On July 6, 1957, Philip Larkin did something remarkable. He “yielded to the temptation of buying an anti-perspiration atomiser”. The bard of Hull did so “partly for the fun of squirting it about.” He was unsure, though, of whether it would be of any use. The fact that he, at 34 years old, finally succumbed begs some questions, not least what was he using before? And was he using ANYTHING before? Still, the folks on the train to the Whitsun weddings will at least have had one less thing to contend with.
I know this of Larkin because of David Kynaston. He is, in many ways, the peerless historian of Britain’s recent past. One of Kynaston’s mammoth undertakings was a series recording the nation as it emerged from World War Two, up until 1979. It is in one of these volumes, in Modernity Britain, that sweet-smelling Philip emerges.
The books are drawn from contemporary sources without modern context or judgement, united only by date. So we learn that on that same July 6, 12-year-old Patricia Buckley of Bootle Grammar School for Girls was crowned Bootle’s Carnival Queen.
The changes and rebuilding, of lives and livelihoods, will be on a monumental scale
The overarching collection is called Tales of a New Jerusalem. Part of the appeal for me, alongside the detailed recording of everyday life, was the sense of otherness; that such a framing would not be quite necessary again. We’d never be at the end of something so staggeringly life-altering as the Second World War that a brand new nation and way of thinking would be essential.
There have been moments, like the crash of 2007, or prolonged dark periods, like the Troubles, that marked key before and after lines. Yet, nothing has the global, tectonic shudder of Covid-19. The changes and rebuilding, of lives and livelihoods, will be on a monumental scale.
There is wild potential for societal improvements, particularly for those who had been at the bottom. Any whiff of austerity as a means to emerge must be fought. We need New Deals, not rotten punishment.
And we also need to be recording like Kynsaton with focused detail. Because amongst the grim toll of death, there are snippets that raise smiles and show the brilliant, messy, freeform character of British people.
The Big Issue magazine is a social enterprise, a business that reinvests its profits in helping others who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or whose lives are blighted by poverty.
Back in April, Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, called on the population to take part in a grown-up conversation to help shape lives post-lockdown. She asked for input and the responses were published last week. They are worth repeating.
Amongst them is a pub lottery. You sign up, authorities pick winners to go to the pub. Another pointed to the mental health aspects of going to McDonald’s, therefore the government should open McDonald’s. On a similar note, a contributor suggested more time to talk to horses. Somebody also wanted to “address the arrogance of youth”, which, like Larkin and his deodorant, begs more questions than it provides solutions. Also, I suspect such thoughts are not unique to Scotland.
When the records come to be written I hope they note that in the midst of fear, a certain pub, horse and fast food-loving resilience existed.
From small acorns…
Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue