The next chapter—following Austerity Britain, 1945–1951 (2008)—in a staggeringly thorough, ongoing study of postwar Britain.
For most American readers, who don’t know Harringay from Herfordshire or Atlee from Eden, this dense sociological study of British society in the 1950s may strike far from the radar. British historian Kynaston depicts lingering postwar rationing, economical buying habits, jobs and educational opportunities, favorite radio shows and football teams, pub-crawling proclivities, birth-control methods, housing inclinations and voting records, among numberless other subjects. The author has a felicitous, fluid writing style, and he nicely dilutes the heavy factual information with the voices of the people, recorded here in diaries, newspaper accounts, etc. From being badly battered by the war to moving into “some sort of peacetime normality” and even gingerly embracing the modern era, the exhausted yet still upbeat British people had voted the Labour party narrowly out of office in 1951 and brought Churchill back in. Underscoring the general mood, one elderly voter is quoted as saying, “All I want is to see England on her feet again.” The coronation of Elizabeth in 1953 proved the high mark of the decade, while her sister Margaret’s affair with a married officer caused the decade’s major scandal. In a country where there was a general aversion to the “common,” the working class began to find its voice, aided by depictions on the new medium of television. Kynaston gets at the strong sense of community that was developing among the people, and he covers most of the cultural milestones, including the publication of Dylan Thomas and Kingsley Amis, the hanging of Ruth Ellis, the emergence of the Teddy Boys and the debates over grammar-school reform and modern architecture.
Captures the stolid, charmingly evolving open spirit of the British people—though not likely to appeal to a broad American readership.