On 6 August 1945, it was Bank Holiday Monday. Thirty-five extra trains had been added to Liverpool Street to make the London-to-seaside rounds and yet station queues still snaked around the block, 30,000 people were at the 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 (who had stood in the corridor all night on the train down from Glasgow) best the Swedes. Government officer Anthony Heap noted in his diary that the weather was changeable. “Obviously no day for Hampstead or anywhere like that… So after an afternoon stroll round Bloomsbury and an early tea, hied us round to the Regent to see National Velvet” which he deemed enjoyable save that “the essential English atmosphere is missing.”
Yet despite holiday temptations, its usual audience of a quarter of the British adult population was tuned into the six o’clock Home Service broadcast, which on this particular day 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 inhabitants. 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.” Elizabeth Longford, from her Oxford home, recalled, “For the first time in my life I had a strong presentiment about the future: that a brilliant scientific discovery would bring a balance of evil to the human race.” Joan Wyndham, at her Women’s Auxiliary Air Force base in Nottinghamshire, “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 BBC debut, nevertheless assured anyone interested that no more 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 loo.
Such alchemic blends of the seismic with the banal yield a diamond-sharp, rock-solid cornerstone for Austerity Britain, historian David Kynaston’s sparkling epic and inclusive account of the years between 1945 and 1951. 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 faultlessly balances entertainment with erudition and diverse historical assessment with gorgeous, fact-laden word pictures, all of which fuse together into an exemplary narrative of a fascinating period.
For starters, it is a marvel of structuring. Austerity Britain locates mine-pits next to bed-sits and the East India Club alongside football clubs with heady and seemingly serendipitous insight. Moreover, its gaze is exhaustive, dissecting with precision such sundry subjects as post-war marital trends, the legacy of 1942’s Beveridge report, cricket and racing preferences, the rise of Nye Bevan, the reception of David Lean’s Brief Encounters 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, from unpublished journals to the ubiquitous Mass Observation diarists (although he is meticulous in acknowledging their middle-class biases).
These varied sources confirm a uniform conclusion: in post-war Britain, hope and exhaustion ran hand in hand, and the contrast between expectations and reality was stark. As Kynaston reiterates, the end of the war did not guarantee a return to pre-war standards. Rather, waits lengthened, clothes continued fraying, power-saving blackouts were intermittently mandated and food rationing tightened. Recalling a downsize in the week’s allocation, 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 upon the periods with neither meat nor cheese available at all. Eggs were rare, sometimes found in powdered form, sometimes absent altogether. 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 automobiles. More controversial was the cancellation of many night-time athletic events (dog races, football games), a deprivation in no way assuaged by the discomforts of reaching such entertainments via train carriages freshly stripped of their insulation and light fixtures by enterprising black marketeers.
Moreover, in January 1947, Britain’s severest winter weather of the twentieth century hit just as a coal shortage filtered down. “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 describes. Novelist 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 lists of deprivation, Kynaston is not unique. Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska’s Austerity In Britain: Rationing, Controls and Consumption (2000) is, perhaps, a more comprehensive economic summation 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 misses 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 remarkably balanced, varied chronicle. Indeed, he writes of a humming organicism, depicting history as a thriving ecosystem whereby the microbes of everyday life are integrally tied to some very big game indeed.
Among these, housing and lifestyle are firm in his sights: the dynamism of Kynaston’s writing comes from his evocation of the post-war landscape not as a static tableau but as a lived-in construction zone. Largely bankrupt but for the Marshall Plan, his Britain is in viscerally rough shape. Dan Jacobson, a young South African writer, arrived in London in 1950 and commented, “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 much post-war fiction, Britain was compared to Babylon, Nineveh, and Pompeii: ruin was the predominant trope.) Then as now, housing was scarce and population density was 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”, and 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 re-workings of the data produced “a figure about double that.” Kynaston’s detailing of the post-war plight is meticulous and evocative; even more so, however, is his discussion of attempted remedies.
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 that famous “brave new world”. No doubt owing to psychological necessity, the era was unprecedentedly forward-looking: post-war urban planning had begun long before the war had even finished. Within two weeks of the blitz on Coventry in 1940 and during the gradual disintegration of London’s East End, thoughts turned to how and in what manner to rebuild, with the generalised dilemma as whether to reinvent and build up, or to preserve and build out. The former lobbyists 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. Advocates for the latter, however, 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, laying the groundwork for historical registry and preservation, compulsory purchase orders, green belts and revised town centres, and thus providing the foundations not just for some very successful post-war compromise builds (such as the Barbican Complex and some of the New Towns) but also for vast red-tape stalemates.
Yet while utopian planners were lining up for a crack at building the “New Jerusalem”, most people worried about rather more pedestrian matters – heating, employment, medicine, bread and either the cancellation or continuance of the local titty show (“I delayed masturbation until another para-nude appeared seen frontways, with drapery descending between the exposed breasts,” Henry St John diaried dutifully). Indeed, the ideological chasm between average post-war citizens and those starry-eyed architects and statesmen drafting their collective future is a mainstay of Kynaston’s treatise. He both emphasises and qualifies this tension throughout, and rightly so.
This is, Kynaston reminds us, the era that birthed the Welfare State, introducing nationalised healthcare, educational reform, improved workers’ rights, natural and architectural preservationist movements and vast town-planning schemes. Yet in 1945, he notes, Britain was 72% working class and had largely voted Labour for reasons of unsurprising self-interest rather than 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.”) Indeed, in manners and mores, Britain was still deeply conservative. Divorce was discouraged, racism endemic, and individualism at the fore. “It hardly took a Nostradamus 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,” summarises Kynaston.
In Austerity Britain, such disparities are rendered in bold. For Kynaston, town-rebuilding is but an archetypal 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 into The Times in 1950 championing Corbusier’s modernist utopia and who observed, “We are told of a million dwellings completed, and our hearts sink at the prospect of the semi-detached fallacy indefinitely perpetuated.” This flies in direct contrast, Kynaston notes, to the Hulton Press’ extensive 1950 survey Patterns of British Life, which implied that for most Britons, the “city of tomorrow” vision was utterly wrongheaded. Unlike Corbusier’s 60-storey tower blocks, that “semi-detached fallacy” was, for many, 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.” (Not much, it seems, has changed.)
On the whole, then, the decisions to affect widespread shifts in town planning, educational strategies and health infrastructure were largely made (or at least attempted) by the London-based few on behalf of the diasporic masses, with careful and often very genuine reference to a “fresh start” founded upon utopian, centralised nationalism. Unlike most political histories, Kynaston usefully debunks this myth of unification by decentralising it, moving his post-war accounts largely away from Parliament and into the provinces. His levelling eye is steady and accurate, neither over- nor under-emphasising class and geographic divide.
Thus, he is also careful to remind us that the contrasts between official vision and public demand were not always so marked as with rebuilding strategy. While doctors greeted Bevan’s National Health Service Act of 1946 with scepticism, for instance, the public generally embraced its creation (although, like now, many griped about the exclusion of some dentistry and spectacles). Kynaston also heralds union and labour reform, presenting Morris Motors’ founding father Lord Nuffield (formerly William Morris) as the archetypal old guard, 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.’” He follows this with first-hand accounts that together paint a picture of working conditions at the Cowley Morris factory as somewhere between a Dickensian work-house and a Big-Brother fishbowl – all a far cry from Sir Charles Bartlett’s newer Vauxhall plant which boasted conditions so harmonious that Bartlett became known to his men as “The Skipper” and the factory itself by the pastoral moniker “the turnip patch”.
Yet despite many changes for the better (if not best), inevitably the nature of the era proved too difficult to reconcile with public expectation. General opinion judged changes too fast or too slow, too populist or too elitist; and thus, the post-war government was damned as much by situation as by action. If new houses were built quickly, their quality was questioned; if tomorrow was cited as the reason for today’s austerity, it still did not excuse the lack of Sunday roasts. Similar to Labour’s win in 1945, the Conservative takeover in 1951 had less to do with ideology than with desperate promises of an alternative existence that excluded the musty wet wool, the thin-lipped tightfistedness and the slippery, grey cabbages that Kynaston details with such poignant pungency.
Currently a visiting professor at Kingston University, Kynaston has suffered long for his art: his seven-year, four-volume epic The City of London: 1815-2000 was critically well-received but commercially under-sold. Only now with Austerity Britain is he finding the sales to match its universal and deserved acclaim. He has obviously made these kinds of histories a life-work: the amount of background research that he has undertaken is impressive, as it was in his City of London. In Austerity Britain, however, Kynaston has honed his narrative voice, producing that rarest of things, a 600-plus page book without a dry moment in it.
Beyond providing fulfilment in the perpetual search for ever more democratic histories, Austerity Britain is remarkable for the surreal contrasts between the often ostentatious consumerism of contemporary life and Kynaston’s angry “mend-and-make-do”-ism alone. (In a radio interview, he joked that today’s appetite for austerity explained not only to his skyrocketing book sales but also the warm reception of our new Calvinist-flecked Prime Minister.) Similarly gripping is the breathtaking sweep of post-war social change, which sits in abrupt contrast to our own era where visionaries and lunatics alike seem largely hog-tied by bureaucratic mandate and continual public scrutiny. But although the past may well seem a foreign country, there is also much that is tellingly recognisable in Kynaston’s account, from cheap cafés’ olfactory gales of stale chip fat and the tyrannical self-righteousness of queue mentality to the ever-controversial Welfare State, eternally loved/hated from within and occasionally (in the example, for instance, of US Democratic candidates’ varied promises of universal health care) envied from without. Most recognisable, however, is the ubiquity of political apathy and abiding pessimism. However irrationally, our fears, it seems, remain constant: then as now, the public fretted about youths taking over the city, a decline in educational standards, the redistribution of employment to foreigners, the preservation of the countryside, the demise of the “city historical”, the interference of a nanny state, and the appearance of a seeping social malaise fuelled by faceless barbarians braying at the gates.
Ultimately, though, the most compelling draw of all is Kynaston’s brilliant prose – shrewd, poetic, wry and wonderfully expansive. Writing from her Dorset retreat in January, 1946, Sylvia Townsend Warner declared that, “No one in wartime can quite escape the illusion that when the war ends things will snap back to where they were and that one will be…able to go on from where one left off. But the temple of Janus has two doors, and the door for war and door for peace are equally marked in plain lettering, ‘No Way Back’.” In Austerity Britain, the lettering on the door could not be plainer.
Kris Anderson is a D.Phil candidate in and tutor of English literature. She is also the former Senior Editor of the Oxonian Review of Books.