Austerity Britain: Smoke in the Valley, 1948–51 by David Kynaston (2007)

David Kynaston (b.1951) has written about 16 history books on broadly three topics: cricket, the City of London, and Britain after the Second World War. His post-war histories have been published as three volumes, each of which – rather confusingly – contained two books:

This is a review, or notes on, book two of volume one, Austerity Britain: Smoke in The Valley, which covers the years 1948 to 1951 i.e. from the inauguration of the National Health Service on 5 July 1948 to Labour’s defeat in the October 1951 general election.

In 1940 Somerset Maugham published a collection of short stories titled The Mixture As BeforeSmoke in the Valley continues with the mixture exactly as before, carrying right on with exactly the same approach as its predecessor, mixing daily diary entries from the core of housewives, teachers and minor civil servants which he used in the first book, along with notes and memoirs of more senior political figures involved in the big issues of the day, and the third element is the reports and findings of ‘experts’ – the observers of Mass Observation, and reports and papers by economists and sociologists.

The book continues seamlessly on from its predecessor, with no preface or introduction, the opening paragraphs leaping straight in to describe the opening ceremony of the first Olympic Games held after the war, in London. This took place on Thursday 29 July 1948, only three weeks after the National Health Service came into operation – a celebration of health following straight on from a recognition of the nation’s massive unhealth.

The few pages about the Olympics lead onto a description of that year’s Bank Holiday weekend with trippers heading to the warm seaside, then onto the way the holiday was marked by some of the earliest race riots in England, starting in Liverpool white gangs attacked an Indian restaurant and then groups of blacks in the street. Then Kynaston describes Don Bradman playing his last Test match at the Oval on 14 August, then we’re on to Nella Last, housewife in Barrow, queueing for rationed food and grumbling, and then a consideration of that evening’s wireless programmes on the BBC Light Programme and then onto the first professional win, a few weeks later, by the 12-year-old Wunderkind jockey, Lester Piggott.

Thus the opening pages declare that it will follow A World to Build in being a social history of the period, which follows the people’s priorities i.e. sport and food, and that the dominating note is the people’s experience of austerity, dinginess and impoverishment, mental and physical. As Gladys Langford, a schoolteacher in North London, complains:

Streets are deserted, lighting is dim, people’s clothes are shabby, and their tables are bare,

But as winter 1948 turned to spring 1949 rationing, for the first time, began to ease off. All consumer goods were still expensive, but there was a ‘bonfire of restrictions,’ supervised by the young and canny Harold Wilson, President of the Board of Trade, who knew how much good that catchphrase and the public ending of some ration restrictions would do his own political career. In April 1949, after seven years, sweets came off the ration (though there was such a burst of demand, that they went back on in August).

Domestically, a major ideological struggle opened up within the Labour Party between the ‘consolidators’ who thought most of its work had been done by 1948, and the ‘continuers’, led by Nye Bevan, who thought there was much left to do, though they were a little short on the details of what.

Iron and steel nationalisation proved the last and most difficult of the nationalisations to carry out, but the book powerfully conveys the sense, even among its own activists and think tank wonks, that the Labour government had run out of steam and ideas.

I learned that the NHS almost immediately went over budget, revealing the previously unsuspected depths of poverty and ill health throughout Britain.

The Cold War deepened with the establishment, in April 1949, of NATO as an explicitly anti-Soviet alliance.

The fundamental economic weakness of Britain was exposed by the Devaluation crisis when the pound sterling was devalued from $4.03 to $2.80 in 19 September 1949. Britain had to negotiate a loan from the U.S. which we were still paying off at the beginning of this (the 21st) century.

Kynaston paints a vivid picture of how it felt to be living in Britain during these years, though – in terms of history – I could have done with a clearer explanation of why – really clearly laying out the economic fundamentals of the weakness of sterling and the need for all products to be chanelled into an export drive which left pitifully little left for domestic consumers. I deduced this from the book, but it was nowhere really explained.

The cast

As well as continuing with the well-known voices from book one such as the housewives Nella Last, Vere Hodgson, Marian Raynham, Judy Haines and the author of a regular ‘Letter to America’, Mollie Panter-Downes, we are introduced to new members of the cast, including:

  • Michael Blakemore, Australian actor
  • Stewart Dalton, grew up on a council estate in Sheffield
  • Ian Dury, catching polio in Southend open air swimming pool aged 7
  • Alec Cairncross, stern adviser to Harold Wilson
  • Valeie Gisborne, 16-year-old employee who goes on a Leicester clothing factory outing
  • Cynthia Gladwyn, diarist
  • Frankie Howerd, up and coming comedian
  • Harold Hamer, President of the Association of Headmasters, Headmistresses, and Matrons of Approved Schools
  • Evelyn S. Kerr of Gidea Park, Essex
  • John Mays, sociologist
  • Paul Vaughan, BBC science broadcaster

among many more.

Culture high and low

One of the joys of the book is the happy acceptance of low or popular culture placed right next to the Big Political Issues. Thus we learn that Noddy Goes To Toyland, the first of the Noddy stories, was published in late 1949. On the third Monday of 1950, at 1.45pm on the Light programme, Listen With Mother began.

Here’s an example of Kynaston’s strategy of interweaving high and low: He starts a section with a summary and brief analysis of the 1949 film The Blue Lamp, which helped to make young Dirk Bogarde a star – before moving on to consider the results of a number of sociological studies carried out at the time into crime rates, and the best form of policing – before naturally segueing into something that was considered then and ever since as a major brake on crime, National Service. Between 1945 and 1960 some 2.5 million men were called up. Why? To police the British Empire, although many of them, when they saw what it amounted to, i.e. repressing native movements for independence, came back as fierce critics.

This gives an idea of how the text flows fluently and easily from one topic to the next, from the ‘trivial’ to the weighty – carrying you effortlessly through brief summaries of the political, economic, social and cultural highlights and issues of the day.

However, the obvious risk is that the whole thing, immensely lengthy and stuffed with anecdote and story though it is, nonetheless comes over as superficial. As mentioned above, despite reading 650 pages of detail I don’t really understand why Britain’s economy remained so weak for so long after the war, or why rationing continued for so long.

Similarly, the little section on National Service is interesting, but there is nothing at all about the massive events of the independence of India/Pakistan (15 August 1947) or Israel (14 May 1948). I appreciate that this is a history of Britain but there must have been some domestic response, from British Jews, say, or the politicians and civil servants involved. But events from the empire are glossed over in almost complete silence.

More social sciencey

Also, having started off in the same vein as its predecessor, I think Smoke in the Valley betrays a noticable shift in content i.e. the nature of the contributors.

In this volume there felt to be more material from and about ‘experts’ than in the first book, from- for example – a steady stream of contemporary economists and, in particular, summaries of more polls and surveys – from his central and abiding source of information about attitudes, Mass-Observation, but also from new polling companies such as Gallup, or Research Services Ltd run by Mark Abrams.

Thus we hear a lot from Ferdynand Zweig, a Polish émigré sociologist, who did extensive fieldwork for a series of books whose findings Kynaston liberally quotes, namely Labour, Life and Poverty (1948), Men in the Pits (1948), The British Worker (1952) and Women’s Life and Labour.

Other sociologists and social scientists quoted and referenced include:

  • Norah M. Davis, University of London psychologist, 1946 study of 400 building workers
  • Allan Flanders, author of The System of Industrial relations in Great Britain
  • Geoffrey Thomas of The Social Survey, author of Incentives in Industry
  • Stanislas Wellisz, industrial sociologist
  • the Acton Society Trust
  • Coal is Our Life (1956) by sociologists Norman Dennis, Fernando Henriques, Clifford Slaughter
  • Hilde Himmelweit’s study of 13 and 14-year-old boys at state schools
  • K.C. Wiggans, author of a 1950 survey of life and living conditions in Wallsend, Newcastle
  • The 1948 sociological study of Coventry carried out by Birmingham University

The main point

Maybe this reflects the way that, if the period 1945-48 was about rebuilding a ruined society, 1948 to 1951 was much more about trying to rebuild a ruined economy.

If the lasting impression of A World to Build is of rationing, austerity and impoverishment, the dominant theme of this volume is the failure of planning and investment. As he introduces this theme Kynaston refers repeatedly to Correlli Barnett’s scathing indictment of the post-war government, The Audit of War: The Illusion and Reality of Britain as a Great Nation, published in 1986.

The general idea is that in every conceivable way the British government muffed the opportunity to rethink and retool Britain for her role in the post-war world. All the senior figures in the Labour Goverment agreed that Britain needed a seat at the top table, needed a nuclear capability, must cling on to her empire. This resulted in the cost of Britain fighting to repress small wars of independence around the globe (Palestine, Cyprus, Malaya, Kenya – though none of these feature in the book) and led to decades of self-delusion.

Economically, in about 1950 Britain had a window of opportunity to systematically invest in its industry and infrastructure, but catastrophically failed. While Germany and Japan rebuilt their manufacturing sector from scratch, while the French embarked on a well-funded programme to make its railways the best in Europe, the Labour government nationalised the ‘commanding heights of the economy’ and then chronically failed to invest – in manufacturing, in railways or roads, in telecommunications or higher education.

The clash between the actual strength of the economy, and politicians’ delusions as to Britain’s role in the world issue, was highlighted when the Korean War broke out.

As soon as the government heard about it, all the Labour ministers lined up as one to immediately support the USA, and what became the UN response, to Korean aggression. The Labour government saw that, in the environment of the worsening Cold War, Britain needed to show unflinching solidarity with America, but also that by leaping in to support South Korea, Britain maintained the impression that it was still a global player with global interests to protect.

But critics at the time and ever since have wondered whether the money that was then redirected into war production (the MoD budget doubled as a result of the Korean War), and for the next three years, came at exactly the wrong time and delayed or derailed the investment which was so badly needed in home infrastructure.

The problems of domestic industry are exemplified in the fascinating little section on Britain’s motor industry which – despite all the bad things I grew up hearing about it in the 1970s – back in the post-war decade was still the largest car exporter in the world. It was fascinating to read about the plants of the different motor manufacturers in Dagenham, Luton, Cowley and so on, the particular brands of cars they made, and the oddities and shortcomings of the various owners and managing directors.

These are indicative of the way the failure of government to invest in new infrastructure went hand in hand with the pitiful amateurism to be found in lots of British industry, which was led by sons or relatives of founders, or chaps who went to the right school, or were members of the right gold club, a tendency raised to a rule in the stuffy and parochial world of the City of London.

Away from the housewives and films and FA Cup Finals, at a deeper level, when he looks at the economy, government, industry and finance, Kynaston paints a grim picture of the start of the Long Decline which lasted well into the 1970s, arguably into the 1980s.

Writers

Quite a few writers were quoted in the previous volume. In this one we hear for the first time from:

  • Alan Sillitoe b.1928 – author of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
  • Hunter Davies b.1936 – author, journalist and broadcaster, grew up in Carlisle
  • Walter Greenwood b.1903 in Salford, famous for Love on the Dole
  • Norman Hunter, author of the hit play Waters of the Moon

Related links

Ginger, You’re Barmy by David Lodge (1962)

It was as if the authorities had determined to seed out from the intakes of new recruits anyone with a spark of intelligence or individuality, together with the odd moron or psychopath, and to subject us all to the most farcical and futile form of training they could devise, just to teach us our place. (p.136)

Closely echoing Lodge’s own experience, the novel is the first-person narrative of a clever only child of older parents, Jonathan Browne. Like David, Jon made it to grammar school and then on to university to study English and take a First class degree, before being compelled to report for his National Service in darkest Yorkshire.

Here he encounters the brutality and vulgarity of the working class (‘the vast, uncouth British proletariat’ p.26), in the company of fellow ex-student Mike Brady, who is a deliberate contrast and foil to the restrained narrator – a clever man, big, solid and ginger-haired, who dossed away his time at uni and has a troubled relationship with his sweetly feminine girlfriend, Pauline.

Lodge was 25 or so when he was writing this, his second novel. The tone of voice is calm and reasonable, the style clear and devoid of tricks and flashinesses – the same style which makes his books of literary criticism so reasonable and his newspaper articles about literary technique so sensible and accessible. Only sometimes is the narrator a bit too pleased with his First, a bit too keen to namedrop Two Gentlemen of Verona or Lord Rochester, and occasionally drops into an ornate prissiness of phrasing which bespeaks the author’s reverence for the periphrastic periods of Henry James.

National Service

From 1 January 1949, healthy males 17 to 21 years old were expected to serve in the Armed Forces for 18 months, and remain on the reserve list for four years. In October 1950, in response to the British involvement in the Korean War, the service period was extended to two years. National Service ended gradually from 1957. In November 1960 the last men entered service, as call-ups formally ended on 31 December 1960, and the last National Servicemen left the Armed Forces in May 1963. (Source: Wikipedia)

As his afterword states, Lodge served from August 1955 to August 1957. The novel was published five years later, just as National Service ceased to exist, and the whole era he describes was shortly to be swept away by the revolutionary changes of the 1960s. Even a decade later it must have seemed a period piece and now it seems like ancient history.

Atmosphere

Although the narrator looks back on the entire period as a pointless waste of time, characterised by grimly early starts, late nights polishing boots and buttons, disgusting food, freezing barracks, scratchy uniforms and sadistic sergeants, nonetheless Lodge’s characteristic warmth and humanity shine through. Even the sensitive narrator’s rude exposure to the violent and coarse working class with their shallow pleasures and brutal humour convey fondness. The barrack room lout, Norman, who bullies the weakest recruits, forcing them to the floor and ‘riding’ them like horses, is met much later in the novel, having discovered a remarkable aptitude for looking after the garrison pigs 🙂

We went over to the cookhouse for tea, and discovered that the meal was Shepherd’s Pie. We had rashly eaten this before. Mike swore it was made from real shepherds. (p.145)

The bedrock, the majority, of the text is an amusing and humane memoir of National Service in the mid-50s.

Sex

The 1950s were the era of sexual frustration, when a generation which had been through the crisis of world war two and was subject to floods of racy American movies and fiction, still found it difficult to take their clothes off without turning out the light.

The narrator’s sexual frustration is a prominent theme in the novel and the tone is set by a scene in the first few pages where Jonathan is talking to his lady love, sits on the sofa with her, they start kissing and – this time, hooray! – he gets as far as slipping his hand inside her pyjamas and stroking up her side just far enough to touch her naked breast – at which point she says, ‘Better not’, and he reluctantly agrees, withdraws his hand and spends the rest of the scene quietly burning with frustration.

This time I seemed to be climbing higher up her rib-cage than usual, until my fingers met the soft protuberance of her breast. I held my breath like a thief who has trodden on a creaking floor-board, and then my hand closed over her breast… Pauline moaned faintly, ‘Better not, darling,’ and I withdrew my hand. (p.15)

People spent their entire lives like that. What must they have thought of the Swinging London depicted by people like Adam Diment, which was to erupt just 3 or 4 short years later – short skirts, the Pill, women falling into your lap like cherry blossom.

A major strand of the plot is that Jonathan slowly falls in love with (becomes infatuated with/realises he stands a chance of getting off with) his friend Mike’s girlfriend, Pauline. Plenty of cold nights in the barracks are made a little less dreary by his heated fantasies about Pauline. Swiftly followed, of course, by pangs of guilt.

Catholicism

Speaking of guilt, Lodge is a Roman Catholic. In the novel’s afterword he records his debt to Graham Greene who, as the most famous Catholic novelist in English, was a huge influence on the young writer. Pity. Graham Greene’s characteristic subjects are adultery, guilt and despair tending to suicide, the permanent impossibility of happiness. Greene’s influence was to make people think that feeling desperately unhappy, behaving badly and then luxuriating in a pornographic sense of your own sinfulness and damnation, somehow made you a superior person, proved your refined morality, cursed oh cursed with these damn finer feelings and a suffering spirituality which set you apart from the common herd.

All very appealing to the anxious and immature, of all ages.

The voodoo of Greeneish Catholicism (‘oh Hell! oh Damnation!’) leaves a scar across the text in the suicide of Percy Higgins, a clumsy, sensitive posh boy hopelessly out of place in the Army, a weakling driven to suicide by their crude, cruel NCO.

Or was he? To extract maximum thrills, Percy is made a Catholic and so is Jon’s friend, Mike who, when they hear Percy’s gun go off, is first to Percy’s side where he kneels and desperately gives him the Last Rites (without which an all-loving God apparently sends you to Hell). The authorities then have to decide whether Percy deliberately shot himself or was just so damn clumsy he discharged his weapon by accident, a debate lent spurious depth by the application of Catholic melodrama.

This is the most violent and striking event in the novel (the soldiers never go abroad to fight in Korea or Kenya or Malaysia, as other National Service soldiers did; they never get further than Darlington) and turns out to be the central plot strand. It causes Mike and Jon to be held back from leave and compelled to give evidence at the resulting coroner’s hearing, and prompts Mike, one quiet night, to take his revenge on the NCO who bullied Percy to his death, by beating him unconscious. A disastrous movie which leads Mike to be arrested, and enables Jon to move in on his girlfriend, the softly feminine Pauline.

Two timeframes

Lodge takes his basic memoir of National Service and subjects it to some interesting technical modulations, mainly around the time scheme. It opens with a description of Jonathan’s nerves about his call-up, his preparations and journey by train north to Catterick, his first impressions and experiences. Chapter two, however, leaps 2 years down the line, to his last few weeks as a soldier: he is now an old hand, has made it to Corporal, knows how to rig the system, and has acquired a girlfriend, Pauline, with whom he’s planning to celebrate his freedom with a trip to Majorca and (maybe, just maybe) actual sex!!!

Thereafter the two timeframes alternate, one chapter moving us forward through the intense first weeks of Jonathan’s basic training, introducing us to key characters in his cohort of recruits, NCOs and officers –  the next leaping to his last few days, as he effectively says goodbye to a world he’s become so familiar with.

(In the afterword, Lodge freely admits this is another borrowing from Graham Greene, whose mature novels, from The End of The Affair to The Honorary Consul, are often a complex mosaic of memories, diaries, dreams and flashbacks.)

It works. It creates narrative tension because, whereas in the ‘first days’ sections he only slowly gets to meet Pauline in her role as his best friend’s girlfriend, let alone talk to her, in the ‘last days’ sections we see Jonathan as her well-established boyfriend, sitting on the sofa and managing – just now and then – to touch her bare breast! Clearly, in the middle of the two sections, something interesting happens – but what?

Meanwhile, the final section of the novel moves it onto a new plane of melodrama.

Mike is sentenced to two years in military prison for assaulting the NCO. He asks Jonathan to smuggle out and post a letter. Some time later Mike benefits from an audacious jailbreak and is spirited away. Time passes in the usual boring squad-bashing way, until the very last day of Jonathan’s service when, by an enormous coincidence, he is able to foil an armed attack on the lax barracks by masked members of the IRA (!). And who was among these desperadoes? Mike! Turns out Mike is of Irish extraction – Jonathan had met some of his Irish friends on leave in London – they were the only people he could turn to after his arrest, and after they sprang him from prison it was at the price of forcing him to give them the inside information which would allow them to make an embarrassing raid on a British Army barracks. And Jon happened to be on guard that night!

As a direct result of the information Jon provides the authorities, Mike is captured and sentenced to three years in gaol and Jonathan is racked with a Catholic’s best friend, gnawing guilt. The whys and wherefores of how Jonathan took over Pauline from Mike are understandably overshadowed by this dramatic turns of events.

Third timeframe

And in rather the same way, the basic structure of alternating timeframes is itself transcended by another framing device: for the novel opens with a three-page prologue in the narrator’s voice, teasingly mentioning that the entire narrative has been written at some kind of decisive moment, for some kind of important reason — without revealing anything more… oooh what is it?

And the final few pages of the book consist of an epilogue which swiftly places all the preceding events in historical perspective. Jonathan quickly explains that: immediately after foiling the IRA raid he left the Army and went on his long-awaited holiday with Pauline. As might be predicted for a such a long-expected sexual jamboree, the holiday is a disaster as Pauline promptly comes down with food poisoning and the runs and is bed-ridden. Bored, Jonathan finds himself buying a notebook and starting to jot down memories of his National Service, until it turns into a compulsion and, even when Pauline is much better, up and ready to enjoy herself, old boring-face can hardly be torn away from pen and paper.

Eventually, she manages to get him tipsy at a dance and, in a horribly sex-hating, typically English scene reeking of embarrassment and shame about sex, they make love.

Pauline, demoralised and disarmed by my erratic behaviour, responded with starved eagerness, and I ended the night in her bed. There, after much effort, I succeeded in rupturing her hymen, and planted in her the sperm which became the small boy now emitting such an offensive odour at my feet. (p.209)

Yuk. As a result of this one joyless union, Pauline, inevitably, becomes pregnant and Jonathan finds himself forced to abandon his ambitions to become an academic, obligated to marry Pauline – who he is not now sure that he particularly likes and – in the final twist of the novel, decides to move down to Devon to be near the prison (presumably Dartmoor) where Mike is sent. In fact he decides to do something selfless and moral with his life, and sets up adult education classes in the prison and visits Mike every week without fail for three long years.

On the last page we find out what the prologue had been hinting at when it said, 200 pages earlier, that the narrator was jotting down these notes on this momentous morning… For it is the morning when Jonathan is going to meet Mike upon his release from prison, to offer him the shelter of his house, to rehabilitate him, to reintroduce him to the girlfriend who has since become his wife and borne him two children. What will happen? What will Mike be like and say? What do their futures hold in store?

Conclusion

  • I liked the basic material of the memoir of National Service very much, it is honest and interesting.
  • I liked the bullying of the barrack room weakling a lot less, as this is a standard-issue cliché of new recruit novels and movies.
  • The positioning of the girl as the love interest between two boys felt like a contrived plot device.
  • I thought the increasing focus on Mike, his imprisonment, his escape, and then the last-day raid by the IRA, disappeared over the edge into silliness.
  • Thus, I had zoned out by the time I came to read the epilogue with its very compressed résumé of Jonathan’s life, the unplanned pregnancy, the hurried wedding, the loveless marriage, the abandoned career and the decision to devote his time to selflessly visiting and supporting Mike.

It is the tragedy of the novel as an art form that so many of its practitioners feel obliged to tell a story, no matter how contrived and clichéd, instead of somehow being able to rest content with the descriptions, moods, incidents and anecdotes, which so many of them are so much better at, and so much more at home with.


Ginger, you’re barmy

It’s a music hall song. Lodge gives a version of the lyrics which rhyme barmy with Army, and which I can’t find in any of the versions on YouTube, which only features the version below, where the hero is ‘barmy’ because it is 1910 and he refuses to wear a hat.

Related links

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down
1970 – Out of the Shelter
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses
1980 – How Far Can You Go?
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance
1988 – Nice Work
1991 – Paradise News
1995 – Therapy
2001 – Thinks …
2004 – Author, Author
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

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