We Danced All Night: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars by Martin Pugh

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We Danced All Night: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars by Martin Pugh

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Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A social history of the 1920s & '30s that might just change your view not only of those decades but of everything that came after. None of the modern scourges of society are as new as we like to think and it's interesting to see them in their first incarnation. Splendidly detailed, but spun with humour that makes the whole not just a fascinating re-look at a time we thought we knew, but a totally enjoyable read to boot.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: July 2008
Publisher: The Bodley Head Ltd
ISBN: 978-0224076982

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What comes to mind if some-one says the 1920s? What about the 1930s? The gloom and doom of Depression and the Jarrow march? Or flappers and frivolity, art deco and champagne? Was it a period of labouring under the fall-out of the Great War: a lost generation, a General Strike and political instability? Or a period of unbridled optimism, female emancipation, increased leisure and general social improvement?

Actually, it was all of those things, and Martin Pugh examines them in minute detail. He takes our preconceptions of the period and puts them in context. By examining the literature of the period and some of the motivations behind it, together with other more innocent misconceptions, he shows us where our notions come from and the extent to which they are (and aren't) valid.

He quotes extensively from William Woodruff (The Road to Nab End, and Beyond Nab End) and Bryan Magee (A Hoxton Childhood), but more than passing comment is made to the Mass Observation project and to the life and works of one Barbara Cartland (one of whose novels incidentally supplied the title). The ten-page bibliography hints at the level of other research that has gone into this immensely readable tome.

For the non-academic 'readability' is the key to works of scholarship. It is all very well doing the research and writing up the thesis, but what any author wants is for people to actually read the result. For the casual reader therefore, structure and style are crucial. Pugh has succeeded on both fronts.

The narrow time-frame of the twenty interwar years allows him to be reasonably free with chronology and take the subject thematically. Stylistically, he has opted for the light touch of humour to leaven the otherwise interminable statistics. This is, I feel, intended to be a serious piece of historical revisionism and the requisite detail is quoted at length for those who wish to use the volume as a reference work. For the rest of us, these passages can be skimmed with no loss of involvement in the flavour and feel of the period, whilst all along the way learning a whole new viewpoint: not just of the twenties & thirties but of the latter half of the 20th century and the beginnings of the 21st.

Among the myriad of things falling into the I didn't know… category are a whole host of ills more normally attributed to more recent times:

· the debates over birth control and voluntary euthanasia - scarcely possible now to envisage the monarch's doctor not only administering a fatal dose of morphine, but timing it to make the front page of the papers;

· the fitness of the heir to the throne to take on the job - even his father prayed to God that [his] eldest son will never marry and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne;

· as early as 1924 the promise that petrol tax and car licence revenues would fund road improvements was broken leaving the Great North Road undualled while Germany was autobahning away;

· women drivers came in for scorn even then: she is generally content with half of the road, but she always want the middle half being a typical taunt of the time;

· road hogs, excessive speed and sheer disregard for the rule of the road were common even then with casualties at unimaginable levels: in 1930, with just over one million cars on Britain's roads some 7,000 people died and 150,000 were injured – compare that with 2004: 33 million vehicles, and 'only' 3,221 dead and 31,130 injured;

· in sport, complaints raged about professionalization and in particular there was too much money in the game of Association Football that was wrecking the ideals of true sportsmanship

· binge drinking is likewise nothing new, whilst mothers left their prams outside the pub with the occasional visit to quieten the baby with a quick shot of whiskey, in more hardened areas lurked Red Biddy a lethal concoction of cheap red wine and methylated spirits;

· at the same time the economy lamented the closure of many traditional pubs running at about 1500-a-year, was blamed on the availability of cheap alcohol sold on off-licence for consumption at home – in fact the advent of the cinema and dance halls probably played a far greater role by providing alternative forms of entertainment, moreover forms which appealed equally to both sexes;

· whilst I still blame Maggie for the wreckage of housing provision in this country, it is clear that rather than creating an entirely new concept, she merely, totally shamelessly, manipulated an impulse already present from the 1920s onwards: Britain was already developing its near-unique fetishistic worship of home-ownership;

If all of this speaks of chaos and anarchy, then it is balanced by huge progress in (yes) housing provision, particularly social housing. Food production and pricing was occasionally mismanaged but in general diets improved and, whilst not denying areas of severe deprivation, overall poverty declined.

Education took centre stage, with compulsory secondary education being high on the agenda, if not necessarily welcomed in all communities, and education for girls and young women in particular advancing beyond measure.

Criminality was at an all-time low, with only 11,000 people in prison.

Alongside the advent of personal car ownership, the financial elite (who were increasingly businessmen rather than the landed gentry) were indulging themselves with air transport and it was also the short-lived golden age of the cruise liner. For lesser mortals, travel was also on the up with the charabanc day-trip (the remains of which lasted into my own 1960s childhood), and the arrival of the Butlins holiday camp.

The gender struggle was probably at its height – for all the Sturm und Drang of the bra-burning equal-wage feminism of the 60s & 70s – this was the time of winning the vote, getting into University, learning to fly, earning the right to divorce…

…whilst the notion of the lost generation appears to have been something of a myth with marriage actually on the increase. The numbers of virile young men lost to the war, being compensated for by those remaining in Britain rather than heading for the far flung posts of (an already declining) Empire.

Given the amount of social change that occurred between the wars, condensing it into a mere 450 pages is an achievement in itself. To do so covering all sectors of society from the slums to the higher aristocracy, whilst examining how the changes affected different areas of the country in different ways, throwing new light on old ideas and producing what in other genres would be termed a page-turner is nothing short of genius.

Detailed. Readable. Referable. If you have the remotest interest in modern social history: buy it.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If you want to follow on from the 1930s, check out Our Longest Days for more reports from the Mass Observation Project during the Second World War and head into the 1950s with Having It So Good.

Booklists.jpg We Danced All Night: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars by Martin Pugh is in the Top Ten Books about Britain, Britishness, and the Brits.

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