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.