"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Austerity Britain

This book has nothing especially to do with Eastern Christianity; but I make note of it in case there are others who would be interested in the history it recounts so splendidly: David Kynaston, Austerity Britain 1945-1951 (New York: Walker & Co., 2008), viii + 692pp.

It's been out for a decade, but I just found a copy in a used bookstore a few weeks ago, and read it not merely with interest but with something approaching delight in the prose and the author's deft control of what, in lesser hands, could easily have been a sprawling and uncontrolled narrative bloated on masses of data. It has won consistently, and deservedly, high praise from all the reviews I've seen. You might think, given the unrelentingly grim era it covers, and the masses of data it draws on, that this book would be a plodding dullard, but you would be wrong. The author's wry outlook and propensity for finding the telling detail without being overwhelming is excellent.

I read it because I wanted to understand in more detail what drove my Glaswegian grandparents to flee to Canada after the war, my grandfather leaving in 1948 to find work and a home, and my grandmother, with my mother and her brother, following in 1949. They never really talked in a lot of detail about why they left, other than vaguely mentioning "greater economic opportunities." And, regrettably, I never thought to ask them about all this when they were still alive.

One thing, after reading Kynaston's book, that is now clear to me is the timing: my grandfather left in early 1948, not long after the worst and coldest winter (1947) in modern British history. Now I understand why, whenever I visited their house in Canada, the heat was always utterly unbearable: 85 degrees and above. You absolutely sweltered in their house (or in the car, if driving with them) and longed to go outside and roll in a snowbank. But for them it could never be too warm.

I knew that they had had many close calls during the war, living as they did along the River Clyde, then the largest shipbuilding site in the British Empire and thus an object of particular attention from the Luftwaffe; and I knew, vaguely, of the rationing; but I knew nothing of the detail and extent of the destruction--how many hundreds of thousands were living in the barest of "houses" with no plumbing, dozens packed into a few rooms without heat; and I did not understand how grim and far-reaching was the rationing--until reading Kynaston's book, which shows how the rationing got worse after the war, and in some cases things that were never rationed during the war ended up so afterwards. Again a piece clicked for me: my grandmother used to apply butter to her bread with a trowel, half an inch thick. Now I understand why--as, also, I understand why every meal included as fat a roast (pork, beef, ham) as they could lay their hands on. Oh, and the sugar. My grandfather was notorious for putting huge quantities of sugar on everything along with gallons of cream. They were making up for what they had not known for so long during a pivotal and memorable part of their life.

These factors--food, the cold, and the need for basic housing for hundreds of thousands of people--when combined with the huge numbers suffering from medical conditions they could not afford to treat also helped me understand the seemingly mysterious 1945 election with Labour's massive majority: it wasn't a repudiation of Churchill (whom my grandmother taught me to revere), who remained hugely popular and venerated; but it was a long-simmering desire for much better social conditions after enduring so much hardship in the war. (This election, I'm somewhat chagrined to admit, was also, I recall, one of the factors that my grandparents said drove them to leave. My grandfather's family were small business owners who felt like Labour would destroy the economy.)

Thus, for those interested in politics, this book covers, of course, the Labour government under Clement Atlee, when dramatic social changes--not least the National Health Service--were brought in. Had members of that government--in particular the fascinating and fiery orator and Welshman Aneurin Bevan--had their way, the changes might have been even more dramatic. The battles Bevan (who grew up in the staggeringly horrid conditions of the coal mines of Wales) fought against other more right-wing Labour ministers and members--to say nothing of the reactionaries in the British medical establishment--are retold in this book, making it of interest to those who follow, as I do, some of the intellectual developments of postwar British politics of the left. Nobody who doubts the existence of "class warfare" can do so after reading Kynaston's fascinating book--the first of a series, followed by, inter alia, Family Britain 1951-1957, and Modernity Britain 1957-1962, both of which I look forward to reading.

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