DJ Taylor: Back to the 1930s – but this time we're not quite pulling together

In 1931, people queued up to pay their taxes and help cut the spiralling national deficit. These days, we're more likely to worry about our own wellbeing than the country's

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Historical parallels are rarely quite as exact as they seem, but all last week I was struck by the resemblances between the current economic crisis and the events of autumn 1931.

Then, as now, the country was being run by a newly elected coalition government with a strong Conservative bias. Then, as now, fiscal disaster loomed over the horizon, the prospect of public spending cuts was loudly advertised and belt-tightening was being everywhere enjoined. And how was the British public coping with the idea of austerity, deferred gratification and the hard work needed to repair the national debt? The mood of the times is captured in A Year to Remember, a reminiscence by Evelyn Waugh's elder brother and fellow novelist, Alec. According to Waugh, initial despondency was replaced by a feeling of "national rebirth" only a little less strong than the emotions stirred by the Dunkirk evacuation nine years later. "People were so anxious to help the country that they lined up in queues to pay their taxes," Waugh relates. "Very stringent measures were adopted to meet the crisis. All official salaries were cut and no one grumbled. The sacrifices were made with pride. There was no feeling of gloom."

To accompany this air of national resolve came a number of individual – and sometimes highly emblematic – gestures. Expats flocked home from the south of France to show solidarity. The Duke of Connaught, who had a villa in Cap Ferrat, declared that he would spend the winter in Sidmouth, and was interviewed for a newsreel strolling along the sea-front, although the effect was somewhat spoiled by the presence of a palm tree in the background. Noël Coward, meanwhile, wrote a patriotic speech into the finale of Cavalcade, in which a middle-aged woman invites the audience to "drink to the hope that one day this country of ours which we love will find dignity and greatness and peace again". And how, by contrast, are we reacting to the news of belt-tightening and cut backs 79 years later? Well, the Daily Mail has already offered a choice headline or two about the absolute necessity not to tax the beleaguered middle classes. Somewhere in our recent national history there has clearly been a falling off in civic responsibility, but I'm damned if I can put my finger on it.

*****

As a Dickens obsessive, and an admirer of the biographer Claire Tomalin, I was delighted to hear that BBC Films has bought the rights to Ms Tomalin's book about Dickens's mistress Ellen Ternan, The Invisible Woman. Having read the news stories that accompanied the announcement, and in particular the remarks attributed to Jane Wright, managing director of BBC Films, I was just a tiny bit less enthusiastic. According to Ms Wright, the film will show Dickens in a "fuller light". "It's a bittersweet story about love and how important that is to all of us," she continued, going on to describe the love affair as "a very 20th-century relationship". It was thought that the drama would go slightly further than Ms Tomalin's book, which suggests that Dickens may have been the father of a bastard child, by featuring an actual baby.

By this point, anyone with the slightest interest in Dickens's novels, or indeed historical accuracy, will be groaning with dismay. Here, for example, is the Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens on the Dickens-Ternan affair: "firm, unambiguous evidence that they actually were lovers is still lacking". The entry on "Ms Ternan", as the BBC now refers to her, notes that Ms Tomalin makes out a plausible case for a sustained physical relationship, but draws attention to a "persuasive alternative hypothesis" put forward by Peter Ackroyd in Dickens (1990), which argues for a non-sexual relationship on the grounds that it "acted for Dickens as the realisation of one of his most enduring fictional fantasies ... sexless marriage to a young, idealised virgin".

As for the love child, Professor Michael Slater, the world's leading authority on Dickens, whose opinion I asked, uttered the single word "unprovable". Never mind, BBC Films will have their fun, and spend huge amounts of ingenuity and public money constructing a "20th-century relationship" out of something that, in its concealments and its ambiguities, belongs entirely to the Victorian age. How wonderful it would be if the past, instead of being endlessly reinvented to suit modern sensibilities, could simply be itself.

*****

According to a survey recently conducted by the Science Museum, lying is on the increase. Data collected from the 3,000 respondents suggested that the average man tells a lie just under 1,100 times a year, averaging out at three times a day. The average woman is apparently slightly less mendacious and produces a falsehood only twice every 24 hours. The people most likely to be lied to, it turns out, are mothers, whose lives are apparently non-stop pageants of deceit, with husbands and assorted children queuing up to pull the wool over their eyes.

All this raises two interesting questions: how do you define a lie? And when did I last tell one? In the former category, does saying you have done something when you are about to do it – possibly the most common evasion practised by the late-fortysomething father of three – count? The "three great lies", as set out by a hard-drinking female literary editor of my acquaintance 20 years ago, were: "The cheque's in the post", "We're putting it in the next issue", and a piece of sexual reassurance so scabrous that I hesitate to repeat it in a family newspaper. Certainly, I have never been guilty of any of the above.

But what about an actual barefaced denial of the truth? Thankfully, the last one happened as long ago as 2001, when, arriving at the awards ceremony for a literary prize, I bumped into a fellow judge, the novelist Paul Bailey, who instantly demanded: "Did you write that review of my book in yesterday's Private Eye?" What does a critic say in such circumstances, knowing that he has to spend the next three hours in the outraged author's company and that owning up would irretrievably sour the atmosphere? I'm afraid I offered some shifty evasion. If it's any consolation to Mr Bailey, I still suffer twinges of conscience about this lapse even now.

*****

Going back to the economic prospects, I wasn't in the least surprised to find the incoming Secretary of State for Culture, Jeremy Hunt, declaring that wealthy donors would be needed to help plug gaps in arts funding. Announcing budget reductions as part of the wider public spending cuts, he called for a "cultural shift" towards private donations to arts bodies, while unveiling plans to boost philanthropic gestures through a shake-up of gift aid tax-relief. "I believe we can do much to strengthen philanthropy in the cultural sector," Mr Hunt went on. "I particularly want to help smaller organisations to help themselves."

The fact that one can dispassionately nod one's head at this, rather than retreating to the old high-minded belief that cuts in the arts budget are a kind of spiritual infanticide, is a mark of how profoundly attitudes to culture funding have altered in the last decade or two. The reason for this change of heart lies in an uncomfortable awareness that smaller arts organisations – local literary festivals, say – which lose their funding are far less likely to be mucked about by private patrons than by grant-dispensing bureaucrats. Significantly, the most effective cultural sponsor now at work in British publishing is not the Arts Council's literature department, but the philanthropist Sigrid Rausing. But then Ms Rausing has a great deal more money at her disposal.

*****

As the football season ground temporarily to a halt, and the sports journalists continued to pick over the carcass of Portsmouth FC, I was heartened to read a statement attributed to their veteran goalkeeper David James, in which he suggested that "in all likelihood the squad next season will bear scant resemblance to the squad we have now". Many footballers, you imagine, would have contented themselves with a terse "Most of the lads will be off", but no, Mr James talks about "likelihoods" and "scant resemblances".

No doubt about it, after a shaky start – I remember seeing him sent off for kicking a Norwich player as long ago as 1993 – Mr James is turning into one of the modern game's great emissaries. No list of the books that Premier League players are reading ignores him. A couple of years ago he was the Portsmouth spokesman in a BBC Radio 4 documentary about the sport's new-found environmental awareness. As retirement beckons for him, we can only hope that the BBC will swiftly install him as a pundit on Match of the Day. Certainly, talk of "scant resemblances" would make a nice change from Alan Hansen shouting the word "unbelievable" at five-second intervals.

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