How can one measure the spirit of an age? Writing in 1963, the historian Harry Hopkins suggested that although the English still consumed much more suet pudding than apple strudel, for students of society like himself, ‘apfelstrudel may embody the zeitgeist in a way that roly-poly may not’. In other words, the growing popularity of the continental delicacy could portend a fundamental shift from insular tastes and attitudes. In the latest volume of Tales of a New Jerusalem, his wonderful history of postwar Britain, David Kynaston casts doubt on this piquant notion. He points out that the majority of flesh-and-blood people declined to follow fashion and stubbornly clung to the old ways. And he illustrates the force of habit with a story from the Smethwick Telephone & Warley Courier about two very old spinster sisters who still did their own cooking and liked stewed apple and cornflour blancmange for pudding.
Kynaston’s book is a vast compendium of such minutiae, often drawn from obscure sources, which together afford a vivid insight into the character of British life between the Cuban Missile Crisis and the death of Winston Churchill. Here is an intricate tapestry that conveys the essence of the time. But like E P Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963), which Kynaston discusses illuminatingly, A Northern Wind is not a superficial exercise in heritage history, an attempt to dress up the past in the manner of Lucy Worsley. It analyses complexities, teases out nuances and gauges the currents of continuity and change, many of which still flow today.
Take public transport, for example, which Dr Beeching assessed in terms of financial cost rather than social value. His report led to the axing of a third of the country’s railway system, two thousand stations and four thousand miles of track. As the car became king and the transport