Intimate History

A grand history and an elegiac new film explore Britain’s recent, and irrecoverable, past.
John Chillingworth/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

With Family Britain, David Kynaston has finished the second volume of his multipart chronicle of the British people from 1945 to 1979, called Tales of a New Jerusalem. I’ve already reviewed the first volume, Austerity Britain , so I’ll just say: Kynaston has again written a masterpiece. More vividly and profoundly than any other historical work I’ve read, Tales of a New Jerusalem captures the rhythms and texture of everyday life and the collective experience of a nation. At once fine-grained and panoramic, witty and plangent, the books masterfully shift focus from deliberations in Whitehall to gossip in the back garden, from sweeping social changes to the hilarious but sad routine—the misguided attempts to please, the self-effacing apologies, the miscues—of a Cheshire family’s teatime. Anyone with a historical or sociological imagination and anyone attuned to the interplay of public and domestic life should read these books (this includes those many women, devoted readers of, say, Alice Munro and Marilynne Robinson, who tend to leave the history and public-affairs tomes to the men).

And anyone with even the slightest interest in Britain or in film should see Terence Davies’s documentary Of Time and the City, whose coincidental release makes the publication of Kynaston’s new volume all the more miraculous. The movie, a tour de force that probes the same historical period and many of the same themes, and takes a comparably nuanced view of the past, was probably the most warmly received premiere at Cannes last year; it has won Best Non-Fiction Film of 2009 from the New York Film Critics Circle and is included on a host of the year’s 10-best lists, including those of Time, New York, and The New York Times’s A. O. Scott.

Video: Benjamin Schwarz comments on scenes from Terence Davies’s nostalgic new documentary

Davies, along with Mike Leigh, is probably Britain’s most celebrated auteur. He is certainly the most uncompromising: in 34 years, he has made only eight movies. In a trilogy of short films (Children, Madonna and Child, Death and Transfiguration) made in the late 1970s and early ’80s, and in the ravishingly filmed features Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988; it won the International Critics Prize at Cannes that year) and The Long Day Closes (1992), he wove a fictional tapestry based on his boyhood and youth in a tightly bound working-class Liverpool neighborhood in the 1940s and ’50s. He depicted a version of his scarred but curiously often blissful family life: nine siblings (three of whom died in infancy), a drained and loving mother, and a tortured, violent-tempered father who died when Davies was 6; his burgeoning homosexuality and struggle with his Catholic faith; the solace and rapture that the cinema bestowed on him. The Long Day Closes brilliantly captures both the communal joy of picture-going (see also Davies’s reminiscences quoted in Family Britain) and its romantic, fecund solitude. “In the darkness at the movies,” as Pauline Kael put it, “where nothing is asked of us and we are left alone, the liberation from duty and constraint allows us to develop our own aesthetic responses.”

After a detour into literary adaptation (The Neon Bible in 1995 and The House of Mirth in 2000), Davies has returned to Liverpool with this documentary about the city from 1945 to the early 1970s, the period from his birth to his departure. As that time span indicates, Of Time and the City is less about the city than about the filmmaker’s memory of it; in this way, it resembles another mesmerizing quasi-documentary of a great provincial metropolis by another artistically eccentric director—Guy Maddin’s hallucinatory, lurid, wistful My Winnipeg. (It resembles as well Annie Dillard’s homage to Pittsburgh, the book An American Childhood.) Like Maddin’s, this is a layered work. Davies punctuates his collage of exquisitely selected archival footage and a few contemporary scenes shot in crisp digital photography with a sound track of extraordinary aptness and variety: Handel, Benny Goodman, Brahms, Salvador Bacarisse, the Spinners, Mahler, Peggy Lee. He overlays all with his lyrical, sardonic narration, delivered in a voice that ranges from plummy to clipped to bombastic to hushed-urgent.

The narration itself marries Davies’s seemingly stream-of-consciousness reminiscences and observations with quotations, mostly unattributed and largely from English poetry: Housman, Shelley, Walter Raleigh, and, foremost, T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Unusually, Davies combines a keen cinematic intelligence with an equally refined musical and literary fluency. “What truly indicates excellent knowledge,” Walter Bagehot understood, “is the habit of constant, sudden, and almost unconscious allusion, which implies familiarity, for it can arise from that alone.”

Never have slums looked more beautiful than in Of Time and the City. In dreamy footage from the 1950s of the laboring classes’ shabby 19th-century back-to-backs—two rooms down and two up, kitchen papered in newsprint—on severe, narrow, treeless streets, the squalor is plain. But joyous children (and their dogs) are everywhere: tearing through the maze of alleys, clomping through puddles, singing with delight in their cheap, tidy school clothes in their cement (again treeless) schoolyards, and playing in grimy streets under the watchful eyes of worn-out mothers who sit on their well-scrubbed front steps in their threadbare frocks. Though tatty, these neighborhoods were what would now be called, somewhat patronizingly, “intact communities.”

Davies’s movie is a proudly class-conscious paean to working-class grit. Scenes of brawny laborers young and old working as one as they heave steel cables, and women scrubbing the week’s wash in giant public outdoor tubs (conditions that look more Third World than 1950s England) are accompanied by liturgical music that all but sanctifies the toil. It’s also a tribute to working-class respectability: “queuing modestly for modest entertainment”; the sports heroes and heroines who, Davies notes in a tone progressing from the admiring to the acidic, “knew how to win and lose with grace and never to punch the air in victory.” Concomitantly, the film is a rhapsody to working-class domesticity. Davies summons up memories of toast and cocoa after a long day’s blissful outing to the seashore, and,

on Christmas Eve, pork roasting in the oven, the parlor cleaned, with fruit along the sideboard: a pound of apples, tangerines in tissue paper, a bowl of nuts, and our annual, exotic pomegranate.

He is defiantly class-proud and republican—he accompanies footage of Elizabeth II’s coronation and her marriage (“the Betty Windsor Show,” he notes, was played while the stars’ subjects occupied “some of the worst slums in Europe”) with Willem de Kooning’s observation that “the trouble with being poor is that it takes up all your time,” to which Davies mordantly adds: “The trouble with being rich is that it takes up everyone else’s.” And this gay, stridently atheist art-house director is just as defiantly conservative. Repeatedly he reveals a lost world that was, by his lights, better. The contrast between footage of the neatly dressed, well-mannered proletariat of his youth and the pasty, slatternly, slack-jawed, pub-crawling consumers who throng present-day Liverpool’s outdoor malls on Saturday nights couldn’t be plainer. As a lover of mid-20th-century popular culture, Davies knows that the rise of Liverpool’s most famous sons, the Beatles, meant the death of the “witty lyric and the well-crafted love song” and signaled the eventual triumph of a mindless mass culture (his scorn of the Fab Four matches that which he heaps on the royals).

Although no contradiction really exists between a class-based political radicalism and a cultural conservatism (Davies seems securely in the Tory radical tradition of William Cobbett and Orwell—and also part of the anti-counterculture socialism of Eric Hobsbawm, for that matter), Davies’s aching for the past nonetheless engenders an irreconcilable tension in this film. His “whole world,” Davies has said in an interview, was his neighborhood, the Church, his family, and the movies. But not only can he not summon back that world, it would spurn him if he could—which may be part of the reason why Davies, who says he is celibate, acknowledges his sexuality even as he resents it. Brilliant and driven, Davies left school at 15 and taught himself film and theater history while working as a clerk in a Liverpool shipping office, before enrolling in drama school at age 27. He has benefited from a new world—consumer-oriented, anarchic in its manners and morals, stratified more by ability and education than by class—that he largely despises. Of Time and the City is frequently described as “nostalgic,” and while that word fits the filmmaker’s yearning for an irrecoverable past, it doesn’t convey his profound ambivalence toward that past, his appreciation that “we love the place we hate, then we hate the place we love. We leave the place we love, then spend a lifetime trying to regain it.” In this way, Davies shares Kynaston’s insight, unsettling to both progressives and reactionaries, that, as I pointed out in reviewing Austerity Britain, the past was a better place for being a worse place: that the better grew out of the worse, the worse out of the better.

Presented by

Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic’s literary editor and national editor.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In