One day in July 1945, a public schoolboy with a straw hat on stood with his trunk on Bishop’s Stortford station, and called out ‘My man’ to the porter. ‘No,’ the porter said, ‘that sort of thing is all over now.’
Whether it was or not, the Attlee period, 1945-51, is the most decisive and dramatic of our peacetime history. Society had utterly changed, and a government of extraordinary ambition set an agenda which was to go unchallenged until 1979. It was a period of great deprivation — rationing not only continued, but tightened after the war — and memory tended for decades afterwards to dredge up the horrible occasion of the hard winter of 1947 as a sort of macabre centrepiece to the whole experience. (James Lees-Milne entitled the volume of his diary for the period Caves of Ice; Kingsley Amis, less elegantly but just as sincerely, simply wrote to Philip Larkin, ‘Christ, it’s bleeding cold.’).
As deprivation tends to, it encouraged a mood both of simple pleasures and elaborate fantasy. The characteristic works of art of the period tend to be baroque, extravagant and somewhat less than functional: Dylan Thomas, Roland Emmett, Nancy Mitford, Gormenghast, and the romantically Stygian effects of John Piper. There are, too, the marvellous Ealing comedies and Powell/ Pressburger, which together mined a vein of splendid fantasy never approached before or since in British cinema. When we look at the period’s lasting legacy, its artistic statements, it seems to have defined itself through wished-for opposites, dreams of abundance and lavish spectacle.
Not many historians understand this, but David Kynaston, in this almost implausibly entertaining book, does; understands, too, that history happens to the anonymous individual as well as to the great, and happens in idiosyncratic and unique ways. The fascination of this marvellous chronicle lies in Kynaston’s marshalling of individual voices to supplement the account of larger phenomena. Sometimes these are chosen to give personal force to a widespread problem. A new arrival in the country in 1948 usefully observes that by now ‘the shops are full of flowers & fruit, sweets, cigarettes, clothes, shoes, everything one could possibly want. The only snag about clothes and shoes is the lack of coupons — one cannot buy them without.’ We would have known that, but Enid Palmer’s additional observation that ‘the people are cheerful & happy — everybody is kind & polite & they smile’ is the sort of banal, but somewhat unexpected observation historians don’t usually deal in.
Some of Kynaston’s witnesses are of this sort, but he is wonderfully ready to include the individual touch if it is only interesting, and only a very indirect witness to the period. He uses, to great effect, that curiously patronising but often unexpectedly interesting collector of material, Mass Observation. Florence Speed, in the middle of the great freeze, went to see an early personal appearance by Laurel and Hardy at a West End cinema: ‘Saw crowds — women chiefly — mob Laurel and Hardy outside the Monseigneur at Trafalgar Square … Hardy — the fat one — is revolting. Huge and grotesque.’ So he probably would seem, at a time when so few people in England had the means or the opportunity to become fat.
There is a Gladys Langford, living in a private hotel, desperately respectable and, if not a spinster, a woman with every habit of one. On VE day, she records that ‘my inhibitions made me refrain from doing more than laugh at less restrained people.’ Even odder is a wonderfully stiff and pompous civil servant called Henry St John, always glimpsed going from landlady to landlady, or, less predictably, hanging around public lavatories in search of his particular entertainment: ‘A drawing showed a nude woman beside a bed, with a caption, “I’m ready, Dean” . . . [I went back] to see if I could masturbate over the mural inscriptions . . . there was no lock on the door.’ This glorious addendum to the history of the period has no obvious point, since St John lived in obscurity; still, one would not be without the somehow very period pomposity of ‘mural inscriptions’.
Attlee’s government was recently described as, with Mrs Thatcher’s 35 years later, the most successful of post-war governments, in that both of them set out with firm intentions to ‘change the weather’ and to a very large extent did exactly that. Attlee’s Cabinet must have contained more people of remarkable talent than almost any other in history — Cripps, Bevin, Bevan, and, bubbling under, Wilson. Kynaston is caustic about Dalton and, a spectacular demonstration of ministerial cack-handedness in the debacle of 1947, Shinwell, but there was an enormous amount of ability under the competent hand of Attlee.
They were terribly unpopular, and the famous election night comment, ‘they’ve elected a Labour government, and the country will never stand for that’ turned out to make more sense than it seemed. The virtue of their not, after all, being communists and introducing a form of secret police did not strike most people at the time as being as worthy of praise as subsequent historians would find it. An enormous amount of goodwill accompanied the birth of the National Health Service, but as time went on and the promised economic recovery consequent on the introduction of central planning did not materialise, patience began to run out.
When, in the wake of the ‘convertibility crisis’ of 1947, a further range of cuts, including petrol and films was announced — ‘listen with me to the end,’ Attlee said in a radio broadcast, ‘and think and talk over what I have said afterwards’ — the general response was, as recorded by Mass Observation, ‘Gor blimey Charlie — wot a bloody outlook.’ Still, on the whole, the populace bought the whole nationalisation programme, and the political classes would on the whole accept Attlee’s agenda unquestioned until 1979. So it’s with distinct irritation that one reads Keynes, of all people, a few days before his death in 1946, reflecting that ‘I find myself more and more relying for a solution to our problems on [Adam Smith’s] invisible hand which I tried to eject from economic thinking 20 years ago.’ He might, one thinks, have told someone of his change of mind.
The public history of the time can be got from any number of historians; what is wonderful about this book is Kynaston’s eye for a mysteriously characteristic episode, as well as his frank enjoyment of a witness who can write well and vividly. (Not even contemporary ones; it’s telling that Dickens, even in 1945, was still one of the six most popular authors in public libraries). On the same page, the passionate loathing of Picasso, reminding Apollo of ‘the more enterprising of the Gadarene Swine’, bangs up against the first instalment of Mrs Betty Kenward’s ‘Jennifer’s Diary’ in Tatler. There is a drunk Gilbert Harding, the young Margaret Forster being taken shopping, Barbara Pym and, mirabile dictu, Catherine Cookson’s debut, and, above all, food.
‘All winter greens and root vegetables and hamburgers made of grated potato and oatmeal with just a little meat,’ observed the great Marguerite Patten. There was worse; I actually fell off my chair laughing — a rare experience with a history of the Attlee period — when I got to the lady in the Listener in 1947 talking about a new rations-busting fish. ‘If you have not yet tried the new allocation of snoek, you may be wondering what it is like.’ The Ministry of Food did its best too, issuing ‘snoek posters’ and publishing recipes ‘including a concoction to go with salad immortally called snoek piquante’. Nobody was fooled. Elizabeth David took to writing down Mediterranean recipes as a form of therapy, finding it comforting just to write the words ‘butter’ and ‘apricot’, but by the early 1950s whole swathes of small, enterprising bistros were opening. Another sort of solace formed a kind of national obsession; sweets came off the ration and then had to go back on again, so enormous was the national rush.
There is the Red Dean and Pamela Hansford Johnson and the atrocious Jack Dash, Sir Alfred Munnings and Mollie Panter-Downes, all famous figures of the period; but Kynaston also finds the obscure figures who built all those tower blocks, and the wonderful ‘Lord Kitchener’, a performer of calypsos who arrived on the Empire Windrush, and people who have absolutely no claim on our attention other than that they once wrote something amusing or interesting in their private diaries. Above all, he shows us that most things we thought we knew about the period’s manners are pretty well wrong. Brief Encounter, which seems to sum up so much of the national mood at the time of restraint and dignity, is seen in a Rochester cinema in 1945 by David Lean: ‘At the first love scene one woman down in the front started to laugh. I’ll never forget it. And in the second love scene it got worse. And then the audience caught on and waited for her to laugh and they all joined in and it ended in an absolute shambles. They were rolling in the aisles.’
The unusual opportunities for high- mindedness in the period were always being undercut by the native English raucousness. It’s a curious thing to say about a history of a period of great privations, but Kynaston’s rivetingly enjoyable book has a quality of glorious abundance and plenty.