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.

Of course, cheap food, running water, electric light and something to listen to while doing the mending would matter more to homebound women than to men, and Pugh is very alert to the gender implications of these aggregate trends. The interwar period, as we know, was the age of the housewife par excellence, with very low labour force participation rates for married women and very high marriage rates – war deaths and dire predictions of a ‘man shortage’ after 1918 notwithstanding. One might argue that the housewife’s ascendancy had little to do with women’s choices: married women were forced out of the workforce during the immediate postwar slump, and both private employers and public authorities resorted to marriage bars when male unemployment rates climbed to unacceptable heights. Yet women as housewives did achieve a kind of influence: food and housing policies were driven by politicians’ awareness of their electoral importance and such ‘housewives’ lobbies’ as the Women’s Institutes provided an outlet for civic activism at the local level.

Leisure activities, too, became more family-centred and to a degree more feminine. Violent crime declined, and while drinking and smoking became more socially acceptable (for women as well as men), total alcohol consumption and drunkenness fell – which may have mitigated the endemic problem of wife-beating. The ‘holiday’ emerged as a mass aspiration and then as a reality, with some 15 million Britons enjoying a week away from home – if only at a Butlin’s camp or a self-catering hotel in Blackpool – in 1939. Some leisure activities still correlated with gender: men owned most of the more than one million private motor cars on the road by 1930 and placed most of the millions of daily bets (gambling accounted for 5 per cent of consumer spending by 1938), while women formed the majority of cinema-goers and lending-library borrowers. By 1939, the British as a whole were drinking and brawling less, and reading, smoking and gambling more.

Yet this ‘levelling up’ took place in a context of widespread social conservatism. If people were better-fed, the British diet was still over-refined, over-sweet and intensely unimaginative (grapefruit, one memoir recalled, was thought ‘a Babylonian touch’). They may have been healthier, but many still relied on aspirins or patent medicines for anything not requiring surgery. By our standards, almost everyone – and not just the working class, as Orwell so shocked his publisher by claiming – smelled: in the 1930s, Pugh tells us, St John’s College, Cambridge thought six baths quite adequate for the needs of 450 undergraduates. Attitudes to divorce, homosexuality and indeed sexuality in any form remained puritanical; films were censored; and the royal family was treated by public and press alike with astonishing deference. Perhaps as a consequence, popular literary tastes were at once violent, salacious and moralistic, with crime stories and romances together making up about three-quarters of the stock of lending libraries. In an era when fewer than sixty people were tried annually for murder, fictional thousands were garrotted on village greens or poisoned in vicarages; the era’s runaway bestseller, thanks to middle-class wives in suburban homes, was E.M. Hull’s The Sheik, in which a young woman is abducted to Arabia and repeatedly raped by (before marrying) her captor.

Is this the period, then, when Britain became a property-owning democracy? Was it a nation of Walter Mittys tending their herbaceous borders while dreaming of derring-do? In other words, should Pugh replace Orwell on college reading lists and in the popular mind? The answer is no. Pugh’s book is engaging and full of illuminating vignettes, but as a comprehensive account of the interwar years it is almost as one-sided as the perspective it attempts to displace. The bias is more subtle, for unlike Orwell, Ellen Wilkinson and other chroniclers of interwar poverty, Pugh writes as a historian and not a crusader, but it is nevertheless marked. In attempting to correct an earlier generation’s imbalances, Pugh has written social history with the workers left out.

A glance at the table of contents shows up the problem. While it’s true that earlier historians might have overstated the period’s poverty and social unrest, here everything to do with work, unemployment, and social strife is shoehorned into a single chapter. Marriage, health, sexuality, domesticity and leisure command separate chapters; so too do motoring, aviation and sport. This structure bolsters Pugh’s claim that ‘radio, cinema, dances, smoking and drinking formed the routine elements of British social life,’ but it also misleads. Surely, for the millions (mostly men) in employment during these years, work – not leisure – was the ‘routine element’ of social life, the place where friendships were made and broken, loyalties cemented, and values reinforced.

With work airbrushed out of the picture, trade unions very nearly vanish as well. Pugh is not troubled: ‘Only 55 per cent of working men belonged to trade unions,’ he reports. In fact, a 55 per cent rate of union membership is astoundingly high – well above the rates of Germany and the US, Britain’s main economic competitors, and more than twice today’s rate of just over 25 per cent. Pugh implies that trade unionism was just another voluntary movement, like spiritualism (500 societies in operation in 1932, he tells us) or scouting (400,000 members in 1938); in fact, it was the single most important social institution outside the family in working-class culture, the font of material aid and meaning for whole communities, and the training ground for a generation of Labour leaders. These men are conspicuously absent: Thomas Cook, impresario of mass tourism, appears in this book, but A.J. Cook, the fire-breathing leader of the Miners’ Federation, does not; the charismatic Aneurin Bevan figures (albeit for his marriage to Jennie Lee rather than his politics), but Ernest Bevin, the period’s most adept wage negotiator, does not.

These men lived and breathed the politics of class: the divide between employer and worker was, for them, primordial and almost impassable; the struggle to win more resources and respect for their followers – and to persuade their followers to see social life in ‘class’ terms – absorbed them. But Pugh for the most part abjures the language of class, except to distinguish between an ‘elite’ and the ‘mass’. Aristocrats and royals get their own chapters, but other classes do not, presumably on the grounds that mass consumerism and commercial culture flattened out the barriers between the middle and working classes.

This is persuasive up to a point, but Pugh carries the argument too far. As a closer look at his own statistics reveals, many of the social trends of the period were not ‘mass’ phenomena at all. Some innovations – electrification, cinema, radio, and the modest domestic holiday – spread to the bulk of the population, but most new household consumer goods did not. There may have been 1.3 million electric cookers in 1931, but the population was 45 million – and it’s likely that the families who owned those 1.3 million cookers also owned most of the one million private cars on the road and took most of the one million holidays abroad. In Wealth and Welfare (2007), the more statistically scrupulous Martin Daunton documents the astonishing time it took for the consumer goods introduced between the wars to spread: the vacuum cleaner, for example, came into regular use during the First World War, but it was not until 1955 that even half of all households had one.

If consumption spread, it still ran along the faultlines of class: goods that became mainstays of middle-class life remained all but unknown further down the social scale. Indeed, the spread in home ownership probably did as much to accentuate as abate class feeling, as better-off families migrated to leafy suburbs away from urban smells and noise. Working-class women entered those suburban fastnesses not as housewives but as workers, for – interwar moaning about the servant problem notwithstanding – only after 1945 did domestic service go into serious decline. The fact that both mistress and maid bought lipstick and rayon frocks did not greatly change the nature of that relationship.

By overlooking the way class marked so much of British social life, Pugh too often conflates a revolution in middle-class lifestyles with a transformation of British society as a whole. Take his argument about the rise of the automobile in those years. ‘Ownership of a motor car commonly formed a central part of male emotional and social life,’ Pugh writes of a time when at most 15 per cent of men owned a car. Britain tolerated extraordinarily high rates of road accidents in these years because motoring was regarded more as a sport than as a normal means of transportation, he tells us, but the fact that MPs (including several notoriously accident-prone ministers) owned motor cars while their victims did not probably had something to do with their indifference to speed limits. Was the motor car, then, more a mass consumption good or a marker of elite men’s wealth and licence? It’s hard to reconcile the first claim with the fact that the average working man during these years stood a better chance of being run down by a motor car than of owning one.

Pugh has a body of well-researched work to his credit: why has he written such a lop-sided book? It’s possible his own expertise has led him astray: while he has written often and well on 20th-century conservatism and on women, he is not a historian of labour and class. Though he makes a commendable effort to incorporate working-class voices, he relies too heavily on a few memoirs by writers who were born into, but escaped that class – memoirs that capture the child’s world of the neighbourhood and the home (the moonlight flit, the smells of the street) but not the adult world of the workplace or the pub.

However, the main reason this book is so deaf to the importance of class is that it is a book of its time – by which I mean a book of our time. I very much doubt that Pugh is an admirer of Foucault but this book is Foucauldian nonetheless, in the sense that it is less a ‘history’, aimed at recovering times and manners not our own, than a ‘genealogy’, tracking the emergence of our present practices. After all, a world would emerge in which cars, air travel and European vacations would be commonplace, birth would matter less and the media a great deal more, miners would become scarcer than Starbucks baristas, and a culture of consumption and celebrity would blanket the land. But this is the world we live in now, not the world of the 1930s, and while we can find seeds of it in the interwar period (as we can indeed in the 1880s or the 1760s), it was forged more by Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch than it was by Lloyd George and Sir John Reith.

In this world – our world – ‘class’ has become a dirty word, one not even Labour politicians can speak without being labelled sectarians or romantics. So let me be clear. I am not nostalgic for a world in which class mattered as much as it did between the wars. For most people, that world was colder, harder and much less interesting than our own. Most children began work at 14 and an infinitesimally small number went to university; most people felt old at 50. Most men worked hard and claimed the best of the little on offer; children (and often women) were thumped if they strayed out of line. That world is gone, and no one should mourn its passing.

It is one thing, however, to view the end of the hegemony of ‘class’ with equanimity, and another to write it out of the record. Doing so leaves a skewed picture of the past and a bad taste in the mouth. After all, the mass electrification that transformed millions of homes was fuelled by the coal dug by a million (yes, one million) miners; hundreds of thousands of dockers unloaded the cheap food coming in at the port. Those jobs became obsolete, but not overnight: not just sons but grandsons would follow these men underground. Pugh is right: mass war, and then the adoption of the Orwellian view of the 1930s, won for those men and their movement a brief postwar period of authority; in the long run, however, they were the losers. We needn’t romanticise them, as Orwell did: most of us don’t carry his burden of self-loathing or class guilt. But we shouldn’t forget them.