Austerity Britain: 1945-1951, by David Kynaston, Bloomsbury, 704 pp, £25, 978-0747579854
Mass Observation’s 1939 survey War Begins at Home concluded with the seemingly indisputable: “The word ‘Black-Out’ has become a synonym and symbol of a shut-down on intellectual life or leisure. The Air War has blacked out civilization.” Angus Calder documents a conversation between two Blitz firewatchers: “It’s like the end of the world,” muttered one. “It’s the end of a world,” replied the other. Certainly, the bombing of Britain shocked and transformed its society – rationing was imposed, social life curtailed, jobs altered or lost, transportation restricted, the media censored, the sky filled with silver barrage balloons and bombers, and former housewives and hostesses patrolled the streets in trousers as Air Raid Precautionary wardens and ambulance drivers.
The physical landscape also disintegrated. Between the “first” (and most severe) blitz of 1940-1, the 1942 Baedeker raids (a series of German attacks on heritage landmarks) and 1944’s “little” blitz of pilotless drones, Exeter, Bath, York and Canterbury were all badly scarred; Coventry had already been razed in the first wave of bombing. In London, the House of Commons, Buckingham Palace, the Law Courts and the London Library sustained injury, and even St Paul’s suffered some damage. Sixty thousand Britons lost their lives, half of them Londoners. By the end of June 1941, throughout Britain there had been 2.25 million recorded cases of homelessness for one day or more (with some victims being bombed out more than once). “‘How can I write with the world in this state?’ is a cry I have heard more than once in the past few months,” wrote British publisher and literary advocate Geoffrey Faber as the ruins piled up.
But while blackouts and bombs derailed “civilisation” – the arts, literature, entertainment – it was the stomach and the nerves they hit hardest. By the time the “little Blitz” began in June 1944, widespread evocations of “blitz-spirit” heroism had lost their punch. This was partly because of the nature of the new campaign: V1 and V2 rockets now plummeted to earth at random during both day and night, providing little to fight against and causing pervasive anxiety. But part of it, too, had to do with wartime resources: writer Vincent Sheean returned to London from a sojourn in the US, whereupon he was informed that: “You won’t find any of the high-spirited we-can-take-it stuff of last year … We none of us run around the streets during bombings as we used to. People stay at home, they go to the shelters, they are getting a little grim. All the novelty is gone. The epic period is over. Food has something to do with it, too – everyone is probably a little under-nourished.” Vivienne Hall in Putney, whose house had been bombed out in 1944, reiterated, “We don’t like this resumption of bombing a bit … we are war-winter-world weary.” Elizabeth Bowen’s novel The Heat of the Day details a mid-war Midlands every-town at the nadir of wartime austerity:
[B]efore noon the housewives had swarmed, so completely, whitely, stripping the shops that one might ask oneself why these remained open. A scale or two adhered to the fishmonger’s marble slab; the pastrycook’s glass shelves showed a range of interesting crumbs; the fruiterer filled a longstanding void with fans of cardboard bananas and a ‘Dig for Victory’ placard; the greengrocer’s crates had been emptied of all but earth by those who had somehow failed to dig hard enough … In the confectioner’s windows the ribbons bleached on dummy boxes of chocolate among flyblown cut-outs of pre-war blondes. Newsagents without newspapers gave out in angry red chalk that they had no matches either. Pasted inside a telephone booth, a notice asked one to telephone less.
But although socially, psychologically, physically and politically cataclysmic (and exhausting), the Second World War was a world-making as well as a world-quaking period in British history. For one, Britain had learned from its mistakes. During the First World War, few plans were developed to guarantee the country’s rapid peacetime economic (not to mention ideological) recovery. Throughout the late 1920s and 1930s, the resulting inter-war financial depression added to a pervasive sense of moral decadence and an awareness of incipient imperial decline that together created a political climate desperate for reform, even before the Luftwaffe started razing slum and palace alike.
Already in 1940, Virginia Woolf could gently mock “brave new world” ideals: in Between the Acts (1941), a character envisions a future of purpose-built housing, housewife-saving technologies and international tranquility as recently heralded by the London Times. “Homes will be built. Each flat with its refrigerator, in the crannied wall. Each of us a free man; plates washed by machinery; not an aeroplane to vex us; all liberated; made whole …” Accordingly, while the bombers busily bombed, the planners planned: the outline for a shiny new Britain was in place before the Baedeker raids had ceased. William Beveridge’s 1942 government report on British reconstruction recommended that the five “Giant Evils” of “Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness” be fought via the introduction of a welfare state that included a nationalised health service, social security, a pension increase, an egalitarian and meritocratic educational system and vast public rebuilding projects. It was a visionary, far-sighted plan meant to reduce class boundaries, elevate standards of living and educate the masses diversely. While Beveridge’s wartime report was by no means alone in its reconstructive foresight, it was one of the most influential: in the consensus politics of the postwar period, as directed by a Labour government, all of its proposed changes were effected – albeit accompanied by varying degrees of success, compromise, pragmatism and popularity.
However, though prophetic wartime planners ably outlined a better postwar world, the tolling of the VE day bells unfortunately brought no immediate relief from the empty shop windows of Bowen’s novel. Those who thought that a return to peace might signal a return even to imperfect pre-war standards (must less a postwar utopia) were quickly disillusioned: the peace agreement may have removed psychological and physical dangers, but it provided little material reprieve. Despite the grand new social visions and the lifting of that civilisation-crushing blackout, wartime strictures worsened before they improved, a socio-economic necessity that was difficult to suffer for those living through it. Written in 1947-8 (during years of fuel and food shortages, bitter cold and currency collapse), Bowen’s The Heat of the Day (1949) also recalls the false consolations of such victory bells:
all that stood out in cities were unreverberating lacunae where there were churches gone. At the beginning, the invitation to rejoice brought out a few people … as though the peals and crashes were a spectacle to be watched passing … Soon, however, even before the bells had come to a climax, people began turning away from the illusion, either because it had already begun to fade or because they knew it must. There was a movement indoors again: doors and windows shut.
Certainly, Britain after the Second World War was a place of contradiction, of oppositional dreams and demands, of new freedoms and old deprivations: idealists dreaming of a New-Jerusalem social utopia and Burkean pessimists foretelling decline and fall could each locate telling portents in the postwar experience.
These immense tensions between plan and reality, progressiveness and conservatism, propaganda and popular feeling, planners’ utopias and genuine public need, however, at least inspire absorbing study. Eric Hobsbawm observed that “social history can never be another specialisation like economic or other hyphenated histories because its subject matter cannot be isolated”.
This diverse admixture is, perhaps, what makes David Kynaston’s epic postwar social history Austerity Britain: 1945-51 such an alchemic, dynamic read. Comprising the first two books of a projected sequence entitled Tales of a New Jerusalem: 1945-1979, the series’ mission is to document the story of “ordinary citizens as well as ministers and mandarins, of consumers as well as producers, of the provinces as well as London, of the everyday as well as the monumental, […] of the Singing Postman as well as John Lennon”.
Kynaston accomplishes this in his first volume with a prose style that balances entertainment with erudition and in-depth historical assessment with gorgeous, fact-laden word pictures, all fused together in an exemplary narrative of a fascinating period. On a particular Bank Holiday Monday in 1945, for example, he records that thirty-five extra trains had been added at Liverpool Street to make the London-to-seaside rounds and yet station queues still snaked around the block; 30,000 people were at London Zoo and only 4,500 at the V&A; and 100,000 people tried to gain entry (only half-managed) to an athletics meet at the White City stadium to see British pre-war champion Sydney Wooderson best the Swedes. Yet despite festive temptations, the usual audience of a quarter of the British adult population was tuned into the six o’clock Home Service radio news broadcast, which on this particular Bank Holiday announced that an atomic bomb containing “as much explosive power as 2,000 of our great ten-tonners” had been dropped on the Japanese “army base” of Hiroshima (an “army base” that nevertheless boasted a population of over 300,000). Writer Ursula Bloom looked at her husband across the room: “Horror filled us both, and to such a degree that for a moment neither of us could speak.” Joan Wyndham, at her Women’s Auxiliary Air Force base, “felt the strangest mixture of elation and terror”. Pub-goers cheered. The Archbishop of Canterbury went into hiding – “a favourite posture of the Church in moments of moral crisis”, a Lambeth Palace chaplain noted wryly. The Cabinet, which had not been informed of the bombing before its announcement on the BBC, nevertheless assured anyone interested that no more atomic devices would be used; Noël Coward thought that a bomb that would “blow us all to buggery” was “not a bad idea”. And two days later, Henry St John, a roaming salesman, tried to buy some cigarettes in Spennymoor but, finding none, instead contemplated masturbating over some pornographic inscriptions (“I fuck my sister – she’s 14”) on the door of a public toilet.
These potent blends of the seismic and the banal are what elevate Kynaston’s Austerity Britain out of the encyclopaedic and dryly academic and into the transfixing. Its breadth of geographical and socio-economic perspective distinguishes it from the wealth of other social histories written about the mid- and postwar periods: this is no testament of gentility in upheaval, nor is it a chronicle of London’s experience as synechdochal for Britain’s: Belfast, Glasgow, Newcastle and Cardiff all get their due, as do Doncaster, Llangollen, Bexhill-on-Sea and the Isle of Skye. The legacy of Beveridge’s report gets expert treatment … as do postwar marital trends, cricket and racing preferences, the rise of Aneurin Bevan, the reception of David Lean’s Brief Encounter by working class audiences (hearty guffaws), the decline of John Lehmann’s Penguin New Writing, the fabrics available to seamstresses and the Liverpool race riots. Kynaston’s sources are equally diverse, ranging from government publications to industry manuals and from unpublished journals to the ubiquitous Mass Observation diarists (although he is scrupulous in drawing attention to their middle class biases).
These varied sources lead towards a uniform conclusion: in postwar Britain, hope and exhaustion ran hand in hand, and the contrast between expectations and reality was stark. In the wonderfully titled and thoroughly offensive Rotting Hill (1951), Wyndham Lewis summarises the British plight:
In 1945 we ended a second, a six-year spell of war. We came out of this a ruined society, our economy destroyed, our riches vanished, our empire reduced to a shadow of itself, but our island-population … undiminished and requiring just as much food as when we had the money to pay for it.
Lewis (dubbed by Auden “that lonely old volcano of the Right”) implicitly blames the Labour government for its very being, but reserves most of his scorn for the British people – for their hybrid sloth- and sheep-like natures, for their lack of vision in not seeing his particular vision. “The decay of which I write is not romantic decay,” he snorts, adding that “specific persons or Parties are in no way accountable for the rot. It is either the fault of everybody or of nobody. If we exist, shabby, ill-fed, loaded with debt (taxed more than any men at any time have ever been), let us recognize that the sole explanation of this is our collective stupidity.” Ultimately, Lewis might not have any practicable policy answers – he is more brimstone than bedrock – but he certainly paints a vivid and not wholly inaccurate portrait of postwar frustrations.
After six years of all-out war, Britain was indeed in dire straits, with low production and heavy debts to America and burdened with high inflation and a currency so faltering that the convertibility crisis of 1947 saw a run on sterling. Indian independence in 1947 meant a loss of colonial revenue (although in reality it had already dwindled substantially before and during the war) and it also meant a weakening of market control on former colonies’ trading partners. Postwar Britain was also beginning its slow shift away from being a predominantly industrial economy to a service and finance one, leaving wide swathes of formerly industrial areas economically deprived. Finally, the newly founded “welfare state”, about which Wyndham Lewis was so insulting, was yet one more drain on the nation’s already depleted coffers.
The end of the war brought no return to prewar standards: rather, waits lengthened, clothes continued to fray, there were intermittent power-saving blackouts and food rationing tightened. The austerity of war, as evoked in Bowen’s soil-strewn and cavernous greengrocer, only increased in peacetime. One housewife records that “Our rations now are 1oz bacon per week – 3lb potatoes – 2oz butter – 3oz marge – 1oz cooking fat – 2oz cheese and one shilling meat”, still an improvement on the periods with no meat or cheese available at all. Bread, unrationed during the war, became so in 1946. Eggs were rare, sometimes found in powdered form, sometimes wholly absent. With coal, gas and petrol in sharp demand, heating and electricity were expensive and monitored, which in turn led to stratospheric tax increases on newly purchased cars. More controversial was the cancellation of many nocturnal athletic events (dog races, football games), which, when they were on, were often reached via train carriages freshly stripped of their insulation and light fixtures by enterprising black-marketeers.
In January 1947 Britain’s severest winter weather of the twentieth century hit, in tandem with a coal shortage. “Three days later, the coldest day for more than 50 years, the lights went out not only in London but all over the country; the electricity was off for long spells; gas in most big cities was at about a quarter of its normal pressure; and amid huge snow-drifts transport virtually ground to a halt,” Kynaston writes. On location in Cardiff, Ronald Reagan shivered when the coin-operated heater in his Cardiff hotel ran out on one of the chilliest nights of 1948. Christopher Isherwood, on a rare visit back from America, summarised it thus: “Two or three of my friends said to me then: ‘Believe us, this is worse than the war!’ By which I understood them to mean that the situation couldn’t by any stretch of the imagination be viewed as a challenge to self-sacrifice or an inspiration to patriotism; it was merely hell.”
In his treatment of postwar deprivation, Kynaston’s work is not unique. Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska’s Austerity In Britain: Rationing, Controls and Consumption (2000) is, perhaps, a more comprehensive economic summary of rationing strategies. But Kynaston’s is a social history, preoccupied not just with specifics (although he provides plenty) but also with the panorama. Occasionally, his forensic eye for social detail will miss a forest for the trees – his somewhat glib discussion of India’s emancipation is understandable given his constraints; less so, perhaps, its effects on the domestic racial tensions that prefigured the even greater strife of the 1950s. But on the whole his is a balanced, varied chronicle. Indeed, he writes of a humming organicism, wherein the microbes of everyday life are integrally tied to some very big game indeed.
Among these, housing and lifestyle are clear in his sights: his postwar landscape is less a static tableau than a lived-in construction zone. Largely bankrupt but for the Marshall Plan, Britain was in rough shape. Dan Jacobson, a young South African writer who arrived in London in 1950 wrote: “The public buildings were filthy, pitted with shrapnel-scars, running with pigeon dung [… ] cats bred in the bomb-sites, where people flung old shoes, tin cans, and cardboard boxes; whole suburbs of private houses were peeling, cracking, crazing […] decaying, decrepit, sagging, rotten city.” (In postwar fiction, Britain was compared to Babylon, Nineveh, Rome and Pompeii: decline and ruin were the predominant tropes.) Then as now, housing was scarce and population density high. The 1950 census, which surveyed 12.4 million dwellings across Britain, confirmed that “1.9 million had three rooms or less; that 4.8 million had no fixed bath; and that nearly 2.8 million did not provide exclusive use of a lavatory”; it also revealed a “significant quantitative as well as qualitative problem: although the official government estimate was that the shortage was around 700,000 dwellings” later reworkings of the data produced “a figure about double that”.
Into this crumbling, crowded morass waded a new generation of radical, educated ideologues (along with a few weary trade-unionist stalwarts), determined to fashion out of year-zero devastation the long-promised social democratic paradise. Within two weeks of the bombing of Coventry in 1940 and during the gradual destruction of London’s East End, thoughts were already turning to how the rebuilding should be carried out, with the generalised dilemma as whether to reinvent and build up, or preserve and build out. Advocates of the former often took as their inspiration Le Corbusier’s plans for modernist tower blocks and public park-space, a functionalist pre-war ideal still popular with many wartime architects. Those who favoured the latter deemed the towering metropolis repressive and retrogressive, instead (even more retrogressively) recalling Ebenezer Howard’s exurban Garden Cities plan of 1902, with its Gemeinschaft wholesomeness and pastoral green belts. Save in limited builds, neither model was enacted without vast compromise, in part because the Town and Country Planning Acts of 1943, 1944 and 1947 and the New Towns Act of 1946 provided somewhat contradictory mandates.
While utopian planners were lining up for a crack at building the New Jerusalem, most people worried about more pedestrian matters – heating, employment, medicine, bread and either the cancellation or continuance of the local strip show (“I delayed masturbation until another para-nude appeared seen frontways, with drapery descending between the exposed breasts,” salesman Henry St John noted in his diary). Indeed the ideological chasm between the average postwar citizen and the architects and statesmen drafting their collective future is a mainstay of Austerity Britain. It is a tension that Kynaston both emphasises and qualifies throughout.
This is, he reminds us, the era that saw the birth of the welfare state, introduced nationalised healthcare, educational reform, improved workers’ rights and saw the beginnings of natural and architectural preservationist movements and vast town-planning schemes. Yet in 1945, he notes, Britain was 72 per cent working class and had voted Labour largely for reasons of understandable short-term interest rather than grand ideology. (As George Orwell commented: “No one, I think, expects the next few years to be easy ones, but on the whole people did vote Labour because of the belief that a Left government means family allowances, higher old age pensions, houses with bathrooms, etc. rather than from any internationalist consideration.”) In manners and mores Britain was still deeply conservative. Women, empowered by wartime jobs as air-raid wardens, munitions workers, pilots, sailors, farmers and policy-makers, struggled to maintain their status in a post-conscription economy that boasted few job opportunities even for returning soldiers, not to mention their newly-trousered wives; as a result, many returned either dutifully or resignedly to the kitchens (which did not yet feature Woolf’s anticipated fridges or dishwashers). Divorce was discouraged, racism endemic, homosexuality and abortion illegal, individualism to the fore. “It hardly took a Nostradamus,” writes Kynaston, “to see that the outriders for a New Jerusalem – a vision predicated on an active, informed, classless, progressively minded citizenship – were going to have their work cut out.”
In Austerity Britain, such cleavages are rendered in bold. Town-rebuilding is one example, with the preservationists and the modernisers divided and a clamorous, dislocated public in the middle. Kynaston quotes Robert Lutyens, son of Edwin, who wrote to The Times in 1950 championing Corbusier’s modernist vision and observed: “We are told of a million dwellings completed, and our hearts sink at the prospect of the semi-detached fallacy indefinitely perpetuated.” However the Hulton Press’s extensive 1950 survey Patterns of British Life suggested that what Lutyens called a “fallacy” many Britons would have called a dream home. “Most people like living in houses rather than flats and they like having a house to themselves,” the report concluded. “They like their own private domain which can be locked against the outside world and, perhaps as much as anything, they are a nation of garden-lovers. They want space to grow flowers and vegetables and to sit on Sunday afternoons and they want it to be private.”
Education was another contentious area. For children, the Butler Education Act of 1944 and the Northern Irish Education Act of 1947 established a new system of secondary schools divided into three “equally-regarded” categories – grammar schools, technical schools and modern schools – to which pupils were allocated based on their performance in the Eleven Plus examination. On paper, it made access to free (or need-subsidised) secondary education a right (in 1947 it was made mandatory to age 15) and sought to encourage social mobility based on an individual’s skills and intelligence rather than on class or wealth. In practice, the new system often stumbled, sullied by accusations of delayed implementation, unequal financial distribution, regional disparities and the surreptitious reinforcement of class biases.
Educational attempts directed at Britain’s adult population proved yet more divisive. The government advanced a two-pronged strategy. First came the pragmatic: everywhere, austerity and resultant social progress were justified ad nauseam. Posters, newspaper editorials and pamphlets rained down. Picture houses showed pre-feature instructional films on topics ranging from lice management, water-saving baths and treating chilblains to lengthier pieces on government policy. Pop Goes the Weasel, released by the Central Office of Information in 1948, features an affable park ranger explaining how high taxation is paying off massive war debts and sustaining social services; the “Charley” series featured a bobble-headed cartoon Everyman first navigating a move from the “dark satanic mills” into an idealised Garden City “new town”; elsewhere, Charley experiences the pleasures of illness and dotage under the new welfare systems.
But the wartime popularity of Penguin New Writing and its ilk suggested to some culture-makers a public eager not just for infantilising educational films but for an accessible, permanent bastion of intellectually stimulating entertainment. Technological advance played its part: Robert Reid wrote in 1942 that radio would be the “prime re-educative agency of the post-war world”. There was a general feeling that the horrors of war could be compensated for by a fresh start, one catalysed by uplifting (in the spiritual, moral and educational senses) broadcasting and by giving the masses easy access for the first time to the upper shelves of culture and philosophy. Asa Briggs quotes former BBC director John Reith’s vision of a culturally unifying radio service: “Broadcasting could enlarge horizons, both artistically and politically.”
This was a radical agenda. Though the BBC was mindful of the need to “give listeners what they wanted” in entertainment terms (and thus not lose their listeners to “down-market” continental stations), it also wanted to “elevate” the general listener’s “taste and intelligence”. Thus while the influential Third Programme (in altered form now Radio Three) was founded in 1946 to cater to the “highly intelligent minority”, it had grand aspirations as to whom that minority constituted. “The BBC must provide for all classes of listeners equally. This does not mean that it shall remain passive regarding the distribution of those classes. It cannot abandon the educative task it has carried on for 21 years to improve cultural and ethical standards,” director-general William Haley wrote in 1943. The Third Programme therefore commissioned programmes on jazz and serious classical music by rising stars like Benjamin Britten, drama by Beckett, Pinter, Orton and Dylan Thomas (notably Under Milk Wood, a Third Programme commission), readings by Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis and David Jones and discussions with Isaiah Berlin, Bertrand Russell and Albert Camus.
Some listeners responded positively: “I am employed in the common task of moulding in a dirty iron foundry yet I find many interesting topics in the ‘Third’. Many of my workmates who have never seen the inside of a university common room were introduced to the higher aspects of literature, music and philosophy, and so on … the Sunday newspapers can make no such claim.” Others resisted wearily yet vociferously: as noted by Briggs, one listener pleaded, “We want entertainment not instruction … Cannot a meeting of protest be called? I am afraid it would require a very large space. – A Sufferer.”
Certainly, against the backdrop of 45 per cent taxation and an imminent Cold War threat, the buoyancy of the Ealing Studios 1949 classic Passport to Pimlico seemed more in keeping with popular tastes than, say, a radio play by Beckett (not least because of Passport’s austerity-defying premise: a document is discovered in a bombsite declaring Pimlico to be historically owned by France and, as such, exempt from rationing). Accusations of hypocrisy were also levelled: to sacrifice the dog tracks and evening football matches while the rich hoarded sterling and something still powered the lights at the BBC seemed to some a bit too much. Moreover, as Richard Hoggart was to note in The Uses of Literacy and elsewhere, to assert a kind of “top-down” educational strategy was to condescend to, to ignore or to misinterpret myriad diverse and widespread grass-root self-improvement initiatives. There was also some worry that, although dismantling the most pernicious aspects of socio-economic and cultural inequality, an un-nuanced nationalised system of mandatory cultural “improvement” might destroy the complex social textures of what had come before.
Understandably, the balance between education, entertainment and diverse appeal was difficult to maintain: Penguin New Writing folded in 1950; the Third Programme was under constant fire for its “elitism” and, for some, wasteful tedium. The schoolmarmish tone of some policy- and programme-makers didn’t help; nor indeed did certain whiffs of noblesse oblige and elitism. From broadcasting booth and social welfare office, of course, the perspective changed utterly. Upon the creation of the Independent Television Authority in 1954, which ended the BBC’s broadcasting monopoly, for instance, John Reith predicted a dumbing down of public entertainment, declaiming: “Somebody introduced Christianity into England and somebody introduced smallpox, bubonic plague and the Black Death. Somebody is minded now to introduce sponsored broadcasting … Need we be ashamed of moral values, or of intellectual and ethical objectives? It is these that are here and now at stake.” While tendentious, not to say melodramatic, Reith’s prophecy nevertheless highlights certain key anxieties in the postwar era – the role of a strong central government, the influence of private commerce and special interests, the perceived need for a public morality and high-civility, the quest for a utopian terra nova, and generally the fate of such daring reforms.
It is these tensions that Kynaston explicates with such vivacity, at the same time undercutting the idea of a national story by decentralising his vision, moving his accounts largely away from parliament and into the provinces. His eye is steady and accurate, neither over- nor underemphasising class and geographic division.
Thus he is careful to remind us that the contrasts between official vision and public demand weren’t always so marked as was the case with rebuilding strategy. While doctors greeted Bevan’s National Health Service Act of 1946 with scepticism, for instance, the public generally embraced it (although, like now, many griped about its exclusions and deficiencies). Kynaston also heralds union and labour reforms, presenting Morris Motors’ founding father, Lord Nuffield (formerly William Morris), as an aging tyrant who, “Lear-like, refused to let go […] There prevailed what one historian has described as a ‘distressing climate of suspicion and indecision’.” Conditions at Morris’s Cowley plant were somewhere between those of a Dickensian workhouse and a Big Brother fishbowl.
While Kynaston’s explanations are rock-solid, his conclusions are necessarily more diffuse. Mostly, he contents himself with record rather than judgment, although his admiration for certain far-sighted luminaries and his frustrations with an impatient public and certain self-advancing politicians occasionally seep through. Ultimately, Austerity Britain is a category of flux, foresight and restlessness: social changes either seemed too fast or too slow, too populist or too elitist. If new houses were built quickly their quality was questioned; if tomorrow was cited as the reason for today’s austerity, this still did not excuse the lack of Sunday roasts. Although tangible steps had been made towards that utopia distilled by Woolf – “Homes will be built. Each flat with its refrigerator, in the crannied wall. Each of us a free man” – the burden of material and perhaps cultural austerity remained. The Conservative victory in 1951, like Labour’s landslide in 1945, had less to do with ideology than with promises of an alternative existence that excluded the musty wet wool, the thin-lipped tightfistedness and the slippery, grey cabbages that Kynaston evokes with such pungency.
Kynaston’s four-volume epic The City of London: 1815-2000 was critically well-received but commercially undersold. Only now with Austerity Britain, a 600-page book without a dry moment, is he achieving the sales to match its universal and deserved acclaim. Chronicling the highs and lows, the reasons and the impulses, the derivations and the desires of such seemingly oppositional stances is no easy task. Kynaston’s contribution to British social history is to explicate these tensions fluidly, critically and sympathetically while preserving the explosive vitality of such world-making debates.
This essay was first published in autumn 2008, when the author, Chris Anderson, was a doctoral student at Oxford University.