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Memories of the Good and the Bad times in the last years of the Fifties
on 21 September 2014
Personal diaries are eclectic, disorganized, though inspirational. In his fifth instalment of The New Jerusalem, David Kynaston has tried to organize, and make sense of three years of Britain (excluding Ulster) from the sordid overseas debacle of Suez to the popular General election of 1959. From the morass of disconnected themes (developments in sport, arts, and advertising) K has focused on urban redevelopment - still his favourite, comprehensive schooling, race and the Notting Hill 1958 Summer riots, the first peep (or squeak) of monetarism in the Treasury, and the election, all at a time of greater standardization of recreation, with the growing professionalization and variety of national television presentation and the expansion of television ownership and audiences.
Thankfully he was assisted by the publication of a collection of sociological studies. The first vital work highlighting slum clearance and uprooting of families was Willmott & Young's Family and Kinship in East London Family and Kinship in East London (Penguin Modern Classics), presented a romanticized image of honest close knit, crowded, matriarchal-led working class communities. It led to tearing down Walter Greenwood's and LS Lowry's classic Salford slums Love On The Dole, and the infamous Gorbals tenement in Glasgow to new areas. In Sheffield, the Park Hill estate, came to be described as "streets in the sky". From the outset, however, the middle class scholars sympathetic to the working class came to be seen as interfering, too clever by half, and unaware of all feelings of their respondents, and in hindsight local and national political figures and commentators became the mouthpiece of the much rewarded planners and architects.
In the plan for democratic secondary schools to guarantee greater equality, the magical answer came in Michael Young's Rise of the Meritocracy The Rise of the Meritocracy,1870-2033: an Essay on Education and Equality, to do away with the nasty classist 11 plus, and encouraging comprehensive experiments beginning in Leicestershire, and no doubt to produce wizard-like unscrupulous low class men of the Joe Lampton breed as depicted in Braine's Life at the Top Life at the Top. No sign of a woman at the top just yet.
Signs of change prompted the idea of a greater future was in store, shown in the explosion in commercialism, through the ownership of TVs, washing machines, fridges, telephones, and automobiles, and Premier Macmillan's claim that the country had "never had it so good". In contrast, Labour, still burdened by internal ideological disputes: "ban the bomb" (never to miss an opportunity to be heard, TV Prof AJP Taylor described the CND as "a movement of eggheads for eggheads"), they feared that their main traditional supporters, the working class, were starting to lose their class solidarity, and with affluence, becoming tarnished with middle class values, attracted to the honey pot of Tory influences - something two aspiring candidates for Grimsby and Bristol, in 1959, Anthony Crosland and Anthony Wedgwood Benn tried strongly to disprove. Furthermore, as in the 1980s, the left was divided, with the far-left, the small Stalinist Communist Party splintering after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and with the formation of the Neo-Marxist "New Left" composed of young students and older academic cadres, like Eric Hobsbawn, Christopher Hill, and EP Thompson, the continuation of the Conservatives in government with a majority of 100 gave the impression to ordinary working Britons that they had the correct answers; so only they had the legitimate sole right to govern. Osborne's Look Back in Anger Look Back in Angerand not Crosland's Future of Socialism The Future of Socialismwas then thought the essential reading text for Labour supporters.
Never afraid to spot any firsts, even small, K illustrates developments whether of the first Queen's first Christmas broadcast from Sandringham in 1957; Britain taking second place in 1957 at the Eurovision Song contest with Sing Little Birdie - a vision of Britain's secondary role behind France and Germany in Europe (?); a year later, the construction of the first pedestrian subway under the Smallbrook Ringway, Birmingham; of 19 crazy students from Hatfield Tech squeezing themselves into a telephone box to establish a world record, as well as an entry in the Guinness Book of Records (no reports of stress or broken bones recounted); or the production of the Morris Mini Minor at Cowley in 1959, he seems to focus on those persons and issues that might be relevant in Britain in the 1960s, 70s, and throughout the Thatcher revolution, and not those which were very short term (though the ditty "Catch a falling sputnik" to the sound of Perry Como's "Catch a falling star" still sounds nice and catchy!).
The theatre had the first reviews of Dench, Jackson G, and Redgrave V; in pop Harry Webb (already known as Cliff Richard), a new band from Liverpool, the Quarry Men, with Lennon J and McCartney, P, is replacing Tommy Steele; in TV presentation Forsyth B, whereas the election in 1959 brought to the Commons Benn, Crosland, Thatcher, and Thorpe, with a few, such as Foot and Heseltine losing out.
The monarchy receives little say, not because it was as secret as MI5, or because the media was more discrete. Rumours, however, were abound both of Prince Philip's maritime liaisons, and Princess Margaret's comments on ending the presentation of debutants to court in 1958.
Instead, a west London slum owner and semi hood of Polish origin, Peter Rachman, and a town planner and minor poet from Newcastle, T. Dan Smith, get a greater exposure, as they subsequently will feature in the front pages of tabloids over two political scandals during the 1960s and 70s involving Conservative Cabinet ministers; whereas a fat Labour councillor, in Rochdale, Cyril Smith, the young Australian artist Rolf Harris, and one Jimmy Savile (still not caught doing anything naughty in 1958 while at Radio Luxemburg) get their public entry supposedly for succeeding for almost fifty years in using their professional names for unsavoury purposes, for being financially well-recompensed, awarded with decorations, and with instant media stardom for being over protected from being found out.
Opening the box - part title of this volume, meaning switching on the limited hour two channel TV, was indeed progress, most educational, and enjoyable for all. In the long term by making information available and empowering new generations to new knowledge, it opened up society as a can of worms.
Overall it is well-written; keeps the reader interested, to make them go and find something they can relate to. I was expecting to read the controversial but pertinent comment made by TV presenter Huw Wheldon to the question if his daughter had married a young black man, but it never appeared. As it is a book about too many things: in one page it will move from town planning, to Manchester United's latest victory in Europe or in the FA Cup, the latest play, and still have space to comment on new TV commercials, it seems too bitty, and may be harshly accused of not being serious enough.
History, however, is never stationary; like people it breathes and lives on. Though certain ideas may have been different at the planning stage before volume 1 was published, volume 5 now sounds one dimensional. These days - which K fails to note - Family & Kinship as a starter, might be seen to promote another layer of false political revisionism, proclaimed by all the political parties, the liberal talking classes, and in particular Danny Boyle, director to the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, and more recently in Heidi Thomas' BBC television presentation of Call the Midwife Call the Midwife - Series 1 [DVD]to stress how progressive the country has moved since the formation of the NHS. Any downsides either still get overlooked, or get muted, or worse, critics become slated as supporters of life in the dreaded Nineteenth century workhouse. K will need to insert such changes of view somewhere in future volumes if it wishes to be labelled as authoritative, and not just partisan or the voice of the establishment's past.
A new decade, the 1960s, and David Kynaston has another helping of Jerusalem to show those who lived who lived through it and those who did not, what really happened, what they were missing, and for whom London was swinging. Not for two Oxford and Commons contemporaries, Maggie T, or Weggie B, but it definitely swung for those with a girl named Christine.