I’ve embarked upon the history of my time.  David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain is the first in a planned history of post-war Britain that begins on VE Day in 1945 and will finally close in 1979 with the election of Margaret Thatcher. I was born in 1948, so Kynaston’s remarkable project almost exactly mirrors the years of my birth, schooling, university student life, and entry into the workforce as a college teacher in the 1970s. Kynaston is a contemporary, born in 1951, the year in which this first volume ends.

Reading Austerity Britain is quite different to reading more conventional histories of a particular period.  Although Kynaston deals with the full range of topics you might expect from a social or political history, he is less concerned with the political manoeuvrings between or within parties than with trying to capture the feel of daily life as experienced by individuals of all social classes, drawing upon sources, many of which give voice to the anonymous majority who go unrecorded by the histories.

V.E Day celebrations
V.E Day celebrations

The range of sources that Kynaston draws upon has unusual breadth: personal diaries and journals, newspapers, novels, social surveys, and above all, the huge Mass Observation archive of material about everyday life in Britain compiled between the late 1930s and the early 1950s. The gripping opening chapter – an impressionistic account of VE Day, Tuesday 8 May 1945 – is almost entirely derived from the reports of Mass Observation investigators who mingled with the celebrating crowds or from personal diaries (in Liverpool, Beryl Bainbridge’s middle-class father gives a shilling to a busker in the street, shaking his hand ‘like they were equals’; her mother sends him to the Gents ‘to wash off the germs’). By utilising such sources, Kynaston gives his history a much more convincing sense of the warp and weft of the times, and of life as it was lived by ordinary folk. Politics, economics, industrial relations, and foreign policy are here, but often viewed through the eyes of men and women, whether working class or middle class. And alongside such routine topics of period histories there is a wealth of memory-inducing material recalling food, fashion, sport, popular music, radio, early television, books (high, middle and lowbrow, as well as children’s), sex, housing, leisure and holidays.

The Sad Story of Henry

‘The Sad Story of Henry’: bricked up by the Fat Controller for going on strike

For example, Kynaston records that in May 1945 two books were published ‘that in time would fuel a nostalgia industry: Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (early reviews dominated by perceptions of the novel’s snobbishness) and the Rev. W Awdry’s The Three Railway Engines.’  The latter book was published by Edmund Ward, a fine art printer in Leicester who was, according to Awdry, ‘appalled at the lack of good quality literature for children available in the shops’.

Already I’m getting a feel for the world I knew in childhood.  Like most boys of my generation, the Thomas the Tank Engine books were soaked into my conciousness – first read aloud to me, and then, having learned to read, pored over again and again.  That first book must have been especially formative, I now think.  I felt very sorry for Henry, bricked up inside a tunnel in his ‘Sad Story’ by the pompous fat controller in top hat and tails.  I don’t think Awdry was a Marxist, but a small seed of class conciousness was sown there.

In fact, as Kynaston states in this fine passage at the close of chapter 2, Britain in 1945 was a deeply conservative place:

Britain in 1945. A land of orderly queues, hat-doffing men walking on the outside, seats given up to the elderly, no swearing in front of women and children, censored books, censored films, censored plays, infinite repression of desires. Divorce for most an unthinkable social disgrace, marriage too often a lifetime sentence. … Even the happier marriages seldom companionable, with husbands and wives living in separate, self-contained  spheres, the husband often not telling the wife how much he had earned. And despite women working in wartime jobs, few quarrelling with the assumption that the two sexes were fundamentally different from each other. Children in the street ticked off by strangers, children in the street kept an eye on by strangers, children at home rarely consulted, children stopping being children when they left school at 14 and got a job. A land of hierarchical social assumptions, of accent and dress as giveaways to class, of Irish jokes and casually derogatory references to Jews and niggers. Expectations low and limited but anyone in or on the fringes of the middle class hoping for ‘a job for life’ and comforted by the myth that the working class kept their coal in the bath. A pride in Britain, which had stood alone, a pride even in ‘Made in Britain’. A deep satisfaction with our own idiosyncratic, non-metric units of distance, weight, temperature, money: the bob, the tanner, the threepenny Joey. A sense of history, however nugatory the knowledge of that history. A land in which authority was respected? Or rather, accepted? Yes, perhaps the latter, co-existing with the necessary safety valve of copious everyday grumbling. A land of domestic hobbies and domestic pets. The story of Churchill in the Blitz driving through a London slum on a Friday evening – seeing a long queue outside a shop – stopping the car – sending his detective to find out what this shortage was – the answer: birdseed. Turning the cuffs, elbow patches on jackets, sheets sides to middle. A deeply conservative land.

Of course, there is plenty about class – class divisions and class conciousness – in this history.  The joy of  reading Kynaston is that, because of the unconventional sources he has drawn upon, we get gems like this, from the diary of the theatre critic James Agate, written after hearing ‘the appalling news’ of the Labour landslide in the general election:

I rang up the head waiter at one of my favourite restaurants and said, ‘Listen to me carefully, Paul. I am quite willing that in future you address me as “comrade” or “fellow-worker”, and chuck the food at me in the manner of Socialists to their kind. But that doesn’t start until tomorrow morning. Tonight I am bringing two friends with the intention that we may together eat our last meal as gentlemen. There will be a magnum of champagne, and the best food your restaurant can provide. You, Paul, will behave with your wonted obsequiousness. The sommelier, the table waiter, and the commis waiter will smirk and cringe in the usual way. From tomorrow you will get no more tips. Tonight you will be tipped royally.’ The head waiter said, ‘Bien, m’sieu.’ That was at a quarter-past six. At a quarter-past nine I arrived and was escorted by bowing menials to my table, where I found the magnum standing in its bucket and three plates each containing two small slices of spam!

Perhaps the most revealing detail, as Kynaston observes, was Agate’s rhetorical question: ‘Who would have thought a head waiter to have so much wit in him?’

Among the many memory-teasers that lie in wait in Kynaston’s text is the information that on 16 September 1945 the Wilfred Pickles quiz show Have a Go! was broadcast for the first time.  As a kid in the 1950s, there was no television and the evenings would be spent listening to popular radio shows like Have a Go! (In fact, I don’t recall the radio ever being turned off).  Kynaston notes that Have a Go! was ‘radio’s first real vehicle for ordinary working class voices to be heard.’  Pickles himself – born in Yorkshire and proud of it, but raised in Southport – had been, during the war, the first BBC newsreader allowed on the air with a regional accent. As a child growing up near Manchester here was something very homely and familiar about his voice – and those of the show’s contestants. Homely, too, were the show’s catchphrases: ‘How do, how are yer?’, ‘Are yer courtin’?’, ‘What’s on the table, Mabel?’, ‘Give ‘im the money, Mabel!’, and the show’s theme song:

Have a go, Joe, come on and have a go
You can’t lose owt
It costs you nowt
To make yourself some dough.
So hurry up and join us
Don’t be shy and don’t be slow
Come on Joe, have a go!

If the working class contestants of what became the most popular radio show of the fifties were keen to have a go, they were, suggests Kynaston, less keen on having a go at running the newly-nationalised industries. He notes that, down the years, the left has regarded the nationalisation programme of the 1945 Labour government as a missed opportunity – that is, a golden opportunity missed to introduce a meaningful form of workers’ control.  It’s a viewpoint epitomised by the Ken Loach film, The Spirit of ’45 from a few years back.  In Austerity Britain, Kynaston presents a much more sceptical view of the 1945 Labour government.  As far as workers’ control of the nationalised industries is concerned, he records that in a speech in 1946 Stafford Cripps stated that, ‘there is not as yet a very large number of workers in Britain capable of taking over large enterprises’. If this can be passed off as the patrician sentiments of an upper-class socialist, Kynaston adds that neither Aneurin Bevan nor, even more tellingly, the leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers were interested. (The NUM men stated firmly that ‘administration was not their affair’).

1945 Industry must serve Labour poster

1945 Labour election poster: ‘Industry must serve the people’

Although this is not the kind of history with a clearly-defined thesis, there is no doubt that Kynaston exhibits a pretty sceptical attitude towards those that he calls ‘activators’ in 1940s Britain – politicians, but also planners, and the leftist intelligentsia who were ‘readers of Penguin Specials’.  This undercurrent of querulousness about the Labour government and its acolytes was the subject of the only critical review of Austerity Britain that I have come across, written by Ross McKibbin for the London Review of Books:

The argument is announced at the beginning. The book, Kynaston writes, is about the ‘overlaps and mismatches’ between the hopes and expectations of policy makers and those of ordinary British people. These mismatches ‘would be fundamental to the playing out of the next three or more decades’. The policy makers are what he calls the ‘activators’ who seek a New Jerusalem: his projected sequence is to be called ‘Tales of a New Jerusalem’. As well as policy makers, these activators are, in Kynaston’s slightly pejorative description, ‘the planners, the intelligentsia, the readers of Penguin Specials, everyone with an occupational or emotional stake in “the condition of the people”’. We are clearly in Correlli Barnett country here. Barnett is the historian most hostile to the New Jerusalemers. In his view they bear much of the responsibility for Britain’s postwar decline, and he has argued this trenchantly. Kynaston’s activators bear a strong family resemblance to the New Jerusalemers, though his treatment of them and of the political elite generally is more measured than Barnett’s. Their arguments, however, have the same implication, if a different focus. Whereas Barnett believes Britain’s comparative failure after the Second World War was primarily the responsibility of the political and economic elites, a result of their cultural training and their refusal to see the reality of Britain’s new position in the world, Kynaston believes that the ‘problem’ lies in the flawed relationship between the elites and ordinary people. ‘It hardly took a Nostradamus,’ he writes, ‘to see that the outriders for a New Jerusalem – a vision predicated on an active, informed, classless, progressively minded citizenship – were going to have their work cut out.’ Ordinary people are depicted as introverted, private and individualist. A culture ‘still holding its own was that of the improving, intensely respectable, wanting-no-hand-outs working class’, Kynaston says, but he also portrays them as pessimistic, apolitical and expecting little of life. Most of them doubted they ever would see the New Jerusalem.

In arguing this Kynaston goes along with the dominant view of the 1940s. The ‘social-democratic’ idea of that decade, which emphasised patriotic solidarity, democratic egalitarianism, political radicalisation and an optimistic assumption that the future could be made better by the actions of the state, is unfashionable. Now what is emphasised is the ambiguity of the whole business: the fragility of wartime solidarity, the weakness of both political commitment and radicalisation, the popular suspicion of the state and the political class, the continued sense of helplessness felt by many people. I am sceptical of the full-blown version of this argument. Some of it is almost certainly true but there is too much evidence against other aspects. There was political radicalisation during the Second World War, even if the expression of grievance was often muddled. And what is remarkable about popular attitudes to the Attlee government – an activators’ government par excellence – is how favourable they remained despite the genuine hardships it visited on the nation. Furthermore, the turnout at the general election of 1950 – 84 per cent – does not suggest a politically disengaged electorate. Kynaston himself points out how intently the results of the 1950 election were followed.

Ross McKibbin sums up his case by suggesting that Kynaston ‘seems to want to debunk a myth of just how good the 1945 Labour government was’. Kynaston’s strongest criticisms are directed towards industrial plans, town planning and suspicion of private enterprise, while discussing Labour’s education policies he talks of a ‘corrosive, long-running national saga’ getting under way in England and Wales.  This is in relation to 1945-51 Labour government’s preference for opening up access to grammar schools, rather than to commit to comprehensive schools (then called ‘multilaterals) or, least of all, the abolition of public schools.  On ‘that great educational ‘might-have-been’, he makes this comment:

Labour was in with a thumping majority, a bewildered upper class had not yet had time to regroup, and there would never be a more plausible moment for seeking to abolish what was arguably the single most important source of political, social and economic privilege.

Tellingly, he records that Attlee was ex-public school (Haileybury, formerly the East India College, near Hertford).  In 1946, Attlee returned to his old school to make a speech in which, according to a newspaper report, ‘he saw no reason for thinking that the public schools would disappear.  He thought the great traditions would carry on, and they might even be extended’.  Meanwhile, Ellen Wilkinson, the Education Minister, born into a poor but ambitious family in the Ardwick district of Manchester (where my own father grew up), told the 1946 party conference that ‘I was born into a working class home and I had to fight my own way through to university’.  In spite of her own experience – or perhaps because of it – her vision was of  ‘a new generation of bright, self-motivated, self-improving working-class children going to the traditionally elite, middle-class grammar schools’.  Which, I guess, includes people like me.

Elsewhere, in a passage that typifies the way in which Kynaston continually moves from the general to the particular, he describes the experience of three of the first cohort of working class children to benefit from the 1944 Butler Education Act:

The summer of 1947 was dramatic and expectant for Glenda Jackson. A labourer’s daughter, growing up in Hoylake, she took her 11 plus – only to find that on the day of the results there was a mix-up, involving a long, dreadful period at her girls’ primary school being given pitying looks by everyone while those who had passed received multiple congratulations. Eventually, on returning home, she found and read the letter announcing that she had passed. ‘I saw adults whom I had known all my life change their attitude to me twice in the space of a very small time,’ she recalled. ‘Contemptible.’

That autumn, Jackson started at West Kirby Grammar School for Girls, where the expensive, distinctly middle-class uniform requirements included one’s own gym outfit, hockey stick and tennis racquet. Albert Finney, a bookmaker’s son from Salford and born on the same day as Jackson, also started at grammar school then, as did Bill Wyman, in his case at Beckenham and Penge Grammar School. ‘Ninety per cent came from upper- or middle-class homes in the expensive parts of suburban Kent,’ Wyman remembered. ‘Penge, my home, was definitely the wrong side of the tracks. I was inhibited by what other  kids called my ‘working-class’ accent, and a sense of inferiority prevented me from inviting them to my small and spartan home.’ Meanwhile, ‘local kids in Penge threw bricks at me, knocking my grammar-school blazer and cap (which my father could ill afford to buy).’ Altogether, it was ‘a no-win situation’, not least because ‘if I tried “talking posh” as they called it when I got home, I was mocked by everyone around me’.

Oswald Mosley, 1 May 1948 anti-Communist rally in Dalston, East London

Oswald Mosley addressing an anti-Communist rally in Dalston, East London on 1 May 1948

‘The summer of 1948’, writes Kynaston, ‘was a defining moment in the centuries-old story of immigration to Britain’. He notes that for many years the most widely stigmatised ‘others’ in British society had been the Jews (and adds that, remarkably and even after the newsreels had shown the scenes at the liberation of Auschwitz, the fascist Oswald Mosley was still standing on street corners in the East End shouting, ‘Down with the Jews.  Burn the synagogues!) before describing the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury on Tuesday 22 June that year – the very same day that a group of Labour MPs sent a petition to Attlee which urged that the government should ‘by legislation if necessary, control immigration in the political, social, economic and fiscal interests of our people’.  The Pathe newsreel in the cinemas that week featured interviews with those disembarking at Tilbury, including the calypso singer, Lord Kitchener, performing his latest song, composed on the boat over: ‘London is the place for me … I’m glad to know my mother country.’

Austerity Britain is the sort of book which leaves odd images in your memory.  For example, in July 1948 the Olympics came to London; Kynaston emerges from the archives with the fact that Jack Dearlove, the cox of the British rowing team (who would go on to win a silver medal) was banned from the opening ceremony parade before Princess Margaret for being unsightly: he had lost a leg as a boy. Later, Kynaston reminded me that, growing up in the fifties, there was a constant fear of polio.  In 1949, he records, around 6,000 people, most of them younf, were struck down by the disease – in 657 cases fatally.  He continues:

Ian Dury was seven when in August he contracted it in the open-air swimming pool at Southend: ‘I then went to my granny’s in Cornwall for a couple of week’s holiday, and it developed.  I spent six weeks in an isolation hospital in Truro because I was infectious.  I was encased in plaster, both arms and both legs. My mum came down on the milk train and they said I was going to die but I rallied round after six moths in the Royal Cornish Infirmary. They took me back to Essex on a stretcher’.

Listen with Mother

Listen with Mother

For children generally, there were happier developments.  In 1949, Enid Blyton’s latest creation, hard on the heels of the Secret Seven, was the first of the Noddy series, while on the third Monday of 1950, at 1:45 pm on the Light Programme, were first heard the words that echoed through our childhood: ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.’ BBC audience research soon reported that Listen with Mother ‘is being received with enthusiasm by little children’.

Kynaston makes very effective use of both the Mass Observation reports and other social surveys to reveal the extent of the conservatism – in both attitude and behaviour – of the British people at this time.  Most were still unfavourably inclined towards sex before marriage and divorce, though as one report observed – largely on the basis of the illegitimacy statistics – ‘there is ample evidence that at least one person in three, probably more, has intercourse either before or outside marriage’.

There remained solid support for the death penalty, perhaps reinforced by lurid murder trials such as those of Timothy Evans, accused of murdering his pregnant wife and one-year old daughter at 10 Rillington Place in Ladbroke Grove, and a Liverpool gangster called George Kelly, sentenced to death for murdering the manager of a cinema in Wavertree. Both would, much later, prove to be notorious miscarriages of justice, decades after both men had been hanged.

Another aspect of social conservatism that Kynaston highlights was attitudes towards women. He notes that 88 per cent of women working for wages in 1901 had been in occupations dominated by women.  By 1951 the proportion was virtually unchanged at 86 per cent: ‘Teachers, nurses, clerical workers, cleaners, waitresses, shop assistants, barmaids, textile-factory hands – these were typical female members of the workforce, often with not a man in sight’. In 1951, the BBC announced that it would not be appropriate for radio news bulletins to be read by women: ‘Experience has shown that a large number of people do not like the news of momentous or serious events to be read by the female voice’ was the official explanation.

Hardman, Ark Royal, Birkenhead, 1950

E. Chambré Hardman, Ark Royal, Birkenhead, 1950

Britain in 1950 was still an overwhelmingly industrial economy: the world’s biggest shipbuilder, Europe’s leading exporter of coal, steel, cars and textiles, and the producer of a quarter of the world’s manufactured goods. Practically everything people had in their home was British made. A chapter entitled ‘A Negative of Snowflakes’, draws on contemporary sources that paint a grim picture of the consequences of industrialization: a country of soot-begrimed buildings wreathed in smoke from steam trains, factories and domestic coal fires.  Take this ‘enticing travelogue’ the author found in a West Midland planning study:

Starting from Birmingham’s New Street Station, the train runs between the old central factory quarter and streets of huddled dwellings, past a vista of Middle Ring industrial buildings, by Monument Lane and on to the edge of Birmingham. Here, without a break, begins the Smethwick industrial zone, with its jumble of roads, railways and canals. Running alongside the canal bank, the train enters the Black Country leaving the congested industry of Smethwick for the waste lands left derelict by earlier industries. Canal junction and old spoilbanks lie north of the line and to the south lies Oldbury, the first Black Country town. A steel plant shows the persistence of heavy industry in the middle of the Conurbation. The River Tame winds through a landscape of slagheaps and pitmounds. Open land stretches towards Rowley Regis. Houses advance across land evacuated by industry. Across the canal the carriage window still looks on to tracks of derelict land, with a brickworks marking the midway point. Close by, this desolation forms the setting of a new housing estate. The train halts at Dudley Port Station, a Black Country railway centre. Industrial buildings stand among heaps of ash, spoil and scrap. Roads, railway and canals overlap at Tipton and straighten to cut through terrace streets and new municipal housing as far as Tipton Station. Just beyond, new industry is using old derelict land across the line opposite the township of Tipton Green, and tips are filling the open space between three embankments. Through Coseley the train passes the backyards of houses and factories, and a stretch of loosely knit  development, before reaching the extensive steel plant and rolling mills at Spring Vale, Bilston. Across the line is Rough Hills, a slum built on and among slag heaps. As the chimneys of Bilston recede, the train enters the fringe of Wolverhampton, from which the zone of increasingly older and denser industrial building reaches into the heart of the town, 14 miles from New Street.

Bert Hardy, Newcastle Street, 1950

Bert Hardy, Newcastle Street, 1950

That brings to mind similar train journeys across northern urban landscapes in the sixties and seventies. In Picture Post, the folk singer A L  Lloyd described  making his way down the Tyne in 1950: ‘At Newcastle the smoke blows over the cliffs of brickwork that tower above the black river, and the soot falls like a negative of snowflakes on the washing strung across the ravines. From there to the river mouth, the traveller walks along a Plutonian shore, among the rubbish heaps and the row-town rows whose little houses are overcast by the towering machinery of the shipyards’.

Britain’s coal consumption was rising still, after two centuries of burning, and pollution was increasing. It was in this context, Kynaston discovers, that EF Schumacher, an economist who had left Germany in 1937, became economic adviser to the National Coal Board. He became convinced that ever-increasing levels of fuel consumption and rising growth rates were unsustainable, and argue so publicly. The author of Small Is Beautiful, published in 1973, was, writes Kynaston, ‘a prophet without honour’ (he still is, probably).

One of the first films I can recall watching was The Titfield Thunderbolt, released in 1953.  As Schumacher would do two decades later, the film made the case ‘explicitly against unsentimental, bottom-line materialism and modernisation’, writes Kynaston:

The film tells the humorous, heart-warming, defiantly emotive story of how the inhabitants of a village come together to save their branch line (the oldest in the world) from the attempt by both British Railways and the local bus company (Pearce & Crump) to have it closed down. ‘Don’t you realise you’re condemning your village to death?’ one of the campaigners, the local squire, asks passionately at a public meeting. ‘Open it up to buses and lorries and what’s it going to be like in five years’ time? Our lanes will be concrete roads, our houses will have numbers instead of names, there’ll be traffic lights and zebra crossings.’ The story’s ending is predictably happy – as it was in a remarkably similar film that Ealing Studios made later that year. This time the object to be saved was a small cargo boat pottering about the Clyde, with an American tycoon cast in the role of the bad guy in its struggle for survival. The message by the end was the simple and uplifting one that loyalty and obligations are more important than mere money. The film and the boat shared the same name: The Maggie.

Poster advertising The Titfield Thunderbolt film 1952

Poster advertising ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’, 1952

Kynaston has a knack for finding prescient sources.  Concluding a chapter on the problems facing the coal industry after nationalization, he gives us this passage in which Arthur Scargill recalled his early days at Woolley Colliery near Barnsley:

Melson, the one-eyed foreman, used to stalk up and down a sort of raised gantry in the screening plant. He was just like Captain Bligh glaring at his crew. We were picking bits of stone and rock out of the coal as it passed us on conveyor belts. The place was so full of dust you could barely see your hands, and so noisy you had to use sign language. When it came to snap time, your lips were coated in black dust. You had to wash them before you could eat your snap [in his case a bottle of water and jam sandwiches] . . .There were two sorts of people in the section: us, and disabled rejects of society. I saw men with one arm and one leg, men crippled and mentally retarded. I saw people who should never have been working, having to work to live. It probably sounds corny, but on that first day I promised myself I would try one day to get things changed.’

Eagle comic 1950

Eagle comic, September 1950

On 14 April 1950, another icon of fifties childhood made its appearance: Eagle, the comic for boys (Girl followed a year later).  Kynaston describes Eagle as ‘a comic for boys of middle England’ and adds, ‘no doubt a child’d choice in the end usually came down to a mixture of social class and parental input’. Dead right: my own parents would probably have preferred that no comics at all came into the home, but tolerated Eagle.  It was OK with its shiny paper and vivid colour, but surreptitiously I sought out the much more invigorating Beano and Dandy, starring the deliciously anarchic Dennis the Menace and The Bash Street Kids.

David Kynaston’s chronicle of the years from 1945 to 1951 ends with a chapter on the appalling state of housing in Britain in those years, as revealed by the 1951 census.  Out of 12.4 million dwellings in England and Wales, it emerged that 1.9 million had three rooms or less, 4.8 million had no fixd bath, and that 2.8 million did not have exclusive access to a toilet.  Unsurprisingly, the worst conditions were concentrated in urban areas: in Salford, for example, out of 50,000 houses, the overwhelming majority had neither bath nor hot water, while the situation was even worse in Scotland, where the census revealed that a staggering 50.8% of Glasgow’s housing stock consisted of dwellings of only one or two rooms.

Planners debated the pros and cons of high-rise flats, garden suburbs and New Towns. As Minister of Health, Aneurin Bevan insisted on quality over quantity: council houses with a minimum area of 900 square feet, including bathrooms.  So desperate were many, though, that they were happy to settle for prefabs. Although 750,000 new homes had been built by September 1948, several million more were needed.

Kynaston describes at some length the intense debates that took place in this period about how best to create ‘the new Jerusalem’ – about the form of the new NHS, about how to achieve a more equitable education system, and about the best form of housing and the best way to build strong, communities.  One point he keeps returning to, however, is that the mass of the population were barely involved in such discussions. Not surprisingly, perhaps, he discovers a concern reflected among today’s opinion- makers: that most voters lacked interest in current affairs. He quotes from a 1948 report by the sociologist Pearl Jephcott, who had been working anonymously for several months in a light engineering factory in London, who had this to say about her fellow employees:

The girls’ talk hardly ranges beyond two themes, personal appearance and personal relations. The latter means fellows — mine, yours, hers. Even among the older women the only public event in the last three months which has fished folk out of the sea of personal and domestic affairs has been the Derby. What we need is some mental stimulant connected with our working life.

At the end of this sprawling, yet compelling book in which he has vividly brought back to life the foreign country that is our past, David Kynaston anticipates the change that will come in the 1950s:

It had been an extraordinarily hard six years since the end of the war – in some ways even harder than the years of the war itself. The end was at last in sight of a long, long period of more or less unremitting austerity. Few adults who had lived through the I940s would readily forgo the prospect of a little more ease, a little more comfort. A new world was slowly taking shape, but for most of these adults what mattered far more was the creation and maintenance of a safe, secure home life – in any home that could be found. ‘The Safe Way to Safety whenever and wherever infection threatens in your own home’ ran the reassuring message in the spring of 195 1 from the makers of Dettol. ‘Such deep, safe, soapy suds!’ was the unique selling proposition of New Rinso. ‘If it’s safe in water, it’s safe in Lux.’ For the children of the 1950s, there would be – for better or worse – no escape from the tough, tender, purifying embrace of family Britain.

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3 thoughts on “Austerity Britain: the way we were

  1. Hi, I want to write and say how much I love follow you blog. I’ve been reading it for over two years now and have really enjoyed everyone. There are now countless books I have read, exhibitions I have visited and new places i have explored as a result- and countless discussions i have had based upon it. So thank you and keep on sharing with us the crack in everything. David

  2. I learned most of what I “know” about post-war Britain from the novels of Angela Thirkell and Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road, so I found this review fascinating. Thirkell loves her some upper-class country families, so the view from her window was greatly distorted, but the sense of terrible deprivation that followed the end of the war is crystal clear. Thanks for sharing this review.

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