As a sign of the way things have changed, nothing could better this. Hester Vaizey, Cambridge history don and ‘publishing co-ordinator’ at the National Archives, has collated this splendid collection of posters issued by various government agencies in the 30 years or so after the second world war. This was, of course, the heyday and highwater mark of what furious red-faced men of my acquaintance now call ‘the nanny state’ — a phrase, incidentally, first used by an editor of The Spectator (Iain Macleod) in the pages of this magazine back in 1965. Although I never had a nanny myself, I know from repeated childhood viewings of Mary Poppins that Nanny Knows Best, and so these posters confirm. Governments of the times clearly saw it as part of their remit to wag a furious finger at the populace, to tell it to tuck its shirt in and stop dragging its feet. And no sweets before dinner. How many times have I told you?
‘Staggered Holidays Help Everybody’ says one poster from the 1950s. ‘There’s more room, remember, in June and September.’ Apparently Butlin’s and Pontin’s were full to bursting in July and August and something needed to be done about it. ‘Get Rid of that Bottleneck’, says the ministry of transport and civil aviation in 1957, ‘By Staggering Working Hours.’ Reading this book, I felt like putting on a cap purely in order to doff it.
In 1954 the ministry of agriculture, fisheries and food illustrates a poster for ‘Energy Foods’ (promoting fat, starch and sugar as positive elements in a diet) with a photograph of the young Jimmy Hill kicking a ball with all his might, and possibly his chin as well. For ‘Venereal Diseases,’ whispers a ministry of health poster in 1948, ‘Quack “cures” are useless. No self-treatment ever cured syphilis or gonorrhoea.’ There’s a photo of a man looking worried, as well he might. A few pages later, we see a nuclear family walking down to the beach with a picnic basket. They’re blond, they’re grinning and the little boy is carrying a beach ball. What could possibly go wrong? Look out for man-traps? Beware of the shark? ‘Holiday Health Depends on Holiday Hygiene’ yells the headline. ‘Wash Your Hands Before Eating.’ This was the Scottish home and health department talking, in the mid 1960s — their follow-up to the barnstorming number one hit, ‘Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases.’
Some of these posters are comically, even painfully prosaic. One or two, such as the ‘Watch Out! There’s a Thief About’ campaign, you will certainly remember, if you are of an age to. A few are lovely. There are two ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ posters, with paintings by Royston Cooper, I am very tempted to hang on the walls of my children’s bedrooms, for purely aesthetic reasons, of course. (All 40 posters are detachable, so what starts as a book may end up as particularly ferocious and judgemental wallpaper.) But collected together, they document a vanished age, when we were told what to do and sometimes even did what we were told. ‘Life is Better on the Land.’ ‘Be Really Cool, Man — Save.’ And above all, ‘Don’t Ask a Man to Drink and Drive.’ As though anyone ever needed to be asked.