Modernity Britain: Opening the Box, 1957-59, by David Kynaston, Bloomsbury RRP£25/RRP$40, 432 pages
As we read about Britain in the late 1950s in David Kynaston’s new volume, some things are apparently timeless. Queen Elizabeth II is on the throne, Bruce Forsyth is on the new television sets and Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap is playing in the West End. This instalment in Kynaston’s history of Britain from 1945 to 1979 runs to more than 400 pages but is merely the first half of Modernity Britain, with a promised sequel that will complete the coverage of the years 1957-62. That follows earlier volumes of 700 pages on “Austerity Britain” (1945-51) and nearly 800 on “Family Britain” (1951-57). Since the projected terminal date is 1979, we can expect the entire work to exceed 4,000 pages, in a consecutive national history on a scale not seen since Victorians such as James Anthony Froude fashioned their celebrations of the British constitution.
Kynaston’s focus, however, is quite different, as his readers have thankfully discovered. His forte is a beguiling use of social insights, often on an intimate domestic scale, to establish a sense of period and to open windows on the recent past. He works from a wide variety of sources, especially in the ephemeral records of the period, published and unpublished alike. His opening chapter sets the tone, culling its apparently random impressions of Britain in January 1957 from radio and television programmes, from popular newspapers and magazines – and not least from diaries.
This is no top-down history but some people are nonetheless more equal than others in his story. Harold Macmillan is the new prime minister who, after the debacle of the Suez expedition, eventually snatches back the political advantage for the Conservatives. Likewise, Hugh Gaitskell makes intermittent efforts, as Labour leader, to set his faction-ridden party on the path to modernisation. But what further enhances their prominence in these pages is that both party leaders were diarists, thus claiming a privileged status here alongside Nella Last, a housewife from unfashionable Barrow-in-Furness whose claim to posthumous fame rests on the highly quotable diary she sent in to the Mass Observation archive.
Some stories told in Modernity Britain inevitably pick up threads left dangling in the earlier volumes. For example, the author displays abiding enthusiasm for both football and cricket as emblematic national pastimes, recapturing epic moments in test matches and cup finals. But he also explores the tensions between the “gentlemen” and the “players” on the cricket field, in an era when only amateurs were thought to display the requisite character for leadership. The Yorkshire professional Johnny Wardle, dropped from the England team in 1958, clearly has the author’s sympathy. Conversely, when dealing with the selection of an England captain in 1954 in his previous volume, Kynaston had equally clearly disparaged the claims of the Sussex amateur David Sheppard (later Bishop of Liverpool). But the significance of such a theme is inevitably weakened in an episodic treatment.
At other points, the author shows himself quite capable of escaping from the prison of strict chronology. Thus Chapter 9 offers a social analysis of nearly 50 pages, beginning with the concept of the “meritocracy”, as introduced by the sociologist Michael Young in an influential tract in 1958. Various ramifications of contemporary arguments about the changing nature of social class are thereby explored – this is where Johnny Wardle first pops up – in the course of this well-focused discussion.
The Rise of the Meritocracy was indeed an important book, as an admiring friend (and patron) had told Young at the time: “it achieves something that Chekhov used to talk about – the art of saying serious and profound things in a light vein”. This is a commendation that could well be applied to Kynaston himself. He is seen at his best in deftly building up his mosaics with a sense of pattern that often emerges by stealth from a chaos of fragments, with an enviable knack for catching the attention of a wide readership.
If there is one thing that unites the British people, it is surely their fondness for talking – at great length – about class divisions. And never did this art-form flourish more luxuriantly than in the late 1950s. If Young deserves esteem, his fellow sociologist Peter Willmott deserves hardly less as co-author of a widely cited study of the working-class community in Bethnal Green. (And since his wife, Phyllis Willmott, kept a diary their prominence in Kynaston’s account is doubly assured). The other seminal work on class was surely Richard Hoggart’s extraordinary combination of memoir with literary and social analysis in The Uses of Literacy (1957). What all these works had in common was a nostalgia for the values of the traditional working class and a suspicion of the brave new world that was the breaking wave of the future.
Kynaston is not the only historian to have chronicled the postwar period at such length. Peter Hennessy was the pioneer, with two volumes (so far), the second of which is titled Having It So Good (2006); and Dominic Sandbrook, who has now written four, called his parallel volume on the late-1950s Never Had It So Good (2005). The same title is adopted for Kynaston’s third chapter. The seeming inevitability of citing Macmillan’s pregnant words – “most of our people have never had it so good” – points to the interlocking of economic, social and political themes at a pivotal moment of change.
Gaitskell was acutely aware of the electoral impact of prosperity, long deferred after the war but now palpable in the late 1950s. “Working class people,” he told Richard Crossman, his Labour colleague (and fellow diarist), “are week by week becoming less working class, less class-conscious and more allergic to such old appeals as trade union solidarity or class loyalty.” These two former academics spoke in sociological prose, echoing arguments developed by Young or Willmott or Hoggart; the same insight was distilled into electioneering poetry by Macmillan, already setting the terms for his victory in the general election of October 1959. This is where Kynaston concludes – for the moment. He allows himself a rare touch of anachronism in highlighting the victory of the new Conservative MP for Finchley, a housewife like Nella Last, albeit one too busy to keep a diary.
Peter Clarke’s latest book is ‘Mr Churchill’s Profession’ (Bloomsbury)