Austerity Britain: 1945-51

?Magisterial? is the adjective commonly used to praise an imposing volume of history, but David Kynaston?s outstanding Austerity Britain: 1945-51 is triumphantly un-magisterial. Where other historians loftily survey, Kynaston rummages -- in diaries, letters, newspaper reports, surveys, archives -- to assemble a strikingly immediate portrait of the lives and preoccupations of ordinary citizens in a traumatized postwar world. The powerful and the famous are here too, of course, among them Churchill, Bevan, the Bloomsbury set, Waugh, Orwell. The Labour government?s nationalization scheme, the National Insurance Act and National Health Service, Britain?s postwar rationing, fascism, sexism, the class system, and other topics are examined at length. This is weighty, tangled matter, but we are drawn to it -- and through it -- not only by Kynaston?s lucid style but also by the voices of those most vulnerable to social and political upheaval. Harry Jack, for example, a factory worker, is remembered by his son: ?He ended his working life only a few miles from where he had begun it, and in much the same way; in overalls and over a lathe and waiting for the dispensation of the evening hooter, when he would stick his leg over his bike and cycle home.? Similarly, visiting a mining village ?of brick hovels? in 1946, James Lansdale Hodson remarked that ?It was nearer to hell?than anything I had seen since Belsen.? Kynaston shows that World War II did not demolish the British class system, broaden horizons, or engender communitarianism. People wanted privacy and some respite. In the war?s aftermath, they got progress -- political, social, and economic -- that seems all the more astonishing given the decades of conservatism that preceded it, to say nothing of what followed three decades later when, Kynaston writes, ?Margaret Thatcher came to power with a fierce determination to?dismantle much of the post-war settlement.? That story, eagerly awaited, will complete Kynaston?s study of Britain between 1945 and 1979.

July 25: On this day in 1834 Samuel Taylor Coleridge died of heart disease at the age of sixty-one.

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