Family Britain 1951-57 
by David Kynaston.
Bloomsbury, 776 pp., £25, November 2009, 978 0 7475 8385 1
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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).

Present-day scourges of the ‘broken society’ often look back to the postwar years as a golden age of community and good citizenship. Kynaston shows that the reality was pretty mixed. Politicians, intellectuals and planners who cherished the hope that the ‘community spirit’ of the slums would be transposed to the new tower blocks and housing estates tended to come up against the rooted wish of people to ‘keep themselves to themselves’. According to Kynaston, it was peace and quiet that ordinary citizens wanted more than the warm, importunate embrace of their neighbours.

For everyone other than those at the very top, the class system was often a cause of resentment, but it also constituted a sophisticated matrix within which to place oneself. It was not just the middle classes who mapped their position by the co-ordinates of ‘U’ and ‘Non-U’. The working classes, with their sensitively calibrated measures of the ‘respectable’ and ‘decent’ and the ‘common’, played similar games of inclusion and exclusion. Class told you who you were and provided ‘the security of the familiar’. Meanwhile, what was not familiar was often regarded with suspicion and hostility. Two sturdy narrative threads in the weave of Kynaston’s books follow the fortunes of immigrants and homosexuals through the years after the war. It is not an edifying tale.

Anti-semitism was not uncommon in postwar Britain, whether among the establishment (Montagu Norman, for example, the governor of the Bank of England, was notoriously anti-semitic) or on the street – in 1947 there were anti-semitic riots in several British cities. In 1948, there were race riots of a different kind in Liverpool, when white mobs attacked an Anglo-Indian restaurant and a black seamen’s hostel on consecutive nights. At the end of the war, Britain was an almost exclusively white society. By 1954, the number of non-whites in the country still stood at a mere 40,000, but immigration was already a political problem. ‘There is a case on merit for excluding riff-raff,’ Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, the home secretary, droned at a cabinet meeting to discuss the issue; while the ‘riff-raff’ themselves, on the bus and at work, were met with the refrain: ‘Why don’t you go back where you came from?’ ‘Thank you for coming,’ the vicar said to Carmel Jones, a recent immigrant who had gone to an Anglican service for the first time: ‘But I would be delighted if you didn’t come back … My congregation is uncomfortable in the company of black people.’

Homosexuality was not decriminalised in Britain until 1967, and Kynaston reminds us that the law was still viciously enforced in the 1950s. Indictable offences for sodomy, bestiality, indecent assault and ‘gross indecency’ rose sharply in the late 1940s and early 1950s and there were a number of high-profile court cases – notably the trials of Lord Montagu, Bill Field (a promising Labour MP) and, most tragically, Alan Turing, the progenitor of modern computing, whose arrest in 1952 precipitated ‘a slow, sad descent into grief and madness’ ending in suicide. Once in jail, homosexuals were often given electric shock treatment and oestrogen to cure them of their ‘illness’.

The popular view of homosexuality was far from tolerant, but then, as Kynaston says in an engrossing chapter on family life and sexual mores, when it came to sexuality of any colour ‘the British through the 1950s remained ill at ease.’ The public domain was hemmed in with restrictions: when Benny Hill made a mild homosexual joke on television in 1953, it caused uproar; and the Lord Chamberlain’s office refused any reference to homosexuality on the licensed stage. In the fiction, films and plays of the time there was, as Kynaston puts it, ‘an almost systemic lack of frankness in approach to sexual matter’; ‘an inhibition’, he goes on, ‘in part the direct result not only of censorship but also of a major government-cum-legal campaign in the mid-1950s against anything even faintly obscene, a campaign that among other cases saw the artist Donald McGill, king of the seaside postcard, briefly banged up for his depiction of an outsize, almost vertical stick of rock’.

How far this prudishness in the public culture was mirrored in private life is hard to gauge, but Kynaston presents enough evidence to suggest that there was a fair amount of unsatisfactory sex inside the typical marriage, especially for women and especially at the lower end of the social scale: ‘It was no fun, it was just nasty, dirty and degrading’ was the verdict of Renee Lester, a Scunthorpe mother of six; while, in a survey of attitudes to religion, a divorced working-class woman from Oldham described heaven as ‘similar to life here but no sex’.

Kynaston’s carefully researched account of social attitudes in the 1940s and 1950s doesn’t lift the spirits. And it reminds us that, for all the huffing and puffing of conservative commentators about the rot introduced into the fabric of Britain by the permissive 1960s, we have, as a result of that cultural revolution, made unquestionable progress towards a more tolerant and enlightened society. Much of the fear and distrust of the Other that Kynaston chronicles has been educated out of us. On race, sexuality, divorce, illegitimacy, abortion, we are discernibly more open-minded. The position of women has improved. Whatever the deficiencies of the comprehensive school system, it removed one hideous cause of pain and shame – the stigma of failing the eleven-plus exam, which marked seven in ten of all children for life. We no longer beat up our children to make them work harder; nor do we think it acceptable to talk of ‘riff-raff’ or ‘vulgar street urchins’. The world in which it was fine for the secretary of the Football League to reject the idea of a European Cup on the grounds that it would mean dealing with ‘too many wogs and dagos’ has conclusively gone.

All this may be true and good, but it doesn’t disguise the fact that the basic configuration of power relations in Britain has changed remarkably little across the last half-century. The route to power lies much where it always lay, while access to that softly carpeted and gently inclined path is scarcely more open today than it was in the 1950s. According to the report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, published last year, ‘the typical doctor or lawyer of the future will today be growing up in a family that is better off than five in six of all families in the UK.’ Only 7 per cent of children are educated at private schools, but half of all professionals in Britain have been to one, a proportion that rises to 56 per cent for solicitors, 70 per cent for finance directors and 75 per cent for judges. The cost of sending a boy to Eton or Winchester is currently around £30,000 a year – that’s £50,000 of pre-tax income. Average annual pre-tax income in the UK stands at just over £25,000. The Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that 80 per cent of the population earns less than £35,000. Meanwhile, according to a study by the New Policy Institute and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, there are now 13.4 million people in Britain living in low-income households earning less than 60 per cent of the national average. For a couple with two children this translates into a net disposable income of £15,000 a year, once all benefits and allowances have been taken into account – half, then, the income needed to send a boy to Eton or Winchester for a year. Only 1 per cent of the population have annual gross incomes above £100,000. And this, of course, says nothing of inherited wealth.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies concludes that education and skills – or rather their absence – are the ‘main drivers’ behind the rise in inequality in contemporary Britain. And what the figures indisputably make clear is that elite formation in our society is still powered by a small but formidable educational engine, fuelled by wealth that only a few possess, and since access to the elite means access to wealth, the cycle of elite formation is essentially self-sustaining and closed to outsiders.

This is scarcely news. It is known now and it was known 50 years ago, but there has never been a serious will to do anything about it. The year of the Butler Education Act, 1944, also saw the publication of the Fleming Report, an investigation into independent education which considered but shied away from abolishing it, recommending instead that a quarter of all places at private schools should be made available to children from the state system, but only on a voluntary basis – with the result that nothing was done. As the Labour Party’s leading intellectuals, Hugh Gaitskell and Anthony Crosland understood how pivotal private education was to the problem of power in the Britain of the 1950s. Gaitskell told the Labour Party Conference in 1953 that the system could not continue, and in The Future of Socialism Crosland recommended the integration of grammar and private schools into a single state secondary school system. But there was no wider enthusiasm for these views and the issue was kicked into touch and left there.

Where it remains today. The refusal of all parties to discuss the issue of private education marks the limits of the concessions to social justice the elite is prepared to make. Nothing has signalled this so clearly in recent months as the response to Gordon Brown’s taunt that Tory proposals for raising the threshold for inheritance tax were ‘dreamed up on the playing fields of Eton’. The cry of ‘foul’ was unanimous and swift: ‘a hollow, nasty tactic’ (Melanie Phillips in the Daily Mail); ‘only the foolish want a new class war’ (Anne McElvoy in the Standard); ‘schoolboy jokes’ (Financial Times leader); ‘let’s fight about fairness not class’ (Observer leader); ‘there are progressive reasons, as well as obvious Tory ones, to regret this lurch’ (Julian Glover in the Guardian); ‘the politics of envy’ (Max Hastings in the Financial Times). While David Cameron thought it enough simply to call Brown’s remark ‘spiteful’.

In February 2008, Kynaston said in the Guardian that the continuing existence of the private schools in Britain constituted ‘a roadblock on the route to meritocracy’. He called this ‘the P factor’ and described it as ‘a huge elephant’ in the room of New Labour policy: ‘huge symbolically and substantively’. But when his argument led him to the conclusion that something radical needed to be done, he veered off into vagueness like a horse refusing a nasty jump. His treatment of the subject in Austerity Britain and Family Britain is noticeably quiet. Indeed, in general he pays only cursory attention to the world of the cultural and political elite and, for all the copiousness of his statistical evidence, he says little about the underlying structures of power in Britain at the time. I don’t think this is a deliberate evasion, but it determines the shape and weight of these books fundamentally.

In both there is a sense of something unspoken, something that makes Kynaston uneasy. And it is almost as if he disguises this discomfort through the sheer ebullience of his intellectual manners. Kynaston is a historian in a hurry and winningly so. The forward sweep and energy of his work speaks of an extraordinary capacity for curiosity and that creative impatience which sees how much there is to do and how little time there is to do it in. A mere two years after the success of Austerity Britain, he has published a second 700-page instalment. His assurance in marshalling huge quantities of fact and detail into a coherent and readable narrative is remarkable. There is something of the virtuoso about him – a charisma in his performance that carries us irresistibly along with him. Critical response to Austerity Britain amounted to a kind of standing ovation; and with Family Britain he has leaped back onto the platform, with impetuous dash, like a pianist who after a brief interval plunges into the next part of his programme before we have had time so much as to store our empty ice-cream tubs under our seats. Family Britain has no introduction. Even Austerity Britain had only a page. This reluctance to place the project in a theoretical frame is itself freighted with theoretical implications. It is in fact a manifesto; no less than a gauntlet thrown down.

Kynaston ended his brief introduction to Austerity Britain with a quotation from the preface to Hardy’s Poems of the Past and the Present: ‘Unadjusted impressions have their value, and the road to a true philosophy of life seems to lie in humbly recording diverse readings of its phenomena as they are forced upon us by chance and change.’ One of the poems in Hardy’s collection is called ‘Mute Opinion’, a two-stanza epigram in which the poet, now a ghost, reviews the course of history in the country he once knew and discovers that things have turned out ‘not as the loud had spoken/But as the mute had thought’. Describing the scope of his project, Kynaston seems to echo the poem: Tales of a New Jerusalem, he says, is to be ‘a story of ordinary citizens as well as ministers and mandarins, of consumers as well as producers, of the provinces as well as London, of the everyday as well as the seismic, of the mute and inarticulate as well as the all too fluent opinion-formers, of the Singing Postman as well as John Lennon’. The emphasis here is firmly on the first term of each antithesis, a bias that prefigures the structure of the books which follow. For though Kynaston’s avowed intent is, as far as possible, to let history speak for itself (‘humbly recording … unadjusted impressions’), he consistently shows a presumption in favour of the mute and inarticulate ‘ordinary citizen’ over whomever may be deemed exceptional.

Kynaston discovers the voice of the people in three places: in the results of opinion polls where the views of the ordinary citizen speak through trends and averages; in the utterances of the anonymous subjects of sociological surveys, such as the reports of Mass Observation; and in the musings of a clutch of otherwise obscure individuals who just happened to keep diaries throughout the period. He deploys these resources deftly, especially in set-piece accounts of big occasions (the VE Day celebrations, the Festival of Britain, the Coronation), burrowing beneath the grand official narrative to reveal the distinctly mottled face of popular engagement. The hero of these scenes is undoubtedly the ‘ordinary citizen’, but the notion of such a composite creature is not unproblematic. As the books develop, we may find ourselves wondering who exactly this ‘ordinary citizen’ is. The concept is most stable when defined by class, as when Kynaston speaks of ‘the left-leaning cultural elite’ versus ‘the poor old working class, just going about its business’. Sometimes, though, it seems we are to understand ‘ordinary’ as ‘without power or influence’. Another usage shifts ‘ordinary’ towards ‘passive’, such that the ‘ordinary people’ takes in anyone on whose behalf policy decisions have been made. At its vaguest, ‘ordinary’ spreads into notions of general humanity, as in the phrase ‘the lives and struggles of ordinary people’. It is quite common for Kynaston to conclude a discussion of an event or controversy with the reflection that ordinary life always has the trump card: ‘the underlying reality was that for most people the natural desire to get back to normal life vastly outweighed any larger considerations’ (apropos a spate of disruptive strikes); or ‘most people simply got on with their lives and tried not to think about it’ (in response to the Soviet H-bomb).

The tendency of ‘ordinariness’ to spread and blur and get conflated with the day to day is partly held in check by the way Kynaston portrays the people who he clearly thinks were not ordinary. He is not overtly hostile to the elite, but he spends as little time talking about them as he dares, paying hasty and dutiful respect to high culture and as often as not characterising the men of power as cold and dislikeable. There’s a strong sense that he is more at ease with the masses, whoever they may be; that he’s happier describing a big football match than Waiting for Godot, Mrs Dale’s Diary than the Picasso exhibition. This bears on another aspect of Kynaston’s thought, whereby ‘ordinary’ bleeds into ‘authentic’. He speaks of his search for ‘authentic’ working-class and lower-middle-class voices, with the clear implication that when he finds them they will be more true and real than whatever is ‘inauthentic’. That he never speaks of ‘authentic’ upper-middle-class or upper-class voices suggests that, for Kynaston, the more wealth and power you have the less authentic you become (perhaps along the lines of rich men, camels and needles). The authentic voice turns out always to be the ordinary voice and the ordinary voice is authentic because it is not self-conscious. When Kynaston says of a Mass Observation report, quoted in Austerity Britain, that ‘the replies have a wonderful – and revealing – authenticity,’ he equates genuineness with spontaneity and lack of art. It is this same quality that he finds and treasures in the writings of his little band of diarists: Judy Haines (‘a youngish married woman living in Chingford’), Nella Last (‘a middle-aged, middle-class housewife living in Barrow-in-Furness’), Gladys Langford (‘55 years old, married in 1913, deserted by her husband in 1914, living on her own at the Woodstock Hotel, N5’) or Anthony Heap (‘a middle-aged local government officer from St Pancras’). These diaries perfectly suit Kynaston’s purpose because they are unselfconscious and their content is uniformly banal.

At the heart of Kynaston’s books, then, we find traces of a romantic vision of the innocent masses, on whom authenticity has been conferred by unselfconsciousness and unselfconsciousness by lack of power and sophistication. Meanwhile, at the author’s back – to the extent that he can he keeps them out of the picture – stand the elite, who are everything that the innocent masses are not: artificial, overcomplicated, rendered inauthentic by culture, intellect and power. In short, cast out from the Eden of ordinariness.

Ordinariness, equated with shared humanity, is not a political or social category and therefore could be thought not the proper subject of a social history. If to be ordinary is merely to be human then it is to stand outside politics and to give up class identity and, with that identity, justifiable needs and demands. When Mrs Thatcher made her notorious remark to the effect that ‘there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families’ she could have said ‘there is no such thing as society, only the powerful and the ordinary.’ Kynaston comes dangerously close to this when, in Family Britain, he muses: ‘So many individual lives, so many individual fates – inevitably it makes one wonder about the validity of terms like “class”, “culture” and “community”.’

Because they do not concern themselves with structural inequality or the struggle for power in the period, Austerity Britain and Family Britain are gentle narratives in which ordinary life, like a vast flood plain, absorbs into itself the strong, narrow dialectical stream, and renders it indistinct. Although they talk a lot about class, these books convey little sense of the explosive injustices of the society they describe. Partly, this is a reflection of the docility of the people quoted by Kynaston, who come over as co-opted by power and all too willing to speak a language of diminished expectation, saying at every turn: ‘It’s nothing to do with me. I’m just ordinary. What they do is outside my control.’ This attitude, reported on virtually every page of Kynaston’s books, has about it a depressing fatalism, in which people identify themselves as ordinary as a defence against the limitations of their situation, settling for less than they should (typically, ‘a little house with a garden’ and a ‘nice cup of tea’), rejecting the products of high culture as above their heads and turning their backs on politics as a waste of time. In coming close to idealising ordinariness, Kynaston can seem at times to endorse this capitulation of the ‘vast mass of the people’, as though to offer ordinariness as a consolation prize, if not redemption, for powerlessness.

It cannot have been his intention – in fact, I suspect, it lies diametrically opposed to his intention – that Austerity Britain and Family Britain should appear in certain lights to mimic the structure of the society they describe, a structure in which the power of the ruling class was not up for negotiation. Wasn’t and isn’t. After three decades in which politicians have successfully kept class off the political agenda, no one wants it to resurface. Indeed the response of both parties to the statistical evidence showing that Britain is still a very unfair place is essentially the same: acknowledge the problem, say something must be done about it and then focus attention on the poor. Cameron’s response to the facts of inequality is to say that it isn’t the gap between the top and the middle that matters, or even the gap between the top and the bottom, but ‘the gap between the bottom and the middle’. Labour, in the person of Harriet Harman, expresses this slightly differently: we must not, she says, ‘return to the days when inequality was spiralling and where a tiny minority of the population got all the rewards’ (‘return’?); we must urgently address the ‘socio-economic’ disadvantage of the poorest. Everyone is happy talking about eliminating poverty, because this looks like an admirable and ethical response to the problem of inequality, while leaving the structures of power untouched. In an odd way, Austerity Britain and Family Britain perform a similar manoeuvre. For, the direction of our gaze in these books – Kynaston’s gaze as well as ours – is unarguably downwards. We look down on the world of the ‘ordinary citizen’ because we ourselves are, unquestionably, not ordinary. Our perspective, like Kynaston’s, is an activator perspective, as it could only be, but because he doesn’t submit this perspective to critical or theoretical scrutiny, his story sometimes has the effect of presenting the relations between the unobserved top of the social system and everything else as an immutable given.

Seven years after the end of the period covered by Family Britain, Granada Television screened the first of that extraordinary series called Seven Up, the original and most remarkable experiment in reality TV, in which 14 children from across all social classes were brought together for a day and interviewed about this experience and about their lives, for the cameras. The idea was that these 14 representative citizens of the future Britain would be revisited every seven years and interviewed again – which is what, more or less, has happened (there have so far been seven such programmes). The first programme is little short of astonishing for the insight it gives into the class structure of Britain in 1964. Although they are only seven years old, the degree of social differentiation in the children is extreme. The sense of radical disjunction between lives and fates is shocking, precisely because each of the children seems unique, while all have evidently already been moulded by the system. Being children, none of them has yet thought that they might be ‘ordinary’ and all are startlingly authentic, not least the three little posh boys. ‘I read the Financial Times,’ lisps one of these delicate angels, while another talks of his destined journey via Charterhouse to the City of London. They seem like little aliens, at the very least mere curiosities from an age long superseded. Yet, while watching them, I had to remind myself that they were actually slightly younger than I was in 1964, and that I too went to a school such as theirs, and that David Kynaston did too, and David Cameron and George Osborne. All of us will, of course, protest that, as Cameron likes to say, where we came from doesn’t matter, it’s where we are going that counts. And, in one sense, this is true. But in another it isn’t, which is why Gordon Brown’s quip about Eton struck such a nerve. Whatever we have become, our most impressionable and formative years were spent in the company of the elect, in a milieu that was continuous with the milieu in which the three little boys in Seven Up sit cosseted. Some of us grew up to write history books, some to review them. Others, to travel first class by train every morning from the Home Counties to the City to collect their bonuses. Yet others became politicians. They are about to form our next government.

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Vol. 32 No. 9 · 13 May 2010

Nicholas Spice, bemoaning the continuing social division in British education, refers to the Fleming Report of 1944, which recommended that a quarter of all places at private schools should go to children from the state system (LRB, 8 April). He adds that because this was to be on a voluntary basis, ‘nothing was done.’ That isn’t quite true, for there was the ‘Gilkes Experiment’ at Dulwich College, which enabled the late Eddie George, for example, the son of a postman, to attend the public school in South London and go on to become governor of the Bank of England.

Christopher Gilkes was appointed master at Dulwich in 1941 and was determined to revive the fortunes and academic standards of the war-battered, near bankrupt school, founded by Edward Alleyn in 1619. He followed the recommendations of the Fleming Report and embraced the scheme established under the 1944 Education Act which allowed local authorities to pay the fees at independent schools. By 1957, 90 per cent of boys at Dulwich, having passed the 11-plus and an entrance examination, were paid for by the Inner London Education Authority, Kent County Council et al. The school’s new concentration on academic ability horrified some governors and Old Alleynians, not least the most famous of them, P.G. Wodehouse (never mentioned in my day because of his wartime behaviour).

What Gilkes and his successor created in the 1950s was essentially a super-grammar school with a public school ethos. It was elitist and single-sex and might not secure approval from progressive opinion today. But it did suggest a way of bringing the independent and state sectors together which could, and should, have provided a model for other public schools. Unfortunately, the plug was pulled on it by Harold Wilson’s government when it ended the Local Education Authorities award scheme and, despite the later introduction of the Assisted Places Scheme, fee-paying pupils gradually became the majority again.

Gavin Stamp
London SE23

Vol. 32 No. 10 · 27 May 2010

‘Do you know,’ I was told, in 1958, by an old Harrovian who, like me, had just arrived in Cambridge, ‘you are the first grammar school boy I’ve ever spoken to.’ A small step for us both. Harrow continues to thrive in 2010, along with the schools of Nicholas Spice, who began this debate (LRB, 8 April), and Gavin Stamp (Letters, 13 May), who put him right on the implementation of the 1944 Education Act, under which Dulwich School voluntarily admitted an 11-plus element. The grammar schools, whatever the overall system’s faults, provided a lever for change. The subsequent system has not. In illustration, from my time there, one grammar school alone eventually produced the chairman of Shell, a scientist who in Geneva helped develop what became Cern, an international concert pianist and composer, a leading legal academic, a successful playwright and, I suppose typically, senior civil servants. Unlike the excellent public schools above, my old school is no more, despite its successes. First, it became a comprehensive. Then it became a ‘sink school’. Finally adjudged a total failure, it was closed down altogether. Though a listed building the ex-school was left vacant till the roof collapsed, and the rain poured in.

This is not the place for arguing the detailed theories behind the original comprehensive school revolution, but a New Labour MP last year was asked on radio what this thinking had been. His response was this: once there were good schools, and there were bad schools, and so the government of the day decided to put that right, and it amalgamated them, so that everybody could go to a good school. The fact that we have elected an Etonian cabinet shows how far we have to go.

Will Fyans
London N5

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