A day out in Blackpool in August 1955: "As hardship began to recede, the holiday in Spain replaced the charabanc to Blackpool." © Leonard Macomb/The Life Images Collection/Getty Images

When community came first

James Walvin's wonderful memoir of growing up in the 1950s evokes a lost world of harsh poverty and mutual dependence
May 20, 2015
Different Times: Growing Up in Postwar Englandby James Walvin (Algie Books, £7.55)

Human beings tend to be creatures of habit. New things like email or mobile phones become so quickly absorbed into our daily routines that we forget how novel they are or what life was like before them.

This instinct seems to make us oblivious to the speed at which our societies are changing. Just as we experience the world as physically fixed despite the fact that we are hurtling through space at 65,000 miles per hour, so social change, however rapid, seems to happen somewhere just beyond our vision.

Then every now and then something brings us up short and reminds us of how fast the immediate past is receding, how things that only a few decades ago seemed fixed and permanent have disappeared completely. James Walvin’s little gem of a book, a memoir of an industrial working-class childhood in north Manchester in the 1950s, is one of those things.

I had to pause every now and then while reading the book to remind myself that this world of the factory village, of harsh poverty, of tight bonds of mutual dependence, existed in my lifetime. Indeed, many of the vanished things that Walvin describes would have been familiar to anyone growing up in 1950s Britain: assumptions of parental and adult authority, the casual violence of everyday life, the stoicism and emotional reticence, the chauvinistic reflexes about British superiority.

Weaving the story of his family into the wider social realities of the postwar working class world—there are chapters on neighbourhood, factory life, the extended family, education, football and so on—this book is a useful and enjoyable contribution to the social history of the 1950s.
"The industrial way of life felt eternal then, though it was in fact no more than five or six generations old"
It is also about the making of a social historian: how a bookish, inquisitive young boy came to connect his family and neighbourhood to the wider British society. For the young Walvin, who had a gift for persuading tight-lipped adults to open up to him, went on to become a leading historian of slavery and of 19th and 20th-century Britain, with books (and a television series or two) on football, childhood, Victorian values and other popular themes. (In the late 1970s he taught me history at York University, where he spent most of his career and from where he is now retired.)

War frames the first part of the story—a story that in parts reads like a novel complete with dramatic family secrets. The two men who dominate the early pages are Walvin’s father, who is diagnosed with tuberculosis soon after Walvin is born in 1942, and Uncle Joe, his father’s best friend. Joe returns from the war a broken man at the end of 1945 having been in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. His wife Elsie had presumed he was dead and had found another man. She took in her sick and troubled husband for a short while on his return but then broke the news to him that she was leaving. Shortly after, she was killed with her lover in a motorbike accident.

As Walvin puts it: “Joe’s first major task after coming home was to identify the mutilated remains of the wife who had just abandoned him.” He kept her ashes tucked away in his wardrobe and they were eventually to be mixed and buried with his own.

The book is full of such private dramas—though perhaps none so poignant as Joe’s—played out on a backdrop of the clanking, steaming, Heath Robinson hat factory in Failsworth that dominated the lives of everyone Walvin knew.

This industrial way of life felt eternal then, though it was in fact no more than five or six generations old and was on the point of steep decline. In the early 1950s, Lancashire’s King Cotton still employed about 200,000 people, down from as many as 800,000 before the First World War.

Much of the book tells a story that has become vaguely familiar, at least to anyone interested in 20th-century social history—the two-week factory closures in the summer and coach holidays to Blackpool or Llandudno, the matriarchal networks, the fatalism, the lack of privacy and space as well as money. But other things still make one take note: the sheer grind of daily life, the bustling drudgery of Walvin’s mother’s work that makes her a permanent absence at the heart of the book. Or there is Walvin’s educational journey, starting in primary school at the surprisingly early age of three, where among other things he learnt knitting. I had always assumed that Walvin had passed the 11-plus and gone to grammar school; in fact he failed the exam but ended up in the academic stream at Ducie Technical High School in central Manchester and then went to Keele University.

Educational traditionalists will note wistfully his high level of basic education and broader cultural exposure, from serious singing lessons after church choir to hours spent in the Failsworth Carnegie library.

One of the reasons some of this story feels so familiar is because these long gone working-class communities have come to stand for the idea of community in general and for something noble that has been lost. Just as Walvin himself was growing into young adulthood in the late 1950s, and just as the communities were on the point of disappearing, they were “discovered” by middle-class Britain through books such as Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy or Michael Young and Peter Willmott’s Family and Kinship in East London.

Walvin remembers bridling at the way his own apparently normal childhood was picked over by the sociologists and anthropologists as they argued about how deep the sense of community was in places like Failsworth. (There is a useful summary of this debate in David Kynaston’s Modernity Britain: 1957-62.)

The sceptics highlight survey evidence showing how seldom neighbours actually visited each other’s houses, with relations governed by what Geoffrey Gorer calls “distant cordiality” and often combined with carefully policed gradations of respectability rather than warmth and solidarity. They also note the relief with which many people escaped for new housing estates with more space, better amenities and a welcome distance from mother or mother-in-law.

Different Times is by no means sentimental about community; it is nonetheless evidence for the communitarian side of the debate. Mutual aid was pervasive and necessary in Walvin’s corner of Failsworth and the welfare state remained surprisingly absent even a decade after the late 1940s welfare revolution.

The reality of the tight bonds of community is illustrated in the story of Mr and Mrs Ogden who lived three doors down and for whom Walvin used to read the newspaper after their eyesight went. When Fred Ogden had a stroke, his wife could not cope and relied on the kindness of neighbours to help. She then died of a stroke herself and Walvin recalls a rota of neighbours (including himself, aged 14) who took it in turns to chat to the old man with his dead wife laid out on the kitchen table.

So community in Failsworth was real enough, but it was anchored in hardship. As hardship began to recede in the late 1950s so did mutual dependence. Affluence and the choices it brings releases people everywhere from the embrace of the group (either warm or crushing, depending on your temperament). Market exchange and state welfare institutions replace mutual aid. The local authority care visitor replaces the Ogden rota, the holiday in Spain replaces the charabanc to Blackpool.

How to combine some sense of community with affluence, mobility and the new communities that immigration has brought remains a central question in British politics. The rise of the UK Independence Party is probably in part a response to the failure to find a satisfactory answer. Where the combination does seem to be achieved is in some ethnic minority communities, especially successful ones. If you are a British Indian or British Nigerian you are likely to experience emotional attachment to a real community network below the abstraction of the nation but above the immediacy of friends and family. And thanks to the loosening of ties among the white ethnic majority, the sort of chauvinism and xenophobia described by Walvin (especially after he returns a young Francophile from a school trip to France) is mainly a thing of the past.

Community, although a ubiquitous reference point in British politics, tends to be regarded as something sepia-tinted and for other people. In reality it is banal, experienced and desired by people of all classes, and never went away, except in its more intense Failsworth form.

People today are less individualistic and mobile than we often imagine (the majority of people continue to live within 20 miles of where they lived when aged 14) and if the increasingly important role of grandparents in childcare is to be believed then the extended family still lives too. Most of us, even if we prefer to “keep ourselves to ourselves,” still want to live in places with high trust, low crime, some continuity in the faces we see in the street and the local shops.

So policies that try to dampen population churn, promote the integration of minorities and preserve meeting places like sub-post offices and pubs would be welcomed by most people, especially those generational groups that most appreciate stability: children, old people and young families.

To the extent that politicians have failed to do much about those things, at least in big urban centres, it is arguably because the political nation—especially the left part of it—remains haunted by the “thick”, and now unobtainable, community of Walvin’s Failsworth. Nostalgia for lost intimacy is the enemy of achievable community today.

But that is not Walvin’s fault. He has dredged from his remarkable memory a wonderful memoir of a family, a young man growing up and a corner of British society that has left possibly too big a mark on our thinking.

One regret is that this book has not found a more mainstream publisher and therefore not been properly edited. There is too much repetition and a feeling of being dashed off. But this is a historical page turner that deserves a bigger audience than it is likely to receive. Maybe an imaginative producer will buy the film or television rights and put it on the screen to remind people of a recently vanished civilisation, and how lucky we are not to live in it!

David Goodhart is Editor-at-Large of Prospect