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Book Two, A Shake of the Dice, 1959-62
Last week I chaired a Times event at the Troxy, a beautiful old art deco cinema on the Commercial Road in east London. Looking down from the stage and across the auditorium I was amazed that such a place existed. Two days later, reading David Kynaston's latest volume in his essential history of postwar Britain I discovered exactly when, in 1960, it had closed down. One of a great number of picture houses which failed in the new era of television, the Troxy was almost demolished, but then was saved by the new craze for bingo (or the 'Bingo Tidal wave' as the Mirror headlined it). Mostly housewives would go along to stake small sums and meet their friends, but as Kynaston recounts, even this pastime was the subject of a moral panic about children being neglected by the bingo-addicted mothers.
In one of those clever connections in which Kynaston specialises, the story of bingo prefaces a chapter on the development of popular attitudes towards the place of women in British society. As is also characteristic of his writing, his breadth of research leads him to find the passages that can make you gasp, even though the reader may have known, in abstract at least, that feminism had yet to make a serious dent in the polished carapace of male supremacy. So, the Crowther Report of 1959 into further education asserted that 'the prospect of courtship and marriage should rightly influence the education of the adolescent girl. Her direct interest in dress, personal appearance and in problems of human relations should be given a central place in her education.'
It could be that some of our attitudes towards the relative backwardness of certain immigrant communities on questions of gender are quickened by the fact that our own enlightenment is so very recent. In the West End in the run-up to Christmas 1959, Kynaston reminds us, children could go and see Enid Blyton's Noddy in Toyland at the Prince's Theatre and sing along to a song with the words 'I'm Golly, I'm Woggy, I'm Nigger'.
A progressive person like me can afford to feel a little smug when confronted with such evidence of the sins of other people’s fathers. We were on the right side of history, were we not? But the real heft of this volume of Kynaston's work lies in his account of how Britain struggled to modernise in the early 1960s, and how some of this modernisation went badly wrong. There the reader finds enough to make any neophile, any lover of innovation, any optimist-for-perpetual-change think very hard about whether he or she might not be cheerfully endorsing similar appalling errors made in the name of progress.
This period has become infamous for its dreadful architecture, its love of the car and its brutal town planning. As Kynaston makes clear, much of this reputation is justified. A concept of what modernity was and what it should look like — clean, straight, separated — dominated public and private planning.
It was a vision that was attractive to politicians, councils and developers who looked at Britain's blackened Victorian streets and infrastructure and compared them to what was happening on the Continent. The cities were full of slums - I remember from my London boyhood three short streets in Dartmouth Park near Highgate Cemetery, where the small houses were black with dirt, overcrowded and insanitary. You could usually tell which kids came from those streets and which didn't. In cities such as Glasgow and Sheffield the local authorities looked after tens of thousands of people living in conditions like that.
So they knocked them down and in their places built new estates, many with tower blocks, and moved people from one to the other. Quite a few were grateful and liked their new homes. Others, in estates distant from their old homes, distant from the people who had been their neighbours, or suffering the gap between how planners thought people would behave and how they actually did, became depressed. Kynaston quotes from the reminiscences of Tom Courtenay, the young actor from Hull, who recalled leaving his mother at her new home on a new estate, and 'she looked so lost and lonely waving from the front door', that when the bus pulled away, he cried.
People were uprooted and 'treated like cattle', and the same treatment was doled out to the stone and brick inhabitants of city centres. Glorious Victorian town halls and arcades — such as the Swan Arcade in Bradford — were torn down and replaced by straight-lined glass and concrete boxes. The Euston Arch disappeared, Harold Macmillan himself was happy to see it go. In Birmingham, the inner ring road conveyed the motorist directly to the excrescence that was the new Bull Ring Centre, designed by Sydney Greenwood and built by Laing's. There, in the shopping centre there would be — according to an architectural magazine - 'subdued lighting and piped music which is expected to relax walkers down to a profitable pace of 1½ mph'.
This experiment in living is Kynaston's shake of the dice. Unusually for him, there isn't much doubt about his own feelings on the subject, with something very much like an editorial appearing at the beginning of his tenth chapter. That isn't to say that he underestimates the problems faced by the councils and planners of the era. They had little money and less space in which to rehouse their slum-dwellers, and new town development had fallen foul of the nimbys in the shires.
But the problem was a cast of Sixties mind. As evidenced in the words of politicians at the time, there was an admiration for the idea of the plan, as seen to be succeeding (how long ago it seems) in eastern Europe and space-age Russia.
If this sounds a bit daunting, it shouldn't. Kynaston is the master of leavening the heavy with the light. He uses a montage of diary entries, newspaper comments and recollections to create sly little juxtapositions which illuminate without openly instructing. Sometimes he just throws in a story. Like the one about how Dave Dee Harman, aged 18, rescued the dead Eddie Cochran's guitar from the car crash that had killed the American singer and injured Gene Vincent, and gave it a good strum before returning it.
We know what came of this encounter - the Sixties band Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich. The Troxy is now a big venue for the reviving and gentrifying East End. Who could have predicted that? It is a part of Kynaston's huge achievement that such moments of insight and pleasure should accompany what has become a monumental history of our recent past.
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