Monday, June 07, 2021

Plague Books: Grey Britain

The Long Week-End: A Social History of Great Britain 1918-1939 -  Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, W. W. Norton & Company, 1940.

Provenance: Purchased on Amazon. Found out about it while searching the net for other things.

Review: I'm a fan of the Call of Cthulhu RPG, and as a result have done a lot of reading on the period Lovecraft set his tales, in the 20s and 30s. These are called the "Interwar Years" in some references since they are neatly book-ended by WWI on one side and WWII on the other. In America the period is broken up to the Roaring Twenties, and (a phrase that I've heard more often lately) The Dirty Thirties. In Britain, the authors separate them into the Careless Twenties and the Threadbare Thirties. I any event, I am always paying attentions to histories of the era, in particular ones written close the events they describe.

One of the best of these histories was Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920's by Frederick Lewis Allen. Published in 1931, it was a great reference to the previous decade, published close enough to it to be spared a lot of hindsight, plus it reveals what people thought was important at the time. So I had high hopes, in the this book as it was sent to press just as the Germans were pushing the British army back to Dunkirk. And when this version of the book was re-released in 1963, the original lead printing plates had already been melted down for bullets, so they had to reprint it verbatim without the benefit of historical revision. Further, the book was co-written by Robert Graves, who entertained with I, Claudius and Claudius the God (two books I have perennially re-read). So I had high expectations.

So how is it? Not nearly as good as I had hoped. 

Part of it, admittedly, is the fact we're dealing with England (and chiefly London) for the period, so we are separated in space as well as time. There are be references to Chartists and King Zog and the T.U.C. that sent me scrambling to the Wikipedia for clarification, and assumptions that the primary audience (British) would know all this material already, particularly in that time frame. But part of my frustration is that the authors wander about within a single chapter, throwing up a lot of chaff but very little in the way of a through-line. In the course of a single chapter we move from architectural styles to department stores to women's fashion to motorcars to agricultural policy to vitamins. All interesting, but I had to stop a few places to figure out where I lost the lost the thread, and to speculate on where this way all going.

The authors also come off as scolds, particularly for populist movements and "lowbrow" entertainments. Short stories, dance crazes, women's dresses and in particular American jazz were looked down upon. More modern gender roles and alternate lifestyles were to be castigated. Graves and Hodge come off as judgmental against anything that post-dated the Great War. Looking through their wiki biographies, this is a bit of a surprise, as both authors lived lives that could only as being lived by sensitive poets in the 1920's. Here they come off as being so deeply in the closet that their mail is postmarked Narnia.

Particularly to be shellacked for their modern barbarities were ... the Americans. The United States had "enriched themselves at the expense of Europe" during the war, and was held in contempt for its toleration of gangsters and no-enforcement of prohibition. Everything bad came out of America - Jazz, crossword puzzles, advertising, media consolidation, and the Depression (well, they aren't totally wrong, but the US was hardly as the author quotes "A new home of tyranny.") The Germans, who at the time of publication were right across the channel (with guns), were given a lot more leeway - after all, the authors said, they did get the rough end of the stick at Versailles, and details how appeasement was hailed as a victory (until it wasn't). And besides, Edward VIII should be forgiven for meeting with Hitler - the abdicated King was living in Austria at the time, after all.

Politically, within these pages, the Left was usually wrong, and when it wasn't wrong, it was beastly unpleasant about being right. The Conservatives were more thoughtful, but relatively inert through this period. Everyone was more afraid of Communistic Workers' Rebellions than Nazi Authoritarianism. Any mention of British Fascism needs to be balanced by a dig or three at the Communists. The feeling you get towards the end is the authors would hope that this would all just blow over, and things would go back to way they were before the Depression. With less of the American dance styles, of course.

The book had a lot of good leads and concepts for running a campaign in London of the age. England did not have Prohibition, but it did have the Defense of the Realm Act (DORA), which gave the government wide sweeping powers to protect the Kingdom. While it finally wore out its welcome in 1921, and lot of its regulations, including licensing to control pubs and nightclubs, wore on throughout the period (some of these restrictions would continue up to the 1980s), and the government kept a fairly tight lead on the media.

The book gives you the feeling deja vu, as the authors whinge about things that are still whinged about today. On Media, the authors state at the outset: "The more newspapers people read, the shorter grows their historical memory ... And news heard on the radio is forgotten even sooner." Sounds a lot about complaints about people getting their information of Facebook. History never repeats, as Twain is quoted, but it often rhymes. 

Ultimately, The Long Week-End is that long weekend visiting your Tory great-uncle, who is always talking about how things were (better) before the war. It has a lot of good insights, partial histories, and catty commentary. But if you are looking for a good book on the 20s in America, check out Only Yesterday.

More later,