Having It So Good: Britain in the Fifties by Peter Hennessy

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Having It So Good: Britain in the Fifties by Peter Hennessy

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Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: This isn't an easy read, but it is a very rewarding one and will stand as the definitive book on the nineteen-fifties for a very long time. It's highly recommended here at Bookbag Towers.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 752 Date: May 2007
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-0141004099

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At the beginning, if the nineteen-fifties I was a pre-school toddler. At their end I was a rebellious teenager - I was formed by the fifties. By coincidence the author of this wonderful book was about the same age - I suspect that I'm the elder by just a few months. There were moments of shared nostalgia which made the book particularly endearing to me, but, make no mistake, this is not a nostalgic look back at a momentous decade, but a work of masterly scholarship.

Imagine a decade - plus the bits that hang over at either end - neatly packed up and put into a book and you have "Having It So Good". The title is derived from Harold Macmillan's speech at Bedford Football ground in July 1957: "Let's be frank about it; most of our people have never had it so good." Arguably, the best of the time was already over when the speech was made, with the golden era stretching from the Coronation in 1953 to the Suez crisis in 1956, but Supermac was never one to let an opportunity pass.

If you're looking for a chronological history of the decade then this will not be the book for you, but then you would get so much less. Hennessy takes a theme and follows it through from its roots, possibly in an earlier decade or even century and through into the sixties. The book is part of a continuing work. The first part - "Never Again: Britain 1945 - 51" - covered the immediate post-war period and there are numerous references back to that book. Further volumes are planned for the sixties, seventies and eighties. It will build into an amazing record of the second half of the twentieth century, but reading this book in isolation is still immensely rewarding.

At the beginning of the fifties, we still had food rationing and there was a sense of this being the time 'after the deluge'. Recovery to the pre-war state wasn't the aim though; successive politicians had grandiose aims at home and continuing defence commitments abroad. Hennessy makes an interesting comparison with Germany whose economic miracle in the post-war period was helped by the fact that there were no continuing defence commitments.

Hennessy illustrates well the appetite of senior politicians (and not just on the Conservative benches - Attlee was equally guilty) to be a first-rate power. Devaluation from the fixed dollar exchange rate of $2.80 would seem to have made economic sense but wasn't done because of the loss of prestige. Hennessy paints a fascinating picture of a country scrabbling to hang on to its illusory position by its fingernails.

The immigration problem has most of its roots in the fifties with the increased migration from the West Indies. I was shocked by the obvious racism of our top politicians - Churchill apparently favoured the slogan "Keep England White" - but then this did reflect a common view in society. I remember my own parents' views on the subject. It's interesting to see the way that the subject exercised the hearts and minds of the country in much the same way that it does today.

We lived in fear of "the bomb". Hiroshima had more far-reaching effects than just the Asian theatre of the war. Now that the capacity was there everyone knew that they were vulnerable. The book surprised me on two counts. Firstly, I hadn't appreciated how ill-prepared the country was to counter any threat. In the event of an attack, our defences would have been as nothing. Secondly, my memory had played tricks on me. I had unconsciously dated the anti-nuclear peace movement to the early fifties, but surprisingly it didn't emerge until the late fifties. There was an eerie precursor too of 2001. Churchill was briefed about a possible plan to fly a crude atomic bomb into a target in Britain.

So, is the book all about the big issues, the politics of the decade? Not at all. Popular music is covered in some depth (it left "She Wears Red Feathers" humming in my head for days) along with the growth of milk bars and later, coffee bars. The smog was brought back to me somewhat uncomfortably, along with Sunday 'dinner' of meat, two veg, rhubarb crumble and custard and Billy Cotton on the 'wireless'.

The turning point of the decade was the Coronation which brought a mental and financial upturn. Coverage of this is excellent. The human touches are there - the queen asking Michael Ramsay, the Bishop of Durham, to control his eyebrows as they made her laugh - along with the implications of the death of the old king and the crowning of his daughter. It's generally thought that it was the Coronation which led to an explosion in television ownership, but the figures show that it was actually the funeral of the late King George VI which began the trend.

There are copious notes to back up the points made, and not just from the dry-as-dust historical sources. The research behind this book has been inventive and imaginative, possibly because Hennessy was a journalist before he was a historian. Fortunately, the era is not in the distant past and much of the information comes from conversations with people concerned with the events: there's a real feeling of being in the midst of what was happening. There's wit there too - I can't remember when I last laughed out loud when I was reading a history book.

So, what of Suez? I'll confess that my main interest in reading this book was Suez - spoken of in hushed terms and with a sense of shame when I was a child. I wanted to get to the bottom of it.

There can have been few occasions when the health of one man had such a profound effect on history. Eden had had a disastrous abdominal operation some years previously and was suffering the after-effects when Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. Thereafter his actions and reactions were irrational and, at the lowest point, plain dishonest when he blatantly lied to the House of Commons. Hennessy's research is as up-to-date as it's possible to get: at the time I was reading the book some of the original documents to which he refers had only been in the public domain for a couple of months. What happened is told as a riveting and frightening story. He's as fair to Eden as it's possible to be in the circumstances.

What I found particularly enlightening were the comparisons he drew with the recent invasion of Iraq. I'll quote what he says:

It caused uproar in the House of Commons, split government and country to a degree not seen since the Munich crisis eighteen years earlier and would not be experienced again until the invasion of Iraq forty-six years later. It stimulated a series of strategic reassessments of remarkable width and significance in the years that followed and its repercussions were felt even in 2002 and beyond when Tony Blair, a Labour Prime Minister this time egged on rather than discouraged by a US President, agreed that the country and the world needed a line to be drawn in another stretch of sand.

This book was not easy reading. I doubt that it has immediate mass-market appeal, but it is tremendously rewarding if you're prepared to make the effort. Hennessy has the remarkable ability to convey difficult concepts, dry-as-dust facts and the plain unpalatable and to make them interesting. This must be the definitive book on the nineteen-fifties.

For associated fiction, we can recommend Absolute Beginners by Colin Macinnes.

Booklists.jpg Having It So Good: Britain in the Fifties by Peter Hennessy is in the Top Ten Books about Britain, Britishness, and the Brits.

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Magda said:

I think I will seek this out, Sue, as in my quest to learn and understand all things British I am perhaps ready to move beyond the journalistic and humorous (e.g. Paxman and Bryson).

Steve Terrey said:

I love enthusiasts and Peter Hennessey's books on post-war Britain are an enthusiastic labour of love. This is someone who is thrilled by post-war Britain and his research (much of it in the Public Records Office) is first class.

I would also strongly recommend that your readers check out Professor Hennessey's first book "Never Again" - a great account of Britain from 1945-51 as the Attlee government tried to rebuild Britain.

Frank Lockwood said:

Hello, Having just read the book (and lived through the period) I would like to add that it gives a very good overall picture, but concentrates on the political arena at the expense of the personal minutiae so important to the ordinary public at the time. Best regards, FL.