The title is Austerity Britain: 1945-1951. The cover image is of a grey and dreary Newcastle on Tyne from 1950, and it weighs in at a wrist-wearying 692 pages. You wouldn't pick David Kynaston's combined social and political history as a non-fiction bestseller, which it is.
But you don't have to get far into its pages to find its combination of anecdotal accounts (drawing heavily on the Mass Observation Survey) and descriptions of a society trying to rebuild itself from the ground up, compelling. In fact I found it so compelling I devoted two days of a recent holiday to little else, skipping easily through its pages.
The interest is multiplied by the fact that many of the debates that fill its pages — about the form of the foundational NHS, about the nature of a more equitable schooling system, about housing shortages and the problems of building new communities, about Britain's economic place in the world — are being revisited today — or perhaps were never adequately solved.
Some of the stories about the NHS should be force-fed to everyone who's now trying to dismember the fabulous free-at-the-point service provision. Kynaston reports the words of Dr. Alistair Clark, an "ordinary GP": "For the first six months I had as many as 20 or 30 ladies come to me who had the most unbelievable gynaecological conditions... at least 10 who had complete prolapse of their womb, and they had to hold it up with a towel as if they had a large nappy on."
The biggest early pressures were on "drugs, spectacles and false teeth" — the first and last of these reflecting modern-day debates about drug costs and dental provision today.
The housing debate started from a very different place from today's — in a Sunday Pictorial account of "100 Families" in July 1946, only 14 owned or were buying their own homes — but one big issue, as today, was about mixing the classes. Bevan placed much hope in this: "You have colonies of low-income people, living in houses provided by the local authorities, and you have the higher income groups living in their own colonies. ...It is a monstrous infliction on the essential psychological and biological one-ness of the community."