Review of Out of the Ordinary: How Everyday Life Inspired a Nation and How It Can Again
Author: Marc Stears
Reviewed by David Towell
Marc Stears starts this book recollecting a famous picture of St. Pauls, standing strong above the Blitz. Let me start in similar fashion, recalling the singer Vera Lynn and the way she was regarded, certainly by older people.
Vera Lynn died last year, but we can still find on video Vera's fairly recent appearances at Remembrance Day concerts where of course the band would play 'We'll meet again' and she would recognise the lengthy applause. But the people applauding were also applauding themselves. Vera was not some distant 'celebrity': she was a working class girl from east London with a great voice whose music best captured the popular sentiments of World War II. She was one of us and we were the people who won this monumental struggle together.
Stears has produced an intriguing return to these times. He is a political scientist and sometime advisor to the Labour Party but this is just as much an exercise in social history and literary analysis. (Indeed I will suggest later that it is perhaps the political part that doesn't fully deliver its promise.) His chosen subject is British popular culture from the 1930s until the early 1950s, culminating in the 1951 Festival of Britain. Of course this was a momentous period in British history.
For Stears, the obvious nostalgia is for a time he never knew. I am nearly a generation older than him, born in fact two days after the war in Europe ended. But like him my recollections from this period are mainly what I learnt from my parents (Frank, born 1905; Ethel, born 1909) and their many friends in those early post-war years. Their stories both illustrate and fill in some gaps in Stears analysis. Let me start with them.
My parents were working-class Londoners. Both left school aged 15. Frank was good with his hands and initially apprenticed as a French-polisher. That was an occupation in decline in the 1920s but he picked things up quickly and moved into the new field of radio engineering, self-taught. In the war, he was in arms manufacture and come the peace, became a manager in a small manufacturing company. Ethel's first job was as a shop assistant and indeed she worked her whole life in this role, mostly at the 'Coop'. They were 'bombed out' in the early part of the war - the bomb didn't go off - and moved to west London, to the then emerging district of Feltham. The war ended and I arrived.
After the war, it emerged that Frank's first love was local politics of the Labour variety. Over time he became leader of the Feltham Council, continuing into the 1960s. Ethel was Secretary of the ward party. Most of their friends were similarly engaged. Ted & Minnie, Bill & Doris, Fred & Flo and several others (almost all of whom had children in the baby-boom ) were fully engaged in building the new Britain together, within the positive conditions established by the Attlee government. These were exciting times! They were also often fun.
What these adults demonstrated in their lives was practical socialism. Frank was Chairman of the Council Housing Committee. I have the gold key he was awarded to mark the 2,500th post-war dwelling: imagine that, a small Council building houses (incidentally very good houses) for their people. When he died (in 1992) the local paper printed a tribute under the title 'Man of the People'. (And I would say 'Man for the people'.) Ethel was also an activist, practicing everyday politics rather in the style captured by Eric Hobsbawm in 'Uncommon People'. She got on well with almost everyone. Each day as a shop assistant she had many conversations with other local people. I don't think that they talked much about Stalin or India. They did talk about rationing, the coal shortage and the struggles of people still suffering from their war-time experience. And they talked about the National Health Service, how their kids were getting on at the newly-opened school and yes, how fast the Council was tackling the back-log of housing need.
As a little correction to the analysis that follows, I might add that I don't think the literature Stears reviews had much direct impact on these practical folk. Our house had few books: indeed I can't remember a book-shelf! But Frank studied the Daily Herald diligently and read stuff to the rest of us (we shared a small house with another family) over the breakfast table. They did listen to the radio, so may well have been familiar with J.B. Priestley, and sometimes bought Picture Post, so probably saw the photos of Bill Brandt. Their socialism was informed more by an oral culture grounded in everyday experience.
And so to Marc Stears. Stears is not keen on 'isms'. He sees the 1930s (and perhaps a little today) as an age of extreme ideologies on right and left, in the latter case both abstract and utopian. In musical terms he doesn't like 'Land of Hope and Glory', but he doesn't like 'Jerusalem' either. The core of his book is a detailed exploration of another vision of what Britain was about and could be. Many contributed here but his central focus is the work of writers, poets, artists and photographers - notably George Orwell, J.B. Priestley, Dylan Thomas, Barbara Jones and Bill Brandt (it should be said separately rather than together). To quote Stears, they were convinced that 'ordinary people going about their ordinary lives possess all the insight, virtue and determination required to build the society of which they dream and need no direction by others'. For these authors and artists, fundamental political concepts like community, nationhood, freedom and democracy could be grounded - indeed must be grounded - in the typical experience of everyday life.
During the war, Priestley broadcast that we are all soldiers in this struggle. The 'spirit of Dunkirk' is the lasting symbol of this sentiment. Brandt's photos on the home front didn't disguise the pain but also recorded ordinary resilience. With Dylan Thomas they continually returned to the themes of smallness, eccentricity, rootedness AND the need for change to overcome the manifold injustices of the 1930s. This and more underpinned the Labour landslide of 1945.
And now we come to the contemporary politics. Stears purpose in this historical exploration, as suggested by his sub-title, is to reinvigorate these ideas for our own times. Our politics now needs to recognise 'the importance of an everyday sense of belonging to place, a feeling of community with one's fellows and a continuity with the ordinary memories of the past'. He offers some examples of local initiatives - all, I think, illustrations of what I would call asset-based community development - that demonstrate possibility.
Of course, I agree with this...but it is here that Stears analysis runs out of steam. It's not 1945. The power of these ideas arose from, and shaped a particular set of social conditions. The Attlee government needed the Towells and thousands like them as much, or almost as much as the adults I grew up with - and indeed their children - needed the Attlee government. That we need a political programme of similar boldness to meet the daunting crises of the 2020s is not in doubt. Defining this programme and ensuring popular support is still work in progress.
The publisher is Belknap Press.
Out of the Ordinary © Mark Stears 2021.
Review: Out of the Ordinary © David Towell 2021.
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