Bloomsbury 25 (776pp) 22.50 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Family Britain 1951-1957, By David Kynaston

One of the most arresting passages in Family Britain, the second instalment of David Kynaston's projected four-volume account of the period 1945-1979, takes in the opening of the controversial Kidbrooke school in Hunstanton, West Norfolk. Designed by the "iconoclastic" young husband-and-wife team of Peter and Alison Smithson, acclaimed by certain architects as a stunning example of the Le Corbusier-influenced New Brutalism, it featured what Peter Smithson's obituarist called "a brilliant planning solution of classrooms and staircases over two storeys and around a succession of small courtyards that eliminated all corridors". There was talk of the "clarity and simplicity" of its design, not to mention the "elegant integration" of its services.

There was one drawback about the Smithsons' bracingly unapologetic exercise in neo-futurism. As the Architects' Journal noted, "In that this building seems often to ignore the children for which it is built, it is hard to define it as architecture at all." A member of the school staff, JTA Shorten, later catalogued some of the deficiencies: the leaking concrete roof, cracks in the glass going off like rifle-shots during lessons, dangerous glass panels in the gym, too much heat in summer and not enough in winter, congestion at lesson-change and non-soundproofed classrooms. All in all, "it was probably more suited to being a prison than a school".

In the context of early 1950s Britain, the Kidbrooke project arguably designed to tickle the sensibilities of a peer group rather than serve the community had a deeply symbolic significance. For all the eclecticism of its sources, and striking originality of its insights, the note sounded by Kynaston's previous volume, Austerity Britain 1945-1951, was a familiar tocsin about British institutions not being democratic and accountable but oligarchical and impenetrable, a matter of quiet words and discreet soundings, gentlemen in Whitehall who knew best and decisions imposed on the great mass of ordinary people that, by and large, they had no means of resisting.

On one level, the 700-plus pages of Family Britain are simply a succession of confidence tricks, "Establishment" (a word coined in the 1950s) sleight-of-hand designed to bamboozle a credulous public into balmy acquiescence. To judge by the weight of diligently assembled vox pop and once again Kynaston's research is impeccable in its depth and precision the post-war public did not want its Blitzed town centres refashioned along modernist lines. Yet such consultations as took place were ignored. It did not want to be re-housed in out-of-town high-rises, but the planners carried on regardless. Its innate social conservatism was outraged by everything from immigration to the suspension of the death penalty, and yet the liberal agenda was everywhere enforced. As to how this process worked, Kynaston is excellent at itemising what might be called the "progressive consensus". Cross-party, as keenly supported by emollient Conservatives as New Statesman subscribers, finding its figurative outpouring in the 1951 Festival of Britain, it included virtually all government bureaucracy, and found its locus classicus in the BBC.

Yet, here and there amid the bright, purposeful pronouncements, comes an odd note of bafflement, a puzzled awareness that people might not actually desire the amenities with which they were constantly showered. "I am not at all convinced that the Estate people want an organised community life," an Observer journalist wrote about the new Borehamwood development. Mass Observation's visitor to the 1952 Register Your Choice exhibition ticked off its working-class audience in pedagogic terms: "There is much failure even to appreciate the aesthetic attractions of contemporary styles, much emotional resistance... much tendency to withdraw into the security of the familiar." It was the same with listener response to a BBC broadcast of TS Eliot's The Confidential Clerk, which complainants found difficult, wordy and "highbrow".

As Kynaston shows, the intellectual left was, by and large, deeply pained by the consequences of post-war affluence. They had hoped for uplift and enlightenment, and what they got was a hankering for what a character in Simon Raven's Eden-era novel Friends in Low Places (1965) calls "cars, cookers and fancy cans". It is difficult to criticise the materialism of the 1950s, if only because it contrasted so with the privations of the previous decade.

Hearing the myriad individual voices collected here, noting the response to such epoch-defining events as the Coronation of 1953 (plausibly represented as "an act of national communion"), you are invariably struck by a terrific sense of decency, humility, reserve, an ability to extract pleasure from a very restricted social compass. The Chingford housewife Judy Haines, one of Kynaston's regular witnesses, was delighted by the weekend recreation of a drive into the Essex countryside, a picnic with her family and the Test match unwinding on the radio.

Kynaston's reluctance to generalise is one of his most attractive characteristics. "So many individual lives," he reflects; "it makes one wonder about the validity of terms like 'class', 'culture' and 'community.'" It does, and yet his diagnosis is of a "frozen period", a ten-year gap following the war's end in which the old social patterns resumed, with rock'n'roll, Suez and a less deferential press lining up to blow them away.

If it was an increasingly prosperous world, then it was also one in which countless thousands were left behind in the attritional wake of "progress". The novelist Catherine Heath, who worked on advice bureaux, noted "the utter helplessness of these people in the face of the complexity of modern society". As for its most serious consequences, one is an increasingly neurotic middle class, desperate to preserve its status against virulent assaults from above and below. The second is the effect of rising living standards and greater wealth on that social conservatism Kynaston identifies as one of post-war Britain's animating characteristics. One doesn't have to be a political theorist to feel that practically all the tensions that afflict us in the early 21st century stem from this source.

DJ Taylor's latest novel, 'Ask Alice', is published by Chatto & Windus

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape