Austerity Britain, 1945-51, by David Kynaston

Second paragraph of third chapter [context: it is May/June 1945]:

For Henry St John, working a few days later in Midsomer Norton, there was as ever only frustration — 'I tried in vain to buy some Ovaltine, this being the 11th successive shop at which I failed to get it, although it continues to be widely advertised' — but there was some compensation when, on the train back to Bristol, an American soldier gave him a Camel cigarette. The American influence, and indeed anything that smacked of the modern, did not play well with Ernest Loftus in Essex. `Mrs Williams [the French mistress] and I are taking joint action to stop our scholars attending Youth Clubs or, as I call them, Child Night Clubs,' noted Barking Abbey School's head in early June. 'So far as our type of school is concerned they are a menace. The world is sex-mad & they are the outcome of the sex-urge + the war + the cinema + evil books + a debased art & music + an uneducated parentage."

I read an greatly enjoyed the second book of this series a couple of years ago; I'm glad to say that the first is just as good, a detailed internal history of England (with a bit of Wales, less Scotland and no Northern Ireland) during basically the term of Attlee's Labour government. Kynaston's sympathy for the detail is tremendously engaging, and humanises a surprisingly alien place and time. There are some imporessive recurrent themes: rationing remained a constant reality (and of course enabled the black market to flourish), with most food remaining rationed until after the period covered in this book. Despite the Labour victory, government remained firmly in the hands of the civil service whose upper ranks shared a deep Establishment background – it was the 60s before anyone really challenged this. This was true also of the fledgling BBC, which did not even cover the 1950 World Cup (in which England was famously defeated by the Unites States). Some interesting people pop up again and again – Glenda Jackson and Pete Wyman, promising teenagers; the diarists both obscure (Henry St.John); and well-known (Molly Panter-Downs).

In contrast to the second book in the series, there is plenty of party politics here. The Labour Party, having won power (on the ideas framed by Michael Young, a figure I had forgotten about), successfully created the National Health Service and nationalised the coal mines, and crucially threw its lot in with Truman rather than Stalin. But I was unaware of the role that sudden death played in the politics of the day – Ellen Wilkinson, the Minister of Education, died in 1947, and Ernest Bevin, the Foreign Secretary and the Lord Privy Seal, in 1951. (This just doesn't happen any more. The last British cabinet minister to die in office, of this writing, was Lord Williams of Mostyn in 2003; the last of the same weight as Wilkinson or Bevin was Anthony Crosland in 1977.)

The Labour government's reputation for competence was hit early on by an event for which it bore no responsibility and whose consequences it would have been very difficult for any government to mitigate: the exceptionally cold winter of 1946/47. Six weeks of very cold weather from late January to early March were followed by heavy rain, which added to the thaw to flood towns and countryside. The winter of 1962-63 was colder, but I guess that the country's infrastructure was better able to cope (and it was not immediately followed by heavy rain, as had happened in 1947). The bad weather hit industrial and agricultural productivity very hard, and certainly prolonged rationing and post-war hardship. Kynaston describes all of this vividly but unsentimentally, possibly the best passage of the book.

In summary, well worth reading. I'll look out for the third volume, and the others when they come out.

This bubbled to the top of my unread books from your recommendations of last year. next in that list is Guided by the Beauty of their Weapons, by Philip Sandifer.