In his brilliant social history of Britain David Kynaston doesn’t deal in nostalgia. Nevertheless, I can’t resist recording this moment in Family Britain when he interrupts his account of the country between 1951 and 1956 to devote a whole page simply to a list of products whose names will instantly cause time to run backwards for anyone who lived through those years:
Dab-it-off, Windolene, Dura-glit, Brasso, Brillo, Rinso, Lifebuoy, Silvikrin,
Amm-i-dent, Delrosa Rose Hip Syrup, Mr Therm, Put-U-Up, Toni Perms, hair-nets, head-scarves, Jaeger, Ladybird T-shirts, rompers, knicker elastic, cycle clips, brogues, Clark’s sandals, Start-rite (that haunting rear view of two small children setting out on life’s path), Moss Bros, tweed jackets, crests on blazers, ties as ID, saluting AA patrolmen, driving gloves, Austin Cambridge, Morris Oxford, Sunbeam Talbot, starting handles, indicator wings, Triumph, Norton, sidecars, Raleigh, Sturmey-Archer, trolley-buses, Green Line, I-Spy, Hornby Dublo, Tri-ang, Dinky, Meccano, Scalextric, Subbuteo, Sarah Jane dolls, Plasticine, Magic Robot, jumping jacks, cap guns, Capstans, Player’s Navy Cut, Senior Service, Passing Clouds, cigarette boxes, Dagenham Girl Pipers, Saturday-morning cinema, Uncle Mac, Nellie the Elephant, The Laughing Policeman, fountain pens, Quink, napkin rings, butter knives, vol-au-vents, Brown Windsor soup, sponge cakes, Welgar Shredded Wheat, Garibaldis (squashed flies), Carnation, Edam, eat up your greens, Sun-Pat, Marmite sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, semolina, shape, sucking oranges through sugar cubes, Tizer, Quosh, Kia-ora Suncrush, dandelion and burdock, Tom Thumb drops, Sherbet Fountains, Spangles, Trebor Chews, barley twists, blackjacks, fruit salads, aniseed balls, pineapple chunks, Big Chief Dream Pipe, flying saucers, traffic-light lollipops, gobstoppers. The agonising dilemma at the ice-cream van: a big one for 6d or two small ones for 3d each?
David Kynaston’s Family Britain is the second volume in a planned history of post-war Britain that began, in Austerity Britain, 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 second instalment of his history begins.
Reading Family Britain is quite different to reading more conventional histories. 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 such as Mass Observation records and personal diaries in order to give voice to the anonymous majority often unnoticed by historians.
An example of how Kynaston weaves a complex fabric of stories from a variety of sources can be seen in his account of the summer of 1955, a period when the big issues in public life were big strikes (in the coal mines, on the railways and the docks, with the government declaring a state of emergency), the conviction and hanging of Ruth Ellis for murder, and debates about the merits of the new comprehensive schools (a handful of which were opening this term). It was also the summer when ministers from the six member states of the European Coal and Steel Community met at Messina and agreed to the creation of the European Economic Community. Britain deigned only to send an observer, who left before the conference was over, saying: ‘I leave Messina happy because even if you continue meeting you will not agree; even if you agree, nothing will result; and even if something results, it will be a disaster’.
While many historians might confine their attention to those significant public events, Kynaston delves deeper. In the July heatwave, he records John Betjeman’s realisation on the streets of London that, while the women were dressed attractively in ‘cheap cotton dresses’, the men still stuck to suits and ties. Also that summer, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot opened in Soho, and Kynaston gives us the recollection of the production’s director Peter Hall that ‘on the line “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful,” a very English voice said loudly: “Hear! hear!” The headline on the Daily Mail review read: ‘THE LEFT BANK CAN KEEP IT’. Later, the production went on tour and Kynaston gives a hilarious account of the play’s reception in Blackpool.
Burrowing deeper, Kynaston tells how, two days after the Soho opening, Philip Larkin made the journey from Hull to London on a slow stopping train that he eventually transmuted into ‘The Whitsun Weddings’. Delving into personal memoirs he finds Janet Street-Porter travelling from Fulham to a holiday in Wales in a second-hand van with no windows, stopping in a lay-by near ‘somewhere called Brownhills’ for a fry-up of bacon and eggs cooked on a primus stove. Meanwhile, the 12-year old Michael Jagger has a summer job working on an American air base near Dartford where he played American football, drank Coke, and met a black cook who introduced him to rhythm and blues.
Like Austerity Britain, this volume is strong on topics such as town planning, housing, and the gradual re-emergence of consumer spending in the aftermath of war and rationing – firstly on once-rationed meat and sweet things, then on the new electrical goods beginning to make an appearance in better-off homes, such as television sets (especially after the granting of ITV franchises in 1955), washing machines and electric cookers. But a central concern of Family Britain is to explore whether the Fifties were ‘the best of times’ as the writer Ian Jack has asserted, recalling full employment, steady material progress and a widely shared sense of certainty about life.
I was a child growing up in the fifties. We walked to school, had open fires and no central heating. Sweets were a treat, not part of lunch. We played in the street with our friends and were safe, we climbed trees, skinned our knees and ripped our clothes, got into fights and nobody sued anybody. … There was no day-time TV, and we played cards and board games and TALKED to each other…
That’s a view expressed on the BBC website in 2007 as part of a ‘people’s history’ of the decade, quoted by Kynaston in a passage in which he attempts to reconcile the nostalgic view of the decade with the one that sees these years as drab, repressed and boring. They were ‘the worst of times’ for journalist Lynn Barber, when ‘the most exciting event was the advent of the Birds Eye Roast Beef Frozen Dinner For One’.
Kynaston emphasises how the spectre of World War II haunted the Fifties. Even though, by 1955, it had been over for ten years, Britain’s cities were still pock-marked with bomb sites and damaged or dilapidated housing, while meat, butter, cheese, sugar and sweets were still rationed in 1953, and war films such as The Dam Busters were cinema blockbusters.
He draws on examples from diaries and other sources to show how deference – towards the monarchy, top people, professionals, older people or the better educated – still ran deep in British society, as did restraint and uniformity, as an Indian visitor observed in 1955:
‘I heard no sound,’ he said as he watched crowds streaming quietly and in an orderly fashion along Oxford Street. He met ‘the same silence’ in pubs, restaurants and buses – a silence, a ‘dreariness of public behaviour’, utterly different from what he was used to in India. And when the English did speak, they were no less reserved, he found, with ‘their habit of tacitness, which they call understatement’.
And yet – these were the years when polite society was shaken to the core by the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll, Teddy boys, the mass demonstrations against the Suez invasion, and the shock of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. A rebellious streak was becoming more evident in that section of the British population henceforth referred to as ‘teenagers’. Their expanding wage packets and new spending patterns led commentators about a lack of parental control turning out a generation of delinquents.
Rock ‘n’ roll arrived in 1955 with Rock Around The Clock, the film starring Bill Haley and the rot really set in the following year after Elvis Presley entered the British Top 20 chart (itself a new Fifties innovation) for the first time. Kynaston records that, while on leave from National Service, Bill Perks (later Wyman) bought a 78rpm shellac record of Heartbreak Hotel and played it with the windows open ‘until it wore out’. At around the same, he calculates, John Lennon was being told by his Aunt Mimi that Elvis was fine, ‘but I don’t want him for breakfast, dinner and tea’.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of examples that lend credence to the idea of a very different kind of Britain. In Family Britain the future children’s author Jacqueline Wilson recalls being a six-year-old in Kingston-upon-Thames walking to school: ‘I liked my half-hour’s walk through the quiet suburban streets’, adding that it wasn’t unusual for children of her age to walk to school by themselves.
Meanwhile, Ken Blackmore, who grew up in a Cheshire village not far from me, remembers not only the front door of his home being left unlocked, but bikes generally being left unchained and untouched at the bus stop or the railway station. It was not until about 1957, Kynaston notes, that British motorcycles were even fitted with locks or keys. And he adds that it is not a nostalgic fantasy that these were more law-abiding times than now: following a sharp upward spike in the post-war years, crime declined markedly, he found, during the first half of the Fifties. The numbers started to move up from 1955, but were still strikingly low.
I think anyone who wants to return to Britain in the Fifties is on to an insane project. The society was so oppressive and so false , particularly sexually. Neighbours had this prurience and primness and this awful kind of policing of each other’s lives. […] Nobody could now imagine how dull things were and how respectful people were and how dead they were from the neck up.
So wrote the playwright David Hare in 1999 who grew up in Bexhill-on-Sea in the 1950s. He is quoted by Kynaston to put the other side of the story, one that the historian does not gloss over: the vicious repression of homosexuality by the police and judiciary, the social condemnation of divorce, sex before marriage and illegitimacy, the patronising male attitudes and discrimination experienced by women, the racism (directed increasingly towards the newly-arriving immigrants from the West Indies), and the class snobbery which continued despite six years of Labour government.
- Extraordinary black and white photographs of post-war 1950s Britain: photos by Picture Post photojournalist Thurston Hopkins
- Austerity Britain: the way we were
- Plus ça change: Labour was a house divided in 1952