Britain between the Wars, 1918-1940

By Charles Loch Mowat | Go to book overview

CHAPTER NINE
The Secret People and the Social Conscience: the Condition of Britain in the Thirties

1. INTROSPECTION

THE THIRTIES have a bad name in people's memory of them: the gloomy thirties, a 'devil's decade'. It was certainly not a heroic time, and there was much gloom overhanging it, particularly in the distressed areas. One circumstance, however, both increased and lightened the gloom. This was the time when the country turned inward, and concerned itself more with its own ills than with the cares of the world. More was written and more was read about the 'condition of England question' than in the twenties. This introspection aroused a social conscience which had been sluggish in the more hopeful twenties. It was a time of social surveys, of 'mass observation', of public alarm about the nation's future. Social consciousness was also stimulated by the divisions over the Spanish civil war, and inevitably took on a political cast.

The political intensity of the last few years before war began had its counterparts elsewhere: in the new spirit in literature, in greater adventurousness in architecture, in the passion for ballet, in the search for new life in religion, in the journeyings on foot or on bicycle by the town-bred 'hikers' whom the Youth Hostels tempted forth to roads and footpaths. There was dreariness but there was also hope. There were strange flowers blossoming on the slag heaps.


2. OUT OF WORK

There were several Englands, and their differences had never been more sharply drawn. J. B. Priestley, whose English Journey, made in the autumn of 1933, gives one of the best pictures of the time, discovered four. One was the old England of the southern counties and the guide books. The second was nineteenth-century

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