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Scenes from English Life

When the greatest war in their, or anyone’s, history ended in 1945, the British people were quietly proud, but exhausted. Five years earlier, Winston Churchill had inspired them by preaching defiance against Hitler; but with victory assured, the British rejected Churchill and his dreams of greatness, elected a Labour government under the reticent (but formidable) Clement Attlee, and turned inward, from war and empire to domestic reform.

That was natural enough, and not only in reaction to hardship and sacrifice. Orwell used to say that the English had always been a very private people, happiest not merely at home rather than abroad but with domestic intimacy rather than public life. They were following that truth in these postwar years—and Orwell would have relished the splendid series of books which David Kynaston calls “Tales of A New Jerusalem.” In time he will give a conspectus of “Our Island Story” (as a famous book of another age was called) from the war until the advent of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Family Britain is his second volume, following Austerity Britain, which covered the Attlee years of 1945-1951.

Other historians have treated high politics and the drama of international affairs as their main themes, and set them against a lightly-sketched background of social history—history with the politics left out, in G.M. Trevelyan’s misleading phrase—but Kynaston turns that picture around. For him, politics is far from absent. This volume begins with the dying fall of the Attlee government, followed by the death of King George VI in February 1952, aged only fifty-six. (He died from smoking and anxiety, one might say.) A very young queen—who has now been reigning for fifty-eight years—was greeted by a very old prime minister: the seventy-six-year-old Churchill had been returned to office at the election of 1951.

But this is the backdrop against which Kynaston portrays the real life of the English people, as they lived it and felt it at the time. His sources are books, newspapers, letters, and notably the diaries of unknown people, of which he has found a treasure trove in archives. Thanks to Kynaston, people such as Judy Haines and Anthony Heap may become our close acquaintances, though I won’t go so far as to say dearly loved friends. And his technique is intelligently impressionistic: he gives a patchwork of everyday life, interweaving larger events with mundane but telling detail about sport, the weather, or shopping.

Anyone who has been reading Tony Judt’s memoir-essays of his upbringing in postwar London will have been impressed and moved, but for some of us they are almost unbearably poignant, with a sense of being taken through a dense Freudian thicket of childhood memory. Kynaston revisits the same scenes, painted with still denser texture. After all these years, I can just remember the Festival of Britain in 1951 to which I was taken as a little boy, and I can certainly remember the great London fogs, which were really smogs caused by millions of coal fires. In one of the last of these, before clean air laws literally changed the atmosphere, hundreds of people died. The winter air was so thick that the bus service had to be stopped, while an opera performance at Sadlers Wells was called off in the middle because the audience couldn’t see the stage.

Much of this “world we have lost”  is gone without regret from many of us, for all the laments of a certain “back to the fifties” school to be found in the London Tory papers. It was another thirteen years after 1951 before another Labour government came to power, and it didn’t do much good. But capital punishment was at last ended, and homosexuality was decriminalized. Mingled with Kynaston’s tapestry of cricket, theater, and war movies (all of them pretty dull at that time, it might be said) are grimmer stories.

These years saw a heightened persecution, egged on by the popular press and authorized by the absurd Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe. “Homosexuals, in general, are exhibitionists and proselytisers and a danger to others,” he told Parliament. Some men were driven to suicide, and John Gielgud thought that his life was ruined after he was arrested for importuning in a men’s room. But when he returned to the stage in Liverpool, Dame Sybil Thorndike, bless her, wagged her finger with the words “Who’s been a naughty boy then?” and the audience greeted him with a standing ovation. One person nevertheless most displeased was Noel Coward. “How could he, how could he, have been stupid and so selfish?” he privately complained, maybe guessing, as Kynaston drily says, that he would now have a long wait for his own knighthood.

For Derek Bentley and Ruth Ellis, those woes would have seemed trivial. Bentley was executed in 1953, a slow-witted boy of nineteen hanged, as one Labour MP put it, “for a murder which he did not commit, and which was committed fifteen minutes after he was arrested,” and in 1955 Ellis, too, went to the gallows for killing her errant lover in circumstances which would usually have won a reprieve. (Her story became the movie Dance With a Stranger with Miranda Richardson.) “Another lovely day,” Florence Turtle wrote two day before the execution, with Gladys Langford, another of Kynaston’s diarists, sententiously reflecting about the condemned woman, “Thank God I had a good mother.” Ellis’s conviction has not been changed, but Bentley’s was quashed by the Court of Appeal more than forty years later on grounds of gross mistrial, for what good that did him.

Along with the tang of those years—which includes the tastes, and far from least, the smells of the last age before most British people bathed more or less daily and had regular clean clothes from washing machines—Kynaston conveys also the spirit. One of his most acute insights is that in many ways time stood still. The postwar decade resembled the 1930s more than the 1960s, although there is a sense in which “the Sixties” began at the end of the period covered by this book, with the Suez fiasco in 1956, and in the same year a new wave of drama, marked by John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, even if it now seems a play of more social than literary interest.

Before then, commercial television had arrived to break the BBC’s staid monopoly—and so had a flood of black and then brown immigrants from the West Indies and India, to the dismay of Churchill, who said privately that the Tories should campaign on the slogan “Keep England white.” Then there was the advent of European soccer teams, with Ferenc Puskas’s magical Magyars inflicting an historic 6-3 defeat on England in 1953. A year later he played for a Hungarian club, who had their noses rubbed in the mud, one reporter wrote gloatingly and with no intentional irony, by a Wolverhampton side whose tough marking and tackling “cut all the rhythm out of the Honved team and then sledge-hammered their way past the defenders. It was British football at its best.” Too often what was called “the best of British” in my childhood no longer inspires a pang of regret.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is an English journalist and author. His books include The Strange Death of Tory England, Yo, Blair!, and The Controversy of Zion, which won a National Jewish Book Award.