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Tales of a New Jerusalem #2

Family Britain, 1951-1957

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As in Austerity Britain, an astonishing array of vivid, intimate and unselfconscious voices drive this narrative. The keen-eyed Nella Last shops assiduously at Barrow Market as austerity and rationing gradually give way to relative abundance; housewife Judy Haines, relishing the detail of suburban life, brings up her children in Chingford; and, the self-absorbed civil servant Henry St John perfects the art of grumbling. These and many other voices give a rich, unsentimental picture of everyday life in the 1950s. We also encounter well-known figures on the way, such as Doris Lessing (joining and later leaving the Communist Party), John Arlott (sticking up on Any Questions? for the rights of homosexuals) and Tiger's Roy of the Rovers (making his goal-scoring debut for Melchester). All this is part of a colourful, unfolding tapestry, in which the great national events - the Tories returning to power, the death of George VI, the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth, the Suez Crisis - jostle alongside everything that gave Britain in the 1950s its distinctive Butlin's holiday camps, Kenwood food mixers, "Hancock's Half-Hour," Ekco television sets, Davy Crockett, skiffle and teddy boys. Deeply researched, David Kynaston's "Family Britain" offers an unrivalled take on a largely cohesive, ordered, still very hierarchical society gratefully starting to move away from the painful hardships of the 1940s towards domestic ease and affluence.

784 pages, Paperback

First published November 2, 2009

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About the author

David Kynaston

43 books55 followers
David Kynaston was born in Aldershot in 1951. He has been a professional historian since 1973 and has written eighteen books, including The City of London (1994-2001), a widely acclaimed four-volume history, and W.G.'s Birthday Party, an account of the Gentleman vs. the Players at Lord's in July 1898. He is the author of Austerity Britain, 1945-51, the first title in a series of books covering the history of post-war Britain (1945-1979) under the collective title "Tales of a New Jerusalem".

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 59 reviews
Profile Image for Susan.
2,643 reviews598 followers
August 6, 2021
Following directly on from, 'Austerity Britain 1945-51,' this volume takes the reader through 1951 to 1957; from the Festival of Britain to the Suez Crisis. Describing this in such a way, though, denies the minutiae of detail and the myriad of cultural, political and social references, which make this series of books such a delight.

The 1950's begins with the grand gesture of the Festival of Britain, but it is a country still mired in rationing and shortages. After the immense political change of a Labour Government, Churchill is back as Prime Minister, and the decade will see the death of a King and a new, young, Queen.

Author David Kynaston leads the reader through the years which saw the death of Alan Turing and the active prosecution of homosexual men, the class system still very strong, and, despite the Cold War, more British people still identified more with the Russians than the Americans. Meanwhile, the British were about to discover the delights of Indian restaurants, in a country where food had been, for so long, bland and utilitarian, embraced ballroom dancing and hung on the press stories about Princess Margaret and Group Captain Peter Townsend...

I have read true crime titles about some of the major cases that the author discusses in this book, but the attitudes of the time were often more shocking. This book sees Christie and Rillington Place, as well as the contentious death penalties of Derek Bentley and Ruth Ellis. Again, the Mass Observation studies lets us know that sympathy was not as widespread as I may have thought, with waspish remarks about Ruth Ellis's platinum blonde hair and even Bentley's own lawyer seeming to think he deserved to hang. Still, this was the beginning of the end for the death penalty, with opinions divided in public, but change coming.

Change was also in the air in the arts. Television becoming more pervasive, "Lucky Jim," by Kingsley Amis published in 1954, Angry Young Men, the coming of rock and roll, Teddy Boys, John Osborne's, "Look Back in Anger," and Colin Wilson's, "The Outsider." The Goons were still popular, Tony Hancock turned to television, the Woodentops joined children's television and the subtle change in people's viewing habits saw men more likely to stay home with wife and children, in front of a screen, rather than heading to the pub for desultory conversation. Weather forecasters appeared on television for the first time, meaning housewives did not have to resort to the farming or shipping forecasts. Commercial television breaks the BBC monopoly and, amongst new stars of the decade is The Benny Hill Show, Norman Wisdom, The Sooty Show, Fanny Cradock and the arrival of Elvis to bring an air of rebellion to the ears of John Lennon and John Peel, among others, while Lonnie Donegan created a musical revolution with skiffle, which would explode around the country.

After the success of Labour, sympathy with the Trade Unions was waning as strikes happened more often. When Wedgwood Benn described unions as, "the most warm-hearted movement in the whole of the country," he was met by laughter. It was less funny when the National Union of Railwaymen called a strike four days before Christmas, in December, 1953. Perhaps unwisely, Churchill gave in, telling his Chancellor (somewhat charmingly), "We cannot have a railway strike. You will never get home, nobody will be able to see their wives." Settling for their terms, though, set the tone for 25 years of industrial relations. Unions were very much traditionally male and did little for women workers, who were seen as working for 'pin money,' and women not given anything like the same wage as their male counterparts.

Meanwhile, by 1954, meat was finally off the ration and immigration and homosexuality were the hot, political topics. Britain was embracing modernisation of British Railways and building nuclear power stations, but the upkeep of Country Houses was proving difficult and many were being destroyed. "In 1953 along," according to architectural history, J. Mordaunt Crook, "Country Houses were coming down at the rate of one every two and a half days. There had been nothing quite like it since the Dissolution of the Monasteries." James Lees-Mile reported that, in another country, these houses would be classified as a monument and such a fate, "would not be tolerated," but the destruction went ahead.

Interestingly, the British had a complicated relationship with Europe even then. At the Messina Conference, a gathering of six member states, which later led to the European Economic Community, in 1958, the British observer left before the end, thoroughly unimpressed and voicing his opinions openly. Meanwhile, the secretary of the Football League, bullied Chelsea out of taking part in the European Cup.

Overall, this series is a delight. The next two books are, "Modernity Britain," taking the country from 1957 to 1962. I look forward to reading on.
Profile Image for David.
652 reviews238 followers
November 16, 2015
Glossary here of obscure references in this book.

Few things generate a more powerful sentimental feeling in my otherwise black heart than a historian rescuing the voices of forgotten average people from oblivion. So this second volume in Kynaston's Tales of a New Jerusalem cycle, intended to trace the course of everyday Britain from 1945 to 1978, often through the writings of the non-notable or the now-obscure, had a powerful effect. Nevertheless, it was also a sad book, because “[t]here seem to be, sad to record, conspicuously few authentic working-class diaries for these years.... They also, more disconcertingly, remind us through their very baldness of how little we really know about these distant lives and almost still voices.” (p.168 of Kindle edition)

When not allowing the primary sources (from all classes) to do the talking, Kynaston deploys an eccentric personal authorial voice, which was an enjoyable novelty in the first volume Austerity Britain but by now is something I am used to, perhaps subtracting from my pleasure. For example, I guess the assumption that we will understand low-frequency terms like “contra mundum” (p. 244),“valetudinarian” (p. 272), and “adamantine” (p. 573) can be taken as a complimentary one, because the author implicitly assumes that we are as well-educated as he is. (Full disclosure: I had to look these words up.) Still, I'd like to yellow-card the author for a violations of rule v of George Orwell's rules of good writing in “Politics and the English Language”: Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

I speculate that Kynaston's intent is to urge his fellow Britons to rescue this relatively little-known section of their history from the obscurity, and rethink its meaning. Whatever his intent, he seems to have written exclusively for Britons who share precisely the same mental cultural database as he does. This is a problem for us non-Britons. For example, when Kynaston mentions a name of teenaged diarist, if we know that the diarist goes on to become an alleged prostitute in the center of a spy scandal in later life (in the case of Christine Keeler, p. 28), it would certainly change the way you would look at the quoted material. Clearly Kynaston expects everyone to immediately recognize Keeler, but I think that the scandal with which she is associated is sufficiently far in the past so that even well-educated people might not know about it.

As a result, I continued the fussy little practice that I started when I was reading Austerity Britain of compiling a searchable glossary of terms and names that I considered obscure enough to warrant a brief explanation, meaning people and terms that I didn't know. As mentioned at the top, I have posted it on-line as a spreadsheet on Google Docs (link above and here). This document is MUCH longer for Family Britain than the similar document I compiled for Austerity Britain.

I enjoyed wasting hours searching for the obscure British personalities, but other people might not. I can't help wondering that, by his uncompromisingly refusal to clue us in on these references, whether Kynaston may be consigning his books to an earlier obscurity than they might otherwise have. Take, for example, the case of Cilla Black (p. 166). She is a singer and actress, most famous in the 1960's and 70's, but even now (2011), as a grandmother, attracting some attention in the UK through TV appearances and record reissuances. It seems reasonable to assume that, if her career follows the normal trajectory of stardom, in thirty years she will be forgotten by all but experts and aficionados, even in the UK. However, it is normal for both students and lay-people to read thirty-year-old histories with interest and enthusiasm. In 2041, will there be many people with the patience enough to root around dusty ancient web sites to figure out who these people were? Maybe the author is betting on a science-fiction future where we will all have implants in our brains to do our historical sleuthing for us.

I considered references to the following people and things too well-known (meaning, I had heard of them before reading this book) to need explaining in the glossary.

[in approximate order of appearance:] Michael Frayn, John Betjeman, Lewis Mumford, Joe Orton, John Profumo, Christine Keeler, Roy Jenkins, Anthony Wedgwood “Tony” Benn, Bruce Chatwin, Tony Hancock, the Kray twins, Nigel Lawson, Denis Healey, Sue Townsend, Cinema Paradiso, Eric Hobsbawm, Doris Lessing, Raymond Chandler, Terence Stamp, B. S. Johnson, Steven Berkoff, Coronation Street, Jean Genet, V. S. Pritchett, Michael Palin, Benjamin Britten, J. Fred Muggs, E. M. Forster, Bertrand Russell, Gina Lollobrigida, J. B. Priestley, John Gielgud, Prunella Scales, Michael Foot, Freddie Laker, red-in-tooth-and-claw (used as an adjective), Iris Murdoch, Petula Clark, Julie Andrews, Marks & Spencer, Piltdown man, Malcolm Bradbury, Spike Milligan, David Attenborough, Peter Cushing, Alistair Cooke, Dennis Potter, Peter Bull, 'The Whitsun Weddings', Dusty Springfield, Lady Bracknell, Michael Redgrave, Robert Shaw, Christopher Isherwood, Peter Cook, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Peter Maxwell Davies, Danny Kaye, skiffle, Twiggy, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Tom Stoppard, Roger Daltrey, Cyril Connolly, Richard Harris, W. H. Auden, Laurence Olivier, Marilyn Monroe, Simon Callow, David Owen, Blackadder, Marianne Faithfull, Peter Ustinov

plus all of the names that appeared in a similar list and glossary I made as part of my review of Austerity Britain. Any name or reference that I felt was adequately identified in the book, and any word that was easily found in my Kindle's dictionary, was also not included in the glossary.

Finally, toward the end of the book (p. 529), Kynaston, apparently anticipating my desire to understand every reference in the book and evilly determined to drive me insane, started a chapter ('Family Favorites') with a free-standing list of about 150 mundane everyday items and activities associated with 1950s Britain, from popular cigarette brands to “eat up your greens”. Since it is possible to read the narrative without understanding every reference in this list, and also since there is a limit to my patience with this project, I left this list unresearched.

I am looking forward to the third volume in the series, reportedly to be titled Modernity Britain.
Profile Image for carl  theaker.
892 reviews42 followers
April 21, 2011

'Family Britain 1951-1957' is history at eye-level;
700 pages covering 7 years, you get a lot of detail on the
thoughts and activities of everyday life.

Major events are covered, but through the eyes of
the public's perspective, the 1953 coronation of the Queen,
the first national implementation of Nuclear power plants,
national strikes, the Suez Canal crisis.

Though it's more the items that are closer to living
that fill the pages: new housing, the sporting events that
touch everyone, going to the movies, getting a car, the price
of groceries, the advent of rock n' roll, Television.

If you are English and grew up during this time
period, or perhaps heard about it from your relatives,
this book would be quite nostalgic, however from an American's
point of view, and I at least have an interest in things English,
still a lot of the references will be lost or vague to you,
for example, the author recalls a particular famous announcer
calling of football match, or royal event, we have no way of
getting that feeling, which i imagine to be something like
our hearing Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley.

This is also true with various Radio and TV shows that
I'm sure ring true to anyone who heard them growing up.

Some subjects get a bit long, for example the coverage
of housing developments, (though now when I watch
an English movie, I pay attention to the floor plan),
here are some of the range of subjects :

-- Britons went to the movies far more than any other country
(a statistic soon to be squashed by the coming of TV).

-- the pub as we fondly view in movies and stories was actually
on the decline during this time period, especially with Britons
drinking about half as much as they did in the 1920s (on average).

-- the 1953 coronation

-- designing neighborhoods, housing was at extreme shortage
due to the blitz and aging of Victorian slums

-- perceptions of the 'feeling of community' are well examined.
Many have their nostalgic fond recollections of the working poor
neighborhoods however, polls and various other stories don't bear
it out. Are the good ol' days always just a dream?

-- stop if you've heard this one before, the complexity of modern
society, 1953, seems to overwhelm those who need help, in that they
are not aware of the agencies that are designed to help them.

(makes one wonder if these things are solvable, or is it really
the complexity of society, one can only boogle or is that google
the mind comparing 1953 with 2011 )

-- literary world: Lord of the Rings is published, Kingsley Amis
first novel - Lucky Jim, JB Priestly, Iris Murdoch.
Guiness Book of World Records starts out as a bar bet settling
list by a pair of pub owning brothers.

-- many can afford to purchase a car and the British car maker
finds that people will pay a lot extra for things that
do not increase the efficiency of the car or the comfort
of the driving experience.

-- sports - roger banister 4 minute mile; though lost on an
American the big cricket, football & rugby matches of the day.

-- music - the bursting on the scene of American rocknroll,
the creating of the skiffle genre and the effect of both
on Bill Wyman, Mick Jagger, Dusty Springfield, John Lennon
and Roger Daltry who were growing up at the time.

-- the new king of the entertainment hill, TV TV TV.
Benny Hill's first TV show, (good Lord he was still on
TV in the 1980s!)

348 reviews6 followers
May 14, 2015
This is the second part of Kynaston's epic account of Britain from 1945 to 1979. It starts with the conservatives winning the general election of 1951 (despite getting many fewer votes than Labour, Britain was a much more working class country then) and it ends with Suez. But politics is in the back seat for most of this journey, which delves into culture, education, sport, music and film.

Two things are worth noting about Kynaston's technique. Firstly structure. Family Britain (like its predecessor Austerity Britain and the following 'volume' Modernity Britain') is in fact two books, each dealing with approximately half of the period. Each of these is in turn divided into three parts. Parts one and three are chronological, moving forward albeit slowly. But the middle parts are thematic - one deals with working class culture, and the other with issues of family, gender, and sexuality. And whilst overall the book is good these sections are simply majesterial. This is important because it really adds meat, and stops the volumes becoming a simple accumulation of detail.

Secondly, Kynaston spends a lot of time speaking in other people's voices. There is an immense amount in quotes culled from diaries and newspaper, local as well as national. There is great craft in how these are combined, and the authors voice very much comes through. But it also means the books get very detailed, very parochial, very quickly. If you can't place Coventry and Skegness on a map of the UK than this probably isn't a book for you.

Quite simply I've now read 1350 pages of this since the end of January, and I'm looking forward to more.

(PS Thankfully the author continues to give shout outs to Routledge authors, John Bowlby and R D Laing standing out this time round, as well as Bertrand Russell).
Profile Image for F.R..
Author 30 books201 followers
December 29, 2009
The second volume of David Kynaston’s social history of the “New Jerusalem” covers such areas as The Festival of Britain, end of rationing, emergence of new towns and the increasing importance of television. Before wrapping up with Suez and the resignation of Anthony Eden. Once again the lives of ‘normal’ people are paramount, with inclusion of diary entries from average members of the public giving a viewpoint not normally seen in history books. It’s a fascinating read with lots of interesting material, however a number of chapters in this volume seemed to lack cohesion, being just a series of events which the author does little to link. I enjoyed this book, but with a greater thematic focus I’d have enjoyed it more.

The next volume appears to be ‘Modernity Britain’ and I’ll definitely be reading it.
85 reviews3 followers
August 6, 2011
This is the second volume of Britain’s postwar history by David Kynaston. This volume covers the period 1951-57 (originally in two separate volumes: “A Certainty of Pace” and “A Thicker Cut”), and the period encompasses the first postwar Conservative government, starting with Churchill and ending with Eden’s post-Suez resignation at the beginning of 1958.

Although all of the major political events are covered, and we are introduced to fledgling politicians who will come to dominate the scene in the subsequent decades: Macmillan, Wilson, Benn and Heath, it is the snippets of information that is most tantalising rather than the broader political thrust which would be covered by any half-decent political history of the period. For example the Police advice to Edward Heath against continuing his practice of “cottaging” in 1955 upon entry to the Privy Council, or the near new-blackout about Churchill’s increasing infirmness following his heart attack, or Doris Lessing communist party loyalty (initially at least) even after Stalin had been exposed by Kruschev as the tyrant that he was and her inability to criticise even the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising.

But even greater than these fascinating nuggets, is the generous inclusion of the views of ordinary people on a whole range of issues, from the Festival of Britain to the Coronation, the initial distrust of commercial television to dislike of self-service shopping (initially introduced by the Co-Op). These views have been meticulously researched by Mr. Kynaston, from a variety of sources, ranging from the well-known Mass Observation archive, to numerous autobiographies and diaries and contemporaneous newspaper sources.

This is the second of Mr. Kynaston’s volumes in this series that is intended to continue to the 1979 Election (which is when my own political memory effectively starts), and I can’t wait to read the next instalment. It is eminently readable, and nicely illustrated by some poignant photographs. Highly recommended reading!

Profile Image for Mark.
974 reviews96 followers
March 28, 2018
In the early 1950s Great Britain was a nation in transition. On the one hand it was still an imperial power, a workshop to much of the world, a land with a tradition-bound patriarchal society. Yet on the other it was seeing the first results of the many social and economic changes underway, with the clearing of the Victorian-era slums, the growing challenges of a multi-racial population, and the rapid proliferation of television just some of the signs pointing to the future that was to come. This transition and the people who faced it are the subjects of David Kynaston’s book, which chronicles life in Britain between the Festival of Britain in 1951 and Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s resignation six years later.

In many respects Kynaston’s book is less a narrative of these years than a panorama that allows the reader to take in details both large and small. Through them he depicts the emergence of what he calls a “proto-consumerist” society from years of rationing and deprivation. As Britain shook off the postwar austerity, its citizens embraced the burgeoning prosperity as their due after their years of sacrifice. As Kynaston demonstrates it was a reward enjoyed by a broader swath of society than ever before, yet as more people enjoyed the benefits of prosperity a growing number of concerns were expressed about the damage being done to society, of the breakdown of communities and the rebelliousness of youth.

Kynaston recounts these years in a sympathetic and perceptive manner. Seemingly nothing is too insignificant to escape his attention, while his ability to draw significance from these trivial facts supplies added depth his account of the events and developments of the era. Yet his narrative never bogs down in the facts, transitioning smoothly from one topic to another without ever losing his reader’s interest. The result is a magnificent work, a worthy sequel to his earlier volume, and one that leaves its readers eager for the next installment in his “Tales of a New Jerusalem” series.
136 reviews5 followers
March 29, 2010
I was a big fan of Kynaston's earlier book in the series, Austerity Britain. In my opinion, Family Britain is just as good, and maybe even a bit better. Again, the book is less of a history book and more of a snapshot, or series of snapshots, of the culture during a certain period of time (1951-1957). What makes these books so special is that instead of focusing on major events, they let us see into the everyday lives of Britons of different classes. Family Britain touches on the end of rationing, the rise of television (threatening to End Civilization As We Know It Since At Least 1951), the housing situation, labor strikes, Communism, the relationship between the sexes, the differences between the classes, race relations, vacations, and much much more. Kynaston goes into some depth on all of these subjects, which makes this book big and dense and a slow read - but so worth it!
Profile Image for Douglas.
98 reviews8 followers
November 12, 2009
A fascinating insight into my early teenage years documenting the constraints on my parents.
Profile Image for Kirsten.
739 reviews3 followers
March 17, 2023
Der Bericht fängt da an, wo sein Vorgänger, "Austerity Britain" aufgehört hat. Der größte Teil des Landes wist wieder aufgebaut, aber jetzt gibt es andere Probleme. David Kynaston erzählt die Geschichten der Menschen von der Straße und zeichnet so ein buntes Bild aus einer spannenden Zeit.

Wie sein Vorgänger auch, beruht das Buch auf Umfragen und unzähligen Interviews mit Menschen und so gibt es viele spannende Geschichten, die erzählt werden. Manche sind amüsant, wie die Suche nach der perfekten Familie, die einen Sommerurlaub gewinnen kann und die landesweit durch die Medien ging. Oder die Erleichterung, als die Butter nicht mehr rationiert wurde und man endlich auf die lästige Margarine verzichten konnte. Die Freude derjenigen, die endlich in eine größere Wohnung oder in ein eigenes Haus umziehen konnte, war in den Zeilen deutlich zu spüren. Die Leute verließen die Städte und zogen zwar nicht aufs Land, aber in neu geplante Vororte oder Ortschaften, die in rasender Geschwindigkeit errichtet werden.

Nachdem das Leben gesichert war, konnte man sich anderen Dingen zuwenden. Das Leben und die Liebe von Prinzessin Margaret bewegte die Gemüter. Ob sie Peter Townsend heiraten würde beherrschte lange Zeit die Schlagezeilen. Daneben gab es natürlich noch Fußball und Kricket.

Aber es gab auch nicht so schöne Themen. Zwischen den Zeilen und auch offen konnte ich immer mehr Rassismus herauslesen. Viele Frauen redeten mehr oder weniger offen über Gewalt in der Beziehung. Es ist eben ein Querschnitt durch die Gesellschaft, den David Kynaston präsentiert, mit allen Höhen und Tiefen.
Profile Image for Ian Russell.
232 reviews3 followers
December 5, 2018
It’s a brilliant concept for a history book, leading the reader along a short, linear time line and observes, with the minimal of historian analysis, the period in a collection of newspaper and magazine articles, and excerpts from personal diaries, some of which belong to ordinary citizens.

Though compared to the previous and first volume of Kynaston’s Britain books, I found this disappointingly pedestrian. Maybe this was the fault of history or maybe the relative easement of austerity makes for less drama and interest. Nevertheless, it appears this period was a transition for British culture and politics: the end of a popular sense of empire, the end of deference, a new, young generation emerging without profound sense of the war, an emerging modernity, technology and household gadgets - the modern consumerism. It’s a world which still seems monochrome but is by degrees moving towards the colourful sixties.

Okay, not as impactful as the first volume but good enough to make me read more.
Profile Image for Patrick DiJusto.
Author 5 books58 followers
November 4, 2019
A detailed study of life in Great Britain I've the five tumultuous years 1951-1957. If you watch the Netflix series 'The Crown' that's all of season 1 and the first three episodes of season 2.

Kynaston does a wonderful job of integrating the actual diaries of everyday people into the narrative, so we learn how a Yorkshire shopgirl viewed the death of King George VI ("They've taken all the good shows off the telly."), a London housewife's view of her new government- built suburban house, and so on.

One unfortunate aspect of the book is that it was clearly written by someone who lived through those years. As such, the author rarely stops to explain the impact of certain people or events. For example, do you know who Tony Benn was? He was one of the 20th century's most important and influential members of Parliament without being prime minister. You'd never learn that from this book, because since the author already knew that, he unconsciously assumed you did too.
164 reviews2 followers
July 2, 2017
700 pages of sheer quality.

We start with Churchill's re-election, and end with the Suez crisis. It is extraordinary, 60 years later, what a low level impact the latter made upon the public. Those who gave it any thought at all considered it to be a resounding triumph, rather than the end of an Empire.

Sandwiched in between we have accounts of myxamatosis, the introduction of commercial TV and adverts, latent racism, blatant homophobia, Teddy Boys, Rock n Roll, washing machines, high rise flats, and a national obsession with eating chicken.

Beautifully written and brilliantly put together. I highly recommend this.
Profile Image for Andrew Pratley.
324 reviews7 followers
June 19, 2017
This is splendid series of which I plan to read in full. I was born in 1956 so, for me, the series which covers the period from 1945-1979 chronicling the social history of Britain is part nostalgia & part history. There are many voices heard throughout. It is a joy to read because it gets you closer to the lives of ordinary people as well as the less ordinary. Having finished it the period before I was born I feel much better informed & have a better understanding of the lives led by my parent's generation.
Profile Image for Graham Russell.
13 reviews1 follower
August 14, 2017
I really enjoyed Austerity Britain, but this was a bit of a slog. I may be misremembering the first volume, but my recollection is that it had a really good balance between vox pop contributions and the author's own analysis. This seemed to rely much more heavily on anecdotal quotes and it lacked focus as a result. It's still a really interesting book, particularly if, like mine, your parents grew up in that era - I'm just not sure the 696 page count is really warranted.
161 reviews
April 24, 2020
I loved the first in the series - "Austerity Britain" - and whizzed through it, but for some reason I found this second one rather a slog. I see I bought it (admittedly for only £1.29) seven years ago! Still, glad to have ploughed on through as of course there were some very interesting bits in the mix.
Profile Image for Roger Woods.
262 reviews5 followers
December 26, 2021
This book captures the atmosphere of the early 1950s. The main focus of British people was their families. It was still an era of austerity although Britain was gradually recovering from the Second World War years. Attitudes were still very old fashioned compared to the present.
Profile Image for Maureen.
370 reviews10 followers
November 3, 2017
Exhaustive but never exhausting, Kynaston's book paints a vivid and detailed picture of everyday life in '50s Britain.
43 reviews
December 19, 2019
Took a while to read, but a great read. Brilliant social history really well written.
Profile Image for Adam Higgitt.
30 reviews4 followers
June 22, 2013
Anyone who has read "Austerity Britain" will know exactly what to expect in "Family Britain" often regarded as the second volume in David Kynaston's ambitious social and cultural history of the post war era to 1979, as it picks up chronologically and stylistically exactly from where the previous edition left off.

Drawing on a vast range of primary sources, this narrative history of 1951-7 inevitably dwells heavily on the most reliable and fruitful material; interviews and surveys from Mass Observation, personal diaries and newspaper reports. Professor Kynaston's approach has been highly praised, and rightly so. His style of history, chronological and seldom drawing on other than contemporary first hand accounts, is utterly immersive.

Anyone looking for grand themes or a committed authorial voice is likely to be disappointed; this is a history that sweeps through the quotidian, delving searchingly the everyday experiences of normal people. Its concerns - from the uncertain removal of rationing, to the gradual but still faint spectre of unemployment, from the rise of the Teddy Boy and the domestic routines of housewives - are the concerns of the people who were there and whose accounts were recorded at the time. This is not a history that seeks to order or provide theories for the world he describes. Instead, Professor Kynaston lets his subjects speak, and draws their contributions together with a straightforward, neutral narrative. Its beauty lies in the simple, observational style but this often belies his mastery of storytelling.

The result is not like reading history. It is more like watching some kind of CCTV camera of 50s Britain. Yet this is a camera that can probe all aspects of life, including attitudes. Sport, work, race relations, domestic disharmony, shopping, religion and the rise of TV all blur before you. Politics is also there, and although sections of the book are given over to describing the machinations even this manages to become a view that many at the time doubtless held. At the end, with the aftermath of the Suez crisis ushering Harold Macmillan into No.10, Kynaston reminds us that behind the banner headline of The Evening Standard lay the more mundane but more acutely felt concerns - increased bus fares in Lowestoft, hooligans smashing street lights in Harlow and the refusal of Frien Barnet council to rehouse 15 unwanted budgerigars.

The scholarship involved in this project is immense, and one can only feel a certain sympathy for the author as he seeks to generate perhaps a further four full volumes to take us to 1979 (the next instalment, due in the middle of 2013, will only cover 1957-59, at which rate there will be a Kindle-busting eight volumes). But at the end, and providing he can maintain the genius touch for both detail and survey established in these first two books, he will have created a truly landmark history of the post war British people.
Profile Image for Bookthesp1.
173 reviews8 followers
October 28, 2012
How does one write a History book? Should it be one encompassing the broad sweep of time? One content to mine a decade or one focussing on a single year looking for patterns or promoting a turning point? Great men or the masses? Thematic or dramatic? Micro or macro? Thesis driven or narrative driven? David Kynaston is in the micro History school. His follow up to Austerity Britain is another huge volume on a period of six years- 1951-1957 and his thesis is in the title focussing on families as a microcosm of the nation as a whole. The irony of these huge volumes examining austerity and the climb out of austerity is that the volumes themselves are substantial and heavyweight. Granted, there are nods to austerity in the Black and white photos and rough hewn paper but the weighty cost of the modern hardback (£25) and its weight in the hand or on the lap is both a nod to the non-kindle champions (this is a proper BOOK!!!!) and ironically an advert for why the book on a kindle would do less damage to ones hands as it struggles to hold such a weighty volume....

Yet, in reading Kynastons patchwork prose the rewards are certainly worth the weight lifting medalsl needed to read the actual book.As with Austerity Britain Kynaston somewhat eccentrically sells two volumes in one book. He uses mass observation diarists (carefully selected and reminiscent of Simon Garfields volumes such as We Are At War) mixed with primary and secondary sources and a linking commentary. Anecdotes from famous names are mixed beautifully with the mass observations voices to create a detailed description which is both thematic and narrative driven of the years in question starting with the Festival of Britain in 1951 and ending with the Suez debacle of 1956. The weighty volume gains its own momentum and is compulsive reading. This volume with its focus on the family has a sociological centre which is effective and informative and one gets a real flavour for the period and its legacy.As a child in the 1960s and 1970s I was amazed at how many products originated in the 1950s and how many of the themes resonant in the 1970s ( as examined by Dominic Sandbrook who also writes in books covering 6 or 7 years at a time) such as union power; media influence andthe cost of living were live issues in the 1950s.

An excellent volume. Kynaston isn't the first to use mass observation diaries but he is perhaps the most skilled at making them illustrate a period and a feel for the past. His next volume, Modernity Britain 1957-1963 is out next year. I for one will be looking out for it.
Profile Image for Nicholas Whyte.
4,627 reviews177 followers
November 10, 2015

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 intereference 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.
113 reviews1 follower
December 30, 2011
This is the second in a series of books building a social history of the UK from the end of the second world war through to 1979. The period covered by this book is from 1951 to 1957 and follows on from Austerity Britain (1945-1951). It is heavily based around documents, surveys, reports, biographies and diaries from the time. It covers all aspects of daily life with the constant backdrop of the political situation. Detailed examinations are provided for subjects like housing, education, town planning, the ending of rationing and the slow rise of consumerism, labour relations, the rise of the welfare state, immigration, royalty, culture and entertainment, sport.
For anyone interested in what that period of our history was like this is a compelling read. As stated it is written to a large degree in the words of the people living then and all the source material is very well pulled together by Kynaston to provide a logical narrative. Many of the themes that occupy the thoughts of people in modern day Britain are here in this book: selection in education, how to provide affordable housing for all, the impact of immigration on the home culture, the role of royalty, how cohesive and neighbourly society was etc.
The only frustration I had as I was reading the book and for which I initially blamed the author was that every analysis was presented and dissected by class which, in my opinion, is an artificial politically motivated construct, which I abhor. In some instances the categorisation of class became almost surreal with each class being broken into separate sub-classes (working class, skilled working class, lower middle class, middle class, upper middle class etc etc). However as I continued through the book it became clear that this was how 1950's Britain viewed itself and the author was only reflecting this.
I would definitely recommend this book, a worthy successor to the first volume, Austerity Britain, and I am now waiting eagerly for the next volume in the series.
Profile Image for Amy Durreson.
Author 34 books365 followers
February 15, 2016
I've been reading this for months, on and off, after thoroughly enjoying the first volume, Austerity Britain: 1945-51. It's a 700 page social history of Britain between 1951 and 1957, covering everything from politics to the tiny, everyday details of shopping, housing, and entertainment. It could so easily have been dry, but Kynaston has a gift for spotting arresting or poignant details. He draws liberally on diaries, letters, memoirs, and sociological surveys, as well as newspapers, magazines, and other archives. He's also got a sense of mischief, most often shown in his habit of recounting a pertinent anecdote and only at the end revealing that the central character was someone who later became a household name. He also has fun with juxtapositions--a prostitute complaining about clients who talk about their wives ends one section and the next begins with a description of a radio show entitled, 'Two-Way Family Favourites.'

There were some minor editing issues in this one--tangled syntax in a couple of places and a little repetition towards the end of the book, but generally, this is informative and fascinating, although I must admit I am very glad to be living here and now.
Profile Image for Ade.
125 reviews15 followers
March 11, 2013
Kynaston ends with a chapter covering Suez; not in historical detail, but from the point of view of the diarists and the general public. (Interesting note: this is where the commercial decline of the Observer began, thanks to its anti-government stance on the matter. Several other reputations, besides Eden's, were made or buried at the same time.)

Leading up to that point, Kynaston continues to spin a magnificent narrative based on diary extracts, opinion polls and vox pops from the time which serves to underline quite literally that "the past is another country". Family Britain sees the country settling down to new affluence after the deprivations of austerity - but the familiar problems this would bring over the following two decades were already in evidence to those who looked, not least the incipient militancy of organised labour and the readiness of politicians to buy it off in favour of a quiet life, thus kicking the underlying issues further down the path.

There are a few months to wait until the next volume, Modernity Britain, 1957-1963, appears, which is probably an opportune time for me to read something non-historical next.
718 reviews6 followers
August 7, 2010
The second volume of Kynaston's series of histories on postwar Britain. In 690 pages he covers six years- we barely get into 1957- in as much depth as possible. The book starts with Attlee's election loss and ends with Eden's retirement but covers everything from pop music to household utilities in between. Kynaston is especially good on detailing Britain's class system and how it still determines peoples' choices of job, communities, what they read and what they are interested in. But the seeds of its breakdown were in view- the rise of television, secondary modern and comprehensive schools and West Indian immigration. Other phenomena still popular without much sign of their imminent demise were the popularity of unions, the death penalty and persecution of homosexuals. Kynaston perhaps has more information on changes in the housing market than is necessary but this is a small complaint for a series that must be the epitome of social history.
5 reviews
May 18, 2021
Fantastic book! Brings to life the past in a way that I have never read from any other writer. This is achieved largely by use of Mass Obeservation archives, as well as other day-to-day resources from the time such as newspaper reports and TV schedules. It seems the closest experience you could get to going back in person and experiencing what life was like during these years. Covering the decade before I was born, this book brought to life so many people and events that I often heard referenced as a child but didn't understand.
20 reviews
May 2, 2013
If you want to know what it was like to live in Britain between 1951 and 1957 this is the book for you.

It covers most aspects of life from politics, family life, food and drink, music, theatre, cinema and lifestyles and prevalent attitudes amongst the population.

This information, mostly based on contemporary interviews and diaries, is both expansive and gives a very accurate picture of the way it was in a very readable style.

This period was in many senses the parent of the current era, with many of todays products, political thought and lifestyles being capable of traced back to their origins during these dynamic years.

If, like me, you lived through this period as a child it will bring back many memories and also serve to reinforce the accuracy of any retained memories.

It is a large tome but worth the time invested in reading it.
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