Covering just five years in more than 900 pages, British historian Kynaston (Family Britain, 1951-1957, 2009, etc.) continues his sprawling study of Britain from the end of World War II to the rise of Margaret Thatcher.
The present volume opens in 1957, when the grimness of postwar belt-tightening had finally given way to something of a boom. The author wisely and subtly brackets that year and the closing year of his volume with music, Tommy Steele (“Britain’s first rock ’n’ roll star”) on one side and the Beatles on the other. Attractive though this book is for anyone interested in the social history of modern Britain, Kynaston is more concerned with the concrete details of daily life—literally. In much of the narrative, the author documents Britain’s efforts both to modernize and to provide adequate housing for a growing population. “[D]uring the 1950s,” he writes, “well over two million new dwellings had been added to the national housing stock and almost 300,000 old houses demolished.” But that wasn’t nearly enough, and tied into the housing shortage were issues of race and class, with one major race riot in Notting Hill linked to the arrival in an all-white public-housing neighborhood of a Pakistani family. Strife is a constant in Kynaston’s pages, but so is aspiration, with an exploding population of university students and of the social services to accommodate them, a modest but growing movement to press for gay and minority civil rights, and a general loosening of the primness of yesteryear, as exemplified by the lifting of the ban on D.H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover—which didn’t happen until 1960. Kynaston peppers his narrative with examples of British unstiff upper lips, complaining about everything from, yes, the ethnicity of one’s neighbors to the grating voices of the Windsors.
From Prince Charles’ boarding school to the rise of Benny Hill: The Britain we know today takes shape in these pages. Monumental and highly readable.