IN “Austerity Britain: 1945-1951,” British social historian David Kynaston tells the story of those drab, difficult postwar years so familiar to viewers of the stiff-upper-lip, black-and-white films the British studios were turning out at the time (“Brief Encounter,” “Passport to Pimlico”). Reading the many first-person accounts in this weighty, immensely detailed and sometimes evocative volume, you begin to see that, for countless people in that place at that time, life really was lived in a world devoid of color -- a place of long lines, of shortages, of frustration.
All the combatant nations of World War II had their problems adjusting to postwar realities in the late 1940s, but the British had a particularly extended and hard time of it. Not, it is true, as tough as the Germans or the Japanese -- but, after all, those countries had lost the war and Britain had won it. The cost of victory, however, had been high: the loss of Britain’s foreign assets, the “convertibility crisis” that saw a run on the pound sterling, and immense damage to public infrastructure and private property.
Life after the end of the war was in some ways more straitened than it had been during the conflict, and this seemed even harder to bear in light of the contrast between Britain and its American ally. Certainly, the United States had its own troubles in those years, including record high inflation, but the U.S. economy was expanding hugely and soon there was plenty of everything and lots to buy it with.
So while Londoners were experiencing increasingly harsh rationing of foodstuffs and clothes, they could see, in Hollywood movies (one import that public opinion insisted scarce dollars be used for), that Americans were living it up. Detroit was producing large, luxurious cars, and Angelenos, for example, were back to building freeways -- the Hollywood Freeway opened in 1949, when few Britons even owned a car or gave much thought to new highways. The Arroyo Seco Parkway (now the Pasadena Freeway) had opened in 1940, the year bombs started raining down on London; whenever you contemplate that date and think of the splendid American automobiles built in 1940 and 1941, you may find it easier to understand why so many in the U.S. wanted to stay out of the war.
But across the Atlantic, postwar Britain had to face the indignity of bread rationing -- something that had never been necessary even when the Nazi wolf packs were sinking so many of the ships supplying British granaries. As the 1950s began, Kynaston writes, “a wide range of foods was still being rationed, “including meat, cheese, fats, sugar and sweets . . . as well as tea.” If the continuing restrictions on this favorite British beverage was a running sore, it was at least easier to keep clean, now that, five years after the war, soap had finally came off the ration. Of all the various restrictions endured by the British from 1940 to 1950, it has always seemed to me that the hardest would be having to make do with a very few ounces of soap a week -- and having to choose whether to get it in the form suitable for personal hygiene, laundry or washing your dishes. Indeed, rationing of some foods continued even beyond the scope of this book -- not until 1954 were the last restrictions on domestic consumption removed.
But, as we find out in the course of “Austerity Britain’s” many revelations, there were some impressive achievements in those hard times. Chief among them was the establishment of the National Health Service, offering medical and dental care -- including free eyeglasses and dentures -- to all. In such impoverished circumstances, the achievement of this monumental undertaking is extraordinary; if ever a government would have been justified in claiming there wasn’t the money for anything on that scale, it was at this time. Yet the British went ahead with it, and 60 years later the nation is still providing universal health coverage, a principle supported by all succeeding administrations, even Margaret Thatcher’s.
In those years there were other changes afoot that would transform British society. The late 1940s saw the beginning of a vast emigration from British colonies in the West Indies, Asia and Africa, leading to today’s vibrantly multiracial, multicultural United Kingdom.
Professor Kynaston’s book is filled to the brim with information of all kinds: statistics and other documentation, accounts of personal reactions to the largest of trends and the most minor of events. The ultimate effect is of a wall of hieroglyphics, with the entire story of this time and place depicted on it.
And yet, though everything you might want to know about postwar Britain is contained in this book, the author has unfortunately failed to give it the narrative drive and structure that would maximize your engagement. Readers will need a certain amount of dedication to tease out its treasures.
Martin Rubin is a critic and author of “Sarah Gertrude Millin: A South African Life.”
Walker & Co.: 694 pp., $45