From the the culturally conservative Fifties to the Swinging Harold Wilson Sixties

Writing the history of the recent past is not easy, but David Kynaston’s artful collage technique manages to draw us into a time that can feel like it belonged to another world.

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Modernity Britain: Book Two – a Shake of the Dice (1959-62) 
David Kynaston
Bloomsbury, 464pp, £25

How can anyone write the history of modern times? There’s just too much of it. The past half-dozen decades have been saturated, drenched, inundated by recording – diaries, television, magazines, documentary programmes – and not least by endless, agonised self-analysis. (Are we in decline? Is this a moral turning point? Has the old notion of community collapsed? What’s happening to young people?) The historian is either incurious or overwhelmed. If he’s incurious it is too easy to rip apart his broad-brush assertion and analysis. If overwhelmed, he is, of course, unreadable.

David Kynaston is the master of the only way to resolve this conundrum: the artful collage-history. His books on the history of the City of London and postwar Britain utilise an enormous reading list and a keen eye for detail. He compresses the vivid fragments so that a subtle but irresistible nar­rative emerges from them: more mosaic, perhaps, than collage.

This latest volume concerns itself with just three hinge years between 1959 and 1962, the groan and creak that took us from the family-minded, culturally conservative, Tory Fifties towards the Swinging, bad-behaviour, Harold Wilson Sixties and all that.

The biggest changes in these years are well known and much studied: the arrival of the car-driving society, the demolition of slums and city centres in favour of high-rises, the domination of television and the first, indistinct sounds of pop culture.

Culturally, it’s a time that can feel like another world – the gross and casual racism (and I really mean gross); the widespread loathing of homosexuals; the terrible food. Yet, as Kynaston shows us, without over-emphasis, it is also already our world. Here’s Jimmy Savile, getting into trouble for his catchphrases; there’s Rolf Harris; flavoured crisps are just arriving; Coronation Street and The Archers are national obsessions.

Despite uncivilised attitudes to foreigners, minorities and punishment, the overall picture is of a naive, complacent and genteel people, suddenly on the receiving end of changes almost too quick to comprehend. None was more dramatic than the destruction of working-class communities and the herding of vast numbers of people to “live in the sky” in tower blocks. It’s a terrible story and Kynaston skilfully balances accounts of the damp, stink and filth of the old slums (and the desire to escape) with the haughty certainties of the planners and – very quickly – the unhappy reality of the change forced upon millions.

The best summing-up comes from Alan Bennett: “Some silly people on the right nowadays wish the Sixties hadn’t happened because that was when people discovered sex and pot-smoking . . . I wish the Sixties hadn’t happened because that was when avarice and stupidity got to the wheel of the bulldozer.”

And if there are lessons to draw, most are fairly well known. Kynaston offers a detailed and withering description of the complacency of upper-middle-class industrial management. Nostalgic feelings about grammar schools won’t survive this book for very long, either. In the socialist debates about the reasons for Labour’s failure in 1959 we can see the beginning of Blairism. The sudden rise of the shop steward takes us towards the Seventies.

Other themes are subtler. They include the stupidity of the mass media. Kynaston shows how the local press, amplifying Fleet Street, egged on every act of urban vandalism, from motorways slicing through old cities to the ripping down of perfectly good, if under-modernised, local housing.

But in retrospect everyone gets it wrong, or nearly wrong. Throughout these years, all the clever people knew was that the Soviet Union and its satellites were outstripping the west as consumer societies. The persis­tent failure of British industry to modernise – and of the state to get rid of cartels and regulatory obstacles – was discussed but never connected to a shortage of labour, and therefore rising wages. That in turn was never connected to the much-disliked arrival of the desperately needed immigrants. One cheerful shipyard owner in the north-east warned that the Japanese shipbuilders, poor chaps, were getting into terrible trouble.

On the left, nuclear war was coming, obviously – but somehow didn’t. Culturally, it was clear to intellectuals such as Dennis Potter and Perry Anderson that football didn’t have much of a future. Among the performers and writers who get stinking reviews are Eric Morecambe, Doris Lessing, Lonnie Donegan, Arnold Wesker and the cast of Beyond the Fringe, dismissed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, no less, as “full of silly pseudo-intellectual jokes”.

That’s the problem with a society that memorialises and analyses itself so relentlessly. Boring old hindsight makes us look so damned clever. Naturally, it doesn’t tell us how Britain today would be if people in the early Sixties had not looked ahead, warned of dangers and been listened to – if the nuclear arms race had been ignored, or even if the slums had been left untouched.

My only cavil is that this kind of history can daze the reader with detail, and that by definition it can’t tell the story of what hasn’t been recorded. These are also years of widespread child abuse, of sadism behind closed curtains, of boredom, loneliness and bad schooling. Kynaston puts in everything that could be included; but as we read him we have to remind ourselves that there can never be a historical “everything”. 

Andrew Marr’s new novel, “Head of State”, is published by Fourth Estate (£18.99)

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article appears in the 10 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Britain in meltdown