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Authors: David Kynaston

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Family Britain, 1951-1957

BOOK: Family Britain, 1951-1957
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David Kynaston


Praise for
Family Britain, 1951–57


‘The first volume,
Austerity Britain
, was a considerable popular success, and this volume is every bit as enjoyable . . . I could quote forever from this magnificent book. Professor Kynaston is the most entertaining historian alive’
Philip Hensher,


‘David Kynaston magnificently continues his socio-cultural history of post-war Britain’
Philip French,
Books of the Year


‘Wonderfully panoramic and intensely detailed . . . It is this juxtaposition of the personal with the universal that makes
Family Britain
so utterly compelling . . .
Craig Brown,
Mail on Sunday


‘Kynaston has created a living, breathing, talking, singing, dancing, grumbling and complaining portrait of the British . . . Groundbreaking’
Paul Addison,
Literary Review


‘Evocative and hugely appealing . . . It is the great strength of Kynaston’s almost Shakespearian approach to social history that he allows one half of his readers to wallow comfortably in nostalgia while the other half shudders with relief that the 1950s are half a century behind us’
Robert Harris,
Sunday Times


‘A narrative shot through with sharp insights and thoughtful reflections . . . Kynaston listens to his huge cast of voices and carefully interrogates their observations’
Juliet Gardiner,
Financial Times


‘This massive work is made highly readable by all sorts of extracts and quotations from diaries, columns and oral records, and deals as much with ordinary, everyday lives as with the machinations of politics and power . . . I await with pleasure the next volume of this mammoth enterprise’
Katherine Whitehorn,


‘Kynaston has dredged reminiscences, diaries, political archives, newspapers and magazines for every scrap of interest and detail’
Joan Bakewell,
Books of the Year


‘Kynaston is in almost perfect control of his vast pile of material . . . He can be witty, he can be brisk, he has the timing of a first-rate novelist’


Authors Note


Chapter 1 All Madly Educative
Chapter 2 A Narrow Thing
Chapter 3 You Can’t Know Our Relief
Chapter 4 Hardly Practicable
Chapter 5 What Will Teacher Say?
Chapter 6 Not Much Here
Chapter 7 A Different Class of People
Chapter 8 It Makes a Break
Chapter 9 I’ve Never Asked Her In
Chapter 10 Hit It Somebody
Chapter 11 A Kind of Farewell Party
Chapter 12 Moral Courage
Chapter 13 Can You Afford It, Boy?


---- A THICKER CUT ----
Chapter 1 Tolerably Pleasing
Chapter 2 Butter is Off the Ration
Chapter 3 The Right Type of Fellow
Chapter 4 Bonny Babies, Well-washed Matrons
Chapter 5 A Fair Crack at the Whip
Chapter 6 A Lot of Hooey
Chapter 7 A Fine Day for a Hanging
Chapter 8 It’s Terribly Sad
Chapter 9 Family Favourites
Chapter 10 Less Donnie Lonegan
Chapter 11 No Choice
Chapter 12 The Real Razzle-Dazzle
Chapter 13 Brisk Buying and Selling
Chapter 14 A Pretty Mess


Picture Credits
Author’s Note
Tales of a New Jerusalem
is a projected history of Britain between 1945 and 1979. The first volume,
Austerity Britain
, comprises two books,
A World to Build
Smoke in the Valley.
The third and fourth books,
The Certainties of Place
A Thicker Cut
, form this second volume,
Family Britain
To my mother, Gisela Hunt
All Madly Educative
On Tuesday, 1 May 1951, three days after presenting the FA Cup at Wembley, King George VI was at Earl’s Court for the British Industries Fair. ‘On one Stand there was a large collection of printed rayon cloth with ultra-modern design,’ noted the Cotton Board’s Sir Raymond Streat, guiding the royal party round the textile section. ‘The King glanced at them and said, “What are those for?” I replied that they were fabrics for ladies’ afternoon or evening dresses. He gave another glance at them and muttered, “Thank God we don’t have to wear those things.” ’ At the end of their statutory two hours, the King and Queen announced that they had been ‘impressed by the great variety of British products and by the resilience of British industry’.
Two days later an ill-looking George was on public display again. ‘Rushed off after breakfast to see the procession,’ Gladys Langford wrote in her diary: ‘Took my stand at Ludgate Hill where I saw the Royal Family very well. Just before they came along a fox terrier raced along the middle of the road. People yelled & cheered & the poor beast was frantic. About 20 yds behind came another terrier also with its tongue lolling out. After the procession had gone by, I saw the two poor beasts in Farringdon St. The first was lying as tho’ dead on the pavement, the other stood over him . . .’ The procession was on its way to St Paul’s, where after a service the King stood on the steps and declared the Festival of Britain to be officially open. ‘Let us pray,’ he said, ‘that by God’s good grace the vast range of modern knowledge which is here shown may be turned from destructive to peaceful ends, so that all people, as the century goes on, may be lifted to greater happiness.’ That Thursday evening the King was on the newly created South Bank to open the Royal Festival Hall – an occasion marked by an all-British concert, with Handel an honorary Englishman. It was a proud moment, the Festival Hall being Britain’s first new public building since the war (though involving the demolition of the magnificent Lion Brewery). But on that mild evening an observant reporter found something just as stirring in Friday Street at the back of St Paul’s: ‘A bombed site had been cleared and on it nearly 5,000 young people gathered to sing around a big camp fire. Nearly three tons of wood had been gathered from the East End and the flames lit up a wide area.’1
Next morning the King and the rest of the world (including Princess Margaret, her foot accidentally trodden on by an over-keen young reporter, Keith Waterhouse, just down from Leeds) were back on a now rainy South Bank. Over the next five months the Festival of Britain would take many forms – including pleasure gardens in Battersea Park, a science exhibition in South Kensington, a travelling exhibition in the Midlands and the north, a festival ship, an ‘Exhibition of Industrial Power’ in Glasgow, and a multitude of local events and celebrations. But the incontrovertible centrepiece was the South Bank. There, amidst twenty-two pavilions and much sculpture, three constructs took the eye: the Royal Festival Hall itself, the Dome of Discovery and the Skylon. Ralph Tubbs’s impressively monumental Dome (briefly the largest in the world) featured an escalator, enabling the royal party and other VIPs to reach a gallery illustrating the solar system – a means of ascent that so captivated Winston Churchill, a taxi rather than a Tube man, that he kept going down and coming up again. As for the Skylon, designed by Philip Powell and Hidalgo Moya, it made the most instant of impacts: an elegant, 300-foot steel and aluminium ‘toothpick’ of a tower, especially spectacular at night. Yet transcending everything, in terms of first impressions, was the sheer unabashed pervasiveness of primary colours. ‘Whole walls of decoration are made of squares of coloured canvas pulled taut in geometric shapes and triangles, to be lit with a variety of colours,’ noted a largely benevolent Cecil Beaton. ‘A screen is made by hanging Miró-like coloured balls against the distant chimney pots of the city. Arches underneath the railways are painted strawberry pink or bright blue . . .’2 It was a style that, after a decade of almost unremitting black, brown and grey, could hardly have struck a brighter, more optimistic note.
‘The King has done his stuff at the opening ceremonies,’ the rather curmudgeonly Anthony Heap (a local government officer living in St Pancras) recorded on the Friday evening, ‘and the crowds are beginning to pour in, despite the damp, dismal and damnably unfestive prevailing weather, to gaze upon its wonders.’ Among the 60,000 or so visitors on Sunday the 6th was Kenneth Williams, still a struggling young actor. ‘It’s all madly educative and very tiring,’ was his characteristic reaction. ‘Beautifully cooked!!’ Ten days later it was the turn of another diarist, Vere Hodgson, to sample the pavilions:
I wandered into the Schools, but I did not like them much – awful steel chairs, all modern, no grace and no beauty and no elegance. I avoided the Health and the Sport. But I searched for the 1851 Pavilion and found it. We climbed some stairs and there was a model of the Crystal Palace and Queen Victoria opening it . . . Then I found the Lion and the Unicorn. This is a MUST for everyone. It is the British character. Obstinacy and imagination or whatever you like to call the two best characteristics of the British race. There was Magna Carta and Habeas Corpus. I was very pleased about this.
By this time it was dark and the lights were on. Now it is all lovely. The Skylon looks fine inside the Exhibition and also the beam of light from the Shot tower moving round . . .
‘I did enjoy myself,’ she concluded. ‘I came away at 10.15. I got a cup of tea and roll and butter for 6½d. Good.’3
Whatever individual visitors felt about it, no one could deny that the Festival of Britain was a major national event, the most important yet since the war. For some, looking backwards, it marked the reward for six attritional years of gradually edging towards some sort of peacetime normality; for others, looking forward, it was the welcome harbinger not only of Britain’s long-awaited revival as a major force after her early post-war difficulties but of a whole way of more contemporary living. Most people took from the Festival what they wanted to find, and to its creators’ credit it was rich and various enough for that to be possible.
It was in a way a minor miracle that there was a festival for anyone to see. For years it had been dogged by a mixture of poor publicity (much of it whipped up by the Beaverbrook press, led by the
Daily Express
) and the pervasive sense that it was going to be not only an unaffordable expense at a time of national belt-tightening but also worthy, bureaucratic and dull. ‘He’s got a lonely, miserable look, like the Festival of Britain on a Sunday,’ was how Jimmy Edwards described a lovelorn Dick Bentley in the radio comedy
Take It From Here
in December 1950. There were also protracted on-site labour troubles – none from a seventeen-year-old electrician from Durham, Bobby Robson, who at his father’s insistence was carrying on his daytime trade as a ‘spark’ while training three evenings a week at Fulham FC, but plenty from Brian Behan, Brendan’s Communist brother, who had only recently arrived from Dublin as a labourer. The Labour government, above all Herbert Morrison, expended considerable political capital ensuring that, even after the Korean War had begun, the Festival went ahead; and it was fortunate that the Director of Architecture, Hugh Casson, responsible for a team of more than 40 architects and designers, was a well-connected figure who combined to a high degree the qualities of charm, ambition and determination.4 Even so, it was still nip and tuck whether the Festival opened on time, and in the event the Battersea Pleasure Gardens were delayed until after Whitsun.
‘Don’t run away with the idea that the Festival of Britain is going to be solemn,’ Gerald Barry had declared in
Picture Post
at the start of 1951:
Not a bit of it. It will afford us all the opportunity, as occasion allows, for some harmless jollification. After more than a decade of voluntarily-imposed austerity we deserve it, and it will do us good. But the main purpose of the Festival is, all the same, strictly serious. It is intended as an act of national reassessment. The whole of Britain will be ‘on show’ – to herself, and to the world . . .
It will put on record the fact that we are a nation not only with a great past, but also a great future . . . It will help to put us on our toes, to raise our morale at home and our prestige among other nations . . .
BOOK: Family Britain, 1951-1957
8.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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