict
The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle – reckoned to have sold well in excess of 30million copies over the years.
The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo: Judy Blume’s first published work – about middle-child Freddy who feels a bit overlooked.
Of their time?
The Stud: The second novel by Jackie Collins (Joan Collins’s sister) after The World Is Full of Married Men. Sex, money and power. Barbara Cartland, doyenne of British romantic novelists, dismissed it as filthy, disgusting and unnecessary. But it sold like the proverbial hot cakes and was later turned into a film, starring Joan
* The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics: Edited and illustrated by Alan Aldridge, this featured the words to many Beatles songs, complemented by art from a range of creatives including David Bailey, Mel Calman, Suffolk-born Michael Foreman, David Hockney and Ronald Searle. The band, of course, was barely holding together that year, and would break up in 1970
* The Love Machine: About a ruthless network TV executive and the women who adore him. The second novel from Valley of the Dolls writer Jacqueline Susann. New York Times reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt called it “a kernel of an idea... exploded into bite-sized nothingness”
The last word: Writers we lost
Richmal Crompton: Died at 78, in Kent. Wrote Just William stories about high-energy mischievous schoolboy
John Wyndham: Aged 68. Works include sci-fi thrillers The Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos
Jack Kerouac: ‘Beat generation’ writer and poet. Aged 47