Modernity Britain: A Shake of the Dice, 1959-62

Modernity Britain
Book Two: A Shake of the Dice, 1959-62

David Kynaston
Bloomsbury  454pp  £25

After appearing at the Stratford Royal in the hit 1960 musical Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, the press asked Barbara Windsor if she would be returning to the East End. ‘Are you kidding?’ she shrieked. ‘I’m finished with all that ten-quid-a-week lark. I’m not in this business for art’s sake, you know – I’m in it for the money.’

The Cockney Carry On star expressed the material aspirations that David Kynaston brilliantly captures in this latest volume of his history of postwar Britain. His trademark trawl of newspapers is analysed with an empathetic outlook and a readable style, so that A Shake of the Dice takes the reader into the daily fabric of British life.  

In some ways, the Britain of the early 1960s is unrecognisable today. Although expectations of marriage were growing, most women still faced a life of drudgery at home and at work. Bingo, enabled by the 1960 Betting and Gaming Act, became a female working-class craze, as dance halls and cinemas were converted for the fun of marking cards to win prizes. It was ‘a nice change from sitting around the house, washing, ironing, talking to the wall’, bingo fans in Tottenham told one journalist. 

However, the worst of today’s Britain was also apparent in attitudes to immigration from the colonies. The Commonwealth Immigrants Act was passed in 1962 to limit the flow of black and Asian citizens. Daily Mail features on lazy, criminal and hypersexual blacks bombarded bingo women and debutantes alike, casting principled Labour opponents of the Act as out-of-touch elitists.

Less toxic than this imperial hangover, but no less tricky for the Left, was the emergence of today’s consumer society. Kynaston traces the arrival of the supermarket – then to retailing what the Sputnik was to transport. Supermarkets were given a boost in 1964 by a Conservative minister, Edward Heath, who abolished resale price maintenance (the price-fixing of goods by manufacturing cartels). This enabled heavy discounting by giant retailers, an act of proto-Thatcherite free trade policy that, ironically, put many small grocers like Margaret Thatcher’s father out of business. 

Closing on a Sunday was ‘morally and socially right’, declared Robert Sainsbury in 1961, but his upright sabbatarianism was challenged by Jack Cohen, who opened his flagship Tesco store in Leicester that year, promising ‘keen prices and greater choice’. At the opening ceremony the Tesco tape was cut by another star of the Carry On films, Sid James. It was US-style capitalism in full flow.

Such was the appeal of America that when pollsters asked people about another Heath initiative – Britain’s first application to join the nascent European Union in 1961 – 55 per cent said they would rather be closer to the United States, compared with only 22 per cent who said they would prefer Europe.

Yet Kynaston shows that behind the bluster Britons were becoming more European. Supermarkets may have been an American invention but it was they who began selling Continental wine cheaply, making a once middle-class drink accessible to all. Supermarkets also piled high new products such as Heinz’ tinned Spaghetti Bolognese – the ‘Exciting New Dish’ – its strange taste evoking an exotic Continent as yet out of reach to most holidaymakers. 

You never feel that Kynaston is putting a cardigan around your shoulders like some chroniclers of postwar Britain, which could still be a mean and shabby place to live. He has the courage to show all sides of the dice being thrown, without ever condescending to the working-class people whose voices he allows to be heard. That is the strength of these marvellous books.

The forthcoming volume on the mid-1960s may be the most crucial yet because, whatever revisionists may argue, that was the moment when the more secular, cosmopolitan Britain of today was forged. In January 1960, a Surrey teenager called Jacqueline Aitken recorded in her diary: ‘I did the shopping with Dad and you’ll never guess what we bought! A RECORD PLAYER! …We bought Travelling Light by Cliff Richard and Dad chose a Mantovani long player.’ What happened when teenage taste turned to the Who and James Brown should be at the core of Kynaston’s next foray into modernity.   

Richard Weight is a broadcaster and historian, whose books include, Mod: From Bebop to Britpop (The Bodley Head, 2013).

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