We’ve done awfully well

Karl Miller

  • Modernity Britain: Opening the Box, 1957-59 by David Kynaston
    Bloomsbury, 432 pp, £25.00, June 2013, ISBN 978 0 7475 8893 1

This book is preceded by two two-volume books that have been praised by journalists to the skies. They belong to a grand design, to a project set to tell the story of modern Britain (modern England as a rule) from 1945 to 1979; the present instalment, Modernity Britain: Opening the Box, covers the narrow gap from 1957 to 1959. David Kynaston tells the story in his own measured words, and he also tells it in the often loud and uninhibited words of others – authors, newspapers, diarists, eminent politicians, Mass Observation respondents. Man, it seems, is an indignant animal. Kynaston has researched widely into such sources and digests them into a readable totality. If this is, in part, a scissors-and-paste project, it’s also one that stands on its own feet.

An affinity with the fiction of Anthony Powell has been caught, but this is not a novel. It is not a memoir, though it eats the memoirs of others, plankton-fashion. It is a species of history – annals, perhaps. Kynaston’s far from copious political judgments are sensible and considerate, though I don’t see why he should call Eisenhower’s annulment of the Suez invasion ‘brutal’. His reticence might lead his readers to over-interpret what he does have to say about public affairs. A not uncritical leftish feeling can be surmised for the romantic socialism of Aneurin Bevan, and for the romantic sociology of Michael Young and Raymond Williams, as the views of these three have been characterised. One of the best sayings culled for the new volume is drawn from Bevan, and is as good as the ‘poetry’ heard by someone in his speeches. ‘Lazy? Lazy?’ Bevan responded to a sneer about the laziness of his colleague Roy Jenkins: ‘How can a boy from Abersychan who acquired an accent like that be lazy?’ From Princess Margaret comes a comment on the moribundity of the London Season: ‘Every tart in London can get in.’

Kynaston appreciates the respect for working-class values which he associates with the work of Williams, Young and Richard Hoggart, and before that of D.H. Lawrence, and which would appear here to have followed on a spell of postwar indifference. The working class is thought by these writers to be marked by a power of sympathy, of closeness and attachment, which makes them the emotional superiors of the rest of society, with its embrace of individuality and success. The working class is given an institutional or collective weight which has mattered very much but which needed to be defended in the 1950s. Williams is quoted in praise of Lawrence, a praise which rests on that criterion of sympathy later known to F.R. Leavis as ‘life’, or a principal constituent of it. What Lawrence beheld was

the positive result of the life of the family in a small house, where there were no such devices of separation of children and parents as the sending-away to school, or the handing-over to servants, or the relegation to nursery or playroom … in such a life, the suffering and the giving of comfort, the common want and the common remedy, the open row and the open making-up, are all part of a continuous life which, in good and bad, makes for a whole attachment.

If the perceived recovery of traditional proletarian values gives rise to displays of favouritism in the quoted material, it also produces rewarding debates. ‘The rising literary critic’ Frank Kermode discusses in Encounter Williams’s Culture and Society, which Kynaston extols, while appearing to grant Kermode’s limiting judgment: Kermode admired the book’s ‘intelligence, candour and seriousness’ but was ‘sceptical about the exaltation of working-class culture – “I do not feel that it retains the value that Mr Williams allows it.”’

Other books examined in this context are Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy, Family and Kinship in East London by Michael Young and Peter Willmott and Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy. Young was to question the policy of slum clearance, which moved people from the friendly East End to high-rise development. High-rise is debated here with attention to its proponents (who took to saying that high-rises, made out to be heaven, were hardly the hell they were to be accused of being) and with a more noticeable attention to those who felt they were hell, that Candleford to high-rise, so to speak, was a wrong direction. There are pages which cause you to think what a curse slum clearance has been.

The validation of the old working class and its dwellings is listened to in the book, with reservations, and can’t be supposed to have since taken the country by storm: but the validation of Young, the plain-spoken, inventive politician and social thinker, is now likely to find many sympathisers. One of them used to be Tony Blair, who thought well of The Rise of the Meritocracy, while misreading it. He was all for the meritocracy, and the author was not.

Current themes and anxieties were in ample evidence in 1957-59. The two main parties were already at blows over Keynesian public spending, and were, internally, bitterly divided. The frowns over emigration and nuclear power have certainly not relaxed, with racism still a widespread disfigurement. Macmillan and Gaitskell emerge as more appealing than their various haters would have believed during the 1959 election, told here with plenty of uncertainty and suspense. A cartoon by Trog (mentioned here) conveys that the victory was won by nothing so much as Macmillan’s idyll of a Never-Had-It-So-Good. Supermac is shown addressing a room charged with amenities, goodies and utensils: ‘Well, gentlemen, I think we all fought a good fight …’ Trog (Wally Fawkes) was compounded by Edward Heath, who described a party political broadcast located in Macmillan’s country house, where the government’s record is assessed by its top men:

And Harold said: ‘Well now, Rab, I think we’ve done very well, don’t you?’ And Rab said: ‘Oh yes, I think we’ve done awfully well, particularly the things I’ve been doing.’ And Iain Macleod then said: ‘Yes, well, I’ve done awfully well and we’ve all done very well indeed.’

Not all of his honourable friends were distressed when Gaitskell died. ‘It was as if a great light had come into the sky,’ sallied Dick Crossman, in private.

There was a risk that the book’s quotations might overdo the sneers and complaints, and they sometimes do. It’s as if some of them were professional critics, so hard are they to please. The leading curmudgeon slates Tommy Steele: the ‘rock ’n’ roll idol’ brought ‘to his first stage acting part little but an atrocious cockney accent’. The Daily Mirror found it ‘ludicrous’ that ‘some of the coloured people who have settled here are no-goods’ who have never had it so good. And yet the book would be much diminished if it were to lose its other men’s flowers. The university teacher Graham Hough wrote a strong letter to the New Statesman to say: ‘There will remain to the Labour Party the glory of messing up the grammar schools, the oldest and best of English educational institutions; and of continuing the 19th-century public school system for the very few who can afford to pay for it.’ Such sentiments are uncommon in the book’s 1957-59, which abstains from the desire expressed at the time by William Golding to blow up Eton College.

Bloomsbury’s Frances Partridge, queen of the diary put-down, seems to have wanted to blow up television, ‘the box in the corner’. In the flat of her friend Robert Kee, a great asset to the box in the corner, she glimpsed the Tonight programme, and later recorded: ‘I was bored and rather disgusted, and longed to be able to unhook my gaze from this little fussy square of confusion and noise on the other side of the room.’ Cliff Michelmore’s ‘countenance’ was ‘charmless’, his manner that ‘of a Hoover-salesman’.

David Kynaston is not like that. He is a watcher of the world of entertainment and mass-media stardom. Tommy Steele, Cliff Richard, Bruce Forsyth are vignetted time and again. The theatre critic Alan Brien makes more appearances than Kenneth Tynan, but is worth his place. He once accompanied Mr and Mrs Macmillan on a visit to Tyneside, to the North Sands shipyard. The ‘bronchial blast’ of a hooter sounded, startling Macmillan. ‘Lady Dorothy was quicker on the uptake. “When the whistle blows,” she explained, “they all go off for their luncheon.”’ Brien, a native of the region, and indeed of the working class, was not slow to pounce.

There are no quotations from Liberace, but the book relates how he was awarded damages of £8000 when the Mirror’s Cassandra suggested that he was homosexual, ‘a slag heap of lilac-covered hokum’. Homosexuality, and the lifting of restrictions in that quarter, opening the door to those stately consenting adults, are among the book’s subjects: lazy Roy Jenkins helped deliver the Wolfenden legislation and it’s good to hear about it in the month in which a feature film about Liberace and his male lover has been playing in London (though not in Hollywood). It appears that in some parts of the world some changes have taken place, for all that Kynaston’s late 1950s can often look familiar.

When it comes to writers, the book favours the popular and the well-known. The essay collections Declaration and Conviction – by Angry Young Men and what was then christened the Leftover Left, respectively – are seen as milestones. Ian Hamilton is referred to for his feat as a schoolboy editor in persuading celebrated writers to contribute to his magazine. His afterlife came later as afterlives do, and is missing from the book. So are Muriel Spark, V.S. Naipaul, and the explosive William Golding. Philip Larkin is present. Not really for his poems as for the tirelessly sardonic and sarcastic bulletins on national life sent in letters to his friend Monica Jones. Larkin’s offendedness was soothed twenty years on when Margaret Thatcher wrested the crown from the unworthy, and he was informed by the Warrior Queen that she had a line of his by heart: ‘Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.’

The book alludes to ‘the giant ICI’, while remarking that paternalism was the ‘order of the day in the many small or medium-sized family-run firms that largely comprised the City of London’. When I was a National Serviceman in Hamburg after the war, I met a very interesting man, mentioned in these dispatches from the 1950s. John Harvey-Jones was a naval officer who talked to people as if they were all there, in a way that was strange among seniors, and he gave people books – in my case, Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters. He later became the head of ICI. I forgot to ask him whether he was working-class by origin, but I doubt whether he owed his promotion to paternalism. He hardly looked like a meritocrat, but he did look like a deterrent to the abuse of these classifications.

The book identifies a British modernity of snobbery and privilege, but acknowledges exceptions and cross-currents, one of them the memorable challenge to the royal theatricals that came from John Grigg, formerly Lord Altrincham, in the late 1950s. It did not represent a revival of working-class values.