I have suddenly developed a fascination with the 1920s and 1930s. Or, to put it another way, I have long had a vague passing interest in that InterWar era but have been reluctant to pursue it because of the inherent contradictions.
This book was first published in 1940, soon after the period it covered, and has gone through several reprints, the last in 1994. Unfortunately, it is not available as an ebook, my preferred medium, and I think as we approach the century of The Peace it merits digitisation.
It really is a wholly splendid book although with numerous flaws. Very easy to read. Partly because the writing style is easy. It has been suggested that Alan Hodge did the donkey work of research and Robert Graves wrote the book. I found Goodbye To All That also very readable, and did wonder at what point the florid perambulatory Victorian prose gave way to the direct style which we use nowadays.
It's very cleverly organised, seemingly on 24 themes, but actually, these disguise its underlying chronology. I suspect that it isn't the most authoritative and reliable source for pure facts (eg it said that Princess Elizabeth, now EIIR, was born in 1925 but I know it was 1926). But it was never intended to be an academic tome, aimed instead at the intelligent middle classes.
Some reviewers have turned their noses up at the 'bigotry' of the writers. I tear my hair out in frustration. It's very childish to expect historical writers (Graves was born in the 19th century) to adhere to the general standard of the 21st century. You might not like it, but in days gone by, people did casually hold views that wouldn't nowadays be expressed in polite society. You have to decide: do I read books written before I was born and benefit from their richness, or do I shield myself from the possibility, not even of being offended, but being exposed to something that intellectually I think ought to offend me? For example, there is some negativity expressed by various people's actual or perceived Jewishness. In order to understand anything about the history of the 20th century, one must understand that for men like Graves, although by no means anti-Semitic, a casual derogation of Jewish people was normal, like class snobbery and underestimating the role and contribution of women. Not malicious, not even lazy, just a product of his time.
Modern History is a funny thing. When you're a child, just about anything seems a long time ago. I just about remember the early 70s, which are now longer ago than much of the period covered by this book. Much has changed in society, partly as a result of the War and partly because of the rapid rise in technology. And yet, so much is familiar about this period. The growth in motoring, leading to the mass building of roads, leading to the development of the suburbs often in ribbon developments along these roads. In the 1930s my father, then a small boy, moved with his family to Hatch End on the Metropolitan line. I grew up in a typical boring 30s house in a dull 30s suburb. Dull and Boring but Classic. The house I lived in is replicated all over the country, and frankly, the modest suburban family home hasn't been improved on since.
I adore the decorative arts of the era, and although I'm not particularly interested in aviation or motoring I am interested in that of this period. I've loved watching all three series of Miss Fisher' Murder Mysteries and belatedly have come to appreciate Agatha Christie's Poirot not least for its styling.
Yet this era was also one of turmoil. The northern Industrial areas were past their prime, unemployment was high, and poverty was absolute. Yet the south was prospering. This era saw the rise of Fascism, not just in Germany, Italy and Spain, but also in Britain - the 80th anniversary of Cable Street has just been commemorated.
This era saw the rise of Leisure - largely under American influence. Cinemas, of course, but also radio, and in 1939 50,000 people had TV. Synthetic materials for industrial and domestic purposes were being developed, even the working classes were able to visit the seaside resorts and stay in holiday camps. Women were still second class citizens of course, but were making advances in the workplace. The changing attitudes to clothes enabled women to exercise - cycling, tennis and what we now call aerobics. There is a section about rambling, praising its accessibility to working class people, and the start of Youth Hostels, affordable for ordinary working people. I was appalled a few months when some of the 'select press' ran articles on the benefits of walking, and some of the usual suspects of Social Justice Warriors complained that this was patronising to working class people. Really? I thought. They don't know their history.
I think it must have been an exciting time to be alive, but unsettling and frightening, too. I was often amused at descriptions of religion: the decline in church attendance, except by those who went for reasons of social status rather than Faith, as such.
This book is essential reading for anyone with even a passing interest in the era, or indeed for anyone who realises that they know too little about the birth of the modern era. I would even be prepared to lend my copy to someone I actually know, although it would strictly be a loan because I wish to re-read it in 2 or 3 years.