Modernity Britain by David Kynaston: Social history with a smile

Land of hope and stories.

Modernity Britain: Opening the Box, 1957-1959
David Kynaston
Bloomsbury; 432pp; £25

The entertainment flies off the pages. The Kynaston method of compiling a vast array of sources and applying them with equal zest to the momentous (elections, the launch of Sputnik, the Notting Hill race riots) and the ephemeral (plotlines of the Archers, the vandalising of an Elizabeth Frink sculpture in Bethnal Green, the ambition of Accrington Stanley’s club chairman for the team to be one of the centres of European football) guarantees a rattling read. This is social, cultural and political history, more or less in that order, with a smile on its face. That’s not merely because Britain was shaking off post-war gloom and discovering the joys of owning washing machines, televisions and irons. (Fridges, you may be amazed to know, were nowhere near as desirable as TV sets).

This is Kynaston’s latest book in a momentous narrative series, Tales of a New Jerusalem, which when completed will tell the story of Britain from 1945 to 1979. So far we have had Austerity Britain and Family Britain. Modernity Britain will take us to 1962 – so here , in its first instalment, the best part of 400 pages are devoted to chronicling just three years. Given the thunderous applause that greeted Austerity, in particular, we may take it for granted that this sort of approach makes sense – but we should not forget the chutzpah and risk inherent in Kynaston’s ambition – from a man well into the rump of his career and known, when volume one was published, only to a relatively small audience as a distinguished historian of finance and the City.

The book begins with a typical Kynaston tactic – picking a precise date (10 January 1957) and juxtaposing something palpably newsworthy, Macmillan replacing Eden as prime minister, with a medley of quotes and facts drawn from the same day about various other, apparently less weighty matters. So we get piled on top of one another Lambeth’s director of housing at the Society of Housing Managers talking approvingly about the standard of decorations by council tenants who “defy regulations”; a Chingford diarykeeping housewife enjoying her needlework; a different diarist grumbling about the dull second half in a Bolton v Leeds football match (“two goals only scored”) and the BBC television schedule that evening (Percy Thrower’s Gardening Cub, The Lone Ranger and Dixon of Dock Green). And more. Here is a ground-eye view of the richness of life as experienced by all kinds of people with all kinds of attitudes all over Britain.

What Kynaston does not do is historical neatness. He is not a historian who sorts the ingredients, serves up defined chunks of evidence, provides rigorous analysis and then concludes a chapter with a defined judgement. Mostly he launches bombardments of facts, quotes, stories and numbers interspersed with pithy and shrewd editorial observations. He more than gets away with it – but I could have done with an overture about the impact on national morale of the Suez catastrophe the previous year, and there were times when I was beseeching him to change tack and digest all his rich ingredients on a theme into a coherent and conclusive whole.

This is nowhere more the case than when he is dealing with the tumultuous changes in the physical landscape of Britain’s cities. Kynaston gives more weight to the interlocking concerns of slum clearance, council housing, road-building, planning and development than to anything else, including the state of the economy – and quite right too. Since Mrs Thatcher’s first government initiated the sale of council housing, and the subsequent triumph of owner occupation, housing has all but vanished from front-line media debate. Here, we are reminded, vividly and repeatedly, just how much it mattered.

There are brilliant passages throughout about the dispersion of inner-city tenant dwellers to “better” places – housing estates in the suburbs, new towns, modernist flats or high-rise apartment blocks. Kynaston delves deep into all of this with sources that are eclectic, democratic and largely non-metropolitan. He gives us a real flavour of London’s East End, but also Liverpool, Glasgow, Birmingham, Coventry, Sheffield, Aberdare – and beyond. And although we must not assume that all the modernisers were foolish utopians, a mistake that Kynaston would never make, it is hard not to gawp – not merely at what happened but what was said.

How about this for some cheerful, in retrospect somewhat misplaced, optimism: Alderman Frank Price in Birmingham – passionate advocate of cars and the Inner Ring Road, claimed that Birmingham was becoming “one of the most beautiful cities” in Europe. John Betjeman, no less, lavished praise on “magnificent” new council estates – particularly the one in Brixton’s Loughborough Road. Though, of course, he had Betjemanesque concerns: “The awful equality of it all is frightening”.

Kynaston specialises in fair-mindedness and nuance so we hear a great deal from the slums’ occupants about how grim they were and how many of them appreciated decent roofs, plumbing or toilets in their new flats. He runs a mile from adopting an overly sentimental line about the nobility of cultural solidarity among working-class communities living in squalor. Although we learn that Sam Ward, a council park attendant newly living in Dagenham, yearns for his old Poplar – “you can’t beat the neighbours” – Kynaston quotes a brilliant passage from the then young housing expert (and now retired professor), David Donnison, about the dangers of cultural narrowness:

People may feel surrounded with friends and relatives in neighbouring houses and streets, yet look with suspicion on those who live on the other side of the main road, or in the next borough; people may achieve a warm sense of comradeship with other working men, and nurse an unreasoning hostility towards foremen, managers, clerks and professional workers.

Having invested all this research and imbued it with a proper lack of condescension, what does Kynaston think? You mostly discover by only a few deft phrases introducing a source. He doesn’t like the “strong pro-flats consensus” of the mid-1950s or the officebuilding of Richard Seifert (who gave us Centrepoint in London – and much else less good) whose “remarkable skill in exploiting loopholes in planning laws” enabled him to get maximum lettable space from a site. The great left-wing historian Raphael Samuel, then early in his career is, I think (but I am not sure), endorsed for a passage about Glamorgan planners who “did not set out to destroy a community. They wanted to attack the slums . . . it did not occur to them that there could be any opposition to a scheme informed by such benevolent intentions and, when it came, they could only condemn it as ‘myopic’.”

Every now and then Kynaston lets himself go. He disapproves of the demolition of the “splendid” Victorian Market Hall in Birmingham, and resents greatly Le Corbusier whose “supremely arrogant example” (in 1958) still bewitched. Kynaston is a humanist – in the sense that he likes and revels in human variety for its own sake, and my hunch is that, without being Prince Charles, he believes a lot of 1950s urbanism went horribly wrong. I think he agrees above all with the celebrated architectural critic Ian Nairn, quoted in that very 1950s publication Encounter: “There should be no building for a mean, but simultaneous building for every kind of extreme; and everybody is extreme in one way or another.”

The book’s subtitle, Opening the Box points to this as the period when television began to exert its muscle – in this three-year span, TV ownership took off from 45 per cent in May 1957 to 75 per cent by the October 1959 election (Kynaston, by the way, loves statistics). Radio Times shuffled its pages – TV moving ahead of radio – though it took a little longer for radio fully to give way, with the Archers still getting 18 million listeners, more than three times what it gets now. The BBC as a whole had been pummelled by the arrival of ITV in 1955 but woke up just in time – courtesy of some largely forgotten programmes such as the Six-Five Special, a concoction for younger viewers, and some rather meatier ones headed by Panorama and, more importantly, Tonight. (The recent homage to Tonight in The Hour on BBC2 was a correct reflection of its importance).

But this was no golden age of BBC institutional virtue and independence. When Lord Altrincham, the future John Grigg, called the Queen’s voice “a pain in the neck” and wrote that her speeches gave the impression of a “priggish schoolgirl, captain of the hockey team, a prefect and a recent candidate for Confirmation”, the BBC yanked him off Any Questions. The director general, ex-military man Ian Jacob, went further – banning altogether an Altrincham supporter, Malcolm Muggeridge, whose own journey to priggish sanctimony was not yet complete.

The BBC was neither a bastion of liberalism nor of scrupulous impartiality. The soon to be revered Huw Wheldon, presenter of the new arts programme Monitor, is quoted as saying “we can’t have anyone who’s overtly queer on the programme”. In the 1959 election campaign Tony Benn’s party political broadcasts were apparently aided by Tonight’s Alasdair Milne – later to become a sacked director general.

Some of Kynaston’s most powerful material is on education. Early on he lets slip a rare maximum force verdict – talking about the “unnecessarily brutal destruction (irrespective of the underlying rights and wrongs) of the grammar and direct grant schools”. Later he lists the glittering talents – Joan Bakewell, Peter Hall, Neil Kinnock, David Hockney and many others – who went to grammar schools in the late 1950s and became pillars of a more meritocratic Britain. But the passages he has dug up about what it felt like to take the 11-plus and then fail are heart-rending – and he writes of its “inherent cruelty and divisiveness”. His feel for the issues of class, social mobility and education is not merely scholarly – but moving.

So to the politics. It was an era in which the two main parties had nearly 95 per cent of the vote (it is now nearer 65 per cent). The Conservative post-Suez revival under Harold Macmillan, which culminated in the party’s third general election victory in a row in 1959, is a throbbing heartbeat. However, there was the hullabaloo of the resignation in January 1958 of the chancellor Peter Thorneycroft and his junior ministers Nigel Birch and Enoch Powell, who feared that Macmillan was not prepared to control government spending. This gave rise to one of Macmillan’s more celebrated pearls – the “little local difficulty”. He toughed – or should that be smoothed – his way out of it by allowing Thorneycroft’s successor, Derick Heathcoat- Amory, to loosen hire purchase restrictions, reflate the economy and fuel the “never had it so good” society.

Labour did not have strong enough answers. Kynaston charts Labour’s torture and confusion in the face of affluence, something it took until Tony Blair to confront, at a point where at least some of Britain’s class distinctions were beginning to fragment. Along the way he provides superb thought-provoking asides. Macmillan, the supposed ham and opportunist, is convincingly described as a moralist. Harold Wilson, the rising Labour star busy attacking Conservative privilege and My Fair Lady, is “puritanical, old-fashioned and selectively modernising”.

But much of the sheer and abundant joy of this book is its serendipity: the excitement generated by Tommy Steele, the rise and fall of the now forgotten pop star Terry Dene, Harold Pinter getting slaughtered by the critics for The Birthday Party, the Evening Standard on Judi Dench “whose first professional performance [as Ophelia] this only too obviously is” and hundreds of other wonders and absurdities captured and recreated for our enlightenment and entertainment. It was, as Kynaston notes, a hopeful time. Enjoy it.

Mark Damazer is the Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford

TV ownership in Britain grew from 45 per cent to 75 per cent between 1957 and 1959. Image: Topfoto

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland

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Everything is illuminated: Rowan Williams on the art and faith of David Jones

Haunted by his time in the trenches and disturbed by the modern marketplace, Jones formed a world-view full of symbols and connections.

In 1967, the poetry magazine Agenda published a special David Jones issue, including a number of unpublished fragments of his work. The first of these was the brief piece entitled “A, a, a DOMINE DEUS”, often reprinted as Jones’s most poignant statement of his sense that the world of technology was making the writing of poetry – and indeed the other arts – impossible: “I have watched the wheels go round in case I/. . . might see the Living God projected/from the Machine . . ./my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible/crystal a stage-paste”.

He had elaborated on this two decades earlier in a note addressed to the doctor who was treating his paralysing depression and anxiety. We are living, he wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.

Thomas Dilworth’s welcome (and superbly produced) biography will clearly be the point of reference for Jones’s life for a long time to come. Dilworth has already written extensively about Jones, most recently a full and valuable account of the wartime years, and his research is exhaustive. He quietly corrects a number of errors in earlier biographical sketches and provides a wealth of detail at every stage – and he tells us that this substantial book is only part of a longer document that he intends to publish online. In all the detail, it is hard to pick out a single thesis; but in so far as there is one, it is that Jones is “the foremost native British modernist”, as Dilworth claims in his concluding paragraph.

This may sound strange, given what we know about “the Break”. But in fact, Jones himself believed that the modernist, post-impressionist aesthetic was a decisive break of its own kind – a break with representation as a sort of substitution, a recognition that a work of art is a thing in which something else is allowed to come to life, in a new medium: a picture is the scene or the human figure existing in the form of paint, as the Mass is the flesh of Jesus existing as bread. He insisted that his Catholic conversion began with his artistic conversion, and tried persistently, in his superb essays as well as his artistic output, to show what this meant.

The artistic conversion was dramatic enough. Dilworth reproduces some of the technically skilful and aesthetically awful work of Jones’s early art-school days, as well as some startling propaganda pictures from the war years: languishing virgins being threatened by hairy medieval Teutons, and so on. Jones needed to rediscover the extraordinary talent of his early childhood, when he produced sketches of a delicacy and vigour that foreshadow the very best of his mature work. Immediately after the war, back at the art school in Camberwell, he let his imagination be opened up by a variety of new impulses, ranging from El Greco to Samuel Palmer and Pierre Bonnard.

But Jones’s distinctive touch as an artist came to life when he threw in his lot with his fellow Catholic convert Eric Gill. He shared the life of the Gill family frequently for nearly a decade, in both Sussex and the Welsh borders, imbibing Gill’s distinctive artistic philosophy and gently but steadily distancing himself from it, and was for a while engaged to Gill’s second daughter, Petra. Gill mocked Jones for continuing to paint watercolours, insisting that carving and engraving were intrinsically more serious matters because of the manual work involved: watercolours were just decorative, the worst possible thing for a work of art to be, in his book. The Gill circle was a crucial stimulus for Jones, but ultimately one that allowed him to sharpen up his own understanding rather than adopt an orthodoxy. The watercolours, gouaches and engravings of the 1920s show a striking confidence. In 1928 he was nominated by Ben Nicholson for membership of the “7 & 5 Society”, probably the leading group of artistic innovators in 1920s Britain.

Jones’s acute and recurrent depression and worsening anxiety held back his output in the 1930s, though he struggled through to the completion of In Parenthesis. The later visual works – drawings, paintings, inscriptions – display an exceptional range of idioms and are increasingly characterised by abundant detail that is of filigree precision as well as unusual fluidity. There are religiously themed pictures: Vexilla Regis (1948), the great symbolic tree in the forests of post-Roman Britain standing for the cross as a sort of world-tree; the Welsh hill landscape framing the Annunciation in Y Cyfarchiad i Fair (1963), with its abundance of exquisitely observed small native birds. There are the “calix” paintings of glass vessels holding flowers, which deliver an effect of profound translucency. There are the inscriptions of Latin, Welsh and English texts, a unique corpus of work in which he defined a new approach to “monumental” lettering as an art form. These are perhaps the lasting legacy of his apprenticeship to Gill, yet they are anything but derivative.

In the middle of all this, in the postwar period, he continued to write, producing another unclassifiable poetic masterpiece, The Anathemata (1952), an exploration of both personal and cultural history, with the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at the centre of everything. Other “fragments”, many of them very long, were worked on over years but never found their connecting thread; most of these were not published until after his death.

Dilworth provides a comprehensive account of Jones’s struggles with mental health. He was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic therapist who strongly encouraged him to keep working; but later on, a formidable regime of antidepressant and other drugs left him less able to focus – “groggy and slow”, as he said – and his productivity declined sharply. A temperamental indifference to social encounters combined with tormenting agoraphobia to make him ever more of a recluse in a succession of north London boarding houses and nursing homes until his death in 1974.

Yet his friendships were immensely important to him – friendships with members of the lively and critical world of Catholic artists in the 1920s, with younger artists and writers, to whom he was unfailingly generous, and with the two young women, Prudence Pelham and Valerie Wynne-Williams, who were the recipients of his strongest (but unconsummated) attachments. The breaking of his engagement to Petra Gill had been a great trauma, and his lifelong celibacy seems to have been the result both of this shock and of a deep-seated conviction that his artistic vocation could not accommodate ordinary family life.

He was a wonderful letter-writer; anyone wanting to get to know Jones should start with Dai Greatcoat, the selection from his letters published in 1980 by his friend René Hague (Gill’s son-in-law). Funny, ­affectionate, eccentrically learned, curious, irreverent and sad, they give a good sense of why Jones was so deeply loved by those who knew him. He viewed the world – and his own work and calling – with a gentle and vulnerable bafflement, but also with patience and humility. He seems to have had no malice in his make-up.

Dilworth does not, however, shirk the embarrassing fact that Jones expressed a measure of sympathy for Hitler in the 1930s. This should not be misunderstood. What Jones says is that, having read Mein Kampf, he feels it is almost right, but ruined by hatred and racial triumphalism. Hitler appears to him more appealing than most of his opponents, who represent international finance and impersonal bureaucracy, or Marxist collectivism. He later admits that he was simply wrong. But it is a revealing wrongness: he accepts at face value a rhetoric that opposes the market, and he seems to see Hitler’s passion and violence as at least a more honest response to national or global crisis than the “business as usual” of mainstream politicians. And how far are Hitler’s “opponents” being tacitly understood as the cosmopolitan financiers of anti-Semitic myth? Dilworth does not absolve Jones for dipping his toe into this swamp; but he does note that Jones was – more than many of his Catholic colleagues – intolerant of the anti-Semitism of much traditional Catholic thought and shocked by the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is another sidelight on his fundamental artistic problem: a disgust with managerial, commodified mod­ernity that, in his case as in some others, can make a quite different anti-modernity, the fascist refusal of public reasoning and political pluralism, fleetingly attractive.

The other delicate issue that Dilworth handles carefully and candidly is whether Jones was aware that Eric Gill had sexually abused two of his daughters (including Petra). His conclusion is that it is very unlikely, and this is almost certainly right. And yet, looking at Jones’s haunting painting of 1924 The Garden Enclosed, with its depiction of himself and Petra embracing awkwardly, Petra apparently pushing him away, with a broken doll lying on the path behind her, it is hard not to believe that he intuited something deeply awry somewhere. The background presence of Gill’s omnivorous sexual appetite can hardly not have been a further complication in an already complicated relationship.

Jones’s reputation has probably never been higher. There have been several important exhibitions in recent years and Dilworth’s assessment of his standing among British modernists is increasingly shared. His thoughts as an essayist on theology as well as aesthetics have been increasingly influential. This biography is a landmark. It would be good if it stirred an interest not only in Jones as an artist and poet, but in the questions he faced about modernity: what happens to art in a culture where each thing is no more than itself, or its market price?

"David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet" by Thomas Dilworth is published by Jonathan Cape (432pp, £25)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution