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Austerity Britain, 1945-1951 (Tales of a New Jerusalem) Paperback – October 6, 2008

4.1 out of 5 stars 36 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Kynaston (author of the four-volume The City of London) 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. 20 b&w photos. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From The New Yorker

Drawing on a remarkable array of diaries, letters, memoirs, and surveys, Kynaston assembles a polyphonic history of a pivotal time. In July, 1945, Winston Churchill was swept from office in an electoral landslide, his wartime leadership already overshadowed by domestic worries like jobs and housing—seven hundred and fifty thousand dwellings had been damaged in the war, and six million lacked indoor toilets. Kynaston’s account of the six years of Labour Government that followed attends as much to daily life—often grim, with rationing still in effect—as to the top-down reconstruction that included the creation of the National Health Service and the nationalization of swaths of British industry. Support for such planning was broad, with even the arch-establishment Times of London in favor of the N.H.S., but not always deep, and Kynaston emphasizes the British people’s complex feelings about the policies undertaken in their name.
Copyright ©2008Click here to subscribe to The New Yorker --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Tales of a New Jerusalem
  • Paperback: 704 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC (October 6, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0747599238
  • ISBN-13: 978-0747599234
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 1.7 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,485,014 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
David Kynaston begins his book, the first of a planned multi-volume survey of Britain, on a high note by chronicling the celebrations of V-E Day. It is a joyous starting point for his ambitious goal, which is to chart the evolution of the nation from the end of the Second World War to the election of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government in 1979. It is an era that began with the commitment to nationalizing industries and creating the modern welfare state and ended with a government winning power with a promise to undo many of these programs, and Kynaston plans to show how the country developed over this period. This he does by focusing on the people who lived in those times, drawing from the early work of Mass-Observation, contemporary press accounts and the private writings of diarists to provide a sprawling portrait of Britain in the late 1940s.

What particularly stands out is how much different the nation was back then. The Britain that emerges from these pages is a nation driven by an industrial economy, with an overwhelmingly white and predominantly male workforce in physically demanding jobs producing a quarter of the world's manufactured goods. The everyday lives of these Britons was different as well, lacking not only the modern conveniences that the author notes early in the text but even many of the basics of prewar life, basics which had been sacrificed to the exigencies of war. Kynaston notes their growing frustration with ongoing scarcity, a frustration that illustrated the gulf between their harsh realities and the idealistic dreams of government planners that is a persistent theme of the book.

Richly detailed, superbly written, and supplemented with excellent photographs, Kynaston's book is an outstanding account of postwar Britain.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Written for a British eye more than for an American, this American learned a stronger respect for the people of Britain for the way they won the war and then won back their share of industry and prosperity. Having won a glorious victory, within hours the victorious citizens of the country that sustained almost six years of war following on a prolonged depression realized that the trials of war time would be extended by the austerity of post-war Europe. While England won the war, they paid a high price. More important, the collective, heroic efforts of the large working class produced a tide of enthusiasm for nationalisation of industry, housing to replace the hundreds of thousands displaced by German bombing, and a broad social welfare plan focusing primarily on health care.

It is not a pretty story. Post-war England was drab, lacking many basics, watching its empire dissolve, and driven by a strong, centralized plan to restore the economy that changed the basic way people looked at business and government. And, with the continuing pressures of rebuilding the rest of Europe, the threat of further communist expansion, and the rise of American power, perhaps Britain went too far in moving towards a benevolent but often clumsy and experimental form of socialism. It would be almost another forty years and the decisions of the Thatcher government, that saw the maturity and, in some cases, the reversal of this social and cultural experiment.

This is a long, dense and colorful book, full of first-person details and observations, many of them from the surveys and observations of the government itself. Chapters focus on various aspects of the cultural and social revolution, in the classroom, on the factory floor, in the (mine) pits, in the shops, in the media, and more.
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Format: Paperback
Before purchasing this book, I actually bought and read Austerity Britain: Smoke In The Valley by the same author. I didn't know at the time of the recent purchase that 'Smoke in the Valley' is actually a stand-alone publication of the second half of 'Austerity Britain 1945-51'. Prospective purchasers of either should be aware of this fact.

All in all, I derived some enjoyment from this book because of my interest in the time period. However, I did not feel able to award more than three stars because of a couple of serious criticisms: Firstly (and I admit this is a matter of personal taste), I thought the focus on the politics of the period was given too much emphasis over other aspects of social life. Secondly, and far more importantly, the structure and organization of this fairly lengthy work is abominable. In any give chapter, the author will speak of some particular general topic (such as rationing) and then, within a paragraph or so, suddenly switch to something like the divorce rate in a specified year, and then, just as suddenly and haphazardly, go onto something just as radically different. These same topics will then get visited and re-visited dozens of times (the order of change from one to the other differing from chapter to chapter) without any sort of logical linkage. I might have enjoyed this work very much had not the disorganization made reading it so very laborious to plod through.
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Format: Hardcover
I have to confess to being somewhat disappointed by David Kynaston's Austerity Britain: 1945 to 1951. At 633 pages (plus notes), it brings new meaning to the terms "ponderous tome" and "laborious read". On the plus side, it does offer a considerable amount of well-researched detail about the period. But that said, it is crippled in presentation by a frequently frustrating lack of context and a baffling lack of structure. Reading through it was a considerable struggle, somewhat on the scale of attempting to put together a 10K piece jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box cover to serve as a guide. All in all, I think that the real target audience for this book is either people who are already fairly familiar with the period or Britons who are over the age of 60 and can actually remember it.

While the individual details are interesting, the lack of context leave the reader in something of a muddle, very much a case of being unable to see the forest for the trees. And while the quotes from individuals, famous and ordinary, from the period do offer interesting insight, after a while one gets the impression that Kynaston is determined to include a quote from every single person who ever lived in or visited Britain during those years. It really does get to be overkill after a while.

And once one has finally slogged through the 600-plus pages, the final frustration is that the book simply ends. No conclusion, no summary, no particular historical event or context to mark the end of the period. It just... stops. One is left with the impression that no editor ever came anywhere near this book before it was sent off to the printers.
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