history notes: david kynaston, the "britain" series

having semi-successfully fought the head cold to a stand still, i took the opportunity of so much time in a prone position, to finish the second volume of david kynaston’s giant — and i do mean giant, the volumes are only a little under three inches thick — history of britain, family britain. i already finished off austerity britain a few weeks ago. the first volume covers the years 1945-1951; this second, 1951-1957. each of these two volumes is actually an omnibus of two original volumes printed under different titles. i can only assume that this was a publication decision made for an american market: each of the four, individually printed, wouldn’t do well, so bung ’em together and call it a day. i can’t say that i think this was a bad decision; it certainly makes them easier to get through like this.

the good stuff: endlessly amusing anecdotal evidence; plenty of stuff about pop culture (the origin of the bbc, 1940s-1950s radio and tv programming which i find fascinating and familiar); good leaves of photographs; broad coverage of all kinds of events from political to personal; nice index; good sources if you feel like wading through all the freakin’ end notes. (really. end notes are just made of evil. you know the references are in there but finding them is like wading through an unfun labyrinth.)

the bad stuff: the anecdotal evidence. while it’s charming and kynaston depends on a small crew of diarists — mostly middle or lower-middle class — to bring out “ordinary” life in britain during the period, he’s also totally unanalytical about it. just because someone wrote it in a diary that, presumably, wasn’t meant for public view or publication, he takes it as truthful, unbiased, “genuine.” “genuine” is one of his favorite words; as is “authentic.” the thumbnail rule here is: the lower the class, the more authentic.

this is very obvious bollocks.

the more you think about it, the more crap it becomes. it presumes that someone living at a certain income level has a more direct line to “truth” than someone else at a different level. it would be nice if it were true; then all you’d have to do is find the lowest socio-economic denominator and, boom! one history book per period and truth is found! unfortunately — or fortunately ’cause how boring would that be? — it doesn’t work that way. the lack of context, lack of analysis, lack of thought put into the use of these sources — which are mouthwateringly wonderful to someone with a pickier turn of mind — is really a shame. they’re more or less wasted on the page, reduced to being just another form of history as just “one fucking thing after another.”

kynaston also comes across as more than a little pedantic and condescending to his lower-class subjects in a very obvious way that can be kind of cringe-making to read. in the second book, particularly, his attitude veers from the patriarchal to the outright snobbish to the overly sympathetic, “we’re all lads together.” the lack of analysis i talked about a minute ago leads him to take almost everything at face value; therefore, the presentation by the sources of lower-class and working-class life as a constant race between work, home, and the pub is, for kynaston, the truth as revealed by the source. he quotes a page and a half from a working man’s diary, then summarizes it as being work, alcohol, betting, and says that this is what you could “call” working-class “culture.” the snobbery practically drips off the page. while the rest of the english world, apparently, was fascinated by the comet airplane and the premiere of “look back in anger” and “waiting for godot,” the poor benighted (largely northern) working-class just couldn’t get its head out of the pub or the football game.

and this is beyond the fact that the diary as quoted says no such thing! an analytical historian would have been able to pick out threads of family life, concern about wages, worry over ailing family members, pleasure day trips — a whole world of concerns and enjoyments outside of the pub and the football game that kynaston is happy to subsume in a stereotype.