Family Britain 1951-57, By David Kynaston

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The Independent Culture

In the second great wedge of his massive social history projected to run from 1947-79, Kynaston tells the story of Britain slowly emerging from post-war austerity. By seamlessly weaving myriad sources, he produces a gripping narrative. The six-year-old Ian Jack encouraged by his father to return the smile of the first black man he ever saw (on the Piccadilly line in 1951) leads to a chain of reminiscence on "the kindness of strangers" that includes Joe Orton's diary entries on moving into the flat of his fatal lover Kenneth Halliwell ("17 June Well! 18 June Well!! 19 June Well!!!") and Jeffrey Barnard receiving cigarettes, money and a sandwich from passers-by while being hauled across King's Cross in handcuffs after going AWOL from National Service.

The threadbare frugality of the era was dispelled by the comment of Churchill, who, after reducing the meat ration in 1951, asked his Minister of Food to show him an individual's rations in physical form. "Not a bad meal," growled the PM when the exhibit was produced. Unfortunately, the quantities were intended for a week. Though "the instincts of the two major parties remained fundamentally different", Kynaston reminds us there was "considerable overlap – as opposed to consensus".

Our obsession with monarchy also seems to have changed very little. "NO RING YET!" bellowed the Daily Mirror in 1956 when a picture of Princess Margaret with her unsuitable suitor (he was divorced) Peter Townsend revealed a bare ring finger. Yet Britain was far more respectful in its royal nosiness. When the "increasingly exasperated" Malcolm Muggeridge suggested that monarchy was "a kind of ersatz religion" in a New Statesman article, the Evening Standard accused him of treasonable views. The starchiness of Fifties Britain is further exemplified by comedian Frank Randall being fined £10 in Blackpool for a joke: "There's a flea loose in the harem and the favourite will have to be scratched."

Startling tragedies punctuate the breezy narrative. In 1951, 24 Marine cadets were killed in Chatham by a runaway bus; in the following year, 34 were drowned by a flash flood in Lynmouth; 17 were killed in 1955 when a train jumped the points at Sutton Coldfield. Kynaston spans the decades with brief snapshots of figures that became famous later. We learn that "12-year-old Mike (not yet Mick) Jagger" discovered rhythm and blues during a summer job on an American base near Dartford in 1956. While R&B swept the nation a decade later, the major cultural draws of the Fifties seem as ancient as Canute: The debut of Dixon of Dock Green was seen by The Spectator as "a vast improvement on the routine mechanics of Fabian of the Yard".

When Take It From Here tied for Most Entertaining Programme with The Archers, Frank Muir and Denis Norden wrote a special Glums script for the awards ceremony: "The BBC is part of British Heritage. Like suet pudding and catarrh." For those of us who went to see the big film of 1956 – The Dam Busters boasted a script by R.C Sheriff and music by Eric Coates – this epic panorama is akin to time travel.