The Tiger In The Smoke –
Art and Culture in Post-War Britain
By Lynda Nead
Yale University Press – £35.00
Six years of war had drained the colour from Britain. Or so it seemed to those arriving in the country at its ports and railway stations from overseas and to those living in its faded, battered streets and amongst the broken buildings and bombsites. The aftermath of war was perceived and later remembered through a register of greys: the colours of bombed ruins and rubble, the hue of fatigue and austerity, of ongoing rationing and uncertainty. To many, even the air, the atmosphere, was gloomy and muted, with fogs making the landscape strangely and relentlessly colourless, spreading a pall of smoke-saturated particles over streets, buildings and trees.
Broken Buildings and ‘Horrid Empty Spaces’
(‘The Atmosphere of Ruins’)
This is an absolutely terrific book.
Indeed, The Tiger In The Smoke – Art and Culture in Post-War Britain is without any fog-induced, remote shadow of a doubt, one of the most inspired, invigorating and above all, quintessentially English books I’ve read in a long, long time. But what’s interesting, is there’s also no doubting that – that for all the wrong reasons – someone like former Smiths singer and annoying, current-day gob-shite of utterly unwarranted racist persuasion, Morrissey, would undoubtedly embrace it with all the tactile impudence of an over zealous apostle.
Likewise, former UKIP head-honcho and equally ill-informed, hypocrite from hell, Nigel Farrage.
Reason being, both brazen bigots and their idiosyncratic ilk, inexorably (and blindly) hark after a period in relatively recent English history, wherein myopic, super independence and everything that that nigh entailed – rationing, sectarianism, dire discrimination and the contagion of the horrific class system – was the invariable, ‘right-on’ order of the day.
As if ”the hue of fatigue and austerity, of ongoing rationing and uncertainty,” resembled something of the good old days; and was/is thus, something to be adhered to.
Admittedly, this absolutely isn’t to say The Tiger In The Smoke in anyway condones Britain’s black and white era of ”rationing and uncertainty.”
It resolutely does not.
It’s just that here we have a book which wholeheartedly substantiates what Britain, or England to be precise, really was like after the Second World War.
Yet it remains some sort of nostalgic epoch – clearly underlined by perpetuating hardship and struggle – which today’s ignorant and utterly foolhardy Brexiteers long to return to.
Authoress Lynda Nead touches on as much in the chapter ‘Broken Buildings and ‘Horrid Empty Spaces,’ where she writes: ”In Lewis Gilbert’s controversial 1953 film Cosh Boy, the young and violent juvenile delinquent, Roy, forces his respectable girlfriend to have sex with him in a bombsite. Bombsites were where ‘spivs’ made their deals and carried out their crimes: crepuscular, broken places that were breeding a corrupt and depraved population. They seemed to draw suspicion, violence and discontent; in 1955 the race relations writer Michael Banton observed that white hostility to the colonial immigrant population was, in part, because ‘Indecent behaviour in the alleys and bombed buildings was frequent.’ This was the world of bombsites as opposed to picturesque ruins: murder, rape, prostitution, spivs, homosexuals and black immigrants, the nightmare antithesis of the ideal new Britain of the planners and improvers.”
Nead could quite easily have called the chapter ‘Broken Britain and Horrid Empty Spaces,’ because in a way, these 337 pages (excluding Acknowledgements, Notes and Index) are just as social as they are political as they are timely – simply because it captures said time period, both majestically and magnificently.
The photography throughout is alone, profoundly stark and telling.
Whether it’s Bill Brandt’s ‘The Square Where the Nightingale Died with the Fog in its Throat,’ Bert Hardy’s ‘The Birmingham of Yesterday,’ Haywood Magee’s ‘Immigrants Arriving at Victoria Station, London, or once again, Bert Hardy’s ‘The Horse Dealers.’
All tell the truth as it so effervescently needs to be be told; because as we all well know, true photography – before the onset of photo-shop and the ease with which to so readily manipulate – doesn’t lie.
To be sure, The Tiger In The Smoke tells the truth.
Just one facet (among many) which warrants investigation.
Other than that, each of Nead’s nine exceptional chapters traverse a certain interdisciplinary approach to film, television and advertising; which to be honest, more or less transcends time (and to a certain degree, fashion). With such chapter headings as the aforementioned ‘Broken Buildings and ‘Horrid Empty Spaces,’ ‘To Let In The Sunlight,’ ‘Learning To Think In Colour’ and ‘Battersea, Whitechapel and the Colours of Culture,’ the book provides unprecedented analyses of the art and culture – not to mention the trajectory of life and subliminal politics – within the shot-gun parameters of post-war Britain.
The ghastly repercussions of which the equally ghastly Foreign Secretary (a joke, surely?) Boris Johnson is still utilising and distorting for his own, ego-driven ends.
The kernel of said, ego-driven ends is touched on throughout.
None more so than in the fifth chapter, ‘Thirty Thousand Colour Problems,’ where Nead candidly writes: ”The dissolution of the empire after 1945 was ragged and violent; in the mid-1950s, Britain was involved in colonial wars in Cyprus, Malaya and Kenya, and reports of these conflicts fed into beliefs and assumptions about migrants from the empire who were now living in Britain. In particular, the conflicts in Kenya between 1952 and 1956, involving the Mau Mau, seemed to feed into long-established imperial fantasies of superstitious and violent natives, violating and murdering English women and bringing on themselves violent reprisals.”
As mentioned at the outset of this review, the likes of Morrissey, Farage and perhaps the BNP et al, will undoubtedly confide, take some sort of comfort in as well as confuse The Tiger In The Smoke with that of their own disgruntled, dishonest and utterly disgusting world-view.
This is a colossal shame, because this rather magisterial book cries out to be seen and wholly embraced for all the right reasons, and for what it really is: that of a template as to what Britain will probably revert back to – if it hasn’t already done so by way of the increase in recent hate crime – once the true horror of Brexit finally descends.