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Austerity Britain, 1945-1951
Walker Books, 2008
704 pp., 74.98
In a season that has seen the price of gas reach so high that Americans have begun actually taking the bus, and the price of food soar enough that Burpee's sales of garden seeds have doubled, David Kynaston's new account of postwar Britain is equal parts timely, fascinating, and a little eerie.
It is also—and we might as well get this out of the way at the start—almost endless. Kynaston's technique is collage—he mixes high and low, housewife diary and parliamentary debate—and he leaves very little out. For the older Briton, for whom the names of comedians and TV presenters and cricket heroes will be familiar, there is probably much digressive pleasure here. For those of us who dimly recognize the occasional name (Benny Hill as a young comedian), the effort is perhaps more to be admired than enjoyed. A hundred pages per year turns out to be a lot, but for those willing to take the time, the effect does yield both insight and a deep confidence in Kynaston's judgment on important matters. One hopes more American historians will follow his noble lead.
Britain had, of course, won the war—borne the blood, tears, and sweat necessary to rally the free world to its side. But unlike the United States, it had precious little to show for the victory. The war ended not with a rush of prosperity but with a renewed onslaught of rationing, this time without any of the wartime fervor that had made it more palatable in the years of the Blitz. Kynaston begins his account with VE Day, which he describes as fairly sedate in most corners of the country: "Most people were neither depressed nor ecstatic; rather they took the two days in their stride, reflected upon them to a greater or lesser extent, and above all tried to have a good time." Festivities over, most people returned to the quiet task of making do. Kynaston quotes from the diary of a minor civil servant, Anthony Heap: "housing, food, clothing, fuel, beer, tobacco—all the ordinary comforts of life ...