Saturday, 11 December 2010

The Long Week-End by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge

Anyone who has read histories of the interwar period in Britain will have come across references to this book.  Published in 1941, the book's stated purpose is "to serve as a reliable record of what took place, of a forgettable sort, during the twenty-one year interval between two great European wars".  Structured in thematic but chronological chapters, this approach allows Graves and Hodge to cover all sorts of ephemera alongside a thorough outline of the political upheaval of the period, as well as some excellent jokes.  The overall tone of the book, however, is both rather cynical and quite conservative.  Social and political campaigns are often attributed to the workings of fashion rather than conviction: feminism, for example, can be a threat, a joke or a force for good, depending on context.  Writing on demobilisation after the First World War, they note that "A million men found that their old jobs had either disappeared or were held by someone else - usually a woman, or a man who had escaped conscription", which is a familiar presentation of the employment position at that time, if not entirely borne out in other accounts.  A few pages later, however, women war workers are being described rather differently:  "The women who only a year or so earlier had been acclaimed as patriots, giving up easy lives at home to work for their Country, were now represented as vampires who deprived men of their rightful jobs.  By Trade Union pressure they were dismissed from engineering, printing and transport work, though cheap and efficient workers, and from the factories where they had worked on munitions." Possibly it is the opportunity for a bit of union-bashing that accounts for this change of heart.

There is a vast amount of detail in this book, particularly of the sort of domestic matters that often escape other histories, and accounts of the way the trends and events of the period actually affected day to day life.  The authors also have an unexpected familiarity with women's fashions - I wondered if one of them sat down with a huge stack of Vogue magazines to furnish the details of hemlines and hats.  The chapter titles can be idiosyncratic; "The Days of the Loch Ness Monster" covers press reporting of the Monster, press sensationalism in general, yo-yos, mechanisation, the music-hall and literary trends.  This variety, and the entertaining and witty style of the text, makes it an engaging read, however the reader feels about its political positioning.  It is also invaluable to the scholar of the period, giving a sense not only of what happened, by of how it was presented by the media of the day, and the influence of newspapers and broadcasting on social attitudes.  The Long Week-End seems to be out of print, but there are a lot of cheap second-hand copies around.

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