Monday, 26 October 2009

Holistic history

It's rare for the publication of a history book to be a news event. So the full page article in yesterday's Observer devoted to the historian David Kynaston is quite something. He's working on a monumental history of Britain, Tales of a New Jerusalem, and the second instalment in the series, Family Britain 1951-1957, has just been published.

It's heartening that at least one editor regards this as mainstream news. Judging from the first work, Austerity Britain 1945-1951, Kynaston's undertaking is going to be quite extraordinary. He's previously written another monumental multi-volume history, of the City of London, which was very well researched and constructed. However, Tales of a New Jerusalem, seems to me to mark something of a new departure in the writing of history.

The Observer piece places Kynaston's work in the 'bottom-up' category of social history, an inheritor of the French Annales school. This is understandable: the work is based largely on the diaries of a large cross-section of people and relates both the everyday and the special in their lives. I'm a bit abashed to say that this is one of the reasons I hesitated to pick up Austerity Britain (despite T's strong recommendation).

Firstly, there was the title, Austerity Britain: rather unappetising. More substantively, I find this sort of history can have its rewards but it's rarely a page-turner. The minutiae of ordinary people's lives can be fascinating but inevitably the 'story' aspect of history can be lacking. It also has to be said that ordinary people are often not as interesting as extraordinary people, who tend to figure more in 'top-down' history.

But 'bottom-up' doesn't do it justice: it's more holistic history. Kynaston's work manages to bridge existing categories. Austerity Britain has narrative drive: although you're following what's happening in everyday lives, you never lose touch with what's happening politically, on the national stage. This is because you really are reading about the experiences and thoughts of a cross-section of British society. It doesn't just feature 'ordinary' people, though you do often see great events through their eyes, an oblique view that can sometimes be amusingly deflating (the book is very funny in places). But you also drop into what the policy-makers, intellectuals, politicians and bureaucrats are doing and thinking.

And this provides one of the most fascinating features of Austerity Britain: you witness a dialogue between the intentions of policy-makers and the experiences of those who had to deal with their output. It provides a sometimes amusing, sometimes anger-making lesson in the limits of centrally-directed change, at a time when the man in Whitehall really was reckoned to know best (following the ideas and impact of the new cadre of town planners makes you alternately smile and gnash your teeth).

For me, if the book does have a point of view, an argument, this is it (a possibly controversial claim; I'd like to hear the author's views). It'll be interesting to see how this theme develops; it's why I think the series will amount to more than the 'chronicle' of one (albeit complimentary) reviewer.

In the article, Kynaston gives us an insight into his inspiration and method:
"I particularly like 19th-century novels and something of that thickness of texture is what I'm aiming at. The idea is to have a sequence of books with a cast of thousands but with some continuity, whether it be obscure diarists or better known people, who would knit the thing together."

The result is the most beautiful historical pointillism. Each individual account is distinct and characterful, but combined they create a portrait that tells a story, and one that in tracing individual and collective journeys ultimately proves quite moving. As a critic quoted in the article claims it's 'both a history and a triumphant work of art'. I look forward to reading Family Britain 1951-1957.


worm said...

Haven't read it yet, but Austerity Britain has been on my 'to do list' for a while. Its an era that I am very interested in, specifically the sort of grey, seedy, smoggy, bombed-out side.

However, I have a few books on the subject and also crime in london during the war - and they are all really rather dry and boring, but now I've read your review I'm quite excited about this book ! Im off to amazon for a look

worm said...

just got the hardback for a fiver! Looking forward to it!!

Gaw said...

Happy bargain reading! There's quite a bit on consumer life which should be of interest to an ad man such as yourself.

I used a birthday voucher to buy the new one in hardback. Should keep me occupied for a while. Hope it doesn't disappoint after the welcome I gave it!

worm said...

talking of consumers - have you read 'queuing for beginners' by Joe Moran? I note that you are subscribed to his blog...

Gaw said...

No I haven't. I stumbled across Joe Moran's blog the other day and enjoyed a couple of his posts. You'd recommend it then?

worm said...

yeah definately, both his books are worth a read, they are a bit lightweight, promising much more than they deliver, but are good nonetheless - 'queing for beginners' is popular sociology/ anthropology examining consumer behaviour patterns that we follow without perhaps realising why, and of course most of these buying patterns were influenced by the legacy of the war.

his new book 'on roads' is more thought-provoking and, I thought, interesting possibly due to the comical mundanity of its subject

worm said...

blimey - the book arrived this morning and it's HUGE - what have you let me in for?? Im going to be reading that for about a year

Gaw said...

Just underlines what a bargain you got. The cost per minute at 500p/365 days/1hour per night/60minutes is a vanishingly small number. Great recession era leisure.

worm said...

haha excellent! let the austerity entertainment begin!