No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

#40: A World to Build: Austerity Britain 1945-48 -- David Kynaston

Bought for research: this is a period I remember my parents talking about, but I realised I didn't know much about daily life in the immediate post-war period. Kynaston is an engaging writer (which didn't stop me skipping some of the political analysis): he presents a social history peppered with anecdotes and recollections, from people's diaries and memoirs as well as from newspapers, magazines and Mass Observation.

I hadn't really been aware of the Mass Observation project and it strikes me as slightly creepy: I have an image of people in pubs, queues, buses, surreptitiously jotting down overheard conversations, tagged with social class identifiers.

"I've been queuing ever since eight o'clock this morning, what with one thing and another," says F40D. "I'm about done for. I'd like to take that Atlee and all the rest of them and put them on top of a bonfire in Hyde Park and BURN them." "And I'd 'elp yer," says F65D." (p. 115)

There's a lot about rationing, about the sense of relief from oppression and about the social ills (housing shortage leading to the rise of the squatting movement; the cost of medical care just pre-NHS) besetting a nation of survivors. I learnt about the way that ex-servicemen were treated with suspicion, and about the thriving black market ("My husband insists that anything one gets over and above the ration is morally a black market transaction. I prefer to call it grey ...")

Yes, there's a sense of a world to build, but that world is already under the shadow of the atomic bomb ("it's to do with redirecting the energy from the sun, or something") and has a whole new set of problems -- loss of community, agricultural reform, newly independent females -- to contend with. By contemporary standards, the vast majority of people lived in poverty: from the accounts in this book, there was considerably more interest and involvement in politics than there is now.

A good snapshot of a period of massive change.

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