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18 December 2010

Family Britain

Tag(s): History

About a year or so ago I was reading a set of book reviews commissioned to nominate the  outstanding books of the decade which the newspaper concerned mistakenly thought was coming to an end when there was clearly a year to go. The History section nominated Austerity Britain by David Kynaston. I have read Austerity Britain and , while I am not qualified to say which is the best history book published over a ten year period (indeed I am not sure who is as it supposes that one has read all that were published in the time frame,) I can confirm that Austerity Britain is indeed an outstanding book. Professor Kynaston is one of our best historians.  He has written fifteen books including the widely acclaimed four volume history The City of London. Austerity Britain launched the ground-breaking series Tales of New Jerusalem which will tell the story of Britain from VE Day in 1945 to the election of Margret Thatcher in 1979 as never before.  This is because it combines a conventional retelling of the national story drawn from the usual public archives as well as the reflections of well-known people with the voices of ordinary contemporary people, especially those that contributed to the Mass Observation.

Austerity Britain was published in 2007 and covers the period from 1945-1951, or in other words the years of the Labour Government of Clement Attlee. But the second book in the series, Family Britain, published in 2009, which picks up the story at the time of the Korean War in 1951 and takes it on to another international crisis, that of Suez in 1957 and the consequent resignation of Anthony Eden as Prime Minister, is even better. David Kynaston and I are more or less contemporaries, he was born in 1951, I the year before, so in this second book in the series there is a slight turn from history to nostalgia. Familiar names make their first appearance in the public consciousness. We live in an age of the celebrity culture today but there was plenty of celebrity in the early 50’s. The great national events- Churchill returning to power, the death of George VI, the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the Suez crisis – jostle alongside everything that gave Britain in the 1950’s its distinctive flavour: Butlin's holiday camps, Kenwood Chefs, Hancock’s Half Hour, Ekco television sets, Davy Crockett, skiffle and teddy boys.

And perhaps on a more serious note one can see the beginning of strong social and political trends: society was still largely cohesive, ordered and still very hierarchical but gratefully moving away from the painful hardships of the 1940s captured in the first volume towards domestic ease and gradually affluence.  As immigrants arrived from the Caribbean a so-called colour bar came into being.

These books are meticulously researched and brilliantly written. The research is based on sources such as individual diaries, not just of the rich and famous who want to make sure that history is written for their benefit, but by ordinary people who would be forgotten were it not for these written records. But how will historians in 50 years conduct such research? Who is writing a diary these days? Many people I know do not even keep an appointments diary but use some form of electronic record that will be deleted after use. Of course there is an army of people, particularly the young who are telling us the most mundane details about themselves on Twitter and Facebook and other social media. But will this have any permanence or long term value?

Facebook is now trying to change the way we communicate with each other. Language is becoming narrower, with shorter phrases and fewer words, abbreviations and text speak all contributing to an increasing paucity of thought. As language became more accessible to the masses with widening literacy so the ability to think rationally and logically also developed. It is possible that we may be now discerning the opposite trend.  Next year sees the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible. Whatever you think of its content, its inspiration or its message it is undoubtedly a great work of literature. It tells many great stories and much of our everyday language has been derived from it and its English language predecessors.

So let me indulge myself with a few more glimpses of nostalgia from those early ‘50s. Dab-it-off, Windolene, Brasso, Brillo, Lifebuoy, Silvikrin, Toni Perms, hair-nets, head-scarves, rompers, knicker elastic, cycle clips, brogues, Clark’s sandals, Start-rite, Moss Bros, tweed jackets, crests on blazers, driving gloves, Austin Cambridge, Morris Oxford, starting handles, indicator wings, Triumph, Raleigh, Sturmey-Archer, trolley buses, Green Line, I-Spy, Hornby Dublo, Dinky, Meccano, Subbuteo, Plasticine, jumping jacks, cap guns, Senior Service, Passing Clouds, cigarette boxes, Saturday morning cinema, Uncle Mac, Nellie the Elephant, The Laughing Policeman, fountain pens, napkin rings, butter knives, vol-au-vents, sponge cakes, Garibaldis, Carnation, Edam, Sun-Pat, Dairylea, Marmite sandwiches, semolina, Tizer, Quosh, dandelion and burdock, Sherbet Fountains, Spangles, Rowntree’s Fruit Gums, aniseed balls, liquorice, flying saucers, gobstoppers…..

The Goons, Twenty Questions, What’s My Line, Waiting for Godot, The Benny Hill Show, Billy Bunter, James Bond, Lucky Jim, Dixon of Dock Green, Look Back in Anger, The Mousetrap, Crackerjack, The Dam Busters, Genevieve, The Flower Pot Men,  Doctor in the House, The King and I, The Lavender Hill Mob, Panorama, The Quatermass Experiment, Reach for the Sky, The Sooty Show, At the Drop of a Hat ,Sunday Night at the London Palladium (with a certain Bruce Forsyth), Take It From Here, The Lord of the Rings, The Wooden Tops…..

Oh, and I’ll bet that many of us who remember those times also formed our first impressions of what makes a great family Christmas.. and we’ll be doing it all next week, the carols and the mince pies, the stockings and the tree, the cards and the presents, the holly and the mistletoe, the turkey and the sprouts, the pudding and the sixpence, and the Queen’s speech followed by games or a film and then endless variations of turkey leftovers and dozing off in your favourite armchair.

Have yourself a Merry, family Christmas.

Enjoy it.

Copyright David C Pearson 2010 All rights reserved

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