“Whose book was Tony Hancock struggling to read in the Hancock episode Bedsitter in 1961*?” asks David Kynaston in a surprise quiz of obscure facts from the era of his book.
This capacity crowd of 50-60-70- somethings has no trouble with the answers, much to Kynaston’s dismay; “I must try harder”.
The leading social historian has embarked on a series of volumes taking Britain from the second world war up to the election of Margaret Thatcher, collectively called Tales of a New Jerusalem.
So far we have Austerity Britain (1945-51), Family Britain (1951-57) and Modernity Britain (1957-61). A Shake of the Dice, is the second book of his Modernity volume, which covers the period in Britain when the pace of change was starting to quicken, before the sixties were in full flow.
Kynaston has collected diary entries, newspaper and radio reports, sports stories, interviews with locals and celebrities, school reports and more, and set them within the framework of more well-known political and cultural stories of the time. This makes for something of a treasure-trove or scrapbook of a book, rich with intimate details, global issues and everyday goings-on.
He considers the years covered in this book as being the tipping point of cultural change in Britain, and outlines five areas of greatest change, some echoed by today’s Britain: increased affluence (for some); the change in working class taste and values (a pub a day closing); changes in attitudes to morality and authority (Beyond the Fringe) and immigration issues (the run-up to the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962).
But it is the Built Environment where Kynaston levels most of his attention. This was a time of great change in urban development, with demolition of traditional Victorian and Edwardian housing on a grand scale. The sub-title of the book – A Shake of the Dice – refers to the apparent randomness of the regeneration; no -one was sure whose home would be next for compulsory purchase.
Kynaston addresses this era of development with sadness and a little anger, blaming local and national government, local planners, contractors and developers equally, and the corruption and arrogance which ran through it all.
These were men who thought they knew best, patronised the public and carried out their plans ruthlessly. They tore up established communities, whole towns even, and altered the way people were made to live, driving out mixed-use communities and replacing them with sterile zoned areas. The result was harsh and, he argues, people are still paying the price.
Kynaston is an easy speaker and clearly enjoys his subject, and the audience was well able to identify with the themes in this talk. It was also interesting to encounter many parallels with contemporary Britain.
More sobering was to consider that many of us are now considered ‘history’. Wonder what Tony Hancock would have made of that?
also at Ilkley Literature Festival,
14th October, 2014