The brief interlude between two cataclysmic wars provided a chilling but convenient framework for historical and cultural analysis. Our fondness for thinking in decades really begins with this period. The Twenties and Thirties become not simply markers of an expanse of time but seem to develop a character, an ideological coherence and an aesthetic peculiar to themselves. They can be compared and contrasted, condemned or celebrated but above all understandable, once subject to this form of periodisation.
Whatever its merits, this process has led to a stereotyping of both decades. The Twenties are fun but frivolous, the thirties grim and dominated by politics. Despite the more nuanced approach of recent writers such as Juliet Gardner and Martin Pugh, this view still dominates. It is a position that has all sorts of implications beyond the concerns of this blog but it does impinge on our reading of Elvira and her corner of The Bright Young People. They are condemned to be out of time, living a Twenties’ lifestyle in a Thirties’ environment. This works reasonably well at some levels – essentially those to do with the transience of youth – but what of the younger members of the set, those born around 1910 say? The characters who populate Terence Rattigan’s superb threnody, “After The Dance”, are distinctly middle-aged but the 1935 regulars at The Nest, The Shim Sham Club or the Mayfair Hotel did not see themselves as hangovers from a lost age but as young, adventurous and as hedonistic as their immediate elders.
This is not to deny the economic and political crises of the 1930s. But the twenties were hardly a Golden Age for most working people – for instance, my English grandfather, a mill-worker, was out of work for much of the decade and as for my Irish grandfather, you’d rather not know. The withdrawal from the Gold Standard and the knock-on effect of the Wall Street Crash did change the landscape but the most disruptive event , in England, between the wars was probably the General Strike – which, of course, merely features as a diverting “blip” in the standard 20s versus 30s narrative.
The first commentaries on the period tended to look at the whole era as one unfolding tale. The best-known, and I think the best, is “The Long Weekend” by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge. It appeared in 1941 and has lost none of its immediacy and interest. An early manifestation of what we now call Cultural History, the exemplary work of David Kynaston and others owe a great debt to it. However, it was only one among a number of retrospective accounts of an era brutally book-ended by War.
Although you need to be a cricket fan to enjoy it, Dudley Carew’s “To The Wicket” (1946) is the most charming and the most elegaic. Carew who we have encountered before (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/12/13/anthea-rosemary-carew/ ) includes a homily to the “Brightness of The Bright Young Things” as well as a warning about what will be lost in forgetting the values of the pre-War world. His is a fairly lone voice. Most writers are condemnatory, seeing the period as narrow and selfish – the term “wasted years” crops up frequently. Others take a more traditional attitude – the whole experience simply representing a decline from the more noble and glorious times before Ypres and the Somme.
County Cricket Between The Wars
Typical of the latter type is Percy Colson’s “Those Uneasy Years” (1946). Colson was what used to be called a “man of letters”. He was a biographer of repute and an influential music critic, his championing of Sir Thomas Beecham did much to cement our image of the formidable conductor. Although his tone is largely one of harumphing disapproval, he was no Philistine and wrote perceptively on modern trends in the arts and literature. However he was a product of an essentially Edwardian/Georgian cultural milieu and found much to decry about the inter-war period.
Colson had certain blind-spots. These, unhappily, included everything associated with the Bright Young People. He didn’t approve of the cinema, dancing, jazz, homosexuals and (apart from Dame Nellie Melba) women. “Culture” for Colson was something best left to post-prandial discussion over port in exclusively male, but determinedly “straight”, company. He also had an antipathy, which perhaps explains his low profile today, for Jews – who he blamed for the popularity of dancing, jazz, the cinema and, I wouldn’t be surprised, homosexuality and women.
Young Woman – probably fond of dancing
He is of interest to me because he devotes time to the Barney trial. In fact, he sees it as one of the pivotal inter-war episodes. Sandwiched between a self-satisfied dismissal of psychoanalysis and some observations concerning “the slump”, he states,
” In 1932 the Mullens case caused great excitement, especially in night-club circles. Sir John Mullens, who was stockbroker to the government, had two fair daughters, the elder of which was charged with the murder of Michael Scott Stephen, found shot in her flat in Wilton Street mews after a cocktail-party. Both of them belonged to that small set of post-war degenerates, obsessed with sex, drink and hectic excitements, Stephen was also a homosexual, He and Mrs.Barney had a violent quarrel – was it a case of a woman scorned? But whatever it was, Mrs Barney was arrested, and the jury acquitted her on the grounds of there being insufficient evidence. Her siater married Prince George Imeretinsky; a nice boy, I knew him when he was a bank clerk at Mentone. The marriage was afterwards dissolved.”
This is marvellous. Colson says openly what everyone else only whispers or hints at. Michael was homosexual. He also encapsulates the general perception of Elvira’s set – degenerate, sex-obsessed and given to the pursuit of “hectic excitement”. For good measure, I think there is also a dig at Elvira’s sister. He gets the street name wrong but he understands the social dynamic of the case completely.
I will return to Colson’s erudite but jaundiced take on the era shortly. I also want to investigate the relative lack of prejudice towards Jews or Black people within the “degenerate” world that Elvira inhabited – it is striking, given how prevalent anti-Semitism ,in particular, was in mainstream society. For now, I’ll just ask you to ponder what forms of excitement might not be considered hectic.