I’m reading a social history of the UK in the 1950s, Family Britain, which in the hands of a lesser writer might read like a list. First rationing loosened, then Churchill was re-elected, and then television began its overtake of radio in the UK. Author David Kynaston works with a rich and detailed treasure chest of journal entries, memoirs, and interviews. But even these would not be enough to deserve the Spectator’s review: “Kynaston is the most entertaining historian alive.” And that’s a great reason for us storytellers to look with care at this non-fiction writer’s craft.
One of Kynaston’s many strengths is the expert and inspired use of transitions between milestones, memories, and public and private reactions. He connects these with his readership through emotional resonance, so that although we read his book to learn facts, we find instead we’ve learned to care about the many small transformations that add up to that particular era’s journey. His craft is well worth studying for fiction writers.
I note with admiration the way he sets us deeply into the moment through transition and a feel for the weather following a journal entry on a Coronation day memory, when the diarist and her sister happened by Buckingham Palace late Coronation night and witnessed the new Queen’s unscheduled balcony appearance. “And then by Jove they came out, the Queen and the Duke, and they didn’t hurry back in either. We were transported… marvelling at our luck.”
Kynaston writes, “Whether on that Tuesday itself, or the dryer days after, Coronation celebrations took many forms … but the most emblematic celebration, the one closest to most people’s sense of what was fit and proper, was the street party, primarily but not exclusively for the children.”
With that transition from grownup joy, through the weather troubles that resonate with us all, and into the celebrations afterwards – wow, lovely, for the children, of course I’d get involved – Kynaston makes connections that at 60 years distance still involve us deeply. When I read that East London dads gave up their Friday pints for a few extra shillings for this party, I want to clap them on the back. Now, when Kynaston says that trestle tables were set up, we see the cost for some. Was it worth it, for those children? Did the young ones appreciate it?
His transition from the tables to a young girl looking down at them, up past her bedtime, makes it personal. Her dad, her memoir tells us, “who was more than a little drunk, spied me at the window. ‘Gi’us a song, Marie, hen,” he called out. I started singing In a Golden Coach…There’s a heart of gold, That belongs to you and me…
“That,” added Lulu, “was my first public appearance.”
For those of us who remember Lulu, Kynaston has again connected our past to this past, and since we really care, he can go on, certain of our attention, to explain exactly how the street parties were organized.
Family Britain is thick as a brick, not a word out of place, a superb work from which to study transitions, and anyway I can’t put it down.
Family Britain 1951-57 David Kynaston. Bloomsbury, London. 2009.