Review: Modernity Britain, Opening the Box 1957-59, By David Kynaston

It was goodbye to post-war austerity in the Fifties, as shopping malls and skyscrapers arrived – and 'The Billy Cotton Band Show' made way for Elvis

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The Independent Culture

One of the most poignant contributions to the latest instalment of David Kynaston's monumental history of the post-war years comes from a writer named BL Coombes. A former miner, and in this capacity author of the pioneering autobiography These Poor Hands, avid for all the ancient proletarian virtues of solidarity, community and popular art, Coombes's response to what he imagined was the cultural deprivation of the Macmillan era strikes the authentic note of working-class-intellectual horror. "Where are the small orchestras which used to be in every village?" he demanded in a column for the Neath Times. "Where are our first-class instrumentalists, or our really top-class singers? Yes, and dramatists also who can truly depict the life of our folk?" Judging by the figures for television ownership – 56 per cent of the adult population – the previous generation's harpists and folk poets were at leisure in their front parlours watching the Queen Mother's particular favourite, The Billy Cotton Band Show.

From its panoramic opening in the first week of January 1957, where the viewing audience is gamely consoling itself with The Lone Ranger and the popular quiz show Double Your Money, to its late-1959 election night finale (Tory majority 100), Modernity Britain: Opening the Box is a study in materialism, or rather a study in materialism's consequences. As Kynaston shows, with his customary finesse and kaleidoscopic range of sources, it took until the post-Suez years for the drive towards higher living standards to pick up steam. Rationing had ended as late as 1954. Kynaston's earlier volumes (Austerity Britain 1945-51 and Family Britain 1951-57) describe an almost twilit decade in which, at any rate materially, the country was still living in the shadow of the Second World War. Once Macmillan had replaced Eden as premier the brakes came off, and the consumer society rolled across the horizon: a land if not of milk and honey then of the endless modernistic shop-front, in which Tin Pan Alley, fridges, telephones, and the end of credit restrictions all played their part.

Hardly any area of Fifties society was excluded from these serial excursions to the car showroom and the newly-built shopping mall. Neither were they excluded from its social and, in many cases, political fall-out. A mostly unmodernised Labour Party found itself having to parley with a gang of trade union paymasters who seemed far less keen on communal will than preserving wage differentials. Inner cities found themselves having to deal with mass immigration and the import of Commonwealth labourers prepared to take on menial jobs that the British worker increasingly barely deigned to perform. Slum clearance and the move towards high-rise development brought deracination and the break-up of communities for whom squalor sometimes seemed less important than confraternity. Such was the sense of abandonment that the few walls that remained after the tearing down of the old East End rookeries often carried chalked graffiti to the effect that "I lived here."

Kynaston's particular specialism, as the book winds on, is the effect of these higher living standards on old-style working class life of the type memorialised in Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy (1957), which he rightly defines as one of the era's most influential texts. Hoggart, like Coombes, notes the transit from a communal life of public houses and institutes and a culture which ordinary people made for themselves to a world of "Yank mags" and The Phil Silvers Show. Like most middle class Labour politicians, who thought commercial television vulgar, he was doubtless appalled by audience research figures demonstrating that 70 per cent of the public preferred ITV to the more up-market BBC. Kynaston, you infer, tends to sympathise with the couch potatoes who contrived to inflate tinned beer sales from a modest 1.5 million units in 1954-5 to a whopping 70 million in 1958-9. It is Orwell's point all over again: useless to blame the working classes for their materialism, given the dustiness of what had gone before. The teenager of 1959 had had enough of listening to the blind pianist at the working-man's club: he wanted Elvis.

As well as being a study in materialism, Modernity Britain is also, necessarily, a study in oligarchism. Social change, after all, needs planning, and "the planner" stalks this work like a ghoul. Kynaston's conclusion, as he surveys the forests of skyscraper flats and the wholesale demolition of historic town centres, is that there existed "a yawning gap between those making the pronouncements ... and those being pronounced upon." And here we are again on post-war Britain's most familiar battlefield – the war of "development", piled high with casualties, eternally strafed by legislative machine guns, where the foot-soldiers scamper from trench to trench, desperate to avoid being blown apart by the howitzers of progress.