The People: The Rise And Fall Of The Working Class 1910-2010
John Murray £25
WE ARE living through a golden age of narrative history in which writers like David Kynaston, Andy Beckett and Dominic Sandbrook have shone a vivid light into the post-war decades of British life. At their best, their books about the 1950s, the 1970s and the 1980s combine a broad canvas, a dramatic sense of personalities and events and a telling selection from the ephemera of popular culture. Each of them is a big thumping read, an authoritative take on a time and the people who live through it.
Selina Todd’s The People is even more ambitious in scope. Her aim is to tell nothing less than a history of the British working class over the past century, from the aristocracy of Labour to zero hour contracts, taking in two world wars, the rise of Thatcherism, the nature of working class pride, and the effect of immigration and cheap foreign labour on the institutions of British working-class life.
The landscape is fascinating, and the distance travelled enormous, from the caste-like gradations of Edwardian society to 21st century “meritocracy”. As Todd tells us in her introduction, despite social mobility being a political aspiration for much of the last century, and the arrival of the supposedly classless society in the 1990s, most people claimed to be working class in 2010.
It is a colourful tale too, taking in working class culture, music and dance crazes, and the move from a world of clerks, secretaries and manual workers to DIY superstores, Sunday working and the demise of trade union power.
Unfortunately Todd’s book can’t decide if it aspires to be an authoritative history, a revisionist history or a critique of other histories. She seems more comfortable addressing an academic readership than a popular one, and her depiction of the big personalities involved – Wilson, Benn, Thatcher, Scargill – lacks journalistic bite or dramatic energy.
Todd does use one iconic story in a fascinating way. Throughout her account, the tale of Viv Nicholson, the 1960s pools winner, unspools like an inverted morality tale.
It’s an ingenious conceit. In 1961, Nicholson’s husband Keith won the Pools. His £152,319 jackpot was equivalent to around £3 million today, but it was Nicholson’s determination to “Spend, spend, spend” the money that made her a tabloid heroine.
Viv (as she is chummily referred to in this book) and her flamboyant refusal to abide by conventions flew in the face of not just middle class, but working class decorum. She won her money by chance, she did not earn it, and having won it, she spent and did not save it. She bucked expectations of how the rich should behave, and having blown the lot, she happily confessed that she had no regrets.
Her story fascinated the Britain of the 1960s, and was turned into a successful TV play by Jack Rosenthal, and later a musical. At the time, Nicholson’s story was seen to be extraordinary, and now we have ample data to show exactly how extraordinary.
Thanks to the National Lottery, Britain acquires scores of new millionaires each year. A recent study of lottery winners found that they tended to buy a nicer house in the area they already lived, upgrade their car and treat themselves to a foreign holiday. Hardly a Krakatoa of exuberant expenditure.
Nicholson’s story is fascinating because it is so untypical of what Britons do when they unexpectedly come into sudden wealth. Presenting Nicholson as the patron saint, or the urtext of working class aspiration as it played out over a century is to mistake the photographic negative for the real picture.
Similarly, the use of first person testimony here is often unsatisfactory. Sometimes the interviewees are brought in to echo a conclusion that Todd has already drawn, sometimes to challenge a general trend or observation. But since we don’t know much about the interviewees beyond their names and the fact that they responded to advertisements placed in the Coventry and Liverpool Press for people willing to talk about “ordinary” “working class” life after the Second World War, we don’t know what weight to give their comments. Documentary makers the world over know that volunteers are by their nature untypical, because most people don’t volunteer to tell their stories. It may be that Todd accounted for this bias in using their testimony, but she doesn’t tell us if she did, simply praising the “extraordinary rich set of interviews” gathered.
Overall, this reader could have done with more about film, TV and music, Big Brother and football. But the scope and range of Todd’s study is impressive, and it all makes for a fascinating, if flawed book. n