Friday, September 27, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: Austerity Britain

All fluff makes Patience a dull girl.  Austerity Britain by David Kynaston is a comprehensive study of the social changes in Great Britain following World War II.  I developed an interest in this topic after reading the novels of Barbara Pym, set during this period, in which the characters are mildly obsessed with food, which is dreadful, scarce, and rationed, even though the war was long over.



Soon after the war ended, the Labour party gained control of the government, prompting a cascade of urban renewal and social programs, such as the National Health Service.  Every aspect of life was affected: housing, education, health care, sports, entertainment, leisure activities, even vacations, with the advent of organized "holiday camps."

I doubt anyone would disagree that the changes were necessary, but one winces at the ham-fisted way in which some of them were accomplished, particularly with regard to urban planning and education.  For example, the citizens of Old Stevenage, the village where the Howard's End house was located, were told that their village would be rebuilt as a "New Town", and there was nothing they could do about it.

Austerity Britain is a dense 632 pages, and at times, it is tough going, but Kynaston includes snippets from personal diaries and interviews culled from the archives of the sinisterly-named "Mass Observation" who sent their people into the field to interview middle and working class people on a variety of topics.  The desires of the people--most just wanted a place to live, preferably a house with hot running water, (an astonishing percentage of Britons were sharing bathrooms with other households) and maybe to not have to queue for hours to get the shopping done--underscore how truly grim life must have been and make our modern complaints seem beyond piddling.

The quotes from ordinary people of the time are fascinating.  We get to read their opinions on everything from popular radio shows, cricket, Princess Margaret's conduct, and a housewife's struggle to find a decent piece of meat for dinner.  Particularly good were there observations about Americans--mostly negative but piercing comments about how our competitive society may bring prosperity, but with it comes anxiety.

As I was reading this, it occurred to me that a good companion read would be Bill Bryson's Notes From a Small Island, in which he travels around Great Britain.  I'm now rereading it and enjoying it more than ever.  Austerity Britain gave me a fuller understanding of Mrs. Gubbins' outrage when young Bill doesn't eat the tomato she serves him with his breakfast in chapter one--and Bryson's punchline--"I thought it was a blood clot!"  I laughed until I cried.  Other good companion reads to Austerity Britain are The Barbara Pym Cookbook, and Angela Thirkell's Barchester series, which was written as a reaction to the post war changes, (which I wouldn't have known if Kynaston hadn't mentioned it in the book). 

If you have the time and don't mind lugging this heavy tome around you should definitely read it.  It's way more entertaining than the title would suggest. (I took mine on my trip to Wisconsin, where it was a bit of an encumbrance on the plane and don't talk to me about the kindle, I prefer my books on paper, thank you.)


8 comments:

  1. I read this book and loved it. Am I the only one who browses online for detailed World War II rationing information?

    Notes From a Small Island is my favorite Bill Bryson book. I even got the crowbar out and pried open my wallet to buy it...used.

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    1. I'm glad I'm not the only one who has read it!

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  2. Wow, that sounds like an incredibly interesting book, from a Sociological standpoint.

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    1. It is. I especially loved the comments from the people of the time.

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  3. You do inspire me to be more intelligent in my reading.

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    1. Thanks! I do usually try to be entertained as well as enlightened.

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  4. This sounds SO interesting. On the same note, Foyle's War just started up again on Masterpiece Mystery and it now takes place immediately following the war, showing all of these things in both episodes so far this season!

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