Reading Family Britain is a bit like going through a stranger’s attic. You’re faced with boxes and boxes of stuff, usually not very organized, but still having a vague sort of chronological order, based on when the items were relegated to the attic. In the boxes, you’ll find things that are familiar, not unlike what you’d see in your own attic; you’ll find some things that are unfamiliar, but interesting in their novelty; and you’ll find some things that are puzzling or just dull.
Family Britain, 1951–1957, is the second book in David Kynaston’s Tales of a New Jerusalem series, which traces the history of Britain starting in 1945. Kynaston relies on diaries, memoirs, and records from the Mass Observation Archives to take readers beyond the stories in typical history books, focusing instead on day-to-day life.
At over 700 pages, Family Britain covers a lot of ground. There are accounts of rationing, the building of council houses, popular entertainments, elections, sports, family life, social class, race issues, and more. No matter what your particular interest regarding this period in Britain’s history, you’re bound to find it covered here. But you’re likely to also find plenty that doesn’t interest you as well. I, for example, loved reading about popular entertainment and the rise of television, but the sports bored me. The discussions of politics were interesting, but as an American with only a vague knowledge of modern British history, I lacked some of the background knowledge that I suspect would have made it fascinating. On the other hand, I had no trouble following the discussions of racial and class conflicts, even though they had a somewhat different character in Britain than they have in the U.S.
The chapters are organized in a somewhat loose chronological order, which made reading a struggle for me at times. The segues from one topic to another were often rapid and awkward. Kynaston seems to be trying to give a flavor of the times by showing lots of different things people were talking about, and this structure does demonstrate how the significant and the banal are juxtaposed in daily like and conversation, sometimes to ludicrous effect. However, it’s hard not to feel a bit of reading whiplash when, in the space of two pages, you read about the trial of Ruth Ellis, Sir Alfred Munnings‘s speech at the annual “Dubbing the Knight” ceremony in Brantham, the opening of a pedestrianised shopping area in Coventry, a race-related fight on a 73 bus in London, and the début of the Dixon of Dock Green television series.
The other difficulty with this structure is that certain topics, such as the growth of television, housing construction, and political debates, kept coming up repeatedly, but it was difficult get a real grip on how attitudes and conditions changed from chapter to chapter. My favorite chapter, “Family Favourites,” was one of the few to delve into a specific topic, and the discussion of attitudes about marriage, sex, and children, was fascinating and fruitful.
Although the organization was a problem for me, I did enjoy a lot of the material. The diary excerpts and Mass Observation quotes are particularly interesting and revealing, so much so that I’m considering reading some of the diaries, such as Nella Last’s, in full. And Kynaston is wonderful at sniffing out amusing facts and comments. There’s a Norwich woman’s letter to her local housing council complaining of a neighbor’s awful legs and smell. And there’s the fact that Bird’s Eye Fish Fingers were very nearly called cod pieces. Bits and pieces like these set Family Britain apart from usual history books, and although it wasn’t a complete success for me, I appreciated many of the unusual insights it does provide.