- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 10, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

FAMILY BRITAIN: 1951-1957

By David Kynaston

Walker & Co., $47.50,

776 pages; illustrated

Reviewed by Martin Rubin

David Kynaston exem- plifies the kind of British historian, typical in the past couple of decades, whose specialty is illuminating society through as many of its aspects as possible. Chaps like the author do not limit their study to the drier fields of politics and economics, al- though these subjects inevitably get their due. But always as part of a broad spectrum that also includes the arts, sports, food habits, picking up all culture from high to popular. Historians like Mr. Kynaston seem almost to be replying deliber -ately to Margaret Thatcher’s famous dismissal: “There’s no such thing as society.” For them, society is the be all and end all, the canvas, in fact the very foundation, of their brand of historiography.

There are, to be sure, virtues in such an approach, perhaps the best being a real effort to convey to the reader a sense of what it actually was like to exist in a time that is beyond the living memory of most. We really do get to see how people lived, what they ate, earned and did for recreation - work and play getting equal attention.

Mr. Kynaston himself was born in the year this volume begins its story, and he would have to be precocious indeed to remember much about even its closing events. So he acts as explorer as well as cicerone for his readers as he uses diaries, newspaper accounts and reminiscences to put together a pointilliste portrait of a slice of time more than half a century ago.

As with his previous volume, “Austerity Britain 1945-51,” which employed a similar methodology, he has chosen to devote a hefty volume, in this case more than 700 pages, to a mere six years. This gives him the leisure both to sweep wide and bore deep to provide real texture to his account.

Mr. Kynaston begins “Family Britain” with the “Festival of Britain,” a quietly triumphant celebration that looked back at a glorious past, and ends it with the Suez crisis, a last, desperate attempt to recapture past glory that ended in disaster and humiliation for Great Britain. Except for its splendid relic, the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank, few today remember this once momentous event, a kind of national equivalent of a world’s fair.

Reading about the reactions of some of the countless visitors, one cannot help being struck by the modesty of what engendered such rapturous responses. But this was still a very bleak, austere time in Britain, with such basics as meat, eggs and sugar, among others, still rationed, something that would not end until 1954, a full 15 years after it had begun at the outset of war in 1939.

The 1951 Festival deliberately hearkened back to the Great Exhibition organized by Albert the Prince Consort in Hyde Park exactly a century earlier, with the Festival Hall designed as the permanent fixture it has been, like the vast Crystal Palace, which had been the centerpiece in 1851 and which lasted till its destruction by fire in 1936.

Suez brought back the rationing of gasoline in its wake, and that served as a tangible reminder of just what a folly it had been. Mr. Kynaston quotes a newspaper’s summing up, which gives some notion of the extent of damage done: “Endangered the American alliance and NATO, split the Commonwealth, flouted the United Nations, shocked the overwhelming majority of world opinion and dishonoured the name of Britain.”

Characteristically, he quotes innumerable reactions by the famous and the unknown and provides evidence of Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s continuing popularity despite the debacle for which he was responsible and his categorical denial to a skeptical House of Commons that there had been collusion by his government with Israel.

Mr. Kynaston’s own judgment on the Suez affair is harsh: “It was a crisis that had shown many things: Britain’s inability to act independently of her American ally; the futility of clinging on to illusions of Empire; the ability of those in power to practice deceit, with the extent of the collusion not definitively emerging until well into the 1960s.” (Collusion was not definitely revealed until the late 1970s, after Eden’s death).

If the title might seem puzzling, Mr. Kynaston does make explicit his reason for choosing it, albeit only in his afterword. The Conservative Party returned to power with Winston Churchill as prime minister in 1951, and this ushered in the Tory government of Britain for the rest of the decade and nearly halfway through the next. Mr. Kynaston sums up its agenda thus:

“Food, jobs, homes: Such was the holy trinity of the 1950s, a formula for Tory votes and a widespread, almost wholly welcome sense of security after the tumultuous upheavals and painful privations of the 1940s.”

These topics do indeed form the heart of this volume, although well augmented by a seemingly endless variety of additional topics, ranging from Princess Margaret’s doomed love affair with Peter Townsend to the hanging of Ruth Ellis for a crime of passion, the last execution of a woman in Britain - and so much in between.

With all this accretion of detail and a large cast of characters, many of them forgotten now, such an exercise might add up simply as too much information for some readers. But at its best, “Family Britain” can function as a kind of diving bell, allowing us to travel back through time to experience a Britain of not so very long ago that is nonetheless so stunningly different from today’s transformed - yes, there’s that word again - society.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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