on 30 November 2009
Family Britain by David Kynaston is a comprehensive study of life in Britain after the Second World War. It is very well researched and although over 700 pages long it is written in a style which makes few strenuous demands on the reader - the pages can be turned quickly and effortlessly as the narrative unfolds.
It covers a wide range of domestic issues, focusing both on the poorer sections of society and those who survived the deprivations of the war from a better-off postion. The politics are carefully explained, supported by extensive quotations drawn from a wide range of sources. The author also brings into the picture vignettes of certain people who have susequently become more well-known showing where they were in their chilhood days of the 50s.
For those of us who were brought up in this period, this book provides a useful reminder of how our own lives formed part of the greater pattern of change that was unfolding. It also helps to place our own experiences into perspective. My only slight criticism is that the chapters occasionally jump from one topic to another without a clear link, but the chronlogy of the period 1951-1957 is always maintained.
on 15 February 2010
I received this book as a birthday present and what a present!
A note of honesty here, I enjoy reading social history (so there is the Nerd admission up front!), particularly English social history. However, there is something extra special about this publication. Namely, while usually reading a history book I require some fiction on the go at the same time (some Stephen King let's say....just to keep the Nerd factor at an optimum....yes and I like Torchwood....), but this is unputdownable. Do not be put off by the sheer size of the book (776 pages including index), if you are looking for a narrative that will make you smile, chuckle out loud, while providing poignant moments aplenty - then get this book! David Kynaston is to be congratulated on the remarkable achievement of putting together so many different 'voices' from people. From housewives to M.P.'s, from newspaper headlines to Mass Observation findings - they all speak to you with a remarkable immediacy. Clearly this is a winner for people who remember this period of English history, but equally so for people like myself who were not even born yet. This is no mere 'sentimental' 'good old days' nostalgia. So people from a younger generation do not be put off!
Nearing the end of this book now, I am feeling decidedly tempted to get on this site and order some more books by this writer. Great stuff! .....and need I say it?
on 1 December 2009
This awesome study is the follow-up to Austerity Britain 1945-1951, and if you've read that book then you will know what to expect here. Family Britain contains the same mixture of social issues, politics, cultural developments and personal reminiscences - drawn from a wide variety of sources including Mass Observation studies and personal diaries (we continue following the lives of Nella Last, Judy Haines, Anthony Heap and the other private diarists from the first book) - with the emphasis always on how the great events and changing times affected ordinary people living ordinary lives.
(Also what may or may not become worth noting for when the paperback/s come out: Family Britain is divided into two 'books' - 'The Certainties of Place' and 'A Thicker Cut', in the same way that Austerity Britain comprised the books 'A World to Build' and 'Smoke in the Valley.')
Beginning with the Festival of Britain and ending with Eden's resignation, the book goes through the years basically chronologically, but pauses to consider the general themes and social issues of the period looking at race, class, housing, secondary schools, religion, the place of women and of course family life among many other things.
It really is a fascinating book, breathtaking in its scope and range of sources and at all times a joy to read. It was also very satisfying how the author looked at issues in order to test our conventional wisdom of the period and - pleasingly - often shows how much more complicated the true picture is (eg the place of Christianity in Britain or the state of neighbourliness and sense of community etc.) It is also frequently pretty funny, with wry asides and the inclusion of the odd amusing response in with the contemporaneous survey evidence ("Sorry, can't talk ducks look - I got no teeth!) and I always looked forward to the latest reviews from the private diary of minor civil servant and theatre nut Anthony Heap (Waiting for Godot is "infantile...dreary...preposterous," Look Back In Anger is "monotonous...puerile...nauseating.") In addition to the voices featured in the previous book we follow such now-well-known figures as Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, Doris Lessing and John Fowles as well as hearing mention of kids like 'Mike' Jagger and Christine Keeler, foreshadowing the next instalment.
I would have liked a bit more politics (not at the expense of anything else though) and some of the transitions between paragraphs were a bit silly (eg after talking about two people he might continue with: "Probably neither were in Ipswich two days later when..." etc.) Plus, although the book does spend a fair amount of time in Glasgow and the English North and Midlands as well as the South, there isn't much about Wales, the rest of Scotland or Northern Ireland (nothing at all if I remember rightly) - which I know a lot of people take issue over with books that claim to be about 'Britain.'
Having said that, this book is a fantastic read for anyone with an interest in recent history and, I would think, an invaluable resource for any student or anyone
with a professional interest in this period. You don't have to have read the previous volume to enjoy this book I'm sure, though I read Austerity Britain directly before reading this so I've basically just read 1,350 pages of this stuff and if the subsequent volumes were available I would happily read straight through to the page 3,500 or whatever it will be when this series is finished. From the afterword in this book we can infer that the next volume will be called Modernity Britain.
on 2 January 2010
Having enjoyed Austerity Britain so very much I was prepared to be a lttle let down by this sequel. I should not have worried, if anything it is even more enjoyable as it covers the era that I can actually remember, rather than having only heard about. I particularly liked the fact that I could say to myself 'yes, I remember that little incident or fact'. It can be read as a stand alone volume but I rather suspect that most readers will have already read Austerity. So well researched and well written is it that it's 700 odd pages simply fly by. A superb book. I look forward to the next volume.
on 27 November 2009
Having lived through the times detailed in the book, I can recall incidents that had slipped my mind. The details contained in the book are really quite outstanding, and I would recommend it to any student of the period.
on 1 June 2010
Kynaston's books, taken from the 'Mass Observation' source material, represent a serious if never totally impartial insight into the way people lived in the post-WWII decade in Britain. The land was impoverished, unjust, class-ridden, industrially dropping back, and totally unprepared, politically, intellectually or socially for the shock of living in the kind of peace that had followed total war. Shortages and rationing, exhaustion, homelessness and even the weather, and a rising ground swell that great injustice was being done, are set here against the confused but earnest attempts to rebuild and, sometimes, to plan; and it took as long as the war itself, to recover, as this book starting with 1951 shows. Life was still bleak, short and sordid for many. We have forgotten this, and Kynaston lets us through his selection of material feel what it was like. Any selection has to be subjective, but I think he is fair to people and to governments in showing how they struggled, failed, lost their temper, and still laughed and made jokes about every day disasters. But these books go further; they are a judgment on anyone who thinks that the old ways are good enough, and that 'little England' is enough in itself. The seeds of injustice, ignorance and confrontation also in today's British Society go a long way back, and Kynaston lets us see the fruit they bore.
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 on the other 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 his reader's interest. The result is a magnificent work, a worthy sequel to his earlier volume, Austerity Britain, 1945-1951 (Tales of a New Jerusalem), and one that will leave its readers eager for the next installment of his series.
on 1 April 2010
The content is fabulous, but the book's organization seemingly non-existent. This feels like stream-of-consciousness history: chapters with no clearly defined theme, only the vaguest of chronological sequences, a throwing together of apparently random material. For all that, it's a marvellously evocative mix of social and political, interjected with some keen analysis, and it is enjoyable to bounce suddenly from a spat between Bevan and Gaitskell, to Mrs Jones complaining about the price of tea. But the book's amorphous structure leaves my desire to LEARN things from a history book completely unfulfilled. Rather than present an understanding of the processes by which the decade evolved, it simply immerses the reader in the world of the 50s. By the time I'm finished, I'll have a much better FEELING for the decade, but I don't think I'll KNOW much more about it.
on 21 June 2010
For anybody even remotely interested in the history of post-war Britain as lived by real people, this (like Kynaston's previous volumes) is an absolutely essential work to own and read.
Kynaston has the knack of combining dry empirical facts with a personal and very enjoyable style which totally avoids the frequent superficiality of - for example - Simon Schama. This book will certainly encourage you to explore Britain further - I myself immediately bought 'Excellent Women' by Barbara Pym (also from Amazon) entirely as a result of 'Family Britain'.
Slight criticisms - the photographs have been poorly chosen and are inadequate in both quantity and relevance. Also Mr Kynaston has virtually ignored music (other than pop) in the field of performing arts; a couple of paragraphs would have been enough, but no.
on 25 July 2015
Two stars. I just couldn't stand it any more. Two stars for the depth of research, two stars for attempting something unusual. No more stars. About three-quarters of the way through I realised I was grudgingly enduring the book until I could roll over and go to sleep.
Back in mid-2014 I read the first volume in this series, Austerity Britain. It was refreshing - a stark, finely-detailed, almost brutalist recounting of Britain's post-war years. It had minimal editorial and almost nothing about the world outside Britain. There were no thematic diversions, no jumps to the present, almost no attempts to put things in context, no talking heads interviews. In the words of A N Wilson it felt like "an enforced reliving of those years".
At the time I believed that the style had been chosen to complement the subject matter, and I ended with a mental picture of a bleak, grey age, and a generation of people who were uninterested in the outside world. Why should they care? Britain was top dog, at least in their minds. At the same time I had doubts. The author's habit of juxtaposing momentous events with football victories and radio cookery programmes got old quickly. Was it really building up to something, or was the author simply putting all of his research onto the page, indiscrimately?
I couldn't stand volume two. Kynaston's style wasn't a deliberate choice after all, it's simply how he writes. He admits this during the book's coverage of the Suez Crisis; he points out that he isn't trying to write about the grand sweep of history, which is a shame because the Suez chapter is engaging and interesting albeit very rushed. It's shocking to learn after five hundred pages that there are countries outside Britain and events that are not football or radio cookery programmes. The concentration on what is essentially trivia irritated me and I think the Suez chapter finally made me lose my temper, because it highlights the book's flaws. In one paragraph Britain detonates its first atomic bomb, and in the next paragraph we learn about soap powder adverts, then there is something about Woodbines and darts. Britain's atomic programme is then forgotten as we learn a little about Benny Hill and Sooty - but, frustratingly, only a little, because then there is soap powder and cricket. What about the atomic bomb?
The Korean war is first mentioned in the second half of a sentence, as something that has been happening for a while. It's mentioned half a dozen times thereafter as something that is happening far away, but Kynaston never actually *writes about it*. Did it mean so little for people in Britain? There's a case to be made that this kind of thing - a mass of trivia - was the *real* Britain, but by God it gets monotonous. And it *is* trivia. Even in the 1950s television and radio stars were coming along all the time, they were more or less interchangeable commodities. Britain's nuclear programme was hugely expensive and significant. It's not fashionable to write about Kings and wars and noblemen and treaties today but, let's be honest, the framework generated by The State shapes society far more than society shapes The State, especially so in Britain in the 1950s.
And without international context, how can I tell whether Britain was doing the right thing or not? Germany and Japan gradually outstripped us, but why? What about Britain's international empire, how was that coping? What about British people living abroad? Alas the book concentrates on then-new television shows and cookery books and comedians and popular singers and social clubs. Gardens, football matches. And by focusing so narrowly on just a few years there's almost no context, so things are brought up and then dropped and then brought up and then dropped and never resolved.
It's frustrating, because the book is readable and I am in awe of the research involved. If it was half the length - if indeed it had been chopped down by two-thirds and merged with Austerity Britain - it would get four stars. The doubly frustrating thing is that Kynaston seems to realise this, dropping hints now and again that Britain in the 1950s simply wasn't as eventful as Britain of the 1960s. I'm going against the tide with this review, but I believe in what I write; perhaps you could skip this volume and move on to the next, which I haven't read yet but surely can't be any less interesting.