Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Austerity Britain, part two

Part one is here.

Noel Coward's not the only famous person that turns up in passing. Accounts from Barbara Pym (whose novels all seem to have the feel of this period, with its scrimping and saving), Bill Wyman, George Orwell, James Lees-Milne, Doris Lessing, and others are interwoven with those of the many unknown people, and while their words are accorded no additional status, the very presence of people we already know enlarges and grounds Kynaston's narrative, linking it to the larger, different cultural stories we already associate with them.

For example, an extra layer of irony accrues to the following open letter from Dirk Bogarde to Woman's Own magazine, because he is now generally thought to have been gay, yet in the letter he's setting out the qualities he will require in the girl he marries:
Do not smoke in public.
Do not wear high heels with slacks.
Wear a little skilful make-up.
Never draw attention to yourself in public places by loud laughter, conversation, or clothing.
NEVER try to order a meal from a menu with I am with you.
Never laugh at me in front of my friends.
Never welcome me back in the evening with a smutty face, the smell of cooking in your hair, broken nails, and a whine about the day's trials and difficulties.
It's not unlikely that Bogarde's view is fairly representative of expected gender roles in the period, which seem straightforwardly horrid for women. But Kynaston tends to try to allow issues to retain their complexity and uncertainty, so he follows that letter with a contemporary response from a Woman's Own reader:
After reading Dirk Bogarde's article, I find that I am his ideal woman. The only snag is, I breathe? Do you think it matters?

Then there are the longer passages, interesting simultaneously as human stories and potent glimpses of the times, like this portrait of a fairly high-level official in the Board of Trade, from the memoirs of Roy Denman, at the time a fresh-faced Cambridge grad:
Mr Bacon had a square jaw, keen blue eyes and dressed, unusually for those days, with a certain elegance. These unfortunately were his main qualification for senior office. Before anyone from the outside world came to see him he would get his secretary to stack his desk high with files garnered from obscure cupboards in order to show how busy he was. With a weary sigh, a wave of his hand indicated to his visitor the crushing burden of administration which he daily bore. "These are difficult times," he would say in a resonant voice. "But if we all pull together the country will get through."
That view of the inefficiencies of the old boy network is only amplified by the description by a leading business manager of the "balanced cultivated life" that a high-level manager should lead:
He should have long weekends . . . he should play golf . . . he should garden . . . he should play bridge . . . he should read, he should do something different.
Needless to say, he thought nothing of the sort was necessary for lower-level employees.

And finally, I can't resist sharing this 1950 Mass-Observation report on attitudes toward Americans:
Cordial detestation. (Schoolmaster)

I like their generosity, but I dislike their wealthy condescension. (Forester)

I do not like their habit of preening themselves and their way of life before the world and of giving advice to the rest of us in a somewhat sermonising manner. (Civil servant)

I like them and consider them our absolute friends. They give me the feeling of being able to do anything if they put their mind to it. Nothing would be too big. (Clerk)

Something like horror though that is much too strong a word. Their strident vitality makes me want to shrink into myself. (Vicar)

As individuals charming. As a race "We are it." (Sales organiser)

I dislike their worship of Mammon and hugeness but one must admire their ability and success. (Retired civil servant)

I hate their "high pressure salesman" society. (Hearing aid technician)

I feel that the Americans are rather too big for their boots. (Civil servant)

The Americans are obviously becoming the Master race, whether we like it or not, so let's all begin to hero-worship them. (Designer)
The question seems to have driven the respondents to new heights of linguistic invention: "cordial detestation," "Strident vitality," "shrink into myself"--all unforgettable turns of phrase. Meanwhile, I have no idea what the sales organizer is trying to say, but I'm comfortable guessing that the designer at the end was questioned in a pub, when a few pints had blurred the lines separating sarcasm, irony, and weary cynicism.

Together, all the anecdotes and letters and journal entries and surveys add up to one of the most vivid and engrossing histories I've ever read, almost impossible to put down, even when it comes to detailed sections about labor relations and industrial history (or the mostly incomprehensible notes on cricket). And there's more to look forward to: Kynaston's announced plan is to write three more volumes that will take the story up to the election of Margaret Thatcher--the emotional, if not necessarily the actual, death of the welfare state that we see created in this first volume--under the overall title Tales of a New Jerusalem.

Here's to him having the time and energy to maintain this level of care and craft throughout. If so, he will have created an indispensable document, a true gift both for the English and for us Anglophiles. If we're lucky, someday someone will attempt to do the same for that period of American history.

No comments:

Post a Comment