Golden days and happy families? No, the Fifties were tired and tawdry – Cheltenham Literature Festival

11 10 2009
October 10, 2009

Ben Hoyle, Arts Correspondent

David Kynaston: transforming the understanding of ordinary people’s lives in the postwar years

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Before the Pill, before mass immigration and long before globalisation, the Fifties were a time of relative innocence when family bonds and community spirit were much stronger than they are today.

Except that they weren’t, according to a bestselling social historian whose meticulous research is transforming understanding of ordinary people’s lives in the postwar years.

Speaking at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival, David Kynaston said “it was not a cosy warm, friendly mutually supportive world out there. It simply wasn’t.” Austerity Britain, his hugely ambitious history of daily existence in the years 1945-51, painted a picture of a society that was “tired, worn out, undernourished and generally fed-up.” With his much anticipated follow-up Family Britain, surveying the years 1951-57, the prognosis is not much better.

Kynaston was promoting the book at the festival yesterday before it is published next month. Like Austerity Britain, one of the biggest-selling history books of the past two years, the new work is built up from personal diaries, newspaper reports, sociologists’ accounts and anthropological surveys.

It is the second instalment in Tales of a New Jerusalem, his epic project to re-examine how life in Britain changed between the end of the Second World War and the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Kynaston, born in 1951, is not opposed to the 1950s. “In some gut psychological way there was a better equilibrium,” he said. “We are more solipsistic now.” In particular “the puritan in me says it was good in at least one sense that there was not such a superabundance of goods and choice. It meant people appreciated what they had more of and there was less dissatisfaction.”

Streets were safer and there was more trust between strangers. However, for Kynaston, the benefits of a simpler life were outweighed by the “negatives” of authoritarianism and illiberalism.

“If you were different it was difficult. If you were talented you often had to wait until a certain age before you could use your talents. It was not remotely a meritocracy.” In a world where nearly half of Harold Macmillan’s Cabinet were related to the Prime Minister by marriage, such limitations were unsurprising. More unexpected are Kynaston’s conculsions about community and family. There is a “ready assumption”, he believes, that both these social networks were tighter and happier then than now and he set out to see if this was true.

“Community is a very slippery word but I tried to determine was there a sense of community then?” Race was already beginning to have a bearing as were the slum clearance programmes that “changed everything about large parts of our inner cities” over the next two decades.

Kynaston measured community spirit against three criteria: participation in activities and clubs, a sense of identity with local place and “third and by far the must important — was there in everyday life a sense of mutuality between neighbours? Did neighbours actually help each other out?” The answers are: only to a limited extent (and then only the middle classes); yes, “quite strong” affinity with their localities; and, on neighbourliness, not really.

“On working-class streets there were great tensions and rivalries [exacerbated] by the prevalence of women’s gossip, which was often their main interest”. He cited the sociologist Geoffrey Gorer who, writing at the time, described relations between typical English neighbours as “distant cordiality”.

As for family relations, “I think that relations between the generations are better now . . . children can talk to their parents about things in a way they simply could not in the 1950s. There was a lot of bottling up feelings. People are more disinhibited now.”

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