Modernity Britain by David Kynaston: Social history with a smile

Land of hope and stories.

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

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