David Kynaston begins his book, the first of a planned multi-volume survey of Britain, on a high note by chronicling the celebrations of V-E Day. It is a joyous starting point for his ambitious goal, which is to chart the evolution of the nation from the end of the Second World War to the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1979. It is an era that began with the commitment to nationalizing industries and creating the modern welfare state and ended with a government winning power with a promise to undo many of these programs, and Kynaston plans to show how the country developed over this period. This he does by focusing on the people who lived in those times, drawing from the early work of Mass-Observation, contemporary press accounts and the private writings of diarists to provide a sprawling portrait of Britain in the late 1940s.
What particularly stands out is how much different the nation was back then. The Britain that emerges from these pages is a nation driven by an industrial economy, with an overwhelmingly white and predominantly male workforce in physically demanding jobs producing a quarter of the world’s manufactured goods. The everyday lives of these Britons was different as well, lacking not only the modern conveniences that the author notes early in the text but even many of the basics of prewar life, basics which had been sacrificed to the exigencies of war. Kynaston notes their growing frustration with ongoing scarcity, a frustration that illustrated the gulf between their harsh realities and the idealistic dreams of government planners that is a persistent theme of the book.
Richly detailed, superbly written, and supplemented with excellent photographs, Kynaston’s book is an outstanding account of postwar Britain. It offers readers an evocative account of a much different era of British history, yet one with all-too familiar concerns over youth, crime, and an emerging multiracial society. Having devoured its pages, I look forward eagerly to the next installment and the insights Kynaston will offer.