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Family Britain 1951-57.

Family Britain 1951-57

David Kynaston

Bloomsbury 776pp 25 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978 0747583851


The British still put 'family' top of their list of what matters most to them, regardless of age or social background. But the culture of family life has changed beyond recognition since the mid-20th century. Religion and the royal family matter less to the British and more live alone or with friends and lovers. Internet access links them to a world of entertainment that is as alien to the 1950s as television seemed then to people who grew up in the age of music hall.

Remembering his 1950s' childhood in Derby, a man writes: 'Cinemas opened but only briefly and no God-fearing person would be seen going to the pictures on a Sunday. So after the Light Programme's lunchtime diet of Two-Way Family Favourites [and] The Billy Cotton Band Show it was either a game of Ludo or a stiff walk.The weather had to be particularly bad for my father not to suggest the latter option.'

This second volume of David Kynaston's series' Tales of a New Jerusalem' is packed with vivid testimony conveying the texture of British life as the nation's power waned. Kynaston sees the opening of the first Tesco in 1956 to be as important as the Suez Crisis. He captures the emergence of consumerism in a Britain that was more neighbourly than now but still gripped by Victorian morality.

Kynaston has been criticised for a lack of grand theory to drive his story along. Family Britain does at times cry out for a passage of bite that makes imaginative links to our own era, as when we learn that a majority of Labour-voting tenants in 1952 supported council house sales. But the author's judgements are usually sound and are especially sensitive to the nuances of class, as when he notes the arrival of Berni Inns in 1954, which invited snobbery but helped to make eating out less intimidating for newly affluent Britons.

The smack of firm history is also present in his account of relations between the sexes. Even for devoted housewives, marriage was usually a contract kept more through stoicism than expectation and it incubated frustrations that exploded in the following decades: 'There was no affection with it, no love', remembers a mother of six from Scunthorpe. 'A woman didn't get satisfaction from sex then, she was just disgusted with it if she was owt like me.' Despite women's subordinate role at home and at work, it was advertisers' stimulation of their aspirations that primarily gave birth to the consumer society, at the very least providing comfort when freedom eluded them. 'When I look at my husband sometimes, I wonder whatever I'd do without the wireless', a woman in Barrow remarked in 1955.

This is an accessible book, yet it is based on original research, a fibre lacking in some recent studies of mid-20th century Britain. And it isn't constipated by nostalgia for an ostensibly happier era of spotted dick and Denis Compton. Kynaston is clear: 'This was the final authentic phase of an irrecoverable epoch of urban civilisation stretching back to the late 19th century ... 1950s Britain was an authoritarian, illiberal, puritanical society. Not entirely, of course, but the cumulative evidence is overwhelming'.

A good book design sets up the text within and the publisher has got it absolutely right. The cover shows a photograph of 1952 of families playing on a 'beach' by Tower Bridge. A nest of cranes in the background reminds us that London was still the busy port of an imperial metropolis. In the foreground a father sits reading a newspaper in his suit, an age away from the sun and sangria of budget flights to the Mediterranean. Nearby, a solitary black boy wrapped in a towel chats with white friends, showing that even when today's multi-racial Britain was arriving, some whites saw through the pervasive ignorance, which they largely inherited from their families.

The 700 pages of this marvellous book reflect its cover. With wit and empathy, it scrutinises the colourful but restricted lives of the British in an era more knitted with deference than our own, while also hinting at the better Britain to come. Read Kynaston's evocative testimony; taste the suet, smell the smog and be glad that despite today's corrosive obsession with shopping, you live in the 21st century.

Richard Weight is the author of Patriots: National Identity in Britain 1940-2000 (Macmillan, 2003).
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Author:Weight, Richard
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Book review
Date:Feb 1, 2010
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