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Austerity Britain: 1945-51

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A majestic people’s history of England in the years immediately following the end of World War II, and a surprise bestseller in the UK.

As much as any country, England bore the brunt of Germany’s aggression in World War II , and was ravaged in many ways at the war’s end. Celebrated historian David Kynaston has written an utterly original, compellingly readable account of the following six years, during which the country indomitably rebuilt ...

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Austerity Britain, 1945-1951

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A majestic people’s history of England in the years immediately following the end of World War II, and a surprise bestseller in the UK.

As much as any country, England bore the brunt of Germany’s aggression in World War II , and was ravaged in many ways at the war’s end. Celebrated historian David Kynaston has written an utterly original, compellingly readable account of the following six years, during which the country indomitably rebuilt itself.

Kynaston’s great genius is to chronicle England’s experience from bottom to top: coursing through the book, therefore, is an astonishing variety of ordinary, contemporary voices, eloquently and passionately displaying the country’s remarkable spirit even as they were unaware of what the future would hold. Together they present a fascinating portrait of the English people at a climactic point in history, and Kynaston skillfully links their stories to the bigger, headline-making events of the time. Their stories also jostle alongside those of more well-known figures like celebrated journalist-to-be Jon Arlott (making his first radio broadcast), actress Glenda Jackson, and writer Doris Lessing, newly arrived from Africa and struck by the leveling poverty of postwar Britain. Austerity Britain gives new meaning to the hardship and heroism experienced by England in the face of Germany’s assaults.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Exemplary social history of a time still fresh in many Britons’ minds—and much different from the postwar era in America."Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"By combining astute political analysis with illustrative anecdotes brilliantly chosen from contemporary newspapers, popular culture and memoirs, Kynaston succeeds in recreating the lost world of austerity. The volume represents social history at its finest, and readers may look forward to its promised sequels taking the story of Britain up to 1979 and the election of Margaret Thatcher.”—Publishers Weekly

“An engrossing, kaleidoscopic portrait of a people from a particular time and place. This is history as total immersion.”—Barry Gewen, New York Times

“This sparkling book—deeply and imaginatively researched, written with bounce, and informed by the wryest sensibility—charts the evolution of British society during the depleted and dingy years 1945–1951….With wit and ingenuity, Kynaston mines opinion surveys, radio shows, advertising slogans, parliamentary reports, and above all letters, diaries, and memoirs to evoke the gray tinge that permeated postwar life—the shabby frocks, the sallow faces, the grubby train compartments, the dreary meals (“all winter greens and root vegetables and hamburgers made of grated potato and oatmeal and just a little meat,” the food writer Marguerite Patten recalled). ...Kynaston’s sense of structure and pacing is sure, his mastery of his astonishingly diverse material unfailing (see his opening set piece on VE Day). More vividly and penetratingly than any work of history I can recall, this book captures the rhythms and texture of everyday life. To read it is to enter a world, which helps explain why it became a surprise best seller in the U.K.” —Benjamin Schwarz, Atlantic Monthly

“In Austerity Britain, David Kynaston weaves together personal reminiscences, statistical data and media accounts to paint a portrait of this critical moment in British history...Most histories describe this period as one of idealism, hope and progress. Mr. Kynaston would not entirely disagree, but he wants to emphasize what is too often overlooked: the sheer difficulty of life in Britain between 1945 and 1951. He shows us a war-weary society weighed down by the burdens of austerity. He brings to life a world – it wasn't so long ago – noticeably unaided by the conveniences and prosperity that Britain (like the rest of the West) now takes for granted.” —William Anthony Hay, Wall Street Journal

“In Austerity Britain: 1945-1951, British social historian David Kynaston tells the story of those drab, difficult postwar years so familiar to viewers of the stiff-upper-lip, black-and-white films the British studios were turning out at the time (‘Brief Encounter,’ ‘Passport to Pimlico’). Reading the many first-person accounts in this weighty, immensely detailed and sometimes evocative volume, you begin to see that, for countless people in that place at that time, life really was lived in a world devoid of color -- a place of long lines, of shortages, of frustration.” —Martin Rubin, Los Angeles Times

“Absolutely masterful and absorbing, helped considerably by the liberal use of feedback from the vox pop through diaries, opinion polls, newspapers and broadcast reports...England was old and not very merry, a state of affairs conveyed with brilliant clarity and poignant depth in Austerity Britain.” —Jonathan E. Lazarus, Newark Star Ledger

Publishers Weekly

Kynaston (author of the four-volume The City of London) has produced an extraordinary panorama of Britain as it emerged from the tumult of war with a broken empire, a bankrupt economy and an ostensibly socialist government. Britain between 1945 and 1951 is an alien place. No washing machines, no highways, no supermarkets. Everything was heavy, from coins and suitcases to coats and shoes. Everything edible was rationed: tea, meat, butter, cheese, jam, eggs, candy. The awfulness of 1939-1945 still lingered, and "any conversation tended to drift toward the war, like an animal licking a sore place." Yet, people assumed "Britain was still best: that was so deeply part of how citizens thought, it was taken for granted." By combining astute political analysis with illustrative anecdotes brilliantly chosen from contemporary newspapers, popular culture and memoirs, Kynaston succeeds in recreating the lost world of austerity. The volume represents social history at its finest, and readers may look forward to its promised sequels taking the story of Britain up to 1979 and the election of Margaret Thatcher. 20 b&w photos. (May)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

In this volume, British historian Kynaston (The City of London) presents the first two parts ("A World To Build" and "Smoke in the Valley") of what will ultimately be his history of Britain from 1945 to 1979, which he refers to as his "Tales of a New Jerusalem." Although the immediate postwar years in Britain have been well covered by many historians, Kynaston's distinctive approach, weaving together private diary entries, media accounts, and interviews from the social research organization Mass Observation, allows the reader to experience the same circumstances and events simultaneously from many different viewpoints and all levels of Britain's class structure. Ranging from V-E Day to the sweeping changes brought about by a young Labour government, the text never loses its focus on how ordinary people coped with the effects of war, long after the battles ended. Coal miners, housewives, and shopkeepers join alongside famous voices to tell about times of astonishing adversity and upheaval. Some British terminology will be unfamiliar to an American audience, but overall this book, although a heavy 704 pages, is engaging and accessible. Recommended.
—April Younglove

Kirkus Reviews
A broad study of British society in the immediate postwar era. In this first of a projected two books on the history of Britain between 1945 and the rise of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, Kynaston (History/Kingston Univ.; The City of London: Volume IV, 2001, etc.) offers a Homeric catalog of the differences between now and then. In 1945, there were "no supermarkets, no motorways, no teabags, no sliced bread, no frozen food," no this-and-that nearly ad infinitum, while there were, of course, plenty of hungry, bombed-out people and plenty of unemployed veterans. There were also few nonwhite Britons, few women working outside of women's-work occupations, few evident signs that Britain had actually won the war. The recovery was hardly rapid, Kynaston notes, but it was marked by all sorts of shifts in British society: a marked rise in the divorce rate, suicide and the like, but also the rising sense that there was more to life than simply working-that "work . . . was starting to lose some of its traditional centrality in terms of defining a working man's life and purpose" and that the old "tooth-and-nail capitalism" was on the way to being mediated by a state more hospitable to notions of social welfare. Kynaston is strong on odd juxtapositions in the more shadowy corners of British life. He notes, for instance, that while in the immediate postwar era "the black-market spiv really started to emerge as a well-known type," a figure generally regarded as a parasite on the back of their misery, practically everyone bought on the black market anyway. Kynaston also looks at people who were much heard in the era and beyond, such as the controversial George Orwell and the emerging immigrant writer V.S.Naipaul, who grumbled, "It is impossible to get rich. . . . The income taxes are ridiculously high . . . and probably will go up with this heavy expenditure on re-armament."Exemplary social history of a time still fresh in many Britons' minds-and much different from the postwar era in America. Agent: Deborah Rogers/Rogers, Coleridge & White
The Barnes & Noble Review
?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. --Anna Mundow
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802716934
  • Publisher: Walker & Company
  • Publication date: 5/13/2008
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 704
  • Product dimensions: 6.72 (w) x 9.24 (h) x 2.18 (d)

Meet the Author

David Kynaston was widely acclaimed for his four-volume history The City of London. He is currently a visiting professor at Kingston University in England.

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Table of Contents

A World to Build

Part One

1 Waiting for Something to Happen 5

2 Broad Vistas and All That 19

3 Oh Wonderful People of Britain! 60

Part Two

4 We're So Short of Everything 93

5 Constructively Revolutionary 129

6 Farewell Squalor 143

7 Glad to Sit at Home 171

Part Three

8 Christ It's Bleeding Cold 185

9 Our Prestige at Stake 206

10 The Whole World Is Full of Permits 222

11 Ain't She Lovely? 242

12 A Change in the Terms of Struggle 278

Smoke in the Valley

Part One

1 What Do You Say? 291

2 Oh, for a Little Extra Butter! 296

3 Jolly Good as a Whole 325

4 A Decent Way of Life 352

Part Two

5 A Negative of Snowflakes 397

6 Part of the Machinery 405

7 Stiff and Rigid and Unadaptable 431

8 Too High a Price 460

9 Proper Bloody Products 470

Part Three

10 Andy Is Waving Goodbye 503

11 The Heaviest Burden 535

12 A Kind of Measuring-Rod 560

13 Their Own Private Domain 592

14 That Dump? 619

Afterword 633

Notes 634

Acknowledgements 671

Picture Credits 675

Index 677

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2012

    A must for those who lived through this period or who's parents did

    The balance of detailed description of the political processes, the effects of these in the form of acts and services, and the portraits of everyday life as experienced by different members of the population are riveting.
    A somewhat hefty tome, but no problem to read small chunks at a time and then reflect on the implications. If you prefer to focus on the popular experience, rather than the political processes, you can still derive substantial insights into what was going on.
    Personally, I got a lot of insight into the Education reforms after 1945, and how my experience of being in a grammar school compared with what happened to others with whom I had spent my elementary education.
    A good read, and worth waiting for the next period Kynaston covers in his new book appearing in 2013 (apparently)

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