Archive for the ‘Affluence’ Category

Britain Sixty Years Ago (V): With Love and Laughter.   Leave a comment

In mid-fifties’ Britain, political satire, exuberantly popular in Georgian times, now returned in full force with the advent of the new media of radio and TV. It also featured savage cartoons in the newspapers, staged lampoons and fortnightly mockery in the magazine Private Eye. Among the two million regular listeners to The Goon Show in the mid-fifties were key members of the next generation of comics, men like Jonathan Miller and Peter Cook. The Goons passed the baton to Beyond the Fringe, which passed it to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, from where it went to Little Britain. Each generation built on the humour of the previous one, changed it and then passed it on. Peter Cook, Spike Milligan’s only rival as the outstanding comic genius of his age, sent a schoolboy script to Milligan at the BBC which was good enough for him to be invited up to London for lunch. In turn, the group of comedians who became known as The Pythons were transfixed by Cook and his friends. In the decade that they grew up after the war, Britain was still dominated by the private schools, which were often bleak institutions. The austerity years meant little heating, poor food and few modern facilities, a life conditioned by brutal customs and petty hierarchies often dating back before the Edwardian years to the founding of many of the ‘public schools’ in mid-Victorian times.

Peter Cook’s school, Radley in Oxfordshire, still ’employed’ a régime  which deployed frequent beatings, cold showers, complicated dress codes, compulsory star-jumps, thumpings with hockey sticks for minor transgressions, and a great deal of other forms of bullying, all of which went undeterred by the staff. This forced bright but vulnerable children like Cook to develop mimickry and mockery to deflect bullies. He would make people laugh so that they wouldn’t hit him. Richard Ingrams, editor of Private Eye, attended Shrewsbury School, whose new boys were called ‘douls’ after the Greek for slave; its day started with cold baths; it too had a byzantine dress code, involving different colours of scarf, tie and waistcoat, and when the whole school was sent on cross-country runs, the boys were chased by men with whips. Ingram’s humour was less about mimickry and more about writing mock school magazines with Paul Foot, son of the Labour leader Michael, and Willie Rushton. In many ‘public-private’ schools, such as at John Cleese’s Clifton College in Bristol, boys developed underground languages to cope with their aggressive, closed communities. They knew little of women, which meant that the humour that emerged from them was often ridiculously naive about sex. They were rarely politically radical, since they were from a privileged élite. Cook’s father had been a colonial civil servant in Nigeria and Gibraltar. Ingrams was the son of an eccentric banker and intelligence agent, a one-time member of a pro-Nazi Anglo-German Fellowship Society, and a Catholic mother whose father had been doctor to Queen Victoria. Both men were brought up to look down on the working classes as essentially inferior and comic. Their satire was biting, with underlying layers of anger and hurt. But it would be very public schoolboyish as well, involving much juvenile tittering and snobbery.

The brightest of these ‘boys’ then went on to Cambridge or Oxford, still then mainly male societies, and where in those days there was a direct line from the world of Oxbridge student reviews, like The Cambridge Footlights to the West End theatres. Future satirists mingled with fellow students who would go on to become politicians and business leaders. Peter Cook’s generation at Cambridge in 1957 included the later Conservative cabinet ministers Michael Howard, Kenneth Clarke (just returned sixty years later as an MP and ‘father’ of the House of Commons) and Leon Brittan, as well as various actors and impresarios. Cook’s biographer, Harry Thompson, has pointed out that:

One reason has traditionally produced so many political satirists is that its undergraduates come face to face with their future political leaders at an early age, and realise then quite how many of them are social retards who join debating societies to find friends.

It could be added that the same could be said of those joining theatrical societies and satirical magazines. At Cambridge, Cook simply transferred his monotone sketches about the Radley School butler to his new environment and eventually had half the undergraduates mimicking him and repeating his one-liners. Cook found his voice as a schoolboy and maintained the same deadpan drawl at Cambridge to Edinburgh’s Beyond the Fringe review, to London, New York and global success. Similarly, Ingrams and Rushton transferred their jokes and cartoon characters to the pages of Private Eye. There were, of course, many other comics and satirists from other backgrounds, including Alan Bennett, the Yorkshire grammar school boy and Dudley Moore, the working-class boy from Dagenham who became the other half of the comedy duo with Peter Cook in the TV series Not only… but also… There was also David Frost, the son of a Methodist preacher from Kent. But it was the dominant personalities of Cook and Ingrams which gave them so strong a hold over the satire boom which began in the second half of the fifties. If Cook had any politics of his own, they were difficult to discern, and always took second place to a good punchline, though Fluck and Law, who went on to create the latex satirical puppetry of Spitting Image, were socialist friends of Cook. At the time of the satire boom itself, there was no organic link between the left of British politics and the wave of comedians, mimics and journalists who tore down the facade of Tory Britain towards the end of their thirteen years in power. There could not have been, since too many of the satirists were public schoolboys,  getting their revenge on the nation’s authority figures for the way they had been bullied. Macmillan for them was the image of the head of a decaying prep school, but Labour was also worthy of snobbish ridicule – full as it was with lower middle-class and working-class people with funny accents and petty, mundane concerns.

Ian Fleming was also a fine example of how the British society was tightly twisted at the top. He was yet another Etonian, and yet another character who flitted between journalism, intelligence and high society. From a Scottish banking family, he had tried Sandhurst, foreign correspondence – including in Stalin’s Moscow – and the City, before joining Naval Intelligence during the war. There his wild schemes for sabotage and dirty tricks were widely considered more fit for novels. After the war he ran a network of foreign correspondents and tried to work out ways of moving out of the dreary reality of austerity London. He eventually built a house in Jamaica, then still a colony, which he called Goldeneye. It was here that the Edens fled after the Suez Crisis to recuperate. In different ways, all these people, from Nöel Coward to the newspaper barons, Hugh Gaitskell to the Flemings, were struggling with time warp lives and challenged patriotism. Morals were becoming more fluid and new kinds of pleasure were seeping in. Gaitskell in particular was able to appreciate Fleming’s books, writing of the Bond books in the New Statesman that:

I am a confirmed Fleming fan – or should it be addict? The combination of sex, violence, alcohol and – at intervals – good food and nice clothes is, to one who lives such a circumscribed as I do, irresistable.

There’s probably no better testimony to the way in which the austerity years gave way to the affluent society. James Bond became one of the most successful if mildly ironic symbols of recovering British pride after Suez. From Russia, with Love, first published in Britain in April 1957, is the fifth novel by Fleming to feature his fictional British Secret Service agent. Fleming wrote the story in early 1956 at his Goldeneye estate in Jamaica; at the time he thought it might be his final Bond book. The novel deals with the East–West tensions of the Cold War, and the decline of British power and influence in the post-Second World War era.

Fleming’s sketch showing his concept of the James Bond character.

From Russia, with Love received broadly positive reviews at the time of publication. The book’s sales were boosted by an advertising campaign that played upon a visit by the British Prime Minister’s visit to Fleming’s Goldeneye estate. Fleming’s first work of non-fiction, The Diamond Smugglers, was also published in 1957 and was partly based on background research for his fourth Bond novel, Diamonds Are Forever. Much of the material had appeared in The Sunday Times and was based on Fleming’s interviews with John Collard, a member of the International Diamond Security Organisation who had previously worked in MI5. Even before they were transformed into the endless films, the novels provided a glorious fantasy for a nation in trouble, and in his earlier Bond stories Fleming worked to satisfy the almost pornographic lust of the British for the richer, more colourful consumer culture over the Atlantic. But though Fleming was a connected member of the élite, and had pictured his hero as an Old Etonian, it was a Scottish working-class body-builder, Sean Connery, who was chosen to play him in the first films. After that, Bond became, ironically, something of an outsider figure in the popular imagination, which perhaps helps to explain his endurance as a British cultural icon. Fleming’s original establishment character might not have appealed to a mass film audience in the more egalitarian atmosphere of the sixties.

Source:

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

 

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Britain Sixty Years Ago (III): Never so good or ‘candy-floss culture’?   Leave a comment

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Despite the evidence of the destruction of traditional social relations brought about by high-rise housing developments, there are plenty of other sources which suggest that, behind the new consumer goods and gadgets, the stubborn continuities of working-class life and culture survived the 1950s. But ‘community’, a notion which is unthinkable in English social experience without the context of the typical working-class neighbourhood, became a matter of widespread and fundamental concern. Behind the clear manifestations of change there emerged the question as to whether, as the conditions and patterns of social life for working people changed, with their increased wages being poured into the new consumer goods, people might be uprooted from the life they had known and largely made for themselves, and transplanted in another one largely made for them by ‘others’. This might involve a move not just from one social class to another, but also from the class ‘ideal’ of solidarity, neighbourliness and collectivity to that of individuality, social struggle to ‘keep up’ and ‘get on’. People became visibly and audibly more middle class, determined to ‘keep themselves to themselves’.

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Above: The Willenhall Estate in Coventry, in its early days in the late 1950s. By the 1980s, it was commonly considered one of the poorest, most run-down estates in the city.

Were working-class people losing their ‘togetherness’? Did a bit of ‘do-it-yourself’ around the house signify ‘privatisation’? There were still many working-class families living in one room, with damp walls, no running water, no bathrooms, and with three or more families sharing one outside toilet (see the picture of Spon Street, Coventry, above-top, now part of a tourist attraction!) Composite social images, constructed out of a very partial experience of one corner of the South-east, utterly failed to represent how far a ‘prehistoric age’ still survived in most other places. Entering a sort of ‘affluence’, Britain was, at the same time, trying to comprehend what ‘affluence’ was all about. It was tempting to associate it with the visible indices of change on the surface of society, rather than with any ‘real movement’ underneath. It was a temptation which almost everyone fell into. In this way, the ‘myths of affluence’ became inextricably interwoven with the contradictory experience of affluence.

The other reason for this confusion was the advent of television. The spread of BBC television had happened only in the early fifties, followed by the opening of the commercial ITV channel in 1955. This development fed the confused situation in two ways. First, by monopolising the channels of public discussion and debate in society, television also centralised the power to make its images of social life stick. It communicated, at very rapid speed, highly selective and distorted images of one community or section of society to the others. It also helped to promote an overall image of where the whole society was headed. Secondly, it gave an almost tangible visibility to the quite limited rise in consumption and in spending money. It promoted the new consumer products seeking markets among the working classes by creating the spectacular world of commodities. Advertising and the spurious social images which it portrayed represented only one way in which television helped to disguise the deeper sources of change which underlay society.

The extent to which this imagery of consumption entered the lives and imaginations of ordinary men and women now seems, in retrospect, to have been wildly exaggerated. Where people could test ‘images’ against ‘experience’, life may have felt glossier than before, but Richard Hoggart, writing in The Uses of Literacy, called it a candy-floss culture. It is doubtful whether many people thought they were on the threshold of a new Utopia of affluence. The ‘telly’ made a difference, but it did not suddenly dismantle working-class culture, rooted as it was in the persistent structures of the British class system.

In one section of the population, however, change was registering in a strong and visible way: among the young. For ordinary young people, the war – which they had experienced, if at all, as young children – really did divide history into ‘before’ and ‘after’; they, of course, belonged to ‘after’. This made for a strong generational division between adults and ‘youth’. While incomes had improved only a little for many working people, they had increased at a faster rate for young adults; and since their families had greater economic security than before the war, a higher proportion of what they earned was left over for spending on themselves, their own recreations and pursuits. ‘Affluent Britain’ was not a society which allowed spare cash to accumulate in anyone’s pockets for very long. The surplus in the pockets and purses of young working-class people was quickly funnelled into the new industries servicing working-class leisure, and distinctive youth styles marked the late 1950s, and ‘youth’ itself became a metaphor for social change.  Yet no-one changed their life-situation by becoming a Teddy Boy or a Mod. The more permanent route up and out of the working class into the professional ranks was via the ‘Eleven Plus’, the Grammar School and University, but far fewer could take this route. The social and personal costs for the first generation ‘scholarship’ boys and girls were punishing – the loss of roots, of a sense of connection with the life of the community and even with their own families.

For the ‘modern Conservative’, these changes represented the de-proletarianisation of British society, changes which would transform social and industrial attitudes of mind. One ‘old’ Conservative who fully absorbed this message was the Prime Minister himself, Harold Macmillan, who uttered the following memorable words during a speech at Bedford in July 1957:

Indeed, let us be frank about it: most of our people have never had it so good. Go round the country, go to the industrial towns, go to the farms, and you will see a state of prosperity such as we have never had in my life-time – nor indeed in the history of this country.

When he went to the country two years later, it was behind the slogan, You’ve had it good. Have it better. Vote Conservative. This was a clever illusion, but it contained just enough truth to cut through to ordinary voters. By the late fifties, almost everything had changed for the better – but, in reality, only a little. No segment of society, no corner of the nation, no aspect of life remained untouched. One part of the story was the story of change, of emergent patterns, of new relationships and conditions of work and life for ordinary men and women, of a, of a sense of discontinuity with the past. Change is not always comfortable to live with, and not always easy to understand; in the ‘affluent’ society which threw up such paradoxical signals, it was easy to project the problems which life presented into simple and stereotypical remedies. But in doing so it revealed that this was not yet a social revolution. The change of the late fifties left so much exactly where it was. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same. Ordinary men and women were caught somewhere inside this paradox, between two worlds.

Source:

Theo Baker (ed.) (1975, ’78), The Long March of Everyman. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

 

Britain Sixty Years Ago (II): Prisons in the Sky   Leave a comment

The middle and late 1950s in Britain was the period of ‘affluence’. Slowly at first, after the defeat of the post-war Labour government, Britain entered a period of rapid change. It was a period of growing prosperity, when a great deal of money flowed into the purchase of newly available consumer goods, underpinned by the revolution in welfare, and by full employment. The rebuilding and reconstruction of the urban and suburban environment – made necessary, partly, by large-scale bombing and by the massive social neglect of the inter-war period – got under way.

The new housing schemes – the development of urban flats, of new housing estates and of the new towns – and the slow processes of rehousing certainly did not destroy the typical and traditional urban working-class environment, but they seemed to be making inroads into it, to undermine it, robbing it of something of its corporate stability. For the first time, there was an emergence of contrasting images of the ‘extended family network’ of the old working-class neighbourhoods, and the ‘family-centred’ or ‘nucleated family’ life of the new working-class estate.

Phil Cohen, a sociologist writing in 1972, commented on the effect of high density, high rise schemes:

The first effect… was to destroy the function of the street, the local pub, the corner shop, as articulations of communal space. Instead there was only the privatised space of the family unit, stacked one on top of each other, in total isolation, juxtaposed with the totally public space which surrounded it, and which lacked any of the informal social controls generated by the neighbourhood. The streets which serviced the new estates became thoroughfares, their users ‘pedestrians’, and by analogy so many bits of human traffic, and this irrespective of whether or not they were separated from motorised traffic. It is indicative of how far the planners failed to the human ecology of the working class neighbourhood that they could actually talk about building ‘vertical streets’. The people who had to live in them weren’t fooled. As one put it – they might have hot running water and central heating, but to him they were still prisons in the sky…

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(It was demolished in the 1980s)

The second effect of the redevelopment was to destroy kinship networks; nuclear families of marriage were separated from their families of origin, especially during the first phase of redevelopment. The isolated family unit could no longer call on the resources of wider kinship networks, or of the neighbourhood, so the family itself became the sole focus of solidarity. This meant that any problems were bottled up within the immediate relationships within the family unit, and those relationships were invested with a new intensity in order to compensate for the wider diversity of relationships previously generated through extended kin and neighbours. Although these traditional kinship and neighbourhood networks had broken down, the traditional patterns of socialisation, communication and control continued to reproduce themselves within the nuclear family. The working class family was therefore not only isolated from the outside, but also undermined from within. Women became ‘housebound’ wives and mothers, since they could no longer send their children out to play in the street under ‘neighbourhood’ supervision. Mum or Auntie was no longer just around the corner, able to look after the kids for the odd morning. The only safe play-space for the kids was the home, and the young mother was the sole supervisor. Cooped up with the kids, and cut off from the outside world, it was hardly surprising that she occasionally took out her frustration on her husband, if not on her new washing machine, and possibly aided by her non-stick frying pan.

Source:

Theo Barker (ed.)(1978), The Long March of Everyman, Harmondsworth: Penguin. 

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