Sunday, 10 January 2010

Family Britain: A Review

Family Britain, 1951-1957 (Tales of a New Jerusalem) by David Kynaston

This book covers society over the decade just before the major changes of the sixties. It threads together the history, together with personal anecdotes of those who lived through that period.

There were highlight for people to go to, such as the Festival of Britain, which was a post-war boost to the economy, and the Ideal Homes Exhibition, where modern washing machines were promoted to the housewife. It is easily forgotten how laborious washing clothes was before the washing machine, and I can still remember the old mangle, relegated to the garage, which had been used for squeezing out all the water from clothes washed by hand. New kitchen fitted furniture, with formica worktops, easy to clean, was also making an appearance. Now, all new homes come with "fitted kitchens", and it is only in historical buildings that the older style of kitchen is seen.

The death of George VI marked the end of one era, and the Coronation, a new one. What Churchill dramatically called "The New Elizabethan Age", was in fact the age of Television, as the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth saw more people than ever scrambling to see remotely what they could not get to see live. One anecdote in the book concerned a village in Sussex where the local pub rented a TV set, and even the local squire came to see it. The sets, like those I remember from the 1960s (when we had one), were designed to look like part of the furniture, sometimes with doors to open. They also took a considerable time for the valves to warm up, and the grainy 425 line black and white picture might need further adjustment for contrast, or horizontal and vertical roll, which often occured once the set had warmed. Broadcasts always ended with pictures of the Queen, while the National Anthem played. The respect for the trappings of royalty were still very much in place. But the television also was effecting another change, in the "living room" in which it was placed. Furniture and chairs were re-aligned to look at the new box, changing how people used this space, a change which has continued to this day.

Public and government attitudes to morality were very strongly reflected in the furore over the love affair between Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend. Not only was he a commoner, he was also, and most significantly, a divorced man. Very few members of the public thought that a marriage was possible, and the government followed the lead of the public in making it almost impossible for Margaret to marry without making a sacrifice not only of her Royal status, but also of any income from the Civil List. The vast change in attitudes between then and now can be seen in the fact that members of the Royal famility, including Prince Charles, have been able to marry divorcees without a massive public outcry.

Another change worth commenting on is the rise of the teenager. Over this period, the finances of the teenager changed. Teenagers just left school had gone out to work, and given all of their earnings to their parents, and would, from this, be allocated an allowance. Now the working teenager would pay a fixed amount of board, and have the rest of their earnings to spend as they chose. This was a significant change, because the new earners could then buy the latest records, and the popular record industry really took off.

This is a fascinating book, and it will be interesting to compare with the new television series which is starting on Monday. For listening to ordinary people, in their own words, this is a wonderful read. It allows one to see a "family Britain" which is very different from today, but with the seeds of today's society being planted.

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