Don’t Look Down

Nicholas Spice

  • Family Britain 1951-57 by David Kynaston
    Bloomsbury, 776 pp, £25.00, November 2009, ISBN 978 0 7475 8385 1

In 1954, at the trial of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu for homosexuality, the counsel for the prosecution, G.D. ‘Khaki’ Roberts (‘fruity-voiced, with a bottle of bright pink cough mixture always at hand’), put it to Peter Wildeblood, one of the co-defendants, that his lover Edward McNally was ‘infinitely his social inferior’, as though this social miscegenation were as much an offence as the act of buggery itself. ‘Nobody ever flung it at me during the war that I was associating with people who were infinitely my social inferiors,’ Wildeblood replied; but the war was over and with it the Bakhtinian moment of misrule when the strings of degree were untuned and, to everyone’s surprise, not discord but fellowship followed.

‘Class feeling and class resentment are very strong,’ Harold Nicolson wrote in his diary just after the end of the war. With the return of peace, the task of the government was again what it had been and what it would continue to be: how to hold it all together; how to create the illusion of national unity out of the fissiparous materials of an unequal society; even, how to prevent revolution. To an extent the common experience of austerity continued to bind people together. Rationing affected everyone; everyone had to stand in the ever lengthening queues; everyone suffered the ubiquitous controls and petty restrictions; everyone shivered during the ferocious cold of February 1947, when coal shortages meant going without heat, and power was cut for hours each day. The great London smog of December 1952 choked bankers and paupers alike (it brought a performance of La Traviata at Sadler’s Wells to a close because no one could see the stage). In the years immediately after the war, conditions in Britain, especially in the cities, were pretty grim. As David Kynaston tells it, people were exhausted, low in spirits, their resources depleted, and over everything there hung the threat of another, probably terminal war.

The dawn of the postwar era was cold and dark and bleak, but there was a touch of pink in the east and a sense of the light slowly but steadily strengthening. In 1945, more than 70 per cent of the population was working-class, employed either as rural labourers or industrial workers. Over the next decade, their story would be one of growing prosperity and wellbeing, of widening horizons and opening opportunities. Free grammar school education, universal healthcare, a comprehensive system of national insurance, family allowances, food and housing subsidies: if the people put up with the inequity of postwar Britain and soldiered on through years of discomfort and privation, they did so not out of a supererogatory deference to the existing order, but because Butler and Beveridge and the Attlee administration brought about a quiet but enduring revolution. At the same time, the nationalisation of large sections of the industrial base, and an economic climate that was delivering full employment, had shifted power significantly towards the workers. The unions were strong and, on the whole, popular. Time and again throughout the period, as strike followed strike, governments, Tory as well as Labour, caved in to union demands, and there was no stomach on either side of the House to legislate against the abuse of union power.

As wages rose, there was more in the shops to buy. An unstoppable army of mod cons marched onto the domestic scene, promising to transform life, especially for women, in the newly built houses that were replacing the Victorian slums. That the future was brightening was reaffirmed by the almost daily excitements of technological innovation. This was the decade when Britain moved decisively out of the force field of the 19th century and into that of the 21st; the decade when cars, televisions and telephones fanned out across the country; the decade of the first computer, the first motorway and the first nuclear power station. Kynaston reminds us of the multiple timescales of change: how traditional ways of life overlap with the practice of the new, and how long it can take for a new technology to percolate down to the mass of the population: ‘vacuum cleaners may by 1955 have been in a majority of households, but washing machines were in only 18 per cent and refrigerators in a mere 8 per cent. In Wales, as late as 1960, there were fridges in just 5 per cent of households.’ He also makes the point that, after a period of such turmoil, what people most wanted was to ‘get back to normal’ and normality, by its nature, is rarely exciting. Still, there was clearly more to the stodginess of life in 1950s Britain than the need for a well-earned nap.

‘Nobody could now imagine how dull things were,’ David Hare says as he remembers his youth in the 1950s. ‘England: the most civilised country on earth, but also the most boring!’ was the verdict of Hannah Arendt in 1952; ten years later Natalia Ginzburg, visiting London, would have agreed: ‘England is never vulgar. It is conventional, but not vulgar … the English rarely surprise.’ The class system had much to do with the stolidity of the British in the 1950s, though whether that intricate arrangement of checks and balances was the cause or the effect of British dullness (‘the slow, sensible norm of the British’, as Mollie Panter-Downes, London correspondent for the New Yorker, put it) would be impossible to say. When Edmund Wilson visited England in 1956 he was struck by how well-regulated life seemed: ‘In spite of the developments since the last war,’ he wrote, ‘the social system is still largely taken for granted, and it is soothing for an American to arrive in a place where everybody accepts his function, along with his social status.’ At its most blatant – and ugly – the effects of this system approached a kind of apartheid, as in the notorious ‘Cutteslowe Walls’ in North Oxford, seven feet high and topped off with iron spikes, built in the 1930s but still standing 20 years later, for the purpose of separating a middle-class suburban enclave from the neighbouring working-class housing estate. But the need for hierarchy seems to have been pervasive, expressing itself across society through superfine class distinctions which everyone understood: ‘We had a street party that our parents were insistent should not include the children from the terraced houses,’ Michael Burns wrote, recalling VE Day celebrations in Tolworth near Kingston. And it was much the same eight years later in New Malden at the Coronation festivities (‘They’re much too posh for street party’ was the headline in the People).

If there is a shaping preoccupation that unites Family Britain and Austerity Britain, the first volume in Kynaston’s Tales of a New Jerusalem, it is with the relationship between the policy-makers – the politicians, planners and opinion-formers – and the people for whom policy was made.[*] Kynaston sees this as a ‘profound cultural mismatch between progressive activators and the millions acted upon’. In his account ‘ordinary people’ in the 1940s and 1950s were persistently spoken for and over the top of, their views often ignored, their voices shouted down. Knowing what was good for people, controlling what they could and could not consume, was taken for granted as the prerogative of the activator class – whether it was Archbishop Fisher telling the Mothers’ Union in 1952 that ‘a family only truly begins with three children,’ or Reithian intellectuals pontificating about the corrupting effects of commercial television on the minds of the untutored.

In nothing were these ‘top-down’ assumptions more evident or more insensitive than in the matter of housing and town planning. The clearing of the last slums and the wholesale replenishment of the housing stock is one of the big stories of the period and Kynaston devotes considerable space to telling it. Time and again, by his account, architects and planners simply ignored the wishes of the people whose world they were rebuilding. All the surveys showed a clear preference for houses over flats, but it was flats that were mostly built, those ‘streets in the sky’ that the modernist ideologues knew for certain were the way to promote community and fellow-feeling (‘we cannot afford to leave people scattered indiscriminately across the ground,’ was how Peter and Alison Smithson put it).

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[*] Austerity Britain was reviewed in the LRB of 24 April 2008 by Ross McKibbin.

[†] Stefan Collini writes about this report elsewhere in this issue.