If the images in Picture Post —the classic photojournalistic magazine— are anything to go by, post-war urban Britain was a down-at-heel, exhausted land in which the working-class populace had learned to accept austerity with a nervous resilience. Fascist dictators might have been recently vanquished, but the socio-economic enervation brought on by the nation’s contribution to the good fight lingered on like some particularly dismal hangover long after the victory celebrations were over. The cover photograph of Lynda Nead’s The Tiger in the Smoke: Art and Culture in Post-War Britain, in which head-scarfed women make their way down a damp and cheerless street of mostly boarded-up houses whilst, in the distance, a solitary cyclist in his baggy old overcoat pedals off into the drizzling distance, vividly conjures up the impression of a time when bombsite rubble and rationing loomed large in the collective proletarian psyche.
Nead sets herself the task of pursuing the “structure of feeling” (to borrow a concept from the cultural theorist Raymond Williams) with which post-war Britain was imbued, as manifested in its visual culture. She seeks to capture its atmosphere as glimpsed in “the chiaroscuro of cinematography, the grain of press photography, the impasto of painting,” as found “in the air, in fog and dust; and in sunlight, funfairs and colour advertisements.” Framing her endeavours, the author points to a shift in emphasis across the social sciences and humanities during the last ten to fifteen years, one which “encompasses a number of different approaches to the common project of understanding the more fugitive and transient conditions of social life, its collective affects and relations.” Taking its title from a 1952 crime novel by Margery Allingham in which a convicted murderer and his accomplices use the London fog as a cover for their assaults on the unsuspecting public, The Tiger in the Fog examines what cultural pitfalls, surprises and shocks lay in wait for Britain as it navigated an uncertain path through a period which roughly spans 1945 to 1960.
Early on in the survey, the fog mentioned in the title is evoked as a significantly dramatic embodiment of the gloom and obscurity —in both meteorological and cultural senses— with which post-war Britain had to contend. More specifically, the notoriously all-enveloping fog, or rather smog, which descended on London during December 1952 and was every bit as hazardous as one of its Victorian ‘pea-souper’ precursors, bringing with it obfuscation and widespread illness, is likened in its “seeping, eddying, creeping” presence to an ever-present “residue or return of the past” which sought to divert and delay the national journey towards reconstruction. In the course of expanding on this metaphor, Nead gives a brief overview of the capital’s relationship with its environmental murkiness which rehearses several of the key elements found in Christine L. Corton’s thoroughly engrossing London Fog: The Biography from 2015. We are presented with the poetic and symbolic significance of Victorian fog as famously described in the opening passages of Bleak House, its swirling presence in the Sherlock Holmes stories and its loitering, malevolent ubiquity in countless depictions of Jack the Ripper stealing through the Whitechapel backstreets. By the early 1950s, however, various environmental pressure groups and parliamentary committees had effectively put paid to the reign of the ‘London Particular’ by supporting and developing measures to control air pollution. It was because of this that, although the ‘great smog’ of 1952 was partially a result of airborne pollutants, it was not wholly attributable to the toxic residue which had poured out of chimneys across the nineteenth-century industrial landscape —or as Nead puts it, “the fogs of the 1950s were different from the fogs of Conan Doyle and Henry James.” Even so, the contention is that these fogs signified the Victorian age as an atmospheric revenant hanging on into the mid-twentieth century. Even though post-war Britain had ostensibly rejected the values and mores of nineteenth-century society in a bid to start afresh after the Second World War, in reality that was easier said than done. To illustrate this concept, Nead employs a striking quote from the French scholar Michel de Certeau, who, in the context of the relationship between the ancien régime and the society of post-1848 France, described this break between the present and the past as “both the condition of possibility and the effect of a beginning. But the ‘old’ returns. It forbids one to feel at home in the new age. The actual remains in a ‘fantasy’ debate with this phantom which continues to haunt it.”
As well as having to combat the polluted past’s retentive grip on the nation, Britain had been drained of “colour” by “six years of war.” The idea of colour and the lack of it, along with the word’s associative usage in common parlance in the period under consideration, are key concepts in Nead’s book. The use and effectiveness of black-and-white photography to portray those historic buildings reduced to architectural ruins by air raids is considered, with the author tracing the way in which the images conveyed a romantic melancholy and thus “achieved the transformation of sudden disruption into reposeful beauty.” In contrast, images of bombsites which bore witness to the way old terraced housing and similarly mundane buildings had been unceremoniously flattened were quite another matter. Instead of the elegiac moods brought on by the sight of a ravaged church, pictures of brick-strewn wastelands evoked a realm of liminal danger and agitation, where all manner of illicit activities might take place. This sense of volatile emancipation found amongst the recently created urban wreckage is a noticeable feature of such contemporary films as Hue and Cry and Passport to Pimlico, in which bombsites are locales for transgressive behaviour, albeit turned to comic effect.
Returning to her theme of how Victorianism haunted post-war Britain (and leaving aside its previously discussed foggy signifiers), Nead surveys the visual and material evidence for the manner in which its nineteenth-century past remained visible as so much barely-concealed pentimenti just beneath the surface of the nation’s bomb-ravaged canvas. Whilst, on the one hand, there was a concerted effort to rid the nation of the more unacceptable legacies of nineteenth-century life, such as poverty and squalor, by the creation of a cradle-to-grave welfare state, “the extended cultural reach of Victorianism” meant that, on the other, there was an enduring fetishistic fascination with the period’s bric-a-brac, bibelots and curios, not least for the musty nostalgia that they evoked. It was a nostalgia imbued with a sense of uncanny senescence as conjured up in some of the photographs that Bill Brandt produced to illustrate the 1951 book Literary Britain: witness, for example, In Haworth Parsonage, an image full of hushed, vacated melancholy. Turning to film again, Nead singles out British productions of the 1940s and 1950s such as Gaslight with its elaborately stifling atmosphere of paranoia and David Lean’s wonderful Great Expectations. With regard to this latter, Nead offers a fascinating overview of the way in which the tonal range of the film stock and expressionist photography were important factors in successfully realising Dickens’ story on the screen, making the film “an act of post-war visual imagination and a masterpiece of shadow composition.”
This study of all that was monochromatic about a post-war Britain veiled in the slowly dispersing mists of the Victorian age takes on a new angle in the second part of the book, with a look at how migrants from Britain’s colonies and dominions encountered and dealt with this atmosphere. The 1948 British Nationality Act, which gave all residents of the British Empire equal rights, privileges, and citizenship, was passed “in the immediate and pressing contexts of decolonisation and national labour shortages.” In June of that same year the Empire Windrush famously docked at Tilbury, and the disembarkation of its unemployed Jamaican passengers added a pivotal chapter to the history of multi-racial Britain. By December of 1948, when a third ship full of migrants arrived, concerns were already being voiced in the press and Parliament about the scale of immigration and the question of assimilation. Nead quotes several contemporary sources from different echelons of society variously raising objections about having to accept these strangers into the country, all of which seems wearyingly similar to the bigoted clamour still to be heard in the present day.
As well as general concerns about how migrant communities might deleteriously effect British society per se, fears around miscegenation seem to have been an ever-present concern, according, at least, to various representatives of the national press. In July 1956 the Daily Express ran a notorious series of articles bearing the strapline ‘Would YOU Let Your Daughter Marry a Black Man?’, whilst the advice doled out in the pages of Woman’s Friend and Glamour in answer to ‘Unhappy Gwen’ from Cardiff, as to whether she should marry her Jamaican boyfriend, was that “there have been happy marriages between people of different colour, but as long as there is a colour bar, it is most unwise for people of black and white races to marry.” When they weren’t being discussed with such astounding condescension, the appearance of these outsiders, in particular the cut and colour of their clothes, was written about as if it were a telling indication of their “alien strangeness and unpredictable sexuality”; witness, for example, the way in which Caribbean immigrants pictured resplendent in their zoot suits were the subject of several anthropologically-couched articles on the inherent predispositions which led them to choose such elaborately brash clothing. In contrast, the posed studio photographs that Nead includes in her book, in which immigrants wear clothes intended to convey a more normative sense of respectability, can be seen as effecting a process by which they shifted from being “colonial subjects” to “black citizens.” Even so, the fact that the British Colour Council could still endorse ’N——r Brown’ as an officially recognised shade in its industry standard index speaks volumes for the institutionalised and systemic racial objectification which confronted the people who appeared in these photographs.
In the third and final part of The Tiger in the Smoke, Nead turns her attention to a close reading of domestic life in the world of post-war Britain. We are introduced to what constituted the domestic design principles to which young couples on a limited budget might aspire, as illustrated in For Bill and Betty: Or Setting Up Home, an exhibition held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1952. This show featured a succession of interiors which an idealised newly-wed couple might choose to imitate when furnishing their ordinary but comfortable East End home. Good contemporary design, “soundly constructed, efficient and cheap,” was the order of the day as recommended in the exhibition catalogue, which advocated such delightfully sexist touches as the provision of “a good, big easy chair” for Bill to relax in after work, placed alongside Betty’s easy chair, which came without arms so that she could “sew in comfort.” The exhibition had been opened by “Britain’s favourite young couple,” Richard and Sheila Attenborough, who were all too well aware that young couples needed to be guided in their choices in order to avoid “the tragedy of the bad first buy.” In reality, many couples managed to avoid the awful dilemma of which “good, big easy chair” to plump for simply by virtue of the fact that they had neither the income nor the accommodation suited to such conundrums. Many lived in run-down, multi-occupancy properties with little privacy and shared facilities, as depicted in the work of the artists who were grouped under the soubriquet ‘Kitchen Sink School’ for the way in which they presented vignettes of unromanticised interiors, often featuring everyday detritus. John Bratby’s Still Life with Chip Frier from 1954 suggests, by its title alone, a focus on lived experience rather than a tasteful arrangement of pictorial components, an intimation to which the work itself lives up, with its confusion of utensils, crockery, bottles and food strewn across a table. Other examples, such as Jack Smith’s Mother Bathing Child from 1953, present an altogether starker interior: we see a woman washing her infant in a sink unimpeded by clutter simply because she does not appear to have enough possessions to populate the work surfaces. Although the painters themselves refuted the idea that this was a form of social realist art, with Smith claiming that “I just painted the objects around me,” as Nead points out, the social implication is unavoidable whether or not the artists actively intended it.
The sense of domestic ennui with which many products of the ‘Kitchen Sink School’ seem imbued is also a predominant characteristic of the way that the post-war Sunday afternoon has often been portrayed. The “structure of feeling” which pervaded the lugubrious Lord’s Day every week, in a world before the tumult of twenty-four-seven entertainment and amenities, is particularly well evoked in Nead’s book. Depending on the household in question, Sunday afternoons could either induce a — not altogether unpleasant — saturnine reverie or, in less harmoniously soporific circumstances, a barely controlled quiet anguish. As a Mass Observation study of national attitudes to Sundays published in 1949 had it, “the Sunday atmosphere is so pervasive that it affects even those to whom the religious and holiday values of the day are nothing,” which raises the issue of the extent to which the Christian Sabbath had already lost much of its significance for those who no longer felt that they were duty bound to observe its attendant biblical proscriptions. With limited licensing hours and restrictions on other kinds of commercial leisure, it was no surprise when Mass Observation also found that “most people, do, in fact, spend not only Sunday morning but the entire day in and around the home,” which in turn generated complaints of “more or less forcible confinement” in which “the strains and frustrations of domestic life were quickly exposed” —all of which surely brings to mind Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock enduring his Sunday Afternoon at Home in 1958 ( “I thought my mother was a bad cook but at least her gravy used to move about,” etc).
Striving to keep Sunday “a family day” in a manner that bore distinctly Victorian overtones of duteous melancholia was the purpose of an organisation calling itself the Lord’s Day Observance Society, which described the Sunday papers as “a secular intrusion into the sacred hours” and campaigned assiduously against plans to extend Sunday television broadcasting hours. However, despite the Society’s best efforts, the nation was not to be denied such much-anticipated delights as Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Furthermore, by the late 1950s questions were being asked in Parliament about changing Sunday trading laws, backed up by newspapers such as the Daily Mirror which asked, “How long must the Day of Rest remain the Day of Rust?” Meanwhile, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger had its central young firebrand, Jimmy Porter, snarl, “God, how I hate Sundays…A few more hours, and another week gone. Our youth is slipping away,” before later reaching a crescendo of rage at the tolling Sabbath bells that he can hear outside his window. The Lord’s Day Observance Society were, it seems, fighting an ineluctably losing battle.
However, on the subject of post-war domestic torpor and all the tensions and conflict which arose from it, Nead leaves her most absorbing case study till last. Women’s dressing gowns might, as Nead concedes, “seem whimsical” as the subject for a cultural study but, as she also points out, apparently trivial objects can often, with the required contextual analysis, tell us more about an historical period than more traditionally authoritative sources. By tracing how the cosy, well-worn dressing gown of the war years gave way to the housecoat, with its implied rejection of household drudgery in favour of a new type of domestic stylishness, Nead traces the manner in which femininity was redefined in the post-war years. The modern woman, with all her new labour-saving devices, could now be elegant and practical at the same time, wearing a garment around the house which was “romantic but washable.” This idea is illustrated by selections from contemporary print media and women’s magazines, in which models dressed in a myriad of colourful housecoats adopt alluring poses alongside strap lines such as “Are You a Smart Housewife?…Do You Look the Part?” and advice about such items as “the short housecoat,” which was “ideal for wearing around the house, particularly if you are nervous about tripping on the stairs with a baby or a tray.”
If, by the end of the 1950s, the good old-fashioned dressing gown “was an expressive sign of the national past,” then its lingering presence in the mundane world beyond the glossy magazines made it a poignantly emblematic object in its own right. To illustrate this, Nead considers Ted Willis’s 1956 play Woman in a Dressing Gown, in which Amy, the eponymous housewife, is berated by her husband Jim for her domestic disorganisation. When Jim announces that he wants a divorce to go and live with Georgie, a young secretary with whom he has been having an affair, Amy pleads with him to bring Georgie to their flat so that the three of them can talk the situation over. After a day spent getting herself ready to meet her husband and his mistress, a series of minor humiliations leads to Amy getting drunk and ordering the couple to leave the flat. Once Georgie has fled, a crestfallen Jim decides to stay with his wife. As ‘the woman in the dressing gown,’ Amy is all too aware that this item of clothing is the visible indication of her inability to be the ideal housekeeper-cum-wife. She is, in effect, the antithesis of what The Art of Marriage, published in 1956, held up as the ideal of the “amusing and stimulating companion” to which a wife should aspire, warning that, should she be unable to meet this expectation, “it is often partly her own fault” if her spouse finds himself attracted to other women.
Such is Nead’s ability to vividly evoke the “structure of feeling” which pervaded post-war Britain that The Tiger in the Smoke summons up a real sense of the liminal nature of those years in a country still, to a significant extent, in thrall to its nineteenth-century past. Not — to misquote Larkin — that the vast moth-eaten brocade of the Victorian era loured over all aspects of the nation’s life. The Festival of Britain, opened by King George VI on 3 May 1951, was a particularly noteworthy “discourse of gaiety and colour emerging from the grey, scarred landscape of wartime Britain,” and the saturated colours used in contemporary films and the magazine press to showcase the event are much in evidence in Nead’s book. It therefore must be conceded that the monochrome bombsites shown in Picture Post, David Lean’s explorations of filmic shadow play, or even Tony Hancock’s everlastingly washed-out Sunday afternoon, are not the whole story of how these years were experienced by everyone in the country. Even so, post-war Britain did have its fair share of cultural revenants which collectively cast a pall over the landscape as the nation emerged from the most destructive conflict in history. Lynda Nead’s acute and wide-ranging analysis provides an engrossing account of those dazed and uncertain times. --Mark Jones