Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Austerity Britain, part one

I've written a lot about how much I like history writing that delivers great portraits of historical figures, from the capsule descriptions that pepper C. V. Wedgwood's The Thirty Years War to Robert Caro's character study of Robert Moses in The Power Broker to the drawn-out examinations of key figures in Taylor Branch's America in the King Years trilogy. A good character-based history makes it impossible for a reader to forget that actual people were involved in these momentous episodes--and that the decisions they made were shaped by their own perspective. It's the opposite of the Tolstoyan view of history as an impersonal force, and it's what I want in historical writing--most of the time.

Nearly as attractive to me, though, is a totally different sort of history, one that is based less on studies of specific people and more on a detailed look at the daily life of a society. What did people eat? How did they get to work? What did they think about that work once they got there? What were their houses like? What did their kids do for fun? That sort of quotidian detail fascinates me, even about relatively recent times--it's a novelist's level of detail, the inessential material that creates the subtle, believable background. A historian who can carefully recreate that lost background, then flesh out the knowledge, opinions, and hopes of the people who lived there, can save the past from both the gloop of nostalgia and the relative abstraction of big-event history and enable a reader to feel the real life of an era.

In his enormous, 630-page Austerity Britain: 1945-51 (2007), which I've referred to already a couple of times in the past week, David Kynaston aims at that level of re-creation. While not shortchanging the truly momentous events of the period--the creation of the welfare state being the greatest one--he wants more than anything to make us understand the details of daily life in the straitened circumstances of post-war Britain. What was it like to continue living under rations after you'd won the war? How did the housing shortage affect growing families? What was it like, on the first day of the National Health Service, to walk out of a doctor's office without paying? What was it like to go to a neighbor's to watch a football match on a tiny new television?

To answer that sort of question, Kynaston most often turns directly to the words of those who lived through the period. He has seemingly read every contemporary diary, memoir, and letter available--from a satisfyingly wide range of class and situation--and he quotes them liberally. He also draws heavily on the fascinating, insightful reports of the government-sponsored Mass-Observation survey, which combined directed questioning with organized eavesdropping; the collected statements Kynaston plucks out of the M-O reports are often strikingly open and honest. He's also good at buttressing his points with polling, economic, and government figures, the hard data providing a foundation for the more personal perspectives.

From the opening chapter's account of the V-E Day Celebrations, which are so closely observed that you share both the early enthusiasm and the later weariness of the participants, through the brutally harsh winter of 1947, worsened by low coal and food rations, to the eve of the Attlee government's fall in 1951, Kynaston absolutely recreates a world, in, it seems, its own voice. It's a stupendous achievement, and one that he manages while never being anything less than engrossing. This is in part because he has a novelist's eye for anecdote--in fact, I was first led to the book through a piece in the Times of London in which Kynaston explained the book's genesis in terms of novels:
I now envisaged the project as owing something to two types of artistic inspiration: the thickly textured panorama of a 19th-century “loose, baggy monster” realist novel, with perhaps a dash of Frith’s Derby Day painting; and the roman-fleuve of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time novels. I wanted to write a rolling narrative in which “high” history jostles with “low”, in which significant events and themes are viewed as much as possible through the prism of the individual witness or participant.
He's done just that, letting us see history through scores of small, human moments--most of them lost until now--that in aggregate tell a larger, more complicated national story.

So he gives us telling asides:
The early council housing was "the Cinderella of the British housing stock;" a broadcaster notes the reinstatement of the perpetually gloomy weather report (which had been suppressed during the war) by announcing "news of an old friend--the large depression;" a porter, soon after the Labour victory in 1945, replies to a snooty public school boy's order to tote his trunk, "No, that sort of thing is all over now;" a woman writes in her diary after a Laurel and Hardy film that "Hardy--the fat one--is revolting;" Noel Coward, resigned to the Labour victory, says, "It may not be a bad idea for the Labour boys to hold the baby. . . . I always felt that England would be bloody uncomfortable during the immediate post-war period, and it is now almost a certainty that it will be so."

The rest, including more stories, tomorrow.

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