Modern history has never been more popular, but the scale and detail of David Kynaston’s work puts him in a league of his ownby Jonathan Coe / June 19, 2013 / Leave a comment
Young people dancing to Lonnie Donegan in March 1958: the new historians of modern Britain look seriously at pop culture © Bert Hardy/Getty Images
Modernity Britain: Opening the Box, 1957-59 by David Kynaston (Bloomsbury, £25)
In the acknowledgments to Never Had It So Good (2005), his history of Britain in the late 1950s, Dominic Sandbrook recalls how a senior academic colleague at Sheffield University “solemnly advised me to cancel the contract for what he liked to call my ‘coffee-table book,’ and to devote myself instead to writing a serious scholarly article.” The anecdote is told with a kind of rueful pride, because Sandbrook’s tome was, as it turned out, rather more than a coffee-table book: it was the first weighty instalment in a sweeping narrative of recent British history, a project which now extends to four volumes, covering the period from Suez to the election of Margaret Thatcher.
Not only have Sandbrook’s books been commercially successful—spawning a TV tie-in series—but they have become part of a larger trend. There is almost a surfeit, these days, of historians combing over the same ground, putting their own spin on it, and parcelling it up for the high-end commercial market. Alongside Sandbrook, chroniclers of the 1970s include Andy Beckett (When The Lights Went Out), Francis Wheen (Strange Days Indeed) and Alwyn W Turner (Crisis? What Crisis?), to name just the most celebrated handful. Moving on to the 1980s, we already have Turner’s Rejoice! Rejoice!, Richard Vinen’s Thatcher’s Britain, Andy McSmith’s No Such Thing As Society and, most recently, Graham Stewart’s Bang!. And Sandbrook is no doubt beavering away at his 1980s volume even as I write this.
And there is yet another historian, of course, mining a similar vein—David Kynaston: of all the ones I’ve mentioned, he is perhaps the most ambitious and the most diligent. Modernity Britain: Opening the Box, 1957-59 is his latest, keenly-awaited offering, and we should begin by reminding ourselves of the Olympian nature of his project. Kynaston is at work on a series of books—the number as yet unspecified—called Tales of a New Jerusalem, covering the period of 1945 to 1979. “These dates,” he wrote in the preface to the first volume, “are justly iconic.” The year of 1945 marked a landslide Labour victory which enabled “the implementation over the next three years of a…