Art in Austerity


Noted belatedly, but with pleasure, in the September 2008 issue of The New Criterion—that very 1950s-ish Little Magazine of cultural criticism that keeps hanging on, despite its resemblance to a vanity publication, mainly because it manages to produce at least one or two highly intriguing essays or reviews in each issue: a John Gross review of Austerity Britain, 1945-1951 (by David Kynaston), which contains such passages as the following:


Coward in the 1940s

Kynaston isn’t so wedded to the virtues of vox pop that he isn’t ready to use better-known names to spice up his story. “It might not be a bad thing for the Labour boys to hold the baby”—as the result of the 1945 election became clear, many Conservative supporters, thinking of the country’s looming problems, must have consoled themselves with the same thought. But it lends piquancy to this particular comment that it was made by Nöel Coward.


Ronald Reagan with Virginia Mayo, 1947

Many other well-known figures put in an appearance. One of the less expected ones is Ronald Reagan, who spent the icy winter of 1948–49 working on a movie in a studio outside London and undergoing many of the familiar ordeals of austerity, inadequate heating in particular. Some of the problems he encountered were the result of inherited problems which no British government could have put right in a hurry. But he was inclined to ascribe most of them to officialdom, inefficiency, and the abandonment of sound economic principles. In his memoirs, written thirty years later, he recalled his time in Britain as a defining moment in his political education: “I shed the last ideas I’d ever had about government ownership of anything.”

The trouble with entertaining reviews like this is that they are likely to be better than the books themselves. I do confess I’d never heard of the book, but back issues of TNC are fun to thumb through.

Author: Hallen Smith

Hallen Smith is a much beloved humorist, financial writer, and newspaper columnist. He specializes in such trivialities as Christmas newsletters and Philadelphia soft pretzels.