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Voices of change

Not every writer would begin a history of the 1950s with a vignette in which the young Keith Waterhouse treads on Princess Margaret by mistake.

21 October 2009

12:00 AM

21 October 2009

12:00 AM

Family Britain, 1951-1957 David Kynaston

Bloomsbury, pp.784, 25

Not every writer would begin a history of the 1950s with a vignette in which the young Keith Waterhouse treads on Princess Margaret by mistake. But David Kynaston is an unusual historian, rewardingly imbued with a sense of fun and convinced of the importance of the freakish; he is enamoured of the single incident and the obscure observer. Family Britain is as vivacious and alluring as Sabrina, the Ted’s pin-up, ‘symbol of opulent sex’, real name Norma Sykes, who pops up on page 608 between Peter Maxwell Davies and Sylvia Plath. I suppose she may still be alive.

This is the second volume in a projected series, Tales of a New Jerusalem, chronicle rather than a history, which will eventually cover the period between 1945 to 1979. The first volume, Austerity Britain was a considerable popular success, and this volume is every bit as enjoyable. Kynaston’s technique is a magpie one. He quotes witnesses from the period with huge abundance, always letting them tell their own story. What sets him apart is his interest in private diary-keepers and those anonymous voices from Mass Observation and other vox-pop interviewers. He gives us people who were close observers of the action, such as Clarissa Eden’s views on the Suez Crisis, and the words of the highly perceptive and historically minded. Doris Lessing’s account of her entanglement with the Communist Party is extensively used.

He also, however, draws substantially on the diaries of people who, to be frank, knew very little and saw almost nothing of conventional importance. Put like that, you can see why most historians have ignored such people. But these voices add a wonderful, pawky, startling texture to the account. When we come to the Coronation of 1953, we hear from Lady Violet Bonham-Carter (‘the crowds were most touching’), an observed account of some neighbours huddled round a collective and newly bought television set (‘they put a canopy over her when she’s anointed; that’s nice for her’) and a private diarist, Henry St John, who recorded that at his relations’ in Southall ‘one log of an electric fire was switched on, but it was still cold.’

Readers of the previous volume will remember Henry St John, recorded there as attempting to masturbate over what he described as the ‘mural inscriptions’ in a public lavatory. His hilariously Pooterish voice runs through this volume, one of many. At a variety performance ‘The show could not be rated higher than fair.’ Getting home in 1957,

of 15 passengers of both sexes, mostly young, on the upper deck of the trolleybus on which I returned, all but one were hatless, and the one exception had a scarf on her head.

At the Festival of Britain:

The only noticeable foreigners I saw at the exhibition were 2 Asiatics, 2 American servicemen, 1 negro, and 1 woman talking French.

A conventional historian might use these comically drab observations as a starting point for a statistical investigation — and it is interesting that the Festival of Britain crowd was so solidly British. Kynaston’s interest, I think, is in these voices as witnesses to the period, and as voices which are somehow characteristic of the period, as well as, in Henry St John’s case, extremely funny (he gets funnier and funnier, in fact). The use, in part, of these diarists to describe major events gives a wonderful sense of the range of life; as in Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, a person may feel that a king might die, but ‘for him it was not an important failure’. The death of the King is announced, in Kynaston, by a teenage diarist recording, on previous days, his amorous successes:

Had a super evening. Get a long way with Dorothy. She’s lovely, the best girl I’ve ever had . . . Got real warmed up at some spots. 6th February. Find my history book at school . . . Dull morning. THE KING DIES AT 10.45.

Other diarists are used, with seeming perversity but really very rewardingly, to illustrate events that they don’t notice and evidently don’t care about. The day Macmillan became Prime Minister, which ends the book, is drily deflated by a Chingford housewife recording that

As my kitchen curtains are in ribbons, spared time to cut out material from new bought yesterday. I feel more confident with measuring since dressmaking lessons.

It’s full of a multiplicity of voices, talking about events that they are closely observing, chatting in parallel, or failing to comment. They combine with memoirs from much later, used to fill out gaps, notably sexual practices, and public writings from the time. Many of the juxtaposition of topics are, deliberately, as jarring and unexpected as life. Unforgettably, the test explosion of the first British atomic bomb on 3 October 1952 is followed directly by another scientific creation, which probably affected more people’s lives and entered into their minds more directly:

Lever Bros have launched a new powder, ‘Surf’, and send thro the post coupons to those on the voting list, which entitle the recipients to buy 1/11 size for 7d.

The result is a glorious cavalcade of public and private, hardly ever feeling reductive of people’s feelings and passing interests; you feel that Kynaston’s vision of life is warmly benevolent and essentially comic.

The 1950s, now beyond direct nostalgia for anyone much under 60, is a period of almost overwhelming change. The distance between the shabby crowds at the Festival of Britain and those hatless youths of Macmillan’s never-had-it-so good society is a vast gap. The wartime impositions took a while to fizzle out — identity cards went first, and the rationing of meat just dwindled away. Kynaston has some oddly haunting stories of housewives presenting their ration books and being told ‘We don’t bother with those any more’. There was, too, National Service, one of very few subjects which Kynaston rather skates over, which is odd, considering the number of memoirs about the experience. The focus on the small-scale, trivial concerns of people’s lives — food, travel, sports matches (rather too much on that, I think), Sabrina, newspaper campaigns for or against homosexuals and black people, ‘Edwardians’ or Teddy Boys, the hanging of Ruth Ellis — allows Kynaston to convey the overwhelming and gradual nature of the change. You feel that people woke up in 1957 to discover, rather to their surprise, that they had some disposable income and some new clothes, and that life had become, for better or worse, somewhat noisier, faster, brighter.

In some ways we haven’t changed at all. Kynaston gives us a gloriously Angela Carterish list of variety performers:

The pigeon act Hamilton Conrad, the mind-reader The Amazing Fogel, the lady whistler Eva Kane, the foot juggler Levanda, the yodelling accordionist Billy Moore, the human spider Valantyne Napier, the novelty xylophonist Reggie Redcliffe . . .

These he calls ‘inhabitants of a lost world’, but they sound awfully like the acts on ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent.

In other ways, I hope we have changed. Racial hatred was rife. Astoundingly, even after the war, a quarter of those in one East End survey could be described as ‘extreme anti-Semites’. There is a hell of a lot of class going on here, typified by John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi who would not let him mix ‘with what she called common boys.’ Some of the expressed hatred between classes sounds incredible now:

If the working class do not get a better knowledge of what a civilised human being should develop like, I would suggest NO CHILDREN.

On the other hand, there was also a healthy lack of deference which our conventional sense of the 1950s tends to omit. Lena Jeger, the Labour MP was canvassing in a block of flats

when she met a woman in the lift and addressed her on the issue of German rearmament. ‘People have been pissing in this lift,’ replied the woman. ‘What are you going to do about it?’ To which Jeger said that, if elected, she could not promise to be able to stop that. ‘Well,’ the woman said, ‘if you can’t stop people pissing in lifts, how are you going to stop the Germans rearming?’

I could quote forever from this magnificent book. Professor Kynaston is the most entertaining historian alive, and his Tales of a New Jerusalem, when concluded, will undoubtedly be the first stop for any reader interested in the vitality, rather than the general contours, of this long period.

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