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December 01, 2008

Richard D. North argues, the 1930s were a good time to be British: We Danced All Night: A social history of Britain between the wars - Martin Pugh

Posted by Richard D. North

We Danced All Night: A social history of Britain between the wars
by Martin Pugh
London: Bodley Head, 2008
Hardback, £20

Most people under fifty seem to think the 1950s were dark and prehistoric. That decade was, in that estimation, a class-ridden period whose repression was finally sloughed off by the social revolution of the 1960s. (It was the kind of case I accused Andrew Marr of making in his History of Modern Britain.)

That logic implies that the 1920s and 1930s must have been yet more dire. Those decades were squeezed between WW1, which saw a generation of lions slaughtered because they were led by donkeys, and WW2, which was a time for people to be dogged and heroic. Indeed, we have a pat formulation for the period between the wars. It is more or less Waugh meets Orwell, in which you revisit Brideshead via the road to Wigan Pier. Doomed flappers indulge in a brief bacchanal whilst unemployed marchers press their snotty noses against the ballroom window.

The left got to define the era
It is one of the many charms of this meaty book that it reinforces my strong prejudice against the social commentary of J B Priestly (a ghastly snob) and George Orwell (not much less of one). Those men helped define their age and were early examples of the leftish loathing of mass affluence which came to a head with Richard Hoggart. The point is that, as Pugh argues, the left successfully propagandised the period between the wars. Actually, they've been at it ever since, with each successive decade. For self-proclaimed progressives, they can't stand the stuff they deal in.

It turns out that pragmatic Toryism did rather well for itself and the country.

As Pugh notes,

Conservatives, albeit often as part of a coalition, were in office for the entire interwar period except for nine months in 1924 and for two-and-a-half years from 1929 to 1931.
But that run of power may have contributed to the misguided sense that it was a brutal period. Indeed, one old man I know well - let's call him Denis - persists in thinking of his youth as a period of mass unemployment and economic gloom.

The new inter-war sports consumer
Actually, unemployment was only intermittently high and mostly amongst coal-miners. Farmers at times suffered hardly less. But Denis' own story was that of a lower-middle class family which, having left the north for better times, settled in the south, found well-paid work and a slot in the emerging suburban life of railways, cars and modest holidays. Born in 1914, this old boy grew up in Harrow and thereabouts cycling, ice-skating and playing tennis. He watched ice hockey and baseball. He was the model sports consumer who dominates our own time.

As Pugh notes, lawn tennis clubs were ideal places for newly-liberated girls to meet young men in conditions of considerable freedom. True, like my own father, Denis sought respectable work rather than adventure: they had been chastened by economic uncertainty. But they were both modern in the sense that they thought their lives ought to be more exciting. And both thought that emigration was the obvious route to such opportunity. (Different factors stopped them leaving: timidity, family loyalty and WW2 amongst them.)

But they didn't do badly at home. A couple of years back, Denis was the guest of Sky (whose dish the ingrate shortly thereafter gave up) at the grand opening of Wembley Stadium. As a boy, he'd been at the 1923 White Horse finale which inaugurated the first Wembley. That was in his estimation as in everyone else's a truly inter-war event. Bristlingly modern, the 1923 stadium was overtaken by a singularly and immemorially British anarchy in which the pitch was invaded by hordes of men (all in hats, mostly flat) who hadn't bothered to pay and had swamped the turnstiles. Denis remembers being handed forward over the heads of the crowd until he sat within yards of the lone mounted policeman who cleared the pitch sufficiently for football to be played.

The 20s and 30s made our time
I was surprised by how much of Pugh's account resonated with my own experience. I heard Cliff Richard sing ("unplugged") in a Surbiton tennis club in the 50s. It was still a place of exploratory trysts. My parents laughed easily and with little smugness at memories of the working class and its charabanc adventures before the war. We had a semi and a "char-lady" and cocktail parties and books from Boots. We listened to Noel Coward and couldn’t care less that he was a pansy. The point is that much of our life (including the very bricks and mortar of our house) was both "pre-War" and modern.

I was even more surprised to find how many of the changes of the 60s were prefigured in the 20s and 30s. Pugh is brilliant on the emerging power of women. It is true that for many their period of liberating WW1 work ceased when peace broke out. After 1918, many were forced or chose to retreat into domesticity as mothers or housewives, just as many – such as my own mother - did after 1945. Some of these women achieved a bitter atrophy.

But most young women in the 20s and 30s had work, at least until marriage, and often better-paid and more white collar than their own fathers. The numbers who went into service fell far, far below historic norms. Even the home-bound often had a better time than any women before them. Cinema and radio rapidly filled the time that gadgetry created. Sex became more recreational, though Pugh admits he can’t quite put his finger on what contraceptives were deployed. Women were voting and giving up on useless marriages. (And lots of men went to gaol for not supporting their children.)

Plenty of men about - and jobs
There are two big reasons why the interwar era was happier than we commonly suppose, and Pugh joyfully weighs in on what he stresses is recent but existing work of revision. The first gem is that there wasn't a post-war shortage of men. The 1914-18 war killed 750,000 men. But it also put a stop to an annual 250,000 drain of men emigrating. Marriage was more common amongst women after than before hostilities.

And then there's the economic gloom. It was bad enough for the jobless, and there was a shakeout of northern manufacturing and especially mining jobs. But low inflation and low interest rates combined with increased supply made for cheap housing and a mortgage boom. It also fuelled a new consumerism as low prices were a benison to the employed, who were always a large national majority. Even more interesting, Pugh helps us see why Labour were readily upstaged by the Tories in various coalitions. The Tories, then as usually since, were brilliantly pragmatic and above all never tried too hard to roll back the state. That moment may come, but it wasn't what kept them in power between the wars.

New freedoms
It is fascinating to see that even back then, Empire wasn't what it had been and everyone knew it. Britain was surprisingly if spasmodically cosmopolitan. There are fascinating passages on Gandi's visit to the north, where he was well received by the very textile workers who were losing their jobs to the sub-continent. At least some Indians and Jews were making their way to the top of the establishment.

As a new biography of the journalist Filson Young shows, thinking people who had grown up during the tail end of Victoria's reign had already thoroughly embraced a technocratic modernity. Theirs was a generation which had seen liners, including Titanic, demonstrate benefits and risks commensurate with their size. They had seen a wholly modern destructive power unleashed in Europe, and emperors fall. They knew a revolution in communications was imminent. As such middle-aged people looked out at the 20s and 30s, many of them had already become practiced in freedoms which were becoming widespread. As Pugh shows, it isn't the differences between the classes which are of greatest interest, but the shared tastes and habits, including an unfussed taste for freedom.

Pleased and proud to be British
All in all, Pugh paints a convincing picture of the British as mildly racist, cheerfully insular, effortlessly American, quite sexy, intermittently stroppy, fairly industrious, discreetly aspirational, unthinkingly modern. We weren't especially sunny, but we weren't often sullen. We were becoming more fair and less judgemental. Doubtless, much of this picture obtained anywhere in the western world then. Even so, it is easy to share what was the general feeling of the time: that it was a good time to have been born British.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

To read William D. Rubinstein's take on We Danced All Night, see: An important and valuable book let down by too many errors.

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My taste for revisionism has led me into a certain sloppiness in this review.

With apologies, here's a note on unemployment in the 20s and 30s (and the 70s, 80s and 90s).

W R Garside wrote in 1990 about a (British) "volume of unemployment which never fell below one million and peaked in 1932 at three million". Having swelled to that peak, it only then began a gradual decline.

I shouldn't have conveyed the idea that coal-miners were any worse hit than other "old staples". Garside's data makes it clear that shipbuilding, textiles and the iron and steel industries were all hit very hard.

WW2 changed all that and unemployment stayed low after it until the mid 70s. The mid and late 70s were a period of rising unemployment. It again reached three million in 1982, having risen from around two million when Mrs Thatcher came to power in 1979. It reduced somewhat in the late 80s but nearly reached three million again in 1993.

I stick with the contention that however awful, even these levels of unemployment do not by any means blight everyone's economic prospects though they often attend economic change which produces a generalised uncertainty (and widespread anger, sympathy and regret).

I'll put a note on data on my own website.

Posted by: Richard D North at December 2, 2008 02:08 PM
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