Top 10 books about postwar Britain

From George Orwell to John Wyndham, novelist Linda Grant finds compelling reading about the ‘strange interregnum’ that followed the defeat of Nazi Germany

My parents married in 1946. It took a further five years to produce me, so that period in which I should have been born but wasn’t remains one of deep fascination. How could it have existed if I wasn’t alive? Only in black and white.

My first novel sent a young girl to the US in 1946, to fall in with charismatic black communists; my second sent another to Palestine the same year to be caught between an unfamiliar Jewish national identity and the casual racism of the culturally familiar British. After 16 years, I’ve gone back to that time in my new novel, The Dark Circle, looking at the lives of people trapped inside the walls of a tuberculosis sanatorium waiting for the miracle cure to arrive and struggling to survive into the new decade. Deference to authority is cracking. Something is waiting to be born, if it doesn’t kill you first.

The postwar period covers some of the most turbulent times of the century: enormous numbers of refugees trying to return home or find a new country, rising anti-colonial independence movements, the beginnings of the cold war. The US’s postwar literature - Kerouac’s On the Road, Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, Mailer’s The Naked and The Dead – have about them the swaggering self-confidence of young men coming home from Europe to tell their own expansive young men’s stories. In Britain, the lights were still out, the hearth still cold. Rationing would continue until the early 50s. Some of the following books (all but one of them novels) were published at the time; some decades later, taking stock of this strange interregnum between war and coronation.

1. Age of Austerity 1945-51 by David Kynaston
The definitive nonfiction work on the postwar period in Britain, a primer for anyone born after the war who grew up with the advantages of the NHS and welfare state wondering why the Labour government lost in 1951. Using Mass Observation diaries, Kynaston uncovers the grinding misery of postwar Britain, carrying its massive debt repayment. A freakishly cold winter in 1947 may have sealed Labour’s fate. There was only so much wartime spirit left in people and the phrase “we’re all in it together” wore very thin.

2. Small Island by Andrea Levy
In the 80s, living in Brixton, I would see formidable elderly ladies from the Caribbean walking to church in hats and white gloves and I would wonder about their lives. Levy’s novel depicts the shock when these postwar arrivals, with romantic ideas about their “home country”, met the racism of a Britain they had admired from afar. Hortense is one of the indomitable characters of fiction – proud, stubborn and deluded, and this novel deservedly won the Orange prize.

3. The Rack by AE Ellis
AE Ellis was the pseudonym of Derek Lindsay. This autobiographical novel dramatises his time in a tuberculosis sanatorium populated by invalid army British officers in Switzerland after the war. When it was published in 1958, Graham Greene compared it to Ulysses and it was republished as a Penguin Modern Classic. But its account of the primitive surgical remedies before streptomycin is so harrowing it has not found the readers it deserves, has dropped in and out of print. Its author would never write another novel. For those with a strong stomach for human misery.

4. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
Orwell’s 1949 novel, on the other hand, has never been out of print. Government surveillance, perpetual war and historical revisionism make only the technology seem dated. He anticipated the new forms totalitarianism would take. It is a novel for every decade, a permanent warning of the dystopian future ahead. (The internet meme of the CCTV camera next to the blue plaque on his house is a Photoshopped fake, by the way.)

Joseph Cotten in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) .
Black market … Joseph Cotten in Carol Reed’s film of Graham Greene’s The Third Man (1949). Photograph: Allstar Picture Library

5. The Third Man by Graham Greene
The black market in the very recently discovered antibiotics, one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs since the wheel, is the McGuffin for Greene’s novella, which became one of the most evocative postwar movies. It was originally written as an outline for the screenplay he had been contracted to produce and was never intended to be read by a wider audience. Its depiction of a smashed European city controlled in sectors by the Allied powers and subterranean racketeers is film noir in print.

6. The Virgin in the Garden by AS Byatt
The optimism about the new Elizabethan age – anticipated after the Queen was crowned in 1953 – is reflected in Byatt’s novel about a group of young people in Yorkshire putting on a pageant to commemorate the coming coronation. In another part of the landscape a new university is planned, part of the concrete and plate-glass expansion of higher education that would arrive in the 60s. Byatt would follow her characters through to late middle age in subsequent novels.

7. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
When John Major sentimentally alluded to an England of spinsters cycling to evensong across a village green, one suspected he was thinking of the world of Barbara Pym. But Pym was not a sentimentalist. Her postwar England is full of women excellent but overlooked, their pain not considered sexy enough for contemporary fiction.

8. Rebecca’s Tale by Sally Beauman
A number of writers have attempted sequels to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Sally Beauman’s was unfairly neglected because it was published the week of the 9/11 attacks. She opens it in 1951, a time when the prewar middle classes are living in reduced circumstances. She depicts an exhausted England whose resilience against shocks and secrets has been severely limited.

9. A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor
“I didn’t find the characters likeable or relatable” is the modern moan on Goodreads and Amazon. What little crybabies we all are. Taylor’s 1951 novel begins in the 20s when two teenagers, Harriet and Vesey, meet. Their romance is not consummated. They go their separate ways to lives wasted and opportunities missed. Harriet is no feisty heroine, Vesey is a weak failure. Perfect.

10. The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
Published in the same year, 1951, this must be the ultimate post-apocalyptic cold war novel. Ambulatory carnivorous plants probably engineered in the Soviet Union mow down everything in their path after a mysterious plague of blindness overtakes human civilisation. In the 60s it was on the school syllabus, perhaps to illustrate the concept of metaphor.


Linda Grant

The GuardianTramp

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