Decade That Shaped the 20th Century; BOOK REVIEWS

By Williamson, Richard | Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England), April 23, 2000 | Go to article overview

Decade That Shaped the 20th Century; BOOK REVIEWS


Williamson, Richard, Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)


THEY called them the Hungry Thirties and it was the decade that shaped the whole of the 20th century.

To millions it meant unemployment, grinding poverty, jobless crusades and the misery of the dole.

To others it was the last flowering of a traditional, British way of life defined by class and cut glass accents, the empire and an invincible navy.

It was a world in which the dashing Prince of Wales - briefly King Edward VIII - could sympathise with the poor but at the same time ostentatiously live the life of an idle, self-indulgent toff.

His was a world of 'smart nightspots, louche weekends, high jinks, horseplay, jazz and jigsaw puzzles,' says Piers Brendon in The Dark Valley - A panorama of the 1930s (Jonathan Cape pounds 25).

The beginning of the end came on October 24, 1929 - Black Thursday - when an orgy of wild speculation, crazy spending and insane gambling on the stock market led to the Wall Street Crash.

Fortunes were lost, banks collapsed, companies closed and the millions tossed on to the dole sang a new song: Buddy can you spare a dime?

The novelist Scott Fitzgerald summed it up as the moment when the jazz age leapt to its spectacular death.

Financiers were so hated that a joke of the time went like this: 'Don't tell my mother I'm a banker, she thinks I play piano in a brothel.'

The world ricocheted from Left to Right in a decade that saw the rise of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco on the fascist side and the tyranny of Stalin on the Left. It was the era of Dachau and the Soviet Gulags.

America responded with its own radical politics in the shape of Roosevelt's new deal that put social responsibility into government.

But we in Britain reacted in an altogether different way by opting for a conservative steady-as-she goes policy embodied by two Midlanders.

Bewdley's Stanley Baldwin was Mr Safety First, the man did not want to rock the boat but proved an adept diplomat when he handled the tricky Abdication Crisis in 1936.

Edward VIII chose twice-divorced Wallis Simpson rather than his duty as the heir to the throne.

Baldwin was followed by Birmingham's Neville Chamberlain, the high priest of appeasement who went to Munich and was duped by Hitler into believing it was peace in our time.

The little piece of paper was a lie and Chamberlain's hopes of keeping Britain out of another devastating world war were dashed.

The irony was that the 1930s were also years of affluence for some. The middle class suburbs came into being with three million new houses and car ownership doubled to two million. We could afford pet food, telephones, vacuum cleaners and seaside holidays.

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