Modernity Britain: Opening the Box 1957–59 by David Kynaston (2014)

Opening the Box is the first book in volume three of David Kynaston’s epic social history of post-war Britain.

It opens on 10 January 1957 as Harold Macmillan drops by Buckingham Palace to be made Prime Minister, and ends on Friday 9 October 1959 as the final results show that the Conservatives have won a staggering majority of 100 in the General Election: so the book covers about two years and nine months of British domestic history.

I say ‘domestic’ because there is no, absolutely no, mention of the British Empire, the independence struggles / small wars the British Army was fighting, or the impact of foreign affairs on Britain. The Suez Crisis was dealt with briskly and briefly at the very end of the previous volume: this book is utterly focused on the domestic scene.

In its end points Kynaston provides the usual bombardment of quotations from hundreds of diverse sources, from housewives and soldiers, social planners and architects, young and thrusting writers and crusty old critics, politicians idealistic and cynical, commentators on rugby, cricket, soccer and horse-racing – alongside summaries of scores of numerous sociological reports and surveys carried out during these years into all aspects of social life, and social policy – on housing and new towns and flats, consumer behaviour, ideas of class, the family, and so on.

Unlike a traditional historian Kynaston skips quickly past even quite major political events from the period (and even these tend to be viewed through the prism of his diarists and journal keepers) in order to measure their impact on the ordinary men and women caught up in them.

This is his strength, his forte, the inclusion of so many contemporary voices – experts and ordinary, powerful and powerless – that immersing yourself in the vast tissue of quotes and voices, speeches and reports, diaries and newspaper articles, builds up a cumulative effect of making you feel you really know this period and have lived through these events. It is a powerful ‘immersive’ experience.

But in this, the fifth book in the series, I became increasingly conscious of a pronounced downside to this approach – which is that it lacks really deep analysis.

The experience of reading the book is to be continually skipping on from the FA Cup Final to the Epsom Derby to the domestic worries of Nella Last or Madge Martin to a snide note on the latest political developments by a well-placed observer like Anthony Crossland or Chips Channon, to a report by the town planners of Coventry or Plymouth alongside letters to the local press, to the notes of Anthony Heap, an inveterate attender of West End first nights, or the thoughts about the new consumer society of Michael Young, to the constant refrain of excerpts from the diaries of Kenneth Williams, Philip Larkin and even Macmillan himself.

This all undeniably gives you a panoramic overview of what was happening and, like the reader of any modern newspaper or consumer of a news feed, to some extent it’s up to you, the reader, to sift through the blizzard of voices and information and opinions and decide what is interesting or important to you.

The downside is that you never feel you’ve really got to the bottom of any of the issues. Even the big issues, the ones Kynaston treats at some length (20, 30, 40 pages) never really arrive at a conclusion.

The housing crisis

The housing crisis existed before the war, as social reformers became increasingly aware of just how many millions of British citizens were living in squalid, damp, unlit, unventilated Victorian slums with no running water, baths and only outside toilets – the kind of conditions reported on by George Orwell among others. But the situation was, of course, greatly exacerbated by the German blitz on most of Britain’s major cities, from Plymouth to Glasgow. By 1957 it was estimated there were some 850,000 dwellings unfit for human habitation in the UK.

The result was city councils who were well aware of the need to modernise their cities, to get rid of the old slums and rebuild not only houses but, potentially, the entire layout of the cities. Arguably this was the key issue for a generation after the war and Kynaston reverts to it repeatedly. He quotes town planners and architects as they engaged in fundamental debates about how to go about this task, the most obvious division being between ‘urbanists’, who thought working class communities should be rehoused within the city boundaries, if possible close to or on the same location as the existing slums, once they’d been demolished and new houses built – and ‘dispersionists’, who thought a large percentage of big city populations should be moved right out of the inner cities to a) brand new model estates built on the outskirts of the city, like Pollok outside Glasgow or b) to new towns, overspill towns built 20, 30 or 40 miles away, which could be planned and designed rationally from scratch (places like Stevenage or Harlow).

This debate overlapped with another binary set of alternatives: whether to re-accommodate people in houses or in blocks of flats, with barrages of argument on both sides.

Proponents of flats made the simple case that building vertically was the only way to accommodate such large populations a) quickly b) within the limited space within city borders. They were backed up by zealously modernist architects who had an ideological attachment to the teachings of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus and thought, at their most extreme, that the new designs for living would change human nature and bring about a new, more egalitarian society. So aesthetics and radical politics were poisonously intertwined in the strong push towards flats.

Ranged against them were a) the tenants, who didn’t want to move into flats, pointing out that flats:

  • are noisy and poorly sound-proofed
  • have no privacy
  • have no gardens
  • so that the kids have to be penned up inside them (‘awful places for families to live in’ – diarist Marian Raynham)
  • the rents are higher

And b) the more conservative or sensitive architects and planners who recognised the simple fact – which comes over in survey after survey after survey that Kynaston quotes – that people wanted a house of their own. Interestingly, this wish turns out to itself be based on an even simpler idea – that almost everyone interviewed in numerous surveys, by writers and newspaper journalists – wanted privacy.

  • ‘I think that the natural way for people to live is in houses,’ Mrs E. Denington, vice-chair of the London County Council’s Housing Committee.
  • ‘Houses are preferred because they are more suitable for family life,’ Hilary Clark, deputy housing manager Wolverhampton

Kynaston emphasises that the years covered in his book were the tipping point.

1958 was the year when modernism indisputably entered the mainstream. (p.129)

During 1958 it became almost a cliché that London’s skyline was changing dramatically. (p.132)

Through the four books so far, and in this one as well, Kynaston gives extensive quotes from slum-dwellers, flat occupiers, new home owners, planners, designers, architects and the sociologists who produced report after report trying to clarify what people wanted and so help shape decisions on the issue.

But – and here’s my point – we never really get to the bottom of the problem. Kynaston quotes extensively and then… moves on to talk about Tommy Steele or the new Carry On film. But I wanted answers. I wanted to hear his opinion. I wanted a systematic exposition of the issues, history and debate which would lead up to conclusions about how we now see it, looking back 65 years.

But there is nothing like that. Kynaston just describes the debate as it unfolded, through the words of reports and surveys and sociologists and architects. But his debate never reaches a conclusion. And after a while that gets a bit frustrating.

Industrial relations

The 1945 Labour government famously nationalised a range of major industries and then, just as famously, ran out of ideas and lost the snap 1951 election.

As the 1940s turned into the 1950s industrial relations remained poor, with Kynaston repeatedly mentioning outbreaks of strikes, sometimes on a big enough scale (like the London dockers strike of 1949) to affect food supplies and spark a range of outraged opinions in the housewife diarists who are among his core contributors.

As the 1950s progress we get snippets of middle class people taking student or holiday jobs down among the working classes and being shocked by the widespread slackness and the culture of skiving which they discover. To balance the picture out, he also gives us, from time to time, vivid portraits of some of the ‘captains of industry’, heads of large companies who turn out to be eccentrics or egomaniacs.

Altogether, as usual, the reader has a vivid sense of the feel of the times and the experiences of a wide range of people living through them. But there are no ideas about industrial policy, trade union legislation, its impact on industry, the economy and the Labour Party which was often seen as being in thrall to stroppy and irresponsibly organisations.

In fact I did glean one idea from reading well over 1,500 pages of Kynaston’s history: this is that around about 1950, the British government and British industry had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to seize the industrial and commercial advantage across a wide range of industrial and consumer goods. German and Japanese industry still lay prostrate after the war and the Americans were focusing on their home markets. If the right investment had been channelled by a capitalist-minded government into the right industries, and if Britain had adopted German-style industrial relations (e.g. having worker representatives on the boards of companies) to ensure unified focus on rebuilding, then Britain might have anticipated what became known as ‘the German economic miracle’.

But it didn’t. The trade unions preferred the freedom of collective bargaining (i.e. found it more convenient to be outside management structure so that they could blame the management for everything and go on strike whenever it suited them), the Labour government was more concerned about a Socialist-inspired programme of nationalising industries in the hope of creating ‘the New Jerusalem’, and many managements found selling the same old products to the captive markets of the Empire and Commonwealth far easier than trying to create new products to market in Europe or America.

At all levels there was a failure of nerve and imagination, which condemned Britain to decades of industrial decline.

The catch is: this isn’t Kynaston’s idea – he quotes it from Correlli Barnett’s searing history of post-war failure, The Audit of War. In a nutshell, Kyanston’s wonderful books present the reader with a Christmas pudding stuffed with a vast multitude of factoids and snippets and post-war trivia and gossip and impressions deriving from an incredibly wide array of eye witnesses. But it is precious thin on ideas and analysis, and at the end of the day, it’s the big idea, the thesis, the interpretation which we tend to remember from history books.

The consumer society

This volume definitely depicts the arrival and triumph of ‘the consumer society’. I had thought it was a later phenomenon, of the 1960s, but no. By 1957 56% of adults owned a TV set, 26% a washing machine, 21% a telephone, only 12% a dishwasher, and 24% of the population owned a car. Aggressive new advertising campaigns promoted Fry’s Turkish Delight, Ready Brek, Gibbs SR, Old Spice, the Hoovermatic twin tub, Camay soap and Blue Band margarine.

People faced with ever-widening products to choose from need advice: hence the Egon Ronay Guide to restaurants, launched in 1957, followed in October by Which? magazine.

Even Mass-Observation, which started with such socialist ambitions in 1937, and has provided Kynaston with such a wealth of sociological material for the previous four books, had, by now, become ‘an organisation devoted to market research rather than sociological enquiry.’



  • January – Bolton Wanderers beat Leeds United 5-3, the third series of Dixon of Dock Green kicks off, the Cavern nightclub opens in Liverpool, Manchester United beat Bilbao 3-0 to go into the semi-finals of the European Cup, Lawrence Durrell publishes Justine, Flanders and Swann open a musical review at the Fortune theatre, strike at the Briggs motor plant, 20-year-old Tommy Steele continues to be a showbiz sensation, end of the Toddlers’ Truce the government-enforced ban on children’s TV programmes between 6 and 7pm,
  • February – launch of BBC’s weekday new programme Tonight, publication of Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy, publication of Family and Kinship in East London by Michael Young and Peter Willmott (‘urbanists’ arguing that extended kinship networks in Bethnal Green provide emotional and practical support which Bethnal Greenites who’d moved out to new estates in Debden missed),
  • March – the Daily Mail Ideal Home exhibition visited by the Queen and Prince Philip, a Gallup survey showed 48% wanted to emigrate, start of big shipbuilding and engineering union strikes,
  • April – opening night of John Osborne’s play The Entertainer
  • May – Manchester United lose the FA Cup Final 2-1 to Aston Villa, petrol comes off the ration after five months
  • June – British Medical Council report linking smoking to lung cancer (reinforcing Richard Doll’s groundbreaking 1950 report) the government refuses to intervene; ERNIE makes the first Premium Bonds random draw, brainchild of Harold Macmillan; end of the pioneering photojournalistic magazine Picture Post founded in 1938, whose star photographer was Bert Hardy;
  • 20 July Prime Minister Harold Macmillan speaks at a Tory rally in Bedford to mark 25 years’ service by Mr Lennox-Boyd, the Colonial Secretary, as MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, and claims that ‘most of our people have never had it so good’; national busman’s strike; publication of Room at the Top by John Braine.
  • September – the Wolfenden Report recommends the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults in private; Ted Hughes’ first volume of poetry, The Hawk In The Rain, published; film version of Lucky Jim released, criticised for watering down the book’s realism
  • October – at Labour Party conference Nye Bevan comes out against nuclear disarmament, disillusioning his followers and creating a rift between the party and much of the left-leaning intelligentsia; 4 October Sputnik launched into orbit by the Russians; fire at the Windscale nuclear power plant; publication of Declaration, an anthology of essays by Angry Young Men (and one woman): Doris Lessing, Colin Wilson, John Osborne, John Wain, Kenneth Tynan, Bill Hopkins, Lindsay Anderson and Stuart Holroyd.
  • November – top of the charts is That’ll Be The Day by Buddy Holly and the Crickets; the Russians launch a second satellite, this one with a dog, Laika, aboard; the General Post Office introduces postal codes; Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament set up in response to Britain’s detonation of a H-bomb;
  • December – the Queen’s first Christmas broadcast, from Sandringham;


  • resignation of the Chancellor Peter Thorneycroft after his insistence that government spending should be cut was rejected; launch if Bunty comic for girls
  • February – launch of Woman’s Realm magazine; 6 February the Munich Air Disaster in which a plane carrying the Manchester United football team, support staff and eight journalists crashed on take-off, killing 23;
  • March 1 BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop opens;
  • April – publication of Parkinson’s Law and Dr No; first CND march to Aldermaston; Balthazar, second volume in The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell; Raymond’s Revuebar opens in Soho; London bus strike;
  • May first performance of The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter and A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney and Chicken Soup with Barley by Arnold Wesker;
  • July The Darling Buds of May by H.E. Bates; introduction of Green Shield Stamps; the first Little Chef; the Empire and Commonwealth Games held in Cardiff;
  • August – release of the first single by Cliff Richard; Kenton and Shula Archer born; the Empire theatre in Portsmouth closes down, replaced by a supermarket; Notting Hill Riots, the most serious public disorder of the decade, petrol bombs, knives, razors, huge mobs chanting ‘Kill the niggers’ – the race problem Winston Churchill had fretted about in 1951 had arrive with a vengeance with about 165,000 non-white immigrants living in the UK; coincidentally, the launch of The Black and White Minstrel Show; Christopher Mayhew presents a TV series titled Does Class Matter?
  • September – Carry On, Sergeant, first of the Carry On films, released; publication of Culture and Society by Raymond Williams, which more or less founded ‘cultural studies’;
  • October – first editions of Grandstand and Blue Peter;
  • November – publication of The Rise of the Meritocracy by Michael Young;
  • December 3 National Coal Board announces the closure of 36 coal mines, as a result of falling demand due to coal being ‘brutally undercut’ by oil (p.236); 5 December Macmillan opens the 8.5-mile-long Preston bypass, first stretch of motorway in England, which will become part of the M6; John Betjeman’s Collected Poems published, representing one strand of middle class culture, while A Bear Called Paddington is published, first in a series of books, plays and films which continues to this day; 30 the government announces the full convertibility of the pound, meaning it won’t have to run down gold stocks defending it, but at the same time becomes vulnerable to speculation;


  • January Henry Cooper becomes British and British Empire heavyweight champion;
  • February 3 Buddy Holly dies aged 22; film version of Room at the Top released marking ‘the start of the British new Wave in the cinema’; debut of Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be at the Theatre Royal Stratford East; March To Aldermaston a documentary about the 1958 march, edited by Lindsay Anderson with Richard Burton reading Christopher Logue’s script;
  • March release of Carlton-Brown of the Foreign Office starring Terry-Thomas; the year’s most popular film, Carry On Nurse; Goldfinger published, the seventh James Bond novel; march from Aldermaston to London; expansionary Budget;
  • May: C.P. Snow gives his lecture about the two cultures (ie most people who run things knowing masses about the arts and nothing about science); Sapphire directed by Basil Dearden is a whodunnit with strong racial overtones; 17th a black student Kelso Cochrane is stabbed to death in Notting Hill leading to raised tensions in West London and ‘Keep Britain White’ rallies and worried reports about the lack of ‘racial integration’ in Birmingham;
  • June
  • July: The Teenage Consumer, a pamphlet by Mark Abrams defining them as aged 15-24 and unmarried;
  • August: Cliff Richard number 1 with Livin’ Doll; President Eisenhower makes a state visit and is on TV chatting with Harold Macmillan;
  • September: City of Spades by Colin McInnes and Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse published;
  • October: The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe; Noggin the Nog created by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin; and the General Election: Conservatives win 49.4% of the vote and 365 seats, Labour 43.8% and 258, the Liberals 6, giving the Conservatives an overall majority of 100.

Studies and surveys

Being a list of the studies and surveys carried out during the period by sociologists, universities, newspapers and polling organisations:

  • 1954 Early Leaving a study of who left state school early, and why (children of the unskilled working class made up 20% of grammar school intake but only 7% of sixth forms)
  • 1957 Abrams study of 200 working class married couples (they lacked the ambition required to push their children on to further education)
  • 1958 Edward Blishen survey of TV’s impact on families (too much violence; difficult to get the kids to go to bed afterwards)
  • 1958 J.B. Cullingworth surveyed 250 families who’d moved to an overspill estate in Worsley from Salford
  • 1959 J.B. Cullingworth surveyed families who’d moved to Swindon
  • Floud et al study of grammar schools in Hertfordshire and Middlesborough (over half of working class parents wanted no further education for their children after school)
  • Margot Jeffreys interviewed housewives in an out-county LCC estate in Hertfordshire (1954-5)
  • 1957 Maurice Broady conducted interviews on the huge Pollok estate outside Glasgow
  • Eve Bene survey of 361 London grammar school boys on attitudes and expectations (45% of working class kids wanted to stay on past 16, compared with 65% of middle class pupils)
  • 1958 Ruth Glass investigation of racial prejudice
  • 1958 Geoffrey Gorer study of television viewing habits (families don’t talk as much)
  • 1958 Television and the Child by Hilde Himmelweit (kids routinely watch TV till it stops, TV is a great stimulator but fleetingly, shallowly)
  • 1962 Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden Education and the Working Class a study of 88 working class kids in Huddersfield who went to grammar school (charts the parents’ progressive incomprehension of what their children are studying)
  • 1958 The Boss by Roy Lewis and Rosemary Stewart, about the social background of captains of industry e.g. family connections and public school still paramount
  • 1959 The Crowther Report, 15 to 18 (children of unskilled working class over-represented, the kids of non-manual workers under-represented: i.e. they were a sink of the poorest)
  • 1959 Ferdynand Zweig survey of working class men and their attitudes to washing machines
  • 1960 Michael Carter survey of 200 secondary modern schoolchildren as they left school
  • 1961 William Liversidge survey of grammar school and secondary modern school leavers

Patronising and condescending

Although Kynaston several times harps on the fact that Macmillan (Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963) was an Old Etonian, that his first Chancellor, Peter Thorneycroft, was another old Etonian and when he was sacked he was replaced by Derick Heathcoat Amory, another old Etonian, that in fact nearly half of the Macmillan cabinet went to Eton – there turns out to be surprisingly less condescension and patronage from these phenomenally upper-class toffs as you’d imagine. In fact the reverse: Macmillan’s diaries worry about all aspects of the political and international scene but when he tours the country and meets people, I was rather touched by his genuine concern.

No, the really condescending and patronising comments come, as so often, not from the politicians (who, after all, had to be careful what they said) but from the intellectual ‘elite’, from the writers and cultural commentators and architects who all too often looked right down their noses at the ghastly taste and appalling interests of the proles.


Throughout the book, most of the modern architects regard themselves as experts on human nature, experts on what people want, and are bravely, boldly undeterred by the actually expressed opinions of real people in places like public meetings, letters to newspapers and suchlike bourgeois distractions. Alison and Peter Smithson were among the leaders of the British school of Brutalism. For them architecture was an ethic and an art. As Alison wrote: ‘My act of form-giving has to invite the occupiers to add their intangible quality of use.’ They helped to develop the notion of ‘streets in the sky’, that ‘communities’ could be recreated on concrete walkways suspended between blocks of flats, a form of ‘urbanism that abandoned the primacy of the ground plane in favour of a rich spatial interplay of different layers of activity’.

No matter that the overwhelming majority of ordinary people opposed these plans. The architect knows best. And the planners. Kynaston lists scores of chief architects and planners in cities like Glasgow, Birmingham, Coventry, London, who oversaw a quickening pace of mass demolitions, of slums, of old buildings of all kinds, in order to widen roads, create urban dual carriageways, build new blocks of flats, taller, more gleaming, more visionary, streets in the sky! And if the poor proles who would then be shepherded into these badly built, dark, leaky, anti-social blocks murmured their reluctance, they were ignored, and patronised. Kynaston quotes an article written by Raphael Samuel on the Labour council of Aberdare in South Wales who devised a plan to demolish a third of the town’s houses despite vehement opposition from the inhabitants.

The Glamorgan planners did not set out to destroy a community. They wanted to attack the slums and give to the people of Aberdare the best of the open space and the amenities which modern lay-out can provide. It did not occur to them that there could be any opposition to a scheme informed by such benevolent intentions; and, when it came, they could only condemn it as ‘myopic’. (quoted page 320)

My point is – neither the planners nor architects who refused to listen to ordinary people were Old Etonians; the opposite; they tended to be locally-born, Labour-voting architects and administrators which made their frustration with their own people’s obstinacy all the more pointed.


The situation was different in the humanities where the most vociferous Marxists tended to have had staggeringly privileged upbringings. Take the Marxists historians E.P. Thompson (educated at the Dragon Preparatory School in Oxford, Kingswood private School in Bath and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge) and Christopher Hill (St Peter’s Private School, York and Balliol College, Oxford), they took it on themselves and their tiny cohort of like-minded communists and academics, to define what the working classes really wanted, and it turned out it wasn’t clean accommodation with hot and cold running water, a washing machine and a nippy new car out the front – Thompson and Hill knew that the working classes really wanted to create a new kind of man for the modern age!

Thus Kynaston ironically quotes E.P. Thompson ticking off Labour politician Anthony Crosland for the crime of suggesting, in his pamphlet The Future of Socialism, that after a decade of austerity and rationing what the people wanted was cafés, bright lights and fun. No no no, lectures Thompson:

Men do not only want the list of things which Mr Crosland offers; they want also to change themselves as men.

Says who? Says Edward Thompson, Kingswood School Corpus Christi College.

However fitfully and ineffectually, they want other and greater things; they want to stop killing one another; they want to stop this pollution of their spiritual life which runs through society as rivers carried their sewage and refuse throughout nineteenth-century industrial towns.

‘This pollution of their spiritual life’ – Thompson is talking about television, specifically ITV, which was polluting the working class with poisons like Gunsmoke and Opportunity Knocks. The actual working class has always been a terrible disappointment to men like Thompson and Hill. Kynaston details at length their agonising about whether to leave the communist party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and then how they go on to set up independent Marxist magazines and write articles for other like-minded over-educated academics who fondly thought their little articles made a bit of difference to anything.

But it wasn’t just the privately educated Marxists, genuine men of the people like playwright Arnold Wesker, son of a cook and a tailor’s machinist, who had a really tough upbringing and meagre education in  Stepney and Hackney. He is quoted as attending a left-wing meeting addressed by Raymond Williams (grammar school and Trinity College, Cambridge), author of the pioneering book Culture and Society and then Labour front-bencher Richard Crossman (Winchester and new College), who wrote a column in the Daily Mirror. This is Wesker describing the meeting in a letter to his wife:

How could he, as a Socialist, support a paper [the Mirror], which, for its vulgarity, was an insult to the mind of the working class; a paper which painted a glossy, film-star world. (quoted p.143)

The point is that, at this distance, I admire Crossman for writing a column in the Mirror, the bestselling newspaper of its day i.e. the most-read by the ‘working classes’ – for addressing the world as it is, for making the most of it, and find it hard not to dislike Wesker for his arrogance: ‘the mind of the working class’ – where is that exactly? how does he, Wesker, know what ‘the mind of the working class’ is thinking, or wants?

A little later Kynaston quotes the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer (Charterhouse and Jesus College, Cambridge) who wrote a series of articles about television in which ‘he came down hard on working class viewers’:

Not only did they eschew ‘topical programmes, discussions and brains trusts, serious music and ballet,’ instead obstinately preferring ‘films and serials, variety and quizzes’, but almost half of them were ‘addicts’ (defined as watching at least four hours a night), with as a result ‘all sense of proportion lost in their gross indulgence, and their family life, if not wrecked, at least emptied of nearly all its richness and warmth.’ (p.152)

My point being that is it not Macmillan and his Old Etonian chums saying this; it was left wing architects, planners, historians, intellectuals, writers, anthropologists and sociologists who were most critical and patronising of the actual working class as it actually existed (despairing that ‘the workers’ were not the idealised heroes of communist propaganda, but lazy blokes who liked to drink beer from cans in front of the Benny Hill show).


There is a similar sense of disconnect on the issue of race and immigration, which Kynaston explores in some detail à propos the Notting Hill Riots of August 1958.

He shows how almost all the reporters, journalists, sociologists and so on who visited Notting Hill and other areas with high immigrant populations (the West Midlands was the other hotspot) discovered, not the virulent hatred of the American South, but nonetheless consistent opinions that immigrants got unfair advance on the housing waiting lists, exploited the benefits system, lived in overcrowded houses and made a lot of noise – all leading to a strong groundswell of popular opinion that immigration needed to be controlled. (There were 2,000 immigrants from Commonwealth countries in 1953, 11,000 in 1954, 40,000 by 1957).

But all the leading politicians, and most MPs, stood firmly against introducing immigration restrictions and were careful not to blame or stigmatise the coloured communities, even when there were gross incidents of racially aggravated riots, like at Notting Hill. The politicians realised it would be very difficult to devise any form of immigration control which wasn’t, on some level, based on the fact that you were trying to stop people with black skins entering the country i.e. naked racism, tantamount to apartheid in Wedgwood Benn’s opinion.

The handful of Tory MPs who did call for restrictions accompanied were shouted down. At one parliamentary meeting, one Tory MP, Cyril Osborne, accompanied his calls with accusations that blacks were lazy, sick or criminal, and drew down such a tsunami of criticism that he was reduced to tears. All MPs observing this realised that immigration was not a topic to speak out on. If any mention was made of it, it must be in the most positive and emollient terms. Thus the political class, the men who ruled the country, painted themselves into a position where free and frank debate of the issue was impossible.

But the actual population of the country, ‘the people’ which all parties claimed to speak for, disagreed. There is a surprising paucity of sociological research, field studies and surveys on the subject (compared with the welter of research done into the endlessly fascinating subject of ‘class’). But Kynaston quotes a Gallup poll taken at the time of the riots, in August 1958, which revealed that:

  • 71% disapproved of mixed marriages
  • 61% would consider moving if significant numbers of coloured people moved into their neighbourhood
  • 55% wanted restrictions on non-white immigration
  • 54% didn’t want people from the Commonwealth put on housing waiting lists on the same level with locals

People’s opinions were simply ignored. The rulers of the country knew best. No attempt was made to limit immigration which continued to grow throughout the 1960s and indeed up to the present day, which has resulted in our present blissful political situation.

Related links

Related reviews

Reviews of fiction from the period

Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse (1959)

‘The trouble with you, cocker, is you’re a pathological bloody liar,’ said Arthur. (p.43)

Billy Liar

William ‘Billy’ Fisher lives in the fictional Yorkshire town of Stradhoughton. He is 19, still lives at home with his mum and dad and Gran, and works at a local undertaker firm, Shadrack and Duxbury. He is a pathological liar and the novel opens with his lies having got into several fixes:

  • when tasked with sending calendars publicising the undertakers to every other firm and important person in the town, Billy hides them under his bed in order to keep the postage money for himself
  • his mum asks him to post a letter to a radio programme but he keeps it, opens and reads it himself
  • he is carrying on with three local girls, Liz, Rita, the Witch and promises them all he’s engaged to them, recycling a cheap ring to each in turn
  • he has lied fluently and creatively to the mum of his mate, Arthur, telling her that he (Billy) has a sister called Sheila, who’s married to a market trader named Eric, who has three shops, they have two children, Norma and Michael, the latter born with a deformed foot which was miraculously cured by one Dr Ubu, an Indian at Leeds University – all completely untrue, so that Billy is petrified of Arthur’s mum ever meeting his mum and finding out
  • he’s told his friends, his employer and his family that he’s been offered a job in London, script-writing for comedy entertainer Danny Boone – but he hasn’t

The novel chronicles the Saturday – starting with being roused out of bed and following to last thing at night, after the Saturday night dance – when all his chickens come home to roost, when all these fixes are exposed, his enemies gather round him, his girlfriends find out about each other, and Billy must face the reality behind his fantasies.

Billy’s fantasies

All this would be the stuff of a gritty 1950s kitchen sink novel but it is transformed by – the text is completely dominated by – Billy’s bright, vivid and hilarious fantasies – his mind is an unstoppable producer of amazing fancies and visions, comic scenes and scenarios, soaring far above the disappointing limits of ‘real life’. They come in a prolific flood of sketches, routines, phrases, gags, one-liners and extravagant visions.

Probably the largest is the well-worked-out alternative country of Ambrosia, where Billy is President, King, decorated war hero, whatever his mood requires, building a brand new capital city, celebrating Ambrosia’s recent triumphs in war. He carries (in his imagination) an Ambrosian machine gun which can be pulled out at the drop of (an imaginary) hat to slaughter anyone and everyone who is frustrating his day or looks like exposing his various scams.

Then there is a large number of ‘routines’ he can go into, merging seamlessly with ‘normal’ conversation and situations:

  • the trouble at t’mill routine, with Arthur taking the part of Olroyd and Billy the wayward son
  • the two Yanks in a drugstore routine
  • the Winston Churchill routine
  • the (impersonating his elderly Yorkshire employer) Duxbury routine
  • the Bible routine (‘And a voice spake…’)


The marvellousness of the novel, still fresh and laugh-out-loud funny after all these years, is due, I think, to two factors:

The faultless comic timing of these sketches and routines, the way one encounter, conversation or event effortlessly spawns witty one-liners or larger routines, all weaving in and out of Billy’s permanently-wired consciousness.

My heart missed a beat, and I wondered quickly how many beats it had missed this day, and whether it could only miss so many before you were dead, and if so how far was I off the total. (p.88)

And the fact that almost everyone is at it – the entire world is involved in the comedy. His workmates, his bosses, passersby, shop assistants, his three girlfriends, his family, everyone is reciting lines and playing parts and working routines.

The Witch turned away with a quick movement of the head, bringing tears to her eyes without difficulty. I suspected that she had perfected the whole action in front of a mirror. Its point was to make it quite evident that she was turning away and not just looking away. (p.99)

It is an embracing vision of a world completely transformed to become an endless source of humour and wit:

Stradhoughton was littered with objects for our derision. We could make Fascist speeches from the steps of the rates office, and we had been in trouble more than once for doing our Tommy Atkins routine under the war memorial in Town Square. Sometimes we would walk down Market Street shouting ‘Apples a pound pears’ to confuse the costermongers with their leather jackets and their Max Miller patter. (p.41)

The three apprentices at the undertakers carry on various high-powered sketches, and everybody at the Kit-Kat cafe knows routines or is performing their particular ones. The old jossers in the pub have their secret conversations, the local masons have their rituals, even the old prostitutes in the railway station late at night have a well-rehearsed patter for chatting up the soldiers. The novel portrays a world where everyone is performing one or other comedy sketch (even if they don’t realise it).

Everybody I knew spoke in clichés, but Rita spoke as though she got her words out of a slot machine, whole sentences ready-packed in a disposable tinfoil wrapper. (p.47)

Word cloud (Words and phrases throughout the text supporting the theme of play acting and putting on voices):

raillery, the high-pitched university voice, primitive verbal by-play, mechanical badinage with lorry-drivers, his Western brothers voice, the standard ready-to-use repartee, a pantomime of amazement, the grandiloquent voice, speaking the phrase as if it were a headline, the robust voice… his rich, so-called Yorkshire relish voice… the low voice… her icy voice… I went into the hard voice… from the hard voice into the matter-of-fact voice… I said in the bitter voice… I put on the intellectual act… in the light voice I said… I spoke in what I hoped was the low, husky voice… I gave them the deprecating smile… the cracked phonograph voice… the studied, indifferent approach… I said in the high-pitched voice, ‘I cannot tell a lie’… I put on an elaborate mock-sheepish act… I struck the farewell attitude…

Amis and Waterhouse

Age Amis born 1922, Waterhouse 1929, so Waterhouse is the younger man and got his first novel published at a younger age – Amis’ first novel Lucky Jim, 1954 (aet. 32) Waterhouse’s first novel There Is a Happy Land, 1957 (aet. 28).

Writer’s block In chapter two, bored at work, Billy gets out the manuscript of his play, The Two Schools at Gripminster – which has barely progressed beyond the stage directions of the first scene – and stares at it, unable to write a word. This reminded me of the scene in I Like It Here where the protagonist, Garnet Bowen, stares at the manuscript of his unfinished play, and spends a couple of pages of the novel agonising over just one sentence of dialogue. Which itself reminded me of Lucky Jim Dixon’s efforts throughout that novel to write anything meaningful for the hour-long public lecture he is doomed to give.

Writers writing about the difficulty of writing. But it’s not the only thing the two authors have in common:

Funny voices Lucky Jim and, to a lesser extent, Amis’s other early novels, feature protagonists much given to making funny faces and doing funny voices, to relieve the tedium of existence, to dramatise their boring lives, to cope with the antagonism of other people. It is striking to come to Billy Liar and find a novel which is entirely about a young man who spends every waking hour doing funny voices, living out sketches and routines, inhabiting fictional characters and fantasy worlds. Lucky Jim on speed.

One of the habits I was going to get out of was a sort of vocal equivalent of the nervous grimace, an ever-expanding repertoire of odd noises and sound effects that I would run through in time of tension… I would begin to talk to myself, the words degenerating first into senseless, ape-like sounds and then into barnyard imitations, increasing in absurdity until I was completely incoherent… I began to repeat this sentence in a variety of tones, stresses and dialects, ranging from a rapid Mickey Mouse squeak to a bass drawl, and going through all the Joycean variations… (pp.67-68)

Was there something in the air or the water? Were all young men in the late 1950s doing silly voices? There is, of course, the possible influence of The Goon Show (1951-60)…

Teenage attitude Another notable aspect of the Amis novels is the pride in dismissive vagueness, ‘Dr Johnson or whoever it was’, ‘the burgundy or whatever it was’ etc. It is a kind of insolent, disrespectful attitude which says, ‘You people think this is important, but it’s just a load of crap.’

The same attitude is prevalent throughout Billy Liar:

St Botolph’s… was the home of a Ladies’ Guild, a choir and some mob called the Shining Hour… [Maurie] was interested in youth work and all the rest of it… The long bar was where the members of the Ancient Order of Stags or whatever it was gathered on Saturday nights… in the middle of them was Councillor Duxbury, wearing the chain of past grand warden or something… [The Roxy nightclub] was supposed to be a suburban amenity or something… [Arthur at the microphone] looked like Danny Kaye or somebody doing a relaxed season at the Palladium… If [Gran’s] fit recurred it was meant to be serious or something… life and death and all the rest of it…

It is a stylistic tag or tic, emphasising how the hero’s values are different from the boring adult, official world, that he doesn’t give a tinker’s toss about their shagging orders or amenities.

Loneliness In the Amis novels the Amis protagonist is essentially alone in a sea of fools – something which gives them an occasional desperate edge. In Billy Liar everyone is portrayed as acting out one routine or another, everyone is playing a part, or struggling to:

I was trying on expressions, as though I carried a mirror about with me and was pulling faces in it. I tried to look stunned, because after all there was the material for it, and I tried to assemble some kind of definite emotion that I wasn’t putting on or concocting. (p.108)

But what the Amis and Waterhouse have in common is they are all playing a part in order to escape. As in Amis, the comedy conceals anxiety. For example, the only one of his three girls Billy has any feelings for is Liz, and it’s because he feels safe with her, because her presence is like a ‘refuge, her beaming comfortable presence protecting me from the others’ (p.129).

There is the same underlying fear of other people which I noticed in Amis’s comedy.

The idea of ever seeing Stamp again, or indeed anybody, filled me with horror. (p.154)

Was it just these two, or was it a broader cultural theme, the loneliness and alienation of young people in the 1950s? The sense of not being real? The sense of being bombarded with alternative realities and personas, all of which can be sampled like a menu, but none of which really fit?

Plot part 2

During the day Billy’s fantasies unroll with a wonderful carefree quality, he knows he’ll be in trouble with all sorts of people if the truth comes out but manages to keep all the balls in the air. We see him:

  • joshing with the guys at work, his friend Arthur and his enemy, the boorish Stamp
  • coping with his aggressively chavvy girlfriend who serves at the local coffee bar
  • dealing with his ponderous boss, Mr Shadrack (in a great scene Billy is in what he thinks is the empty undertakes office and starts saying ‘Shadrack’ in funny accents, until he is yelling it at the top of his voice – at which point Mr Shadrack emerges from the downstairs toilet)
  • ignoring the thundering criticism of  his parents and shouty Gran
  • slipping the frigid Barbara a couple of so-called ‘passion pills’ and then trying to grope her in St Botolph’s churchyard

All good comic material. But as the day turns to night, things become more fraught:

  • Billy bundles up the incriminating calendars and is smuggling them out to the ashpits on the outskirts of town when he has a tense and puzzling encounter with the senile older partner at his work, old Duxbury
  • he has a spot to perform a bit of stand-up at the local working men’s club and goes down like a lead balloon, not least because  his Dad turns up unexpectedly, only to turn his back in shame and embarrassment
  • the evening is set around the one night-club in town, the Roxy. Here Billy encounters all the characters in his scams who humiliate him in one way or another
    • the two girls he’s proposed to – chavvy Rita and frigid Barbara (aka the Witch) – meet and spot that one is wearing the other’s engagement ring and their St Nicholas necklace – which kicks off a big fight
    • his boss, Shadrack, lets him know they’ve twigged about the calendars and him stealing the postage money and he is not required back at work on Monday
    • his friend, Arthur, performs a song they co-wrote, along with a smooth band, the Rockets, and it is clear Arthur is actually achieving something compared to all Billy’s fantasies
    • to avoid his fighting fiancées, Billy takes the one girl he has real feelings for, Liz, out for a walk beyond the slag heaps on the edge of town and into the woods where, to his amazement, she lets him undress her and they appear to have full-blown sex – unfortunately, just after ‘the moment of satisfaction’, Billy hears rustling and sniggers from nearby bushes, leaps up and discovers his enemy from the office, Stamp, has watched the whole thing along with two drunken friends. Billy chases them off, then returns to collect Liz and they traipse back to the club in humiliation
    • when he finally arrives home after an eventful evening, it is to discover his Gran, taken ill earlier, has been sent off to hospital in an ambulance along with his Mum. Billy has a stand-up fight shouting match in the hall with his Dad, not only about his irresponsibility, but it comes out they’ve broken into the chest under his bed and discovered the stolen calendars and the letter his mum wrote the radio station which Billy was meant to post but instead opened and hid
    • disgusted and humiliated, Billy packs his things in a suitcase and takes a taxi to the hospital to be with his mother. His Gran dies while he is there. He and his mum sit there mouthing empty conventionalities. Once again, he is oppressed with the sense that not just he, but everyone is acting – the doctor, the nurses, his mum. He just wants to run away from the oppression of their inauthenticity.

And so Billy sees his mum into a taxi home and then walks to the railway station. He buys a ticket to London. He’s lost his job and will quite possibly be prosecuted for theft, he’s been shown up as a rotten stand-up, he was humiliated at the most important emotional moment of his life (with Liz), his best friend quietly despises him, his family are through with him…

He stands under the big clock at Stradhoughton station, the ticket to London in his hand, watched by the three old prostitutes trying to pick up drunk soldiers and realises that, for once in his life, he must make a real decision.

Can he? Will he? What will it be?


These final twenty or thirty pages significantly alter the mood of the novel. A lot of the joyful fizz expires like old champagne and, with the death of the Gran, in particular, something like the reality of life creeps over the text like a grey pall. His Dad is still the blustering bully and his Mum is still the shallow nag, but for a moment he realises they are people too, they too feel and suffer.

The sex-with-Liz scene had also been strangely anti-climactic – not only in the obvious sense that it was ruined by Stamp et al eavesdropping – but that, when it came to it, even at this moment of what should have been genuine emotional fulfilment, Billy feels empty, he stares beyond her into a void.

Shame the book has to end like this, on a downbeat. There are lots of earnest books about existential anxiety, about being a hollow man, in fact the twentieth century is lousy with them. There are far fewer genuinely fizzing, bubbling comic masterpieces – far rarer, far more valuable.

The movie

Made into the classic English ‘new wave’ Sixties movie, directed by John Schlesinger, starring Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie, released in August 1963. The film is beautifully directed, the locations (in black-and-white Bradford) wonderfully evocative, and the central performances buoyed up by great support from Leonard Rossiter as Shadrack and Rodney Bewes as Billy’s friend, Arthur.

But what it gains in visual style it loses in comic sparkle. The book is dominated by – is composed of – Billy’s endlessly joking, fantasising consciousness, carrying us on a roller-coaster in which other people are merely material for comic riffs. The movie, in contrast, has to show the reality of the other characters right from the start, has to give them realistic dialogue and so make them more real and sympathetic, which has the effect of drastically damping down the comedy. Beautifully made, nonetheless it brings out the grimness of the environment and Billy’s torturedness much more than the novel.

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