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Book review: Modernity Britain: Opening the Box, 1957-1959, By David Kynaston

Can this close-up patchwork of social detail explain the forces that moulded postwar history?

David Kynaston is a rare example of authorial effacement. There is no introduction or conclusion to this book, the latest in his multi-volume history of postwar Britain, and the sources – mainly letters and diaries – are left to speak for themselves. His work is suggestive rather than argumentative and one assumes that applying the word "modernity" to the country that Lawrence Durrell called "pudding island" is, at least in part, ironic.

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After all, most British people did not like living in modernist buildings and the words "secondary modern" came to epitomise the failure of post-war education. None of this is spelled out. Rather than writing from the Olympian vantage-point of the historian, Kynaston presents a succession of striking vignettes – about, for example, how the young Bruce Forsyth almost abandoned his becalmed show business career to run a tobacconist – to give the reader a feel for the era.

 

At times, the pace at which one moves from one scene to another is too dizzying. The narrow time-span makes it hard to get a sense of general direction. Looking at just two years would make sense if this were a work of high politics – though The First Macmillan Government might not fly off the shelves. A brief span might also work if we were looking at what might be called the death of the British ancien régime: the end of debutantes presented at court, the introduction of life peerages, the eruption of the contested take-over into the clubby City.

Kynaston is interested in the broad sweep of social history and this rarely makes sense when two years are studied in isolation. Indeed, he deploys some sleights of hand to escape from his own chronological limits. Thus he cites Jackson and Marsden's wonderful book Education and the Working Classes (1962) and says that the research for it was "conducted in about 1959/1960". Well, yes, but the children studied had all been born in the early 1930s. Similarly, Michael Young did indeed publish his dystopian satire The Rise of Meritocracy in 1958 but the processes he described were long-term ones, and his book concerned the period "1870- 2033".

The sources raise questions too. Quotation from diaries and letters does not automatically mean we are getting a look at "ordinary" life. Dick Crossman and Philip Larkin were not ordinary (not even if judged against left-wing Wykhamists or fucked-up librarians from Hull), and the housewife Nella Last – a ubiquitous figure in popular history books – was, perhaps, even less typical of her milieu. The use of well-known diaries is often predictable – one knows that Roy Strong and John Rae are waiting in the wings, as the Kynaston juggernaut rolls into the next two decades.

All this could do with a longer view and a few old-fashioned statistics. Surely, the most important quality of young adults in the 1950s was scarcity – because birth rates in the 1930s had been so low – and this influenced everything from social mobility to pop music. Kynaston's references to class divisions are intriguing: one plebeian cricketer threatened to claim "amateur" status because he reckoned that he would be better off as a "gentleman" claiming "expenses". But these references would make more sense if we knew more about the distribution of jobs and money in the country as a whole.

Bloomsbury is planning to package this very successful series in more than one format. There will be another volume taking "modernity Britain" up to 1962 and further works going to 1979. Perhaps the strands will be drawn together and the very interesting hints Kynaston drops about post-war society will be developed into a fuller interpretation. In the meantime, if you want to get a flavour of the recent past though the juxtaposition of incongruous detail, I commend Tony Blackburn's excellent Pick of the Pops on Radio 2: "this was the year that JFK was shot and the Hollies were at number 3".

Richard Vinen's books include 'Thatcher's Britain' (Pocket)

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