EDITOR’S CHOICE: A PANORAMIC NEW HISTORY BRILLIANTLY MIXES THE SEISMIC AND THE EVERYDAY
While writing his masterpiece, Portrait of an Age, the historian G. M. Young came to apprehend that “the real, central theme of History is not what happened, but what people felt about it when it was happening: in Philip Sidney’s phrase, ‘the affects, the whispering, the motions of the people.’” A historian will fulfill his promise, Young believed (he was quoting Frederic Maitland), only when “the thoughts of our forefathers, their common thoughts about common things, will have become thinkable once more.” I haven’t read a history book that comes closer to realizing Young’s ideal than David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain.
The first in a projected multivolume chronicle of the years from 1945 to 1979 called Tales of a New Jerusalem, this sparkling book—deeply and imaginatively researched, written with bounce, and informed by the wryest sensibility—charts the evolution of British society during the depleted and dingy years 1945–1951. As Britain shifted from desperate war to bankrupt peace, its Labour government set about building the first welfare state and attempting in myriad ways to uplift the country and its people, a project fraught with the painful collisions between political idealism and people’s daily lives and aspirations.
“Austerity”—a condition and set of policies dictated by the government’s need, owing to a gigantic balance-of-payments deficit with the United States, to limit consumption to wartime levels and divert labor and material to the export trade—meant a home front without a war. Food, clothing, and coal would now in some cases be even more sparingly apportioned than they had been when the war was on; the British would not go completely “off ration” until 1954. With wit and ingenuity, Kynaston mines opinion surveys, radio shows, advertising slogans, parliamentary reports, and above all letters, diaries, and memoirs to evoke the gray tinge that permeated postwar life—the shabby frocks, the sallow faces, the grubby train compartments, the dreary meals (“all winter greens and root vegetables and hamburgers made of grated potato and oatmeal and just a little meat,” the food writer Marguerite Patten recalled).
Austerity, though, was merely an underlying condition—like the weather (the winter of 1946–1947, the coldest of the century, added immeasurably to both the dismal general atmosphere and the challenges confronting the government) and the oppressive weight of the Victorian industrial environment (the massive red-brick factories and the smoke in the valleys, now all but gone and hence, Kynaston says, one of the hardest things for the historian to re-create)—that shaped the totality of the British national experience, which is the real subject of this audaciously ambitious, nearly 700-page work. Although Kynaston doesn’t say so, Orwell’s The English People and A. J. P. Taylor’s English History, 1914–1945 clearly inspired his approach. Published in 1947, Orwell’s dissection of the English national character and culture in the age of austerity was as brief, polemical, wrongheaded, and impressionistic as it was brilliant. Taylor’s supremely stylish, pioneering history chronicled affairs of state as well as the hopes, fears, and pleasures of ordinary citizens. Taylor treated those two strands in parallel; Kynaston artfully interweaves them, even as he makes clear the almost universal popular indifference to politics and policy and the “profound cultural mismatch between progressive activators and the millions acted upon.”
The result is a work that probes the personal and political clashes within the Labour Party intelligentsia—and recounts how women appropriated and adapted the New Look fashions; that analyzes labor-management relations in the British automotive industry—and traces the relationship between the decline in married women’s employment and changes in landscape design; that assesses the birth and progress of the National Health Service (a provision embraced by the women’s magazines, even those of the haute monde)—and adumbrates the impact of the hit BBC radio series Listen With Mother on a generation of children; that explores the political subculture of the miners—and discusses the extent to which the remark of one working-class wife (“he’s very good, he doesn’t bother me much”) typified married sexual relations. Throughout, Kynaston is alive to the peculiar tactile features—the “heavy coins, heavy shoes, heavy suitcases, heavy tweed coats, heavy leather footballs’’—that make this recent past a foreign country.
Sports forms one leitmotif. Kynaston, who has written two books of cricket history as well as a groundbreaking four-volume (!) history of that insular financial powerhouse, the City of London, recounts various meets, races, and matches to demonstrate the colossal, never-to-be-exceeded place that sports-watching and betting commanded in everyday life. The record-breaking attendance figures for soccer, dog races, and speedway no doubt signified the ascendancy of working-class culture in national life; the audience for cricket, which appealed especially to the middle and upper classes, also reached its apogee, and for everyone sports must have compensated for the many things that, thanks to rationing, money couldn’t buy. I wish Kynaston had more to say about the Victorian seaside resorts, the dance halls, and the pictures, all of which were also at the peak of their popularity. He fails to note, for example, that the six years he scrutinizes constitute the greatest era in British cinematic history, in which Odd Man Out, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, Black Narcissus, I Know Where I’m Going!, The Third Man, Fallen Idol, The Red Shoes, Kind Hearts and Coronets, A Matter of Life and Death, Brighton Rock, The Lavender Hill Mob, Hamlet, Passport to Pimlico, and Brief Encounter were made; of the British Film Institute’s list of the 10 best British movies, fully half were made in this period.
The author’s purview is “the characteristic activities and interests of a people,” to quote T. S. Eliot’s all-embracing definition of culture, and in offering what he calls “an intimate, multilayered, multivoiced, unsentimental portrait of a society,” Kynaston will juxtapose the news of Hiroshima with, say, the (in many corners) far more intense and animated talk of “the new ‘cold perm’!” The sum could have been a cacophonous and impressionistic mess. And, indeed, Kynaston’s narrative is constantly poised on a high-wire. He consciously tries to impart a sense of the fortuitousness and richness of the everyday, with its jumble of seismic and banal events, and he seems to relish smashing any too-neat frame the analytically inclined reader would impose on his story. For instance, whereas the period’s grubbiness and what Elizabeth David called its “unspeakably dismal meals” are all but palpable in his narrative, Kynaston also signals that the implications of austerity and rationing were very different for different classes. Again and again he reminds readers that the working class, which made up 75 percent of the country, had never had it so good: its standard of living was 10 percent higher in 1948 than a decade earlier, even as that of the middle class declined by 20 percent. And for unskilled workers and the unemployed, the mandated fairness of rationing ensured adequate food. Moreover, the drab but calculatedly nutritious rationed diet gave Britain the healthiest people in its history. In fact children ate more healthfully under rationing than they did in the 1990s—a fact “to gladden any puritan’s heart: a shortage of money and of choice was positively beneficial.”
For all its abundance and intricacy, Austerity Britain never devolves into an unfocused cut-and-paste job. Kynaston’s sense of structure and pacing is sure, his mastery of his astonishingly diverse material unfailing (see his opening set piece on VE Day). More vividly and penetratingly than any work of history I can recall, this book captures the rhythms and texture of everyday life. To read it is to enter a world, which helps explain why it became a surprise best seller in the U.K.
The voices of women—largely middle-class, usually housewives—dominate this panoramic but fine-grained portrait of the quotidian. Recurring references to the unpublished diaries of a dozen ordinary women form the backbone of the book (my favorite is that of the sunny, astute, middle-class, Labour-voting Judy Haines, who plainly relished a sweet life spent with her young children), and Kynaston discerningly draws on such works as Rising Twenty, Pearl Jephcott’s closely observed 1948 study of 100 late-adolescent girls; Mollie Panter-Downes’s cool, ironic fiction and journalism; and Carolyn Kay Steedman’s sharp reminiscence of her stroppy, Tory-voting, working-class mother, Landscape for a Good Woman. What clearly emerges from Kynaston’s book is how much more exquisitely than men women experienced daily life, acutely analyzed and assimilated that experience, and shrewdly, vividly, and precisely spoke and wrote about it. Adding to whatever innate differences may exist between the sexes’ mentalities, women’s sharper sensitivity here probably owes something to the fact that although conditions and pay in the factories were improving, women felt daily the impact of larger forces on their routines and domestic arrangements—queuing for food in a half-dozen shops, say, and assembling meals from scarce, unpalatable, and frequently bizarre ingredients (the subject of Susan Cooper’s scintillating and celebrated essay “Snoek Piquante”). Regardless, in elevating women’s everyday and inner lives—the former largely making up the latter—and scrupulously taking women’s anxieties, preoccupations, and attachments on their own terms, this is a deeply feminist work, if an unconventional and unusually nuanced one.
Kynaston’s focus on women sheds light on his broadest theme: the chasm between the intellectuals, mandarins, and planners and those who were the object of their ministrations, “the much-invoked, less often consulted … British people.” Long before its electoral victory in 1945, the Labour Party had expanded beyond the likes Aneurin Bevan—who memorably declared to his working-class comrades that “we have been the dreamers, we have been the sufferers, now we are the builders” and who promised that “the first claims upon the national product … shall be … the women, the children, and the old people”—to include an ascendant, brainy, progressive bunch. Far more bent on cultural renewal than on economic or social egalitarianism, this new group actually believed, as Deputy Prime Minister Herbert Morrison said in a phrase as quaint as it is chilling, that “part of our work in politics … must be to improve human nature.” It wanted a nation of joiners, and sought to build an active, informed, progressive-minded citizenry by means of a high-minded hodgepodge of discussion groups, amateur theatrical clubs, debating societies, and community dining halls (“very popular … in Scandinavia,” noted one Labour official by way of endorsement).
The reformers were confronted with the most unpromising clay to work with. Emerging from Kynaston’s minute examination of the everyday is the British people’s profound social conservatism: its unshakable ability to tune out all earnest discussion of politics and world affairs and stick to talk about dog races, gardens, and hemlines; its strictly limited appetite for the communal (“‘many women dislike the idea of nursery schools,’ one observer noticed; ‘they want to look after their own children’”); and its devotion to those twin entities that women defined and presided over, the home and the nuclear family.
At war’s end, Britain faced a housing crisis. German bombs had destroyed or severely damaged 750,000 houses, and virtually no new ones had been built for six years. Kynaston shows that, far more than national health insurance or the nationalization of industry, “across the country, it was on the home that most people’s hopes and concerns were really focused.” In their diaries and letters as well as in survey after survey, people made clear their strong dislikes in housing (“nothing less than a mass aversion towards the whole idea of flats,” Kynaston characterizes it) and their equally strong desire: a small suburban house with a garden. The planners and reformers would have none of it. Stridently communal, possessed of what Kynaston describes as an “almost visceral anti-suburban bias” and an accompanying conviction that “explicitly identified social virtue and cohesion in living cheek by jowl” in apartments and planned “New Towns” (innovations, Orwell noted, that would tend to break up the family), they wouldn’t let the preferences of the public vitiate their glorious designs. As one of them, the economist P. Sargent Florence, declared, the predilections of “architects and planners” should trump “the inarticulate yearnings of the average working-class housewife.” When addressing an unruly public meeting that opposed his “New Town” planning schemes designed to create “a new type of citizen,” Lewis Silkin, the minister of town and country planning, put it more bluntly: “It’s no good your jeering; it is going to be done.” Ah, the People’s Tribunes.
To a surprising extent Kynaston’s entire, intricate portrait of British society can be summed up in Orwell’s sweeping generalization: in a famous passage in The Lion and the Unicorn defining the English character (not quoted in Austerity Britain), Orwell wrote of a
characteristic which is so much a part of us that we barely notice it, and that is … the privateness of English life. We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters … All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official—the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’. The liberty of the individual is still believed in … It is the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above. The most hateful of all names in an English ear is Nosey Parker.
If there are villains in this book, they’re the progressives—Nosey Parkers with power—but Kynaston’s treatment of them is cheeky rather than hostile. And while the solid virtues of the working class emerge from his account, so do the parochialism and racial intolerance endemic to it. Indeed, his judgment is implicit but clear: Austerity Britain was a better place for being a worse place. Kynaston doesn’t shrink from an understanding that’s deeply unsettling to those who like their history, their politics, and their worldviews neat (which is to say nearly all of us): the better grew out of the worse, the worse out of the better.