This is an essay I wrote for Harper’s Magazine last year based on two books about post-war Britain.
I was born in central London in 1947, a child in a very special generation. In no time at all it became perfectly clear to me that not just my parents but everyone had been awaiting my arrival and was delighted to see me. Grown-up people of all ages and genders peered into my pram and then my pushchair as if they were slightly distant relatives. They stopped on the street to chuck me under the chin and pinch my cheek (yes, well-fed, rosy with health) and congratulate the adult pushing me on bringing me into the world. Even old Queen Mary, Edwardian widow of George V, had her chauffeur stop the Rolls in St. James’s Park, where my father had taken me to feed the ducks. The window lowered and her long, ancient face appeared. “What a lovely child,” she said, lacy and coiffed, with a right regal smile. People smiled and nodded at small children all the time, approving of the fresh start. During the previous seven years those already on the planet had lived through the separations and loss of their youth; the deaths of their children, siblings, wives, and husbands; civilian bombings, invasions, occupations; all manner of necessary sacrifice and fear of and for the future. Now all that was over. They had suffered and come through, overcome the worst that human beings can do, and created a safe, decent place in which to make babies.
Directly across the road from my block of flats was a huge bomb site, to me an ancient ruin, an enticement of tumbled and broken brick, wildflowers pushing through the rubble. It became a forbidden playground for the kids on our block. The lethal remains of a few walls still stood, one or two with that clichéd tattered bit of curtain flapping through the window frame. We rebuilt civilization, as our parents had, with real bricks. We played cowboys and Indians, pirates and princesses, and reenacted the war we’d heard of. At home my parents told me about the bold world they’d lived in and the night the last V-2 rocket landed across the road on March 25, 1945, creating the wonderful bomb site. They had been playing chemin de fer with friends in their third-floor flat and hadn’t bothered to go down into the basement when the air-raid siren went off. Blasé and glamorous. That was the other side of the war—the one we had missed. It sounded so much fun. But then neither of my parents was much given to telling the truth, and my father, too old at forty to be called up, had spent the war, professional con man that he was, making money on the black market. Yet even with a crook for a father, I still understood what a thing it was to be given a fresh egg for breakfast, and I watched from my pushchair as my mother licked her finger to separate a ration coupon carefully at the butcher to get the meat for the week.
Memories, myths, half-true recollection, fantasy: this is the difficult and exciting territory of social history. David Kynaston’s massive projected history of postwar Britain from 1945 to 1979 is titled Tales of a New Jerusalem, echoing William Blake. Its first volume, consisting of two books, covers the period from 1945 to 1951 and was published as Austerity Britain in 2008. The new volume, Family Britain, also two books, takes us from 1951, the year of the Festival of Britain, when it was still possible for at least some of the nation to celebrate grandly as if we had remained a world power, to 1957, the year after the tastrophic British intervention in the Suez, when only the deluded could believe, or wish to believe, such a proposition. Kynaston tells the story of people’s lives during this time by compiling a range of contemporary voices from varied backgrounds and applying an historian’s retrospective structure and gentle analysis. He gathers material from private and archived diaries and from novels and memoirs by professional writers, biographers, and others whose lives publishers deemed worth recording. He also makes use of the archives of that extraordinary British phenomenon of the late 1930s onward, Mass Observation, which organized innumerable teams of eavesdroppers to write down everything they heard as they went about their lives, while volunteers of all classes and conditions sent in minute descriptions of their own daily doings. By the 1950s the Mass Observation movement had shifted from its original, quite radical conception as an “anthropology of ourselves” toward the commercial market-research organization it finally became. Nevertheless, it offers Kynaston a trove of opinionated, first-person observations and activities, collected at a time when it was still just possible to believe in the objective recording of real life.
Austerity hardly went away with the declaration of peace in Europe. Food rationing didn’t disappear until 1954, and only in 1957 did the prime minister, Harold Macmillan, dare to say that we’d “never had it so good.” What he actually said was, “Most of our people have never had it so good.” He was at a Conservative Party rally, talking up postwar industrial growth, and even then he warned about the difficulty of maintaining increased production and employment while keeping prices steady. Like many others, my bomb site across the road remained as it was until the mid-1950s, when significant slum clearance began. Military call-up wasn’t discontinued until 1960. British troops were being sent to wars in Malaya and Korea, and the Cold War began to look ominous well before Macmillan was telling “most of our people” to feel good(ish) about the economy. Black and white is how everyone remembers the 1950s. To me (except for a few musicals and westerns from the United States, land of Technicolor) it seems a pale dove gray.
In 1945, the new Labour government, with nationalization of some major industries already in place from the war, instituted a welfare state for the population who had had it so bad. The National Health Service, the right to public housing, unemployment pay, the security of knowing that the community would take care of you in sickness and in health—all these were embedded in the postwar promise of a better life for everyone. Kynaston quotes Anthony Crosland, a young MP, later a minister in the Wilson government, who welcomed “the higher employment, generous social services, less flagrant inequalities of wealth and opportunity.” There was, Crosland believed, a shift toward “post-capitalism,” and he declared “the new society . . . infinitely more humane and decent than the old.” It’s certainly true that I grew up and have lived until now without the fear that I couldn’t afford to get ill. Yet by the general election of 1950, Kynaston suggests, most Britons were leading lives of quiet desperation, and the Labour government’s great experiment was in trouble. Asked by pollsters what the Labour Party stood for, a traveling salesman believed the answer was “Giving the working classes power they are not fitted to use”; a dentist replied, “Pampering the working man”; and a butcher’s wife said, “To keep down the people with money.” Even so, whereas in 1936 nearly one third of York’s working-class population had been living in poverty, by 1950 the figure had dropped to one fortieth.
Perhaps all sorts of people did muck in together during the war (although reports of muggings during the blackout and rape in the Underground during air raids tell a more complicated story), but the class system, at the root of all this alarm at least as much as the war’s economic drain, was not thereby dissolved. Free grammar school places created by the 1944 Education Act were designed to give bright working-class children greater opportunity, but in 1953 the children of professionals and businessmen were significantly more likely than their working-class cohort to pass the eleven-plus exams required to get into those grammar schools. Social class told you everything. You learned, well before you got the alphabet by heart, to recognize microdistinctions of class and precisely where everyone belonged on the ladder of being. A single spoken word, a vowel, a look in the eye, the way a scarf or tie was worn and knotted, practically the quality of the air around an individual were, and are even today, instant giveaways of social, economic, and educational status. I do it without thinking about it, without wanting to. But what I could never be sure of while I was growing up in Britain was my own class.
Being Jewish made it hard to find your place. Although I am as English, born and bred, as Camilla Parker Bowles, and nowadays almost as middle-class as my mother once hoped, there was always an absolute difference in my mind between “English” (of any class) and “Jewish.” It wasn’t any religious practice—we were almost entirely secular. It was to do with how we lived, what we ate, how we spoke, what we said, and, I suppose, what we knew without knowing from my parents’ parents who had arrived in London in the first decade of the twentieth century. I was told by other children at school that I was Jewish, not English, and, although I insisted otherwise, secretly I more or less agreed with them. I was sent first of all to a private school, and then a few years later, when my family broke up and went broke, to a state school in a working-class area. Then (having been deemed “maladjusted” but good at IQ tests) the local council paid for me to attend a bohemian but middle-class progressive boarding school. My accent rose and fell and rose again, according to need. When I was about twelve I overheard a couple of girls in the boarding-school cloakroom agreeing that if I joined the drama club as I wanted to, I’d only be able to play servants (working-class kitchen-sink drama hadn’t yet filtered down to the classroom). I adjusted my accent accordingly, although I withdrew my application.
For that reason I don’t see myself in David Kynaston’s book, although I recognize and remember the lay of the land. Much of what he recounts seems archaic, although similar attitudes still exist in different words and forms. The Liberal politician and admirably early anti-fascist Lady Violet Bonham Carter wrote in her diary about the disturbing experience of being on a radio program with George Brown, a raucous Labour MP and the son of a van driver. During the program, she recalled, “George Brown’s form cld not I thought have been worse.” Back at their hotel,
He hectored & harangued us & addressed me repeatedly as “my dear Violet.” I was frozen—but did not I fear freeze him. I have never before—in the course of an unsheltered life, spent among all sorts & conditions of men—met anyone so completely un-house-trained.
I imagine that most of the men of other conditions she had met understood and accepted the necessity of deference to a Lady and kept her rather more sheltered than she knew. And in the 1930s, decades before the Russians and Israelis thought of it, a seven-foot-high wall with revolving spikes was built in North Oxford between a private middle-class estate and working-class council housing. In 1956, those on the posh side of the wall wanted it retained: “After all we are private owners and pay a lot more money. . . . And there is a lot of riff-raff on the other side.” Those on the council-housing side wanted the wall taken down: “People over there are no better than we are.”
A closely related and recurring concern in Kynaston’s chronology is the matter of race relations, the specially British form of racism that learned so much from the indigenous class system. The exquisite understanding of difference was made easier when skin color was involved. In the 1950s, shiploads of West Indians arrived to keep our hospitals, canteens, buses, and trains going and to boost the workforce for the industrial boom. As boom turned to bust, the unions began to talk about “coloured” workers taking “white” jobs, and demanded quotas and redundancies. Landladies put up cards in their front windows saying “No Coloureds,” or, if they were more genteel, simply announced, once they’d answered the door and seen, that the room advertised had just gone.
In tiny corners of London life became a little livelier. There was some jazz, and easier manners, but even though I lived just a few yards from Soho, London then seemed about as cosmopolitan as Antarctica. The only black people I knew as a small child were a wandering racing tipster called Prince Monolulu who lived nearby and wore a feathered headdress (and who was commemorated by a pub on Maple Street), and two young men from the Indian subcontinent training with the Royal Air Force whom I’d picked up (literally) at a skating rink and who came round to tea whenever they were on leave. During the late Sixties, several black South African refugees from apartheid told me that they actually preferred the racism of South Africa to the polite, insinuating English variety. The first of London’s major race riots began in 1958 when white youths were said to have attacked a white woman seen with a Caribbean man in Notting Hill. By 1968, Conservative politician Enoch Powell was warning of the rivers of blood that would run if immigration were not stopped.
Kynaston deals with the totality of social life in his book, and occasionally the equal weight he gives to all the issues feels a little odd. The ongoing rumblings about the projected arrival of commercial television, for example, seem pretty unimportant compared with the upheavals of race, class, and the economy (although it’s true I watched my first television advertisement in a state of ecstasy—we “sat around” the TV as if it were a fire—even though it was for toothpaste).
It’s clear from his 2008 book, Our Times: The Age of Elizabeth II, that the novelist and social historian A. N. Wilson believes the commercialization and Americanization of the culture to be as serious a cause of the changes he bemoans in Britain as is the immigration he deplores.
For the reign of Elizabeth is the one in which Britain effectively stopped being British. The chief reason for this is mass immigration on a scale that has utterly transformed our nation.
The Britain Wilson would like to live in is so utterly lost—deference, order, world influence, good manners, spirituality, Englishness . . . gone, all gone—that I felt almost sorry for the poor old thing, until I realized that he is three years younger than I am and is moping about a vanished way of life that certainly hasn’t existed since the Victorians, and very likely didn’t actually exist then. Except, of course, if you were, as Wilson seems to have been, already of pensionable age and opinion when you were born. As the quintessential Young Fogey, he remains quaint up to a point, until you read his views on “the lumpenproletariat” who, in the nineteenth century, he explains, had been hidden from view, “cruelly dragooned into semi-slavery, either as factory hands or as domestic servants or foot soldiers. If they positively refused to work, they were consigned to the workhouse” and died by the time they were forty. Looking back over sixty years, Wilson explains how the lamentably guilt-ridden liberal democracy that has ineluctably developed since the war (along with immigration, the decline of religious institutions, slack morals, and comprehensive schooling) has caused the downfall of the nation by
performing the optimistic and charitable task of sending these people to school, trying to persuade them to eat wholesome food, and extending their lives, in spite of their habits of smoking and drinking, to the point where they would require, along life’s path, expensive prisons, hospitals and eventually old folks’ care homes specially built for them. . . . Almost no one in public life . . . was impolite enough to see it as a problem at all, though as the ranks of the lumpenproletariat in all senses swelled—becoming more numerous and more obese—it was not a phenomenon which it was easy to ignore. . . . There had never been a time in history when everyone else—from the working classes to the classes at the top of the economic scale—had been compelled through decency to live as if the “unemployable” were just like everyone else.
In fact, England is remarkably resistant to real social mobility. In January, a newly published government report revealed that 50 percent of South Asian minorities live in poverty and survive on incomes 13–21 percent lower than those of white, Christian men, that women’s hourly rates are 21 percent below those of men, and that inequality between the rich and the poor is now greater than at any time since the Second World War.
Wilson rejoices in his exquisite snobbery. He despises Michael Heseltine, a Tory cabinet minister implicated in bringing down Margaret Thatcher, for his moderate views, which Wilson could more easily excuse if they came from the landed gentry. For Heseltine (“with his bought furniture and his Palladian house”) is merely nouveau riche—not born to his position and therefore not entitled to the “wet,” vapid liberal opinions of those “politicians who had inherited such houses.” Social upstarts in the Tory party were supposed to be radical right-wing Thatcherites, like Thatcher herself. Inherited versus bought furniture is a classic English test of proper social standing (you can never buy real class), which Wilson firmly equates with innate and decent values, although he is not, I think, an inheritor of furniture and estate himself, his father having been a managing director of Wedgwood pottery, and therefore trade(you see, it gets to us all).
None of this, including the orotund language, is to be taken seriously—it is the kind of grumbling often heard from civil-service types in the Mass Observation archives—but it is instructive to read about this mythological land of England. Wilson’s England is placed firmly in the land of the Hobbit. His literary hero, J.R.R. Tolkien, wistfully depicted Anglo-Saxon English feudalism as an idyll of little hairy-footed salt-of-the-earth types who go to the ends of the earth to maintain tradition and happily do what they are told by their betters. I’m afraid, though, that if your grandparents came from a shtetl or a colonized Caribbean island, Middle-earth’s middle England is an old country to which you don’t want to return, even if it never existed.
Family Britain, by David Kynaston. Walker & Company. 776 pages. $47.50.
Our Times: The Age of Elizabeth II, by A. N. Wilson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 482 pages. $30.