Austerity Britain, 1945-1951

Austerity Britain, 1945-1951

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by David Kynaston

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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, and compellingly readable, account of the following six years, during which the country rebuilt itself. Kynaston's great genius is to chronicle the country's


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, and compellingly readable, account of the following six years, during which the country rebuilt itself. Kynaston's great genius is to chronicle the country's experience from bottom to top: coursing through through the book, therefore, is an astonishing variety of ordinary, contemporary voices, eloquently and passionately evincing the country's remarkable spirit. Judy Haines, a Chingford housewife, gamely endures the tribulations of rationing; Mary King, a retired schoolteacher in Birmingham, observes how well-fed the Queen looks during a royal visit; Henry St. John, a persnickety civil servant in Bristol, is oblivious to anyone's troubles but his own. Together they present a portrait of an indomitable people and Kynaston skillfully links their stories to bigger events thought the country. Their stories also jostle alongside those of more well-known figures like celebrated journalist-to-be John Arlott (making his first radio broadcast), Glenda Jackson, and Doris Lessing, newly arrived from Africa and struck by the leveling poverty of post-war Britain. Kynaston deftly weaves into his story a sophisticated narrative of how the 1945 Labour government shaped the political, economic, and social landscape for the next three decades.

Editorial Reviews

Barry Gewen
The historian David Kynaston's Austerity Britain: 1945-1951 seems less a book than a scroll. You don't feel that you're turning pages so much as unrolling a single piece of parchment, with facts, figures and, most of all, people moving by in grand procession. There go Churchill, Keynes and other leading politicians and policymakers, also Kingsley Amis, Graham Greene, Isaiah Berlin, J. R. R. Tolkien, a dashing Dirk Bogarde, a young Bill Wyman, as well as dozens of unknowns who happened to keep a diary or utter an especially piquant remark. Sometimes the parade slows. American readers might not require quite so much information on British debates over city planning, and the use of cricket terms can be distracting to anyone far removed from Staten Island's playing fields. But these too pass, and what remains at the end is an engrossing, kaleidoscopic portrait of a people from a particular time and place. This is history as total immersion.
—The New York Times
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)

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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

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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.
David Kynaston was born in Aldershot in 1951. He has been a professional historian since 1973 and has written eighteen books, including The City of London (1994-2001), a widely acclaimed four-volume history, and WG's Birthday Party, an account of the Gentleman v. Players match at Lord's in July 1898. He is the author of Austerity Britain 1945-51 and Family Britain 1951-57, the first two titles in a series of books covering the history of post-war Britain (1945-1979) under the collective title 'Tales of a New Jerusalem'. He is currently a visiting professor at Kingston University.

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Austerity Britain, 1945-51 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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)