David Kynaston’s history is a brick of a book, 697 pages long, plus notes and, though fascinating, it is not a quick read. I had it for only a limited time from the London Library so realised that I was going to have to take this seriously and devote all my reading time to it. I’ve finished it now and it was well worth the effort.
It is a period which I find particularly interesting. My parents were both born in 1926 so the fifties was the decade of their young adulthood and of their marriage, which was to end so suddenly and so prematurely with my father’s death in 1962. The severe housing shortage of the early fifites, which Kynaston describes, was something they knew all about: when they were first married, they rented a room in a family house and had to go through the grandmother’s room to get to the bathroom. And I think one of reasons for my father joining the police force was the possiblity of renting a police house.
What a decade it was: the discovery of DNA, the shameful hanging of Ruth Ellis, the coronation, the Suez crisis, rock ‘n roll and Elvis Presley. As a small child growing up in the country I wasn’t aware of course of the public events that Kynaston describes in this extraordinary book – though I was aware when I was a little bit older of the polio epidemics. One of my childhood fears was of ending up in an iron lung.
Kynaston draws on a very wide range of sources and some of the most interesting are private diaries and the records of Mass Observation. It is all here: rationing, slum clearance and the building of tower blocks, London smog, the growth of the NHS, the beginnings of the consumer society, LOOK BACK IN ANGER, and LUCKY JIM.
But it would be a mistake to feel nostaglic and for all my interest in the period I’m not. It was a very class-ridden society still. It was a time when discussion of sex or death or money was taboo and there was an awful lot that could not be talked about ‘in front of the chldren’.