Austerity Britain, 1945-1951
Walker Books, 2008
704 pp., 45.00
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 that we'd taken for granted before the war and naturally expected to become more plentiful again when it ended, became instead more and more scarce and difficult to come by." Of 1945, Heap said, "I can remember few years I've been happier to see the end of."
In the face of this disruption, which followed not only on the war but on the depression that came before, and in a world where socialism seemed ascendant, the great political questions of the day concerned just how strongly the government would take control of the economy. When present-day Americans reflect that Churchill, triumphant in war, was immediately removed from office by British voters ticking Labour on their ballots, they tend to regard it as incredible ingratitude. But for the hard-pressed working class, and much of the middle-class as well, it made both historic and pragmatic sense. "Oh, wonderful people of Britain," a young Iris Murdoch wrote in a letter to a friend. "After all the ballyhoo and eyewash, they've had the guts to vote against Winston! I can't help feeling that to be young is very heaven!" And so, in the next few years, the government undertook those projects that seemed so obvious everywhere except the United States: the provision of a national health service, and the building of hundreds of thousands of units of public housing, often in the largeish tracts that the English call "council estates."
One of the great virtues of Kynaston's method is that, unlike a traditional political historian, he is able to gauge how much attention ordinary people were actually paying to politics. And the answer is, surprisingly little. Though the radio was on constantly in most houses, with 77 percent of the populace listening at all three meals (and upstart TV was proving equally addictive for those who could afford it), the BBC stayed away from political controversy: discussion was barred of any matter due to be debated in Parliament in the next fortnight. And Kynaston has read enough diaries to know how minor a role politics often played, at least compared to the difficulties of obtaining eggs, or even dried egg powder.
People did know what they wanted, however—and it was often quite different from what the new aristocracy of planners empowered by Labour wanted to give them. The architects and urban designers were all for rebuilding bombed-out cities and worn-out tenements on a grand scale. And with great numbers of people squatting in hulks or homeless altogether, it's easy to understand their practical as well as ideological preference for housing blocks, new towns, and the like. For many reasons the thinking classes were anti-suburb. But not so the great mass of Brits, who wanted nothing so much as a place, small as it might be, of their own. Preferably with a garden to putter in.
As a women's page journalist, Mrs. Michael Pleydell-Bouverie, put it: "Speaking generally, the people want to breathe and move, to be rid of the neighbour's wireless, and the clatter of early-risers and late-bedders … . The community life of which everyone has had experience to some degree or other in this war, has not endeared or recommended itself as a permanent state of affairs."
This basic political fight continues on down to the present, of course, in both Britain and the United States. Labour and the Tories see-sawed back and forth for a fairly stagnant generation politically, until Margaret Thatcher (seen in these pages as the young conservative campaigner Margaret Rogers) finally scored her historic win over the forces of trade unionism and entropy. She campaigned with the idea that, as she once put, "there is no such thing as society," only individuals and their families. Ronald Reagan (and after him Bill Clinton) seemed to accept the same idea—the "era of big government" was over, and people should be left alone to create the wealth that would allow them to build the suburban homes they wanted.
But times shift. And in an era of suddenly expensive fuel, the prospects for expansive privacy are not quite what they were even a year or two ago: all those new houses at the outer edge of suburbia are suddenly foreclosure bait, tomorrow's potential slums, albeit with granite countertops. And unlike the Brits of 1945 emerging from the tube stations where they'd sheltered communally against the bombs, we're emerging from an epoch of enormous privacy—the average American today eats meals with friends and family half as often as fifty years ago. It's no wonder that we're at least a little attracted to some of the communalisms represented by, say, farmer's markets.
There is so much richness in this book that must be overlooked in any review—digressions about everything from comic books to comic operas, the environmental horror of living in coal-fired Britain (think present-day China), the personalities of game-show presenters. But the picture that emerges most deeply is of the ingrained human desire for normalcy: "a new world was slowly taking shape, but for most of these adults what mattered far more was the creation and maintenance of a safe secure home life—in any home that could be found." That insight is powerful and likely timeless; it sets a useful boundary on how any of us think about history past or future.
Bill McKibben edited the anthology American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau, published this spring by the Library of America. Also recently out: The Bill McKibben Reader (Holt).
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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