The Thirties: An Intimate History, By Juliet Gardiner

This picture of Britain in the decade before the war is full of detail. But what does it all mean?
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The Independent Culture

Every book needs its marketing angle, of course, but whoever came up with "Britain's Forgotten Decade" as the strapline for Juliet Gardiner's monumental history of the 1930s really ought to have taken a look along the library shelf. No stretch of recent British history has been quite so extensively trawled as the age of Baldwin, Macdonald and Chamberlain, and if it is a forgotten decade then the prospective reader might be forgiven for asking who exactly forgot it.

Much of the newfound interest in the 1930s is frankly revisionist. Martin Pugh's recent history of interwar Britain, We Danced All Night, was, from its title down, a middle-class interpretation, in which the deprivations of the slump-battered north contrasted with the rising affluence of the light-industrial and office-working south. There is no doubt about it, for a comfortably off bourgeois in the Home Counties, the 10 years or so before Munich were a good time to be alive: an era of cheap mortgages, low inflation and expanding horizons. On the other hand, even the most roseate analyst has trouble ignoring the wider evidence of debt, dereliction and misery, and Gardiner's antidote comes in the decade's slum-housing statistics.

These, significantly enough, were universal. Newcastle might have its back-to-backs and its fetid courtyards, but the same squalor was just as likely to be found in the City of London. Gardiner quotes extensively from the slum visitor who recorded an instance of four adults (one of them a pregnant woman) and five children living in a single basement room; another family squeezed into one room, with the parents sleeping in a single bed and their six children in a nearby double, in which the mother had found a son and daughter committing incest; and another case of a family of eight paying 15 shillings a week for two rooms, one of them uninhabitable, the other rat-infested and dripping with water but bearing the legend "God Bless Our Home" above its defunct kitchen grate.

As these extracts demonstrate, Gardiner's forte is her eye for detail. At a whopping 950 pages, The Thirties misses practically nothing. In it, all of the larger-than-life figures one has come to relish in interwar social history, from the swindling financier Clarence Hatry to the defrocked rector of Stiffkey, caper entertainingly about. Countless minor novels have been gutted by Gardiner for evidence of how ordinary people spoke, dressed, ate, drank, worked and went on holiday, and the myths that motivated them and the ideals to which they aspired. All that The Thirties lacks, as one jam-packed paragraph succeeds another, is much in the way of synthesis.

The template for historical surveys of this kind is the approach patented by David Kynaston, most recently in the first two volumes of his account of Britain from 1945-1979. Here, huge amounts of personal testimony and reportage are hooked undeviatingly to the forward march of time. But, however absorbed in his material, Kynaston always has a theme. The subtext of last year's Family Britain, 1951-1957 was, effectively, the oppression of the British people by their executive. Gardiner, by contrast, simply has her hundred thousand facts: fascinating in themselves, but sometimes prompting a whole slate of questions that don't get answered. Thus, for example, she is excellent on some of the spiritual aspects of the 1930s – the rise of Buchmanism and the decline of the established Church – without discussing the psychology of "belief" in a world whose certainties had perished in the Great War. The same goes for the chapter on leisure, where end-of-the-pier entertainment tends to crowd out the question of why people wanted to go on holiday and the deeper needs that such trips fulfil.

At the same time, a great deal of the evidence patiently assembled here foreshadows Kynaston's take on the postwar era. In particular, Gardiner notes the British public's engrained habit of confounding the expectations of the nation's planners. The Mass Observation researchers who descended on London County Council's Watling estate, intended as a hive of communal and civically minded purpose, were horrified to discover that the new residents wanted privacy, higher fences and the opportunity to keep themselves to themselves. "Less than one person in a hundred mentioned any form of activity that involved co-operation with their fellow citizens." A better title for this long, diffuse but consistently illuminating book might have been "The Rise of English Individualism".

DJ Taylor's 'Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation, 1918-1940' is published by Vintage