Shades of grey

Lynda Nead – The Tiger in the Smoke: Art and Culture in Post-War Britain (Yale, 2017)

Lynda Nead’s new history of art and culture in post-war Britain borrows its title from a novel by crime fiction writer Margery Allingham. Whilst Allingham’s ‘tiger’ was a vicious killer who lurked in the grimy shadows of post-war London, it’s the smoke that is the important word here; Nead frames her study within the fog of 1950s Britain, beginning with the ‘Great Smog’ that hung over London for five days towards the end of 1952, the year The Tiger in the Smoke was published.

It’s significant, too, that Nead borrows from the mass cultural form of the detective novel to set the tone of the book, which emphasises the ordinariness and continuity of experience that characterised much of life in post-war Britain. Nead’s early focus on the atmospheric qualities of smog begins a search for the other collective social and cultural events that set the tone for the period. Although the Festival of Britain of 1951 features as a national focal point and a spectacular showcase of modernity, most of the details she highlights are far more everyday, from the illustrated black and white Picture Post articles that captured life in the streets of derelict and war-ravaged Britain, to the tedium of Sunday afternoons, to family life that was increasingly brought together around the TV set, to the dressing gowns worn by bored housewives up and down the country, to the domestic details captured by the ‘Kitchen Sink Painters’. These humdrum reference points are used as entry points into bigger narratives, from gender and race to national identity.

Underpinning this exploration of post-war culture is the work of cultural theorist Raymond Williams. Nead convincingly draws upon the term ‘structures of feeling’, which Williams used to characterise the intangible shifts in culture, meaning and atmosphere that subtly occur from one generation to the next. Although she focuses on the years between 1945 and 1960, ultimately Nead exposes the impossibility of identifying a neatly delineated time period in this way; as she points out, the new developments of post-war Britain, such as the welfare state and physical reconstruction, existed alongside residual aspects of culture dating not just from the war – rationing, she reminds us, continued until 1954, and towns and cities continued to be haunted by empty bombsites many years the war had ended – but from the Victorian period, both in the country’s crumbling built environment and in lingering social attitudes and artistic influences. The overall picture painted by Nead is far from the colour and experimentation of the swinging sixties; instead, she suggests that for most of the population British life existed in various shades of grey.

The fact that there’s been considerable interest in the post-war period in recent years, from Owen Hatherley’s writing on nostalgia, to the inception of Manchester’s own Modernist magazine, to the restaging of the Independent Group’s famous exhibition Parallel of Art and Life at the ICA in 2013, hardly needs restating. What Nead adds to this return to the post-war era is a rare talent for combining in-depth research and academic analysis with a style of writing that’s interesting and pleasurable for the general reader.

She also ventures beyond the standard texts of the period to offer up reading – and viewing – lists of less-known books and films from the era, providing a starting point for further explorations into the culture of Britain at a time when the country was simultaneously in thrall to its past, absorbing increasingly international influences, and exploring new ideas of what it might become.

– Natalie Bradbury

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