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Literature, politics and culture in post-war Britain

posted on 21 Mar 2017

Literature, politics and culture in post-war Britain by Alan Sinfield

Alan Sinfield’s work is never anything less than intriguing – he’s an academic with a clear Marxist influence who is also deeply engaged with gay rights issues, cultural representations and class politics. Literature, politics and culture in post-war Britain isn’t, as you might guess from the title, an easy sunny Sunday afternoon casual read – it’s dense, ambitious in its scope and ultimately, if you give it your full attention, a firecracker of a book.

What Sinfield has taken on here is nothing less than an attempt to capture the spirit of post-war Britain from 1945 to the early 1980s and take an overview of the politics, culture and literature of that time. And it’s fair to say he does this with quite a jaundiced eye – he’s a man disappointed by the squandering of opportunities for fundamental and far-reaching change. His decision to give his study the framework of 1945 – 1980 reflects, in his scheme of things, the birth of hope represented by the post-war settlement and the crushing of that hope by the triumph of the political philosophy represented by the Thatcher government.

Although the academic scope of this book is formidable – he ranges over a vast array of sources and primary texts – this is not in essence an academic study but a reasoned, evidence-based polemic. This book exists to tell us how we’ve screwed up and how much we need to accept that failure and seek some new solutions.

For Sinfield literature and texts are vital in understand what has happened not just in post-war Britain but in more general terms in the West. The discourses created by our literature have, he argues, had a direct influence on the way we have developed as a society but he also sees literature as fundamentally political in the Orwellian sense of this term. Literature and politics are irrevocably yoked together and to understand one is to understand the other.

He writes superbly about the role of youth sub-cultures and sees them as locations of resistance to the fundamentally conservative status quo. The strong bonding and sense of identity generated by sub-cultures – their ‘exclusiveness’ as he calls it – is vital in their struggle against what he calls ‘the commercial organisation of mass culture’. Ultimately however Sinfield is also critical of these brief flutterings of resistance and their eventual unsustainability. He thinks that perhaps they just didn’t try hard enough.

It could have developed differently if some people had tried harder. Every ideological effect can be deconstructed, no sub-cultural realignment is permanent, all forms can be appropriated.

Ultimately I’m not quite sure if this mightily impressive piece of work is a muted cry of disappointment and frustration or the necessary analysis that is required to clear the ground for a new manifesto. What I do know is that as a window on post-war Britain it’s full of exciting detail and fabulous possibilities – it’s a demanding read that requires a dedicated reader but no-on ever said that important ideas should always be easy to access or understand.

Hopefully this book might lead you on to other writings you may not have considered looking at before – not just Sinfield’s other work (which is well worth checking out) but examples taken from his astonishingly comprehensive bibliography and list of references. If for no other reason it’s worth having  this book as a road map to the cultural keynotes of the post-war world.

 

Terry Potter

March 2017