Modernity Britain: Opening the Box, 1957-59, by David Kynaston

Roger Morgan on a vivid social history of Britons seeking to modernise

August 8, 2013

One of the artefacts unearthed by David Kynaston’s archaeological dig into the late 1950s is a BBC Third Programme talk by Asa Briggs lamenting the fact that social history lacked the “academic prestige” of political history. This could hardly be said today, thanks to the efforts of Lord Briggs himself and a host of younger scholars, not least this book’s highly productive author.

There are in fact two David Kynastons. One is the relatively conventional historian who has given us solid and illuminating accounts of the City of London, the Bank of England, the Financial Times and much else. The other is the venturesome innovator engaged in cutting up the rich history of post-war Britain into quite thin slices, and retailing news stories and contemporary comments, often on a day-by-day basis, to give a vivid flashback into how things were, and were felt, at the time.

Having covered the period from 1945 to 1957 in four volumes (now appearing as two double ones, Austerity Britain for the 1940s and Family Britain for the 1950s), Kynaston here presents the first instalment of Modernity Britain (defined as 1957-1962) with the subtitle Opening the Box, 1957-59. The chronological bookends are political – the story runs from Harold Macmillan’s takeover from Anthony Eden in January 1957 to his electoral victory over Hugh Gaitskell in October 1959 – but the central focus is on the social processes that characterised Britain as a country striving in several ways for modernity, for something different both from post-war austerity and from the rather simple materialistic “never had it so good” of which Macmillan famously spoke. Some of the modernising forces came in a top-down direction: governmental decisions to replace urban slums and other old housing with massive tower blocks, or the social engineering project represented by comprehensive secondary education. But there were equal bottom-up pressures, for instance in the booming demand for more sophisticated household equipment, more motorised mobility, and new forms of entertainment, including television and more varied popular music.

Applying his usual striking technique, Kynaston places such life-changing trends in the context of innumerable and contrasting contemporary incidents and comments, reminding us of what people had on their minds. Thus in three consecutive sentences he reports public feelings about a national bus strike, a comment on unrestrained behaviour by an England cricketer, and Philip Larkin’s thoughts on The Archers. This “scrapbook” or “bran-tub” approach – what the late historian Douglas Johnson engagingly called “the patter of tiny facts” – adds concreteness to the broader concerns and concepts Kynaston explores. He devotes substantial passages to some key social trends, and as he selects themes that directly affected the lives of large numbers of people, he is able to record a wide diversity of contemporary comments, from experienced Mass Observation reporters, civil servants and politicians, and the proverbial man and woman in the street. Thus the themes already mentioned, housing policy and secondary education, are well represented, and so is industrial unrest when it had broad social repercussions, but there is little or nothing, for instance, on the “modernity” of automation, cybernetics or other innovations within the workplace.

What of Kynaston’s grand project as a whole? This first part of Modernity Britain and its successor will see the story through to 1962 – the halfway mark in Kynaston’s planned 34-year-long saga – so we may expect a final total of 12 volumes. Some have compared it to The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, and it certainly has affinities with Anthony Powell’s series of novels, A Dance to the Music of Time. In any case, we can look forward to more of a stimulating and refreshing achievement.

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