November 8th, 2015


Links I found interesting for 08-11-2015


Family Britain, 1951-1957, by David Kynaston

This is the second volume of Tales of a New Jerusalem, a series of books pulling together the findings of Mass-Observation and various other sources to create a detailed, almost week-by-week popular history of Britain. (The first volume covers 1945-51, and the third 1957-59; Kynaston's plan is to take it up to Margaret Thatcher's election in 1979.) It's a tremendous piece of work, but I'll stipulate up front that it has limitations - although the title references "Britain", it's mainly England, with some Wales and a very small amount of Scotland; Northern Ireland is mentioned precisely once.

Having said that, I still found it very interesting, and if you are English or particularly interested in England it will be fascinating. Particular highlights are Kynaston's analysis of Fifties sexuality, both straight and gay (though I missed any reflection on how things might have been different during the War); his account of the political arguments around race (though here I would have liked to see some framing in terms of theory); his careful account of the major capital punishment cases (Derek Bentley and Ruth Ellis); the story, which I had not fully appreciated before, of how the Church of England's interference in Princess Margaret's love life was a key tipping point for secularisation; the general opening up of society to new influences, with television and Elvis replacing cinema and music hall in the course of these few years; and the end of rationing and its effect on the nation's gastronomic aspirations.

I know it's not the story Kynaston is trying to tell, but I'd also have liked either more or less on the politics of the day (as well as some more theoretical reflections). Enough major figures have now left memoirs, and enough records are now public, that the contemporary newspaper accounts of what was going on in government could have been backed up quite substantially by the inside story, rather than just using the views of a few individuals. The big picture in any case is fascinating enough.

We have the first volume already on the shelves, and I think we will get the rest as they come out.