Austerity Britain, 1945-1951

David Kynaston

Walker Books




704 Pages



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As much as any country, England bore the brunt of Germany's aggression in World War II , and was ravaged in many ways at the war's end. Historian David Kynaston chronicles England's experience from bottom to top: coursing through the book, therefore, is an astonishing variety of ordinary, contemporary voices, eloquently and passionately displaying the country's remarkable spirit even as they were unaware of what the future would hold.

Together, these voices paint a fascinating portrait of the English people at a climactic point in history, and Kynaston links their stories to the headline-making events of the time. Their stories also form alongside those of more well-known figures like journalist-to-be Jon Arlott (making his first radio broadcast), actress Glenda Jackson, and writer Doris Lessing, newly arrived from Africa and struck by the leveling poverty of postwar Britain. Austerity Britain gives new meaning to the hardship and heroism experienced by England in the face of Germany's assaults.


Praise for Austerity Britain, 1945-1951

"Almost implausibly entertaining. Kynaston's rivetingly enjoyable book has a quality of glorious abundance and plenty."—Philip Hensher, Spectator

"Austerity Britain is a cracking read. The Attlee years have been covered before, notably in scholarly political histories by Kenneth Morgan and Peter Hennessy, but Kynaston's book is both more evocative and more entertaining than both."—Dominic Sandbrook, Daily Telegraph

"Even readers who can remember the years Kynaston writes about will find they are continually surprised by the richness and diversity of his material."—John Carey, Sunday Times

"Austerity Britain kicks off a series by the same author that will end in 1979, with the election of Margaret Thatcher. What a treat we have in store."—Mail on Sunday

"One of the greatest and most enduring publishing ventures for generations. It is very hard to praise the author too highly . . . this book is both a history and a triumphant work of art."—Brian Thompson, Observer

"This is a classic; buy at least three copies—one for yourself and two to give to friends and family . . . Kynaston's eye for the telling quotation enables him to fix the spirit of the age with just the right tone."—John Charmley, Guardian

"This is social history fashioned into narrative on the grand scale . . . Austerity Britain is an outstanding portrait of an age." Paul Addison, Literary Review

"As social history, Austerity Britain brings off the very difficult trick of combining chronological flow and themed discussion into a seamless narrative."—D.J. Taylor, Independent

"A must-read history, an intimate picture of a country trying to pick itself up after the war . . . A colossal undertaking and a magnificent history." Sue Baker, Publishing News

"Kynaston has produced an extraordinary panorama of Britain as it emerged from the tumult of war with a broken empire, a bankrupt economy and an ostensibly socialist government. Britain between 1945 and 1951 is an alien place. No washing machines, no highways, no supermarkets. Everything was heavy, from coins and suitcases to coats and shoes. Everything edible was rationed: tea, meat, butter, cheese, jam, eggs, candy. The awfulness of 1939-1945 still lingered, and ‘any conversation tended to drift toward the war, like an animal licking a sore place.' Yet, people assumed ‘Britain was still best: that was so deeply part of how citizens thought, it was taken for granted.' By combining astute political analysis with illustrative anecdotes brilliantly chosen from contemporary newspapers, popular culture and memoirs, Kynaston succeeds in recreating the lost world of austerity. The volume represents social history at its finest, and readers may look forward to its promised sequels taking the story of Britain up to 1979 and the election of Margaret Thatcher."—Publishers Weekly

"A broad study of British society in the immediate postwar era. In this first of a projected two books on the history of Britain between 1945 and the rise of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, Kynaston offers a Homeric catalog of the differences between now and then. In 1945, there were ‘no supermarkets, no motorways, no teabags, no sliced bread, no frozen food,' no this-and-that nearly ad infinitum, while there were, of course, plenty of hungry, bombed-out people and plenty of unemployed veterans. There were also few nonwhite Britons, few women working outside of women's-work occupations, few evident signs that Britain had actually won the war. The recovery was hardly rapid, Kynaston notes, but it was marked by all sorts of shifts in British society: a marked rise in the divorce rate, suicide and the like, but also the rising sense that there was more to life than simply working—that ‘work . . . was starting to lose some of its traditional centrality in terms of defining a working man's life and purpose' and that the old ‘tooth-and-nail capitalism' was on the way to being mediated by a state more hospitable to notions of social welfare. Kynaston is strong on odd juxtapositions in the more shadowy corners of British life. He notes, for instance, that while in the immediate postwar era ‘the black-market spiv really started to emerge as a well-known type,' a figure generally regarded as a parasite on the back of their misery, practically everyone bought on the black market anyway. Kynaston also looks at people who were much heard in the era and beyond, such as the controversial George Orwell and the emerging immigrant writer V.S. Naipaul, who grumbled, ‘It is impossible to get rich. . . . The income taxes are ridiculously high . . . and probably will go up with this heavy expenditure on re-armament.' Exemplary social history of a time still fresh in many Britons' minds—and much different from the postwar era in America."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

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  • David Kynaston

  • David Kynaston was widely acclaimed for his four-volume history The City of London. He is currently a visiting professor at Kingston University in England.