Archive for the ‘consumerism’ Tag

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

001

 

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’.

002

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.

 

%d bloggers like this: