|CHRIST, IT'S BLEEDING COLD: Museum steps, Liverpool, 1946
(Photo courtesy of the E. Chambre Hardman Collection)
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.”