A Babylonian Touch

Susan Pedersen

  • ‘We Danced All Night’: A Social History of Britain between the Wars by Martin Pugh
    Bodley Head, 495 pp, £20.00, July 2008, ISBN 978 0 224 07698 2

The Left Book Club edition of The Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937 with a print run of more than forty thousand, had an inset of a dozen or so grainy photographs. They offered shocking visual confirmation of Orwell’s already shocking text. There were the bent figures scavenging for loose coal on slag heaps, the squashy-faced women and children crowded into damp basements, the cloth-capped unemployed men leaning against lampposts. These are the canonical images of the 1930s: seemingly a ‘devil’s decade’ of economic collapse and supine politics on which a revitalised postwar democracy resolutely turned its back.

Martin Pugh will have none of this. Orwell’s text, he writes on the first page of ‘We Danced All Night’, was ‘more a piece of journalistic embellishment than the kind of sober account he was originally commissioned to write’, and the continued popularity of these and other ‘ostensibly factual accounts’ have led us badly astray. The British Left, out to justify its postwar agenda of universal social provision and economic intervention, had every reason to paint the interwar period as one of ‘poverty, failure and reaction’, but that portrait was a caricature just the same. In fact, Pugh insists, the interwar era was a time of prosperity and progress when modest comforts, basic consumer goods and the rudiments of a common culture came within reach of a large slice of the population.

This revisionist account, Pugh admits, is not exactly news. For twenty years at least historians have been chipping away at the pessimists’ case. Yet if the scholarly consensus has shifted, popular memory has not: dole queues and means tests, not air shows and seaside holidays, remain the emblems of the age. This, for Pugh, is a problem, to which this book offers a comprehensive response. Accessibly written, nicely illustrated, full of telling statistics and shot through with the vivid recollections of Barbara Cartland, Duff Cooper and other unconventional ‘native informants’, it attempts to drive a stake through the heart of the Orwellian orthodoxy once and for all.

The account begins, appropriately, with the much less catastrophic story historians now tell of British economic performance in those years. This was, it’s true, a period of serious, even dire contraction in some heavy industrial sectors, but it saw expansion in light manufacturing and commerce. The deflationary policies of the 1920s worsened unemployment but they also brought down prices. The worldwide financial crisis hit some regions very hard after the abandonment of the gold standard in 1931, but Britain’s economy recovered more quickly and strongly than did those of its rivals. We remember the battles over unemployment benefits, but for the vast majority who remained in work, purchasing power expanded. And while free trade may have hit heavy industry hard, it kept food prices low. Even the advent of imperial protection in 1932 merely shifted the direction of imports, so that by the late 1930s two-thirds of imported food came from the empire – wheat from Canada, lamb from New Zealand, beef from Australia, sugar from Jamaica.

What this meant, Pugh notes, marching out the statistics to prove it, was a domestic population that was, by 1939, on average better-fed, longer-lived, healthier and better-housed than ever before. Life expectancy rose significantly across the period (from 52 to 61 for men from 1910 to 1938 and from 55 to 66 for women), and infant mortality fell. Aggressive house-building by governments and private builders alike, coupled with the introduction of long-term mortgages, made home ownership a real possibility for families lower down the social ladder: while only 10 per cent of houses were owner-occupied before the First World War, by 1939 that figure was around a third. Those new homes, moreover, were more modern and comfortable, with indoor bathrooms (finally), running water and gardens. The expansion of the national grid meant they were electrified as well; indeed, by 1939, 75 per cent of all homes were wired up. Household appliances began to spread: by 1931, Pugh tells us, 1.3 million electric cookers, 400,000 vacuum cleaners and 220,000 fridges were in use in Britain. And by the end of the period a radio was enthroned in virtually every home.

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