The Definitive History of Postwar Britain

By Josh EmmonsJanuary 25, 2015

Modernity Britain, Book Two by David Kynaston

OVER THE PAST EIGHT YEARS, while most people were updating their phone apps, David Kynaston has been publishing the definitive history of Britain from 1945 to 1979, “Tales from a New Jerusalem.” Its latest installment, Modernity Britain, 1959-62: A Shake of the Dice, comprises 464 of its to-date 2,368 pages, meaning that “Tales” will eventually clock in at nearly 5,000 pages, all devoted to 33 years in a small maritime nation in the northeast Atlantic that gave the world its lingua franca, the Magna Carta, and Shakespeare (and, more dubiously, the fruit cake, Tom Jones, and Prince Harry). It’s astonishingly ambitious and exhilarating, and as near a historiographical analogue to the ideal map Borges imagined in his story “On Exactitude in Science” — one exactly as big as the province it covers — as is likely to appear in our lifetimes.

Is such a large project necessary? Edward Gibbon charted the decline and fall of the Roman Empire in under 4,000 pages. The Book of Genesis fit the world’s creation into two. What could Kynaston’s purpose be in providing such an exhaustively detailed history of a period in Britain that appears, following the globe- and ideology-smashing events of World War II, so unremarkable? One answer is that the nation in fact underwent profound economic, political, and cultural changes in those years, from accelerated deindustrialization to rising consumerism to sudden racial discord to radical urban planning to a redefinition of its national identity, all of which reverberate loudly, insistently today. That is, Britain in 2015 faces a raft of challenges (or opportunities or complications) it might best address by scrutinizing their development in its recent past.

The book is written for modern-day Britons, plus the odd Anglophile, international relations scholar, and wary European, wondering if and when Britain, which retains its own currency and values its “special relationship” with America above all, will retreat further from the EU into its geopolitical shell. But it also demonstrates how the social pressures building in Downton Abbey mutated into the world of the 7 Up documentaries. And it has something for everyone wondering how the Beatles — and the whole British Invasion — came about, for government spending advocates who want examples of austerity measures wreaking havoc on an economy (Paul Krugman, et al.), and for a literati that cares about Kingsley Amis and the other Angry Young Men and Harold Pinter and Joe Orton and Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, for fans of the absurd comic tradition that spawned Monty Python and Eddie Izzard and The Office, for curious observers of Scotland’s “Should I stay or should I go?” debate, and for all of us who regret that so many cities around the world dismantled their public transportation system to accommodate cars in the 1950s (Glasgow and Leeds and other British cities marched in lockstep with Los Angeles and New Orleans, in a sad chapter of the global warming story).

As a sociological historian writing for a popular audience, Kynaston has many strengths. He is a masterful synthesizer. In addition to sifting through expert opinions on every important aspect of mid-century British life — “Recent economic historians have tended to be on [Woodrow] Wyatt’s side of the argument and to offer largely critical appraisals of the quality of management through the 1950s and into the early 1960s,” for example — he’s pored over personal diaries, the domestic press, accounts written for foreign publications (such as London-based Mollie Panter-Downes’s sharp, regular dispatches to The New Yorker), private correspondences (William Burroughs writing to Allen Ginsberg from Cambridge to say “he didn’t think he could ‘stick this English weather much longer,’ that ‘as soon as I get some bread we’ll split south’”), radio transcripts, contemporary psychology, government white papers, business reports, and national polling summaries. If he has an army of talented, tireless research assistants, it shows. If not, he is more machine than man.

One of Kynaston’s finest tricks involves weaving together a seemingly disparate string of facts and anecdotes about one or two days — sometimes a week — to create a “you are everywhere at once” effect. Think of E.L. Doctorow’s jigsaw juxtapositions in Ragtime, wherein early 20th century America is a vast collage of parades, explorers’ clubs, black disenfranchisement, sexual fainting, J.P. Morgan, immigrant squalor, nickelodeons, Harry Houdini, horseless carriages, and Emma Goldman. If you are invigorated rather than disoriented by this, you’ll love Kynaston:

Later in June, the singer Jimmy Young made a career-changing move by presenting Housewives’ Choice for a fortnight; the publisher Rupert Hart-Davis spent a broiling day in Oxford among “bearded youths naked to the waist, negresses and other exotics, all sweating and jostling”; the Queen Mother opened Hull University’s new library and responded, “Oh, what a lovely thing to be” when told, “This is Mr. Larkin, our poet-librarian”; the Conservative government, eight months after its Keynesian election triumph, felt compelled to raise the Bank Rate in response to inflationary pressures and was rebuked by the Financial Times for having “allowed its own expenditure to rise this year in a reckless way”; Princess Margaret carried out her first post-wedding public engagement, with Judy Haines noting that “Tony,” so far title-less, “doesn’t fancy office life and wants something ‘arty’”; Evelyn Waugh appeared on John Freeman’s Face to Face (“a magnificent interrogation,” thought the Manchester doctor Hugh Selbourne), confessing to irritability as his major fault, the same Sunday evening that a short television film on The Patience of Job featured the comic actor Deryck Guyler as the voice of God; and Thomas Dibble, a letter-writer to the Glasgow Herald, dismissed any sentimentality about the impending disappearance of that city’s trams, asserting that “we have endured their inconvenience, clankings, and groaning for too long.”

There’s much to admire in how this passage — and others like it — operates. As in David Markson’s lyric books (Reader’s Block, This is Not a Novel, and The Last Novel), the associational flow might seem obscure, but it works as a delightful bit of miscellany on a first, casual reading, and as something deeper and more deliberate upon further examination. In this passage, we move from the safe domestic banality of a radio show called Housewives’ Choice to its opposite, the bizarre specter of a (surely) fustian publisher at a beatnik bacchanal (dig the nudity, dig the pre-Burning Man perspiration), before hopping over to what these Oxford kids will be doing in 25 years (running the country poorly), and then segueing from actual political power to its symbolic, impotent figurehead, the Queen Mother, meeting one of her kingdom’s finest, most miserable poets, Philip Larkin — who will later write about this era, “Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three/ (which was rather late for me) - / Between the end of the “Chatterly” ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP” — and then pivoting to a bon-bon about Princess Margaret’s idiot husband and discovering the great irony that Evelyn Waugh accused himself of chronic irritability on the same day that a teleplay aired about that paragon of patience, Job, and ending with a near-anonymous citizen expressing his own irritation at soon-to-be-phased-out streetcars. There’s much method to Kynaston’s madness.

There is not, however, much critical analysis. It’s possible to guess at the author’s feelings about, say, the disaggregation of overcrowded cities and the rise of “New Towns” that, like American suburbs, provided urbanites with single-family homes and yards, through his emphasis on diary accounts by people happier in their larger dwellings and greener surroundings than their new neighbors who pined for a lost sense of community, but on the whole he prefers to let facts — albeit well-curated and carefully arranged — speak for themselves. If you’re looking for a heavier interpretive hand, the brilliant but stridently Marxist Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes, which also covers England during these years, will answer.

What you get in Kynaston instead of strong opinions and ideological flag-planting is breadth and sweep and careful delineation of various phenomena, many of which involve the economic fallout of Britain losing its empire. As its protectorates and colonies gained independence (cheerio, India and North Africa) and its built-in markets shrank, it faced crises in its once-legendary manufacturing sectors. Ships, textiles, automobiles, coal, and other exports suffered in the new order, and thorough coverage is provided of the devastating effects on the people and neighborhoods that had depended on them.

As Britain’s financial prospects changed, so too did the rhythms and habits of its daily life. TV ownership went from 40 percent of the population in 1950 to 82 percent in 1962, and with it came a host of attendant losses and gains. Family members talked to each other less and enjoyed themselves more. Pubs closed down. Cinema and football game attendance plummeted. Kynaston neither wrings his hands nor celebrates this shift from communal to private experience, knowing that the trend has hit a new pitch today with cell phones, and that civilization hasn’t broken down.

Other developments that failed to destroy society but caused significant upheavals included the Pill, rock and roll, bingo, relaxed censorship laws, and an open immigration policy allowing tens of thousands of Commonwealth residents to move to Britain. Unlike the United States, which already had a long, difficult history of racial diversity, the nation was mostly white beforehand. The transition was neither smooth nor painless. Tom Stoppard, who prior to becoming a playwright had worked as an investigative journalist, is quoted by Kynaston:

On the Thursday before Easter a black friend of mine applied for a job as a conductor. He asked to see the personnel manager and was told to come back after the holidays, but, he told me, ”They said there were no vacancies anyway.” Five minutes later I applied for the same job. I was told that the conductors’ ”school” was full but I could come back after the holiday when there would be vacancies, and I could then take the course.

Stories like this do more than any j’accuse to illustrate the nation’s best and worst tendencies, the unending struggle between its forces of sympathy and cruelty.

“Tales of a New Jerusalem” has received rapturous reviews in the U.K.—“The fullest, deepest and most balanced history of our times,” from The Sunday Telegraph; “Kynaston is the most entertaining historian alive,” from The Spectator; “Volumes full of treasure, serious history with a human face,” from Hilary Mantel in The Observer — for good reason. There has been less coverage of the project on our side of the pond, which should change as future installments appear and more readers happen upon its extraordinary riches. As a testament to and reflection of one nation’s irreducible complexity, it is unsurpassed, a great unspooling of messy, orderly humanity. Where else will you encounter an anecdote as droll and gratifying as this one:

[A]t the Loders Fete at Dorset on Saturday the 5th “the highlight of the afternoon,” reported the Rev. Oliver Willmott, “was the adjudication by the stage and television star, Vic Oliver, of a competition for glamorous grandmothers.” ”Nobody,” he added, “envied the judge his job. Never before has mutton looked so lamb-like. His choice was Mrs. Thomas, wife of our worthy sacristan, whom he gallantly kissed.”

The sun might have regularly set on Britain’s empire by then, but the nation’s spirit remained, thrillingly, unbowed.


Josh Emmons has written the novels The Loss of Leon Meed and Prescription for a Superior Existence — both out from HarperCollins in the UK and Australia in 2015 and teaches at UC Riverside.

LARB Contributor

Josh Emmons is the author of several books, most recently A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales. He teaches fiction writing at UC Riverside.


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