Lead book review

Corrie and ready-salted crisps: the years when modern Britain began

A review of A Shake of the Dice: Modernity Britain 1959 – 62, by David Kynaston. A formidable and intimate history of four remarkable years

13 September 2014

9:00 AM

13 September 2014

9:00 AM

A Shake of the Dice: Modernity Britain 1959—62 David Kynaston

Bloomsbury, pp.459, £25, ISBN: 978408844397

In Burberry’s on Regent Street on a dank December day in 1959, David Kynaston records, ‘a young Canadian writer, Leonard Cohen […] bought a not-yet-famous blue raincoat’. For those joining Kynaston’s groaning historical wagon train for the first time, this is a sample of the sort of thing with which it abounds. Here is a fun little fact — gathered in from a distinctly marginal source — dropped in a wry half-sentence where it belongs chronologically, but looking forward to the future: a stitch in time.

A Shake of the Dice is the sixth book in Tales of a New Jerusalem, the great historian’s ‘projected sequence of books about Britain between 1945 and 1979’. He is chewing his way through the giant lettuce-leaf of his chosen decades like a particularly thorough tortoise. Hares: watch out.

Unlike most other popular historians, who favour the survey and the overflight, who take thematic bones and string facts and quotations onto them by way of illustration, Kynaston’s method is to build an enormous picture from the ground up by the patient and sometimes seemingly directionless (though only seemingly, and only sometimes — or perhaps only sometimes only seemingly) accumulation of detail. This is the garlic-and-sapphires-in-the-mud school of history. Does nothing, you wonder, escape his eye?

Who knew that Sylvia Plath (having been slipped a press ticket by Stephen Spender) was in the gallery for the last day of the Chatterley trial? Or that Beryl Bainbridge once appeared in Coronation Street as a ‘placard-carrying ban-the-bomb student friend of Ken Barlow’? Or that the opening scene of A Taste of Honey featured Hazel Blears ‘as a five-year-old street urchin wearing her mother’s best shoes’? Or that there was a brief craze for teenage girls to wear a yellow golliwog, ‘not as a sign of academic or athletic distinction, but as a sign that the wearer had had sexual intercourse’? That every serviceman in Britain had sixpence docked from his pay in order to buy Princess Margaret a marble-topped commode as a wedding present? Or that, in a generation-spanning moment in September 1961, Winston Churchill was observed tapping his toe to the twist at his grand-daughter’s coming-out dance?

Kynaston is interested in getting the feel of life close up, and his range of sources is formidable. Here he will allude to a ‘magisterial 1961 account of the steel industry’s recent history’ or a ‘pioneering study of Coventry’s engineering (mainly car) workers and shop-floor bargaining between the 1940s and the 1970s’. There he will demonstrate familiarity with Mirabelle, Romeo, Valentine, Roxy and Boyfriend in order to set the context for Princess (‘A paper just like mummy’s’) and Judy (free bangle with first issue). He threads commentary and domestic detail from contemporary diaries and vox pops with shafts of Eeyorishness from Philip Larkin, spleen from Kingsley Amis or John Fowles and bright bitchiness from Noël Coward (who said of Lionel Bart’s musical Blitz! that it was ‘as long as the real thing, and twice as noisy’). Nor does he miss more recent recollections: he quotes memoirs from Alan Johnson, Rachel Cooke, Floella Benjamin, Rupert Christiansen, Janice Galloway and Jonathan Meades, a couple of which were probably still in hardback when Kynaston’s manuscript will have gone in.

The four years this study spans were busy ones. The trends that were just emerging in Kynaston’s last book, Opening the Box — principally, the wholesale reorganisation of Britain’s urban architecture and the rise of the consumer society (which led to a wholesale reorganisation of Britain’s political architecture) — start going like gangbusters. This is a tale of the supermarket and the wrecking ball.

At the nexus of both is the idea of ‘planning’. Kynaston devotes a huge amount of this book to slum clearance and urban regeneration, high rises and ring roads and retail parks — the Post Office Tower and Hammersmith flyover, Sheffield’s Park Hill estate, the Bull Ring in Birmingham and so on. He is really (and rightly, as a social historian, even if the weight of detail sometimes drags on the reader) interested in the architecture. Again and again — here his sympathies peep into the open — we see utopian town planners and on-the-make developers, intoxicated by the idea of modernity, disregarding the desires of the people who will actually have to live in these places.

Planning was also much on the minds of those running the economy. From here, the flowering of mass consumerism looks like a great triumph of laissez-faire: but at the time much talk was still of how to compete with the Soviet economic miracle (ha!) and the assumption was that modernity meant not less central planning but more. Kynaston quotes the historian Glen O’Hara to the effect that ‘if there was one concept at the heart of the raised expectations and dashed hopes of British politics in the 1960s, it was “planning”’ — the concept that above all ‘held out the promise of a more modern Britain’.

As befits the author of a history of the City of London, Kynaston is smart and sceptical when it comes to received ideas about the economy. Talking about the unions, for instance, he is careful to explode the idea that every industry was at the mercy of strike-crazed trades unionists — though he does mention a dock strike that saw 15,000 men out over a monthly barge delivery to a tiny manufacturer of strawboard.

What a run, too, of firsts. These years saw the first appearance of the Dimbleby brothers on television and of the stripe in Signal toothpaste. Also the first episodes of Corrie and Z-Cars, first Private Eye, first Tupperware party, comprehensive school, motorway, first man in space, performance of Beyond the Fringe, appearance of Lego and first ready-salted crisps. Meanwhile the Forth Road Bridge and the Berlin Wall were half done.

And yet — especially looking at the wodge of black-and-white photographs in the middle — you’re struck by how alien it still looks: all flat hats and specky urchins, fat men with pipes, rudimentary super-markets and cobbled streets in the gloaming, livened up by the odd pointy-fronted dolly bird or smartly dressed West Indian bus-conductress. This was a time when working-class housewives averaged seven and a half hours of chores a day, and in a soon-to-be-cleared Liverpool slum house you could encounter a resident of 55 years standing, Mrs Mary Kempster, now alone except for her cat Nigger and ‘her only running water a cold tap in the cellar’.

Kynaston is a modest presence in his story. Such editorialising as he does appears in the work of selection and arrangement. Jokes are very deadpan, but they are there when you tune in. A semi-running gag, early on, concerns Richard Dimbleby’s pomposity. He quotes ‘top model Sandra Paul’ endorsing Lux soap in the pages of Woman (‘one marriage, one lifetime, she says’) — the parenthesis perhaps a wry smile at the present Lady Howard’s four marriages. He acknowledges the ‘now statutory presence of Richard Hoggart’ on a Third Programme debate in 1961.

But mostly he just lets his material — lets his myriad speakers, in fact — speak for themselves. And how much they have to tell us! Here’s a 16-year-old Carol Rumens in ruminative mood in a Croydon burger bar:

It was my first time in a Wimpy Bar, my first time in any cafe by myself. I did not order a Wimpy; the red plastic tomato on my table, with its stem oozing half-dried ketchup, was not encouraging. But I had coffee in a tall, hexagonal melamine mug, and an aluminium tray of flapjacks with maple syrup and a blob of sweetish, cold, synthetic cream. Delicious! I was alone in the cafe. Perhaps no other Croydon teenagers had yet discovered the Wimpy Bar, or perhaps I was Wimpishly early and it was still only teatime. I felt lonely, but good, and meditated on Man’s lofty but probably abandoned status in the universe.

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  • Ken

    Intelligent review – Kynaston is one of the generation of historians who are both scholarly and accessible to non-specialists. He is a real asset.