In the early 1950s Great Britain was a nation in transition. On the one hand it was still an imperial power, a workshop to much of the world, a land with a tradition-bound patriarchal society. Yet at the same time it was seeing the first results of the many social and economic changes underway, with the clearing of the Victorian-era slums, the growing challenges of a multi-racial population, and the rapid proliferation of television just some of the signs pointing to the future that was to come. This transition and the people who faced it are the subjects of David Kynaston’s book, which chronicles life in Britain between the Festival of Britain in 1951 and Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s resignation six years later.
In many respects Kynaston’s book is less a narrative of these years than a panorama that allows the reader to take in details both large and small. Through them he depicts the emergence of what he calls a “proto-consumerist” society from years of rationing and deprivation. As Britain shook off the postwar austerity, its citizens embraced the burgeoning prosperity as their due after their years of sacrifice. As Kynaston demonstrates it was a reward enjoyed by a broader swath of society than ever before, yet as more people enjoyed the benefits of prosperity a growing number of concerns were expressed about the damage being done to society, of the breakdown of communities and the rebelliousness of youth.
Kynaston recounts these years in a sympathetic and perceptive manner. Seemingly nothing is too insignificant to escape his attention, while his ability to draw significance from these trivial facts supplies added depth his account of the events and developments of the era. Yet his narrative never bogs down in the facts, transitioning smoothly from one topic to another without ever losing my interest. The result is a magnificent work, a worthy sequel to his earlier volume Austerity Britain and one that left me eager for the next installment in his “Tales of a New Jerusalem” series.