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5 August 2017

Why it’s not too late for baby boomers to open up about their postwar memories

An examination of people’s “unspoken” emotions is missing from recent British history.

By David Kynaston

John Maynard Keynes observed that by the time politicians achieve power, they tend to remain intellectually trapped in the assumptions and arguments they were exposed to in their formative period many years earlier. I’ve often thought about his remark – the equivalent of generals fighting the last war, not the present one – but it has only recently occurred to me that it might equally apply to historians of more mature years, including myself.

So, as a child of 1951, born when Clement Attlee was still in No 10 and King George VI still reigned, I think that three things mainly formed me as a historian. First, the counter­culture of the 1960s that lingered into the 1970s, at its best inducing a healthy scepticism about self-important elites, at its worst fostering a reluctance to enter fully into the adult world. Second, a strong reaction against the history I was taught at Oxford in the early 1970s, in particular the almost entire absence of social history. And third, the inspiring example of other historians: above all E P Thompson, rescuing forgotten and marginalised subjects from posterity’s enormous condescension; but also Raphael Samuel and the whole “history from below” movement.

Accordingly, when in 2002 I began sustained work on my postwar project, Tales of a New Jerusalem, I wanted to write a history that was inclusive, that was not predominantly top-down, and that got as close as possible to people’s everyday lives and concerns. In short, I wanted to write an intimate history of Britain in these years, the 1940s to the 1970s.

In terms of what I’ve so far produced, going up to 1962, I think I’ve succeeded, but only to an extent. Putting aside some obvious lacunae – for instance, in my regional treatment, or in my treatment of rural life – where I think I’ve fallen short is in what I might call the emotional-cum-psychological domain: that whole area of feeling, so often largely unspoken and therefore hard for others to retrieve or chart, as the emotionally driven and arguably irrational political earthquakes of 2016 revealed in abundance.

Here I’d like to quote a salutary passage by an American historian, Susan J Matt. In a 2011 essay entitled “Current Emotion Research in History: or Doing History from the Inside Out” – presumably in addition to history from the bottom up – she writes:

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Today there are dozens of historians on both sides of the Atlantic working on the emotions, investigating topics as diverse as the history of lust and the changing experience of nostalgia. Together they are trying to recover the history of subjectivity, for in doing so they uncover intention, motivation and values that might be invisible if only external behaviours (the traditional subject of history) are traced. They are trying to write history from the inside out. The field has grown so much that some have suggested that history has taken an “emotional turn”.

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It’s confession time. Perhaps because I’m not an academic and plough my own furrow, somewhat oblivious to what other historians are up to, I suspect that I more or less missed this “emotional turn”. Salutary also in Matt’s overview is her brief passage about class, the single theme that most dominates my own treatment. She writes: “Traditionally, historians and sociologists have discussed social class in terms of work, income, control (or lack thereof) of the means of production, family arrangements and consumption patterns. Emotional style, however, is also an important marker of class identity.” I’m sure she’s right; and though my treatment of class is not bereft of an emotional dimension, it’s far from as prominent as it might be. As for another crucial and related area, that of whether ordinary working people felt any real sense of empowerment over their lives, it’s almost entirely absent.

Now, if it is true that postwar Britain was a place where much that was emotionally and psychologically significant largely went unspoken, the methodological implications are daunting. But is it true? Certainly that would be my instinctive assumption, partly based on my memories, and I imagine it might well be yours, too. But to test that assumption, let me briefly give you the results of a bit of ferreting around.


I will start with J M Mogey, who in the mid-1950s examined St Ebbe’s, a working-class district near the centre of Oxford. “Adults,” he wrote, “put little emphasis on the ability to talk and the verbal expression of emotion is neither wished for nor possible.” Mogey went on: “In marriage both partners keep fairly rigidly to their household roles. Serious friction is handled by avoiding contact and by emphasising getting along together rather than any more positive harmony in the marriage relationship; a minor everyday friction is rarely allowed to rise to the level of conscious expression.”

Around the same time, Norman Dennis, Fernando Henriques and Clifford Slaughter found much the same in Coal Is Our Life, their classic study of the West Yorkshire mining town Featherstone: husbands and wives living their daily lives in almost entirely separate spheres and, accordingly, often having “little to talk about or to do together”.

Oral history has so far largely confirmed that marital picture. Elizabeth Roberts, based on her extensive interviews in the working-class north-west, finds little or no evidence of companionate marriages before the 1970s; while as for sex specifically, Kate Fisher writes this on the basis of her pioneering interviews with men and women born in the first quarter of the century:

Many couples did not talk openly about sexual matters, and issues of childbearing and family limitation skirted very close to these sensitive areas. Many women chose to keep discussion unspecific, leaving the nitty-gritty details of exactly what birth control was used and what method was chosen to their husbands. Only in cases where the urgency of restricting births increased was explicit planning or debate necessary.

Was there any greater communication between parents and children? Probably not. Examining a working-class district of Liverpool in the mid-1950s, Madeline Kerr found that the typical adolescent girl was “unable to speak to the parents about anything other than trivial matters, and therefore has a secret life of her own completely outside the parents’ knowledge”. More­over, “Sex training appears to be nil. Mothers express horror at the idea of telling their daughters even about menstruation.”

As for a mother informing her children that she is expecting again, Kerr quotes a Mrs K: “Disgusting. That’s disgusting…” Dennis and co found a similar lack of communication in Featherstone, and it was hardly any different in the middle-class parts of north London that Raymond Firth and others studied in the first half of the 1960s. “Common in our material,” they concluded, “was the expression on the part of a married son or daughter that relations with a parent were friendly but superficial; that he or she liked the parent but did not feel they could discuss intimate matters with him or her.”

Perhaps, among these stolid and reserved Britishers, it all came pouring out in the pub instead? Not according to Mogey, who in the taverns of St Ebbe’s overheard little “close inquiry into individual lives”, but instead conversation that was “largely escapist, about horse racing and football bets, about seaside holidays and coach trips”.

So, too, in Mass-Observation’s 1949 breakdown of what people talked about in pubs: sports and betting led the way in more than 40 per cent of conversations, followed by pubs and drinking in 18 per cent. As for the 15 per cent of conversations categorised as “personal-topographical”, these “included all kinds of personal gossip and reminiscing”, in which discussions often developed “from or into topographical arguments and discussion”.

Nevertheless, it is possible that the larger picture was starting to change. As early as the 1950s, Mogey noted that on a new housing estate on the outskirts of Oxford, rehoused families were exhibiting what he called “a heightened ability to communicate desires and wishes”; in the early 1960s, mothers in Nottingham spoke to the psychologists John and Elizabeth Newson of their wish to have a franker and more equal relationship with their children than they had known themselves with their parents; and by the 1970s, the mantra of agony aunts in women’s magazines had become the importance of open, two-way communication between husbands and wives.

Making things explicit was certainly the mantra of Margaret Wilkins, the mother in The Family, the BBC’s groundbreaking fly-on-the-wall TV series in 1974 about the working-class Wilkins family in Reading. But here it is worth quoting the gloss on Mrs Wilkins provided by Deborah Cohen in her marvellous book Family Secrets: “Hers was not an ideological position. She disdained feminism, but objected, too, to what she saw as the silences about family problems, the constraints of propriety that made people feel alone.”

Mrs Wilkins was, in other words, far from typical. And although this is not the occasion for a systematic analysis of British exceptionalism or otherwise, I’m tempted to fast-forward two decades and cross the Channel, in the company of Theodore Zeldin. His An Intimate History of Humanity, published in 1994, includes this testimony from Annette Martineau, a greengrocer’s wife living in Cognac in south-western France and who as a child was taught not to speak at the table:

My parents barely talked to each other. My friends say their husbands don’t talk either. It’s often like that. Husbands didn’t say much in the past, because everything was taboo, and because they had nothing to say. In our dinner parties, the conversation is either non-existent or aggressive… My husband gets up at 3am to do the buying. He is completely immersed in his work and is not a man to waste words. I warned my daughter: “You will enjoy life more if you’re with a man you can talk to.”

Zeldin, in a typically eclectic chapter devoted to conversation, takes the long view. It’s called “How Men and Women Have Slowly Learned to Have Interesting Conversations”, and he argues that, in terms of the span of human history, “conversation is still in its infancy”. He also notes that Finland is “reputed to be the least talkative country on Earth”, and he cites the Finnish proverb: “One word is enough to make a lot of trouble.”


So how, to return to postwar Britain, do we uncover the unspoken? What was really going on inside the heads – and, in turn, affecting the behavioural assumptions – of a people often so reluctant to express their emotions or engage in emotional dialogue? Think of that supreme moment in our island story, as Geoff Hurst lashed home England’s fourth goal at Wembley in the 1966 World Cup final against West Germany, and of how eyes turned to one figure, seated and impassive: Alf Ramsey, the team manager. “I’m a very emotional person but my feelings are always tied up inside,” this man of Suffolk via Dagenham later said. “Maybe it is a mistake to be like this but I cannot govern it.”

I also often think of my father. He was an army officer, and his daily habits were as regular and unchangeable as one might expect. He was also, again predictably, given his small-town Shropshire background, a man of few words. Yet on that July afternoon, as England neared the end of normal time and, hanging on at 2-1, missed a chance to clinch it, and the TV commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme remarked that it didn’t matter now, my father got up from his armchair, more or less shook his fist at the screen and said loudly: “Of course it fucking matters!” – prophetic words, as it turned out. But as to what, over the years, he thought about his family, or the world at large, or God, or what the novelist Anthony Powell would have called his personal myth – it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that I’m in the dark.

What, then, are the sources that more generally might help? Sociologists, in what was the golden age of British empirical sociology, were better at getting people to talk more freely about subjects – for instance, class – than they would normally have felt able to; the same intermittently applies to letters pages, especially in women’s magazines. Transcripts of radio programmes, particularly Woman’s Hour, can yield similar rewards, especially from the 1960s, when, like some TV programmes, they became more confessional.

But inevitably, for the real pay dirt, one has to go to private letters and diaries, especially the latter, whether located at the Mass-Observation Archive at the University of Sussex or elsewhere. My postwar sequence uses diaries extensively, and there are some wonderfully revealing quotations from them included in my books.

That said, they have significant limitations: not only because almost all the diarists were middle class (at a time when Britain was still predominantly a working-class society), but also because most of them were not particularly introspective and shied away from Rousseau- or Pepys-like frankness. Furthermore, as far as I can tell, they are quite limited in number, at least in terms of accessibility. Yet I wouldn’t be without them.

I also wouldn’t be without retrospective sources. These include what one might call Mass-Observation Mark II – the project that the archive’s Dorothy Sheridan initiated in the 1980s, and that continues, in which “participants write about their life experiences and emotional journeys from the vantage point of these more recent times”. That description is by the historian Claire Langhamer, whose 2013 survey The English in Love convincingly charts how, during the 20th century, the institution of marriage increasingly became less of a pragmatic transaction and more of a vehicle for – in aspiration, at least – romance and personal fulfilment.

Naturally, there are also published memoirs. And here it’s time for a second confession: I’ve found it difficult to bring myself to read the so-called misery memoirs, the genre of paperbacks that peaked in 2006, comprising in that year no fewer than 11 of the UK’s 100 top-selling titles. What’s my problem? Partly it’s that they seem formulaic; partly it’s their unattractive neediness; but, above all, instinctively I don’t quite trust them, a view not helped by their almost entire lack of dates.

Instead, I read with relish the flood of well-written and emotionally nuanced mainstream memoirs that have appeared over the past thirty years or so – for me, the right sort of confessional flood, one that arguably began in 1987 with Ian Jack’s superb Granta essay about his father, “Finished with Engines”. Margaret Forster’s Hidden Lives, Tim Lott’s The Scent of Dried Roses, Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood, Janet Street-Porter’s Baggage, Ferdinand Mount’s Cold Cream, Joan Bakewell’s The Centre of the Bed, Jeremy Harding’s Mother Country, Rupert Christiansen’s I Know You’re Going to Be Happy – these and many others undoubtedly constitute a golden period of British autobiography.

Yet inevitably, these books share two intrinsic drawbacks. First, they would probably not have been written, and almost certainly not published, if the authors had not already been established public figures and/or writers – which raises the serious issue of how representative they are. And second, these autobiographical writings give no opportunity for the historian to stop the flow and ask questions. What do you mean by that? Could you elaborate? Any hard examples? Would you go to the stake for the accuracy of that story? Are you quite sure you’re not exaggerating? And so on.

Happily, oral historians can ask such questions, albeit rather more politely, and indeed it’s to oral history that I’d now like to turn. Starting with a final confession: over the years, my relationship with oral history has been somewhat ambivalent. In the course of researching the last volume of my City of London history, plus half a dozen institutional histories – beginning with the Financial Times and, I suspect, ending with the Bank of England – I’ve conducted several hundred interviews, in which I’ve learned much that I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to discover. Also for my City history I was grateful for the “City Lives” strand of the National Life Stories collection. Yet in practice, in all of those books, as well as in my postwar sequence, I have been quite sparing in using oral history material – for three reasons.

First, what I might call the “literary” motive. What I most enjoy as a writer is relating an unfolding narrative. The notion of a chronicle, a kind of passing national pageant, is somewhere near the heart of my concept of the New Jerusalem sequence. I’m trying to do other things as well, but that’s the spine. Crucially, for that to work in terms of providing a satisfying narrative, I rely more on contemporary than retrospective sources – in other words, on sources derived from politicians, or journalists, or diarists, or others who are living in the present and who, like characters in a play or a novel, have no knowledge of the future.

Second, while I am well aware of how sophisticated oral history techniques and procedures have become, there will always be the problem of unconscious bias. I’ve mentioned Anthony Powell’s concept of the personal myth, and an observation by the renowned oral historian Alistair Thomson puts the matter well: “Memories,” he writes, “are ‘significant pasts’ that we compose to make a more comfortable sense of our life over time, and in which past and present identities are brought more into line.”

To which I would add that there is an important additional factor in relation to oral history and postwar Britain. Historians and attentive readers may know otherwise, but I would guess that for most TV-watching people – in an era when the visual image dominates the written word – the 1950s remain in their mind’s eye still unshakeably repressive, the 1960s unshakeably swinging, the 1970s unshakeably crisis-ridden, the 1980s unshakeably materialistic. It is hard to banish these simplistic and in many ways misleading characterisations as one digs down into the unique memories of one’s own life.

And third – very mundane – I try to do most of the research myself, and as a non-academic with publishing deadlines to meet, inevitably there isn’t the time to listen to everything or, if in transcript form, read everything, however helpfully indexed. Especially in regard to my postwar history, I am conscious that because of this I have missed a lot. But I comfort myself with the thought that, as poor Mr Casaubon never quite learned, completism is not the way to go.


The National Life Stories project was established by the British Library’s national sound archive 30 years ago – Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, Ronald Reagan was the US president, the Berlin Wall still stood – and it represents a phenomenal achievement. The closing pages of the latest annual report list the work completed and still in train. “Artists’ Lives”, “City Lives”, “Legal Lives”, “Living Memory of the Jewish Community”, “Lives in the Oil Industry”, “An Oral History of British Science”, “Food: from Source to Salespoint” – I could go on. By my computation, some 2,460 interviews have been conducted, and no doubt there have been more since the report was published.

This is a body of testimony that will endure and be indispensable for future generations of historians. Even so, I suspect that relatively few of the interviews focus all that much on the interviewees’ private lives, and in particular those shadowy areas I’m calling “the unspoken”. My argument is that in our oral history – this marvellously flexible, access-all-areas instrument – we should be doing so rather more.

Baby boomers, now in their sixties and seventies, won’t be around for ever. There are many questions that they – we – are in a position to answer and, in this post-Diana confessional age, may be relaxed about answering even under rigorous, systematic questioning: not just about their upbringing, but about the main body of their lives, including the internal-cum-private dimension as well as – and conceivably even more than – the external-cum-public one.

Let me give some examples. What from our childhood and adolescence do we recall, even if we would prefer not to, about the charged and now highly topical matter of sexual abuse? More generally, what were the sexual norms – and, indeed, our relationship to sex itself – during and after the much-publicised 1960s?

On moving away from the family home and forming full-time autonomous friendships and friendship groups, were the boundaries between the spoken and the unspoken so much less rigid and inhibited than they had been at home? Among our peers, how was “success” defined, or did the very notion of success seemingly disappear? How, in our twenties and beyond, did our political and spiritual consciousness change? Did Thatcherism and its legacy, arguably creating the world we live in, challenge or entrench our assumptions? Similarly, what has been the impact of parenthood, even grandparenthood, on assumptions of, say, social liberalism?

As the shadows start to lengthen, though it’s not dark yet (as someone once sang), can we look back on our lives and attempt to estimate the extent to which the objective reality has matched our individual personal myth?

It wouldn’t be too difficult to come up with other pertinent questions, but you get my drift. Baby boomers are always hungry for attention. I may be wrong, but in this area I’m not sure that they’re getting it quite enough.

I would like to finish with an observation by a French historian, writing about world-weary other historians:

So many people go around despairing at every turn – there is, they say, nothing left to discover, or so it seems, in regions that have been too well explored. All they need to do is plunge into the darkness where psychology wrestles with history – they would soon get back their appetite for discovery.

The historian was Lucien Febvre, the date was 1941, and all those years ago he called it right: the time has come for dancing in the dark.

This is an edited version of David Kynaston’s recent National Life Stories Lecture 2017 at the British Library, “Uncovering the Unspoken: Memory and Postwar Britain”

This article appears in the 26 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue