The 1930s: An Intimate History, By Juliet Gardiner

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

We inhabit an age of great British history-writing: Niall Ferguson, Antony Beevor, Mark Mazower, Norman Stone. Rather as Dickens helped us navigate the traumas of the industrial revolution, so this new popular history helps us decode 20th-century terrors. Academic purists may recoil in envy and disdain, but this is popular in two senses: enfranchising the voices of the poor, but also compulsively readable to the non-specialist.

Juliet Gardiner belongs in this fellowship. Her recent Wartime comprised a gripping account of the Home Front in the Second World War. Here were memorable cameos of Churchill, starting with his September 1940 visit to the bombed-out East End, publicly weeping at the punishment inflicted by the Blitz: a scene recalling Prince Hal visiting his troops at Agincourt.

Such glimpses humanised Churchill, and turned us all into front-row eye-witnesses to our own epic past. If this was heritage journalism, it was journalism of rare calibre.

Gardiner's account of the 1930s is long-awaited. Auden's "low dishonest decade" might benefit from her gifts for panoramic sweep and telling detail, her omnivorous curiosity and sympathy. The opening account of the Glen cinema disaster in Paisley on Hogmanay 1929 is vivid and horrifying: 71 children were burnt alive that afternoon. Exit doors had been padlocked to prevent others getting in for free.

Here is an apt curtain-raiser for a decade that would be notorious for gross inequality, hunger marches, dole queues, for fascism abroad and incompetent government at home, a period when the sight of ex-soldiers crippled by the last war acted as a hideous reminder that the next could not be long delayed. This prologue then drifts into an account of the history of Paisley shawls. Gardiner has a magpie love of bright facts and a satisfying simple-mindedness. She wants to know exactly how things were, finding accurate statistics, but showing us the human reality: how things smelt, looked and sounded. And she has the courage, patience and intelligence to find out, and put together, satisfying vignettes that add up to more than themselves.

The sub-title, " an intimate history", is promising. Gardiner excels at making history personal, and her method is both chronological and thematic. But her clumsy journalese opening sentence, "The thirties is a statement as well as a decade", is ominous. Who is stating what and to whom?

There are six sections but Gardiner witholds the logic by which she chose them. Some have prologues, codas and epigraphs from 1930s poets. Others don't. Not all have intelligible titles : what does "Feeling the Texture" convey? An excellent chapter on poverty and unemployment in Cornwall drifts in and out of a more general discussion of journeys and social surveys.

The good historian must be both voracious and ruthless: hungry enough to devour all possible evidence, merciless in privileging only crucial details that "tell". This is partly a question of balance: streamline the narrative too much and you lose sight of the chaos out of which history is made. Too little and we start to feel we are drowning.

The trap of regarding the past simply as preparatory to our own epoch Gardiner avoids. History is made up largely of dead ends: she is too scrupulous to allow many to be forgotten. And so little escapes her net. We learn about the iniquities of the Means Test by which an official entered the homes of the poor to sell off their belongings; the exact diets of the unemployed and – a hitherto neglected social class - the under-paid, are documented.

The R101 airship explodes and burns its passengers and crew to death over France. A short history of the AA, started to frustrate police speed-traps by using cyclists to warn motorists, is given. Cruel remedies for tuberculosis are itemised. "The Ferguson Gang" - masked upper-class women with nicknames like Red Biddy and Sister Agatha - gift money to the National Trust to combat the evils of capital. Left-wing members of the Eugenics Society debate sterilising the feeble-minded to protect England's racial stock.

Malcolm Muggeridge shows lonely courage in unmasking the cruel horrors of the USSR which his aunt-by-marriage Beatrice Webb, and Bernard Shaw, were too blinkered to see. The vogue for Communism among an intelligentsia horrified by the bankruptcy of capitalist liberal democracy is glossed. This is a halting trajectory; and the second half parades fat essays on inter-war housing and suburbanisation, the arts and Modernism, the evacuation of Hebridean St Kilda, the Abdication crisis, Orwell, the Spanish Civil War, the Olympics, Munich, sexual politics, birth control, marriage and homosexuality, holidays and leisure. Fact after wearisome fact accumulates and overflows into "one damn thing after another".

Fierce editing could have helped. On page 210 we learn that infant "morality" is slowly falling. Calling Beverly Nichols (twice) "the playwright" is sloppy: among Nichols's 50 published books are as many novels and autobiographies as plays, and far more gardening books than either. Reading this book resembles being forced to watch an endless newsreel, month after month. We await in vain the arrival of an intelligible main feature. This door-stopper contains the quarry for a brilliant future book roughly half its size.

Peter J Conradi's 'A Writer at War: the letters and diaries of Iris Murdoch' is published by Short Books