Half a desire to expose themselves
History is all very well, but it calls for best behaviour and responsible sieving of life’s minutiae. There’s far more fun to be had with letters and journals, ideally by people shameless enough not to edit them with an eye on future reputation. Travis Elborough sets out in these fragments to help us see the epic twentieth century “through the eyes of those who experienced it”, all the way from the death of Victoria to the New Labour Millennium Dome party.
He makes much of including not just the great and the good but also less well-known individuals, but it must be said that the famous massively outnumber the unknown voices. Aside from a few Mass-Observation journals, and a couple of hilariously unself-conscious books like A Lewes Diary by the hard-to-please Edwardian Mrs Henry Dudeney, the majority are familiar names, all the way from Dean Inge and Arnold Bennett to Gyles Brandreth and Virginia Ironside. And anyone over forty is likely to shrug once Elborough’s nice chapter summaries get to the 1980s and we are left with self-spinning modern diaries. Of these, in any case, he seems to have had access to only a very few. Do we need to know that the Enniskillen bomb made Edwina Currie feel “jumpy”? Or that the elderly James Lees-Milne deplored phones in railway carriages? Lees-Milne’s entry twenty years earlier about catching pubic lice off a lavatory seat is at least arresting.
But the first seventy-odd years are a blast. In 1900, Lord Carnavon is deplored by R. D. Blumenfeld of the Daily Express for being a “motor scorcher”, hitting all of 24 miles an hour, while a Mrs Sands catches her flounces in her bicycle wheel and crashes in Sloane Street. Arnold Bennett reports that the death of Victoria leaves people “serene and cheerful”, not upset at all. As the golden age sours towards 1914, D. H. Lawrence is complaining about “damned prigs” in libraries who won’t stock Sons and Lovers, while in the next sentence he is primly shocked at young women “sensationalists, with half a desire to expose themselves”.
Bohemian intellectuals, indeed, provide much of the merriment. Eva Slawson in 1914 goes to an evening reading by the nudist poet Edward Carpenter, which leads to talk of “the intermediate sex . . . we then talked of the procreation of children by the intermediate sex either naturally or by thought, and ended in a confusion of ideas, having lost the thread of our discussion”.
There is often a desirable sense of ordinary, selfish life going on through great events and tragedies – the First World War, the Lusitania, internments, revenge attacks on German shops in east London. Women munitions workers parade in pride, and the Easter Rising of 1916 brings a heartbreaking record of executions at Kilmainham Jail as Sgt Major Samuel Lomas sees an old man shot twice. He was “sad to think that these three brave men who met their death so bravely should be fighting for a cause which proved so useless”. In Brighton, the Pavilion is given up as a hospital for Indian soldiers, and the journalist Michael MacDonagh writes that for once its ridiculous Regency oriental fantasies are “harmonized . . . a thrilling experience to see in the grounds dusky and turbaned Oriental warriors”.
Arnold Bennett tells T. S. Eliot that he can’t see the point of The Waste Land, but is delighted by his first visit to Woolworths. So, a decade later, is Sylvia Townsend Warner, who has a sixpenny tea there and coos “Cheap low-class meals are such a pleasure”. Mrs Dudeney, meanwhile, decides that Mrs Simpson is a German spy, dismisses all politicians as “muddleheads” and finds Agatha Christie (home from her mystery disappearance of 1926) a merely tiresome woman. “If she is mad she should be sent to Bedlam. If she is sane, she should be spanked. No patience with such people”. In between berating her husband for gobbling his food and slamming doors Mrs D. finds Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies fit to be burnt, but is sure to finish it first.
Often it is revulsion at the rising proletariat that upsets diarists: Virginia Woolf shuddering at the cheerful public on the Heath as “detestable . . . a tepid mass of flesh . . . . How slow they walk! How passively & brutishly they lie on the grass!” Scroll on thirty years and Dr Hugh Selbourne finds the British worker “lazy and casual, his appearance unprepossessing . . . the Welfare State is to blame for this decadence in the will and spirit of the people”. Another thirty, and Michael Palin is shuddering at the new McDonald’s for being designed to “discourage quiet sitting and reflection” and using bags that remind him of sick bags.
But scorn and even snobbery have their uses. In the 1930s Dora Carrington meets the occultist Aleister Crowley and recognizes him as a charlatan: “looks like a north-country pork manufacturer and speaks with a Cockney-American accent”. This insight comes shortly before she passes out “insensible, after some glasses of vodka”. Beatrice Webb, the great Fabian, after falling heavily for the handsome Oswald Mosley, later spits, “I doubt whether he has the tenacity of a Hitler. He lacks genuine fanaticism”. Some professional observers and critics offer great nuggets: James Agate is miserable out motoring because he feels vulnerable amid ploughed fields and the “naked sky” and happier listening to the Bright Young Things of 1932 at Boulestin, explaining that “The reason Czecho-Slovakians have no body-urge is that their insteps are insufficiently arched”.
On rolls the century, with fresh amusements such as a trainspotting boom and the Ideal Home exhibition. Malcolm Muggeridge finds the exhibition “tawdry”, though not as bad as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman which is “a hysterical, noisy, wholly sentimental hard luck story” . Or Look Back in Anger – “woman ironing, man yelling and snivelling, highbrow smut”. Richard Dimbleby on Panorama, meanwhile, is “fatuous”.
Apart from the high-handed snobberies of the elite on every other page, it is fun to watch previously secure bien pensants wincing at the shock of the new. Frances Partridge dismisses the innovation of television as “a little fussy square of confusion and noise on the other side of the room” and the Radio Times as “vulgarly hideous”. Noël Coward finds A Taste of Honey dull and squalid, by an “angry young lady of 19”, though later he enjoys Alfie, and takes to Michael Caine. Actually, the coming of the Sixties clearly upset a lot of those established in public esteem before them. Kenneth Williams is biting on John Lennon and his “Asiatic lady”, Barbara Pym can hardly bear “the horror, the cold stuffiness” of the Golden Egg fast food café, and Hugh Selbourne finds Juke Box Jury “astonishing rubbish”.
A few incomers salt the mix. One of the few previously unknown voices is West Indian; this anonymous writer (probably a man) conveys the loneliness of London. “Even the black people them is not talking to no strngr just like the white people . . . same thing at me workplace, you talk to an Inglish man munth after mont but you don’t ask him for his naim”. The Irish of the 1950s had a more sociable time, Donall MacAmlaigh meeting up for great craic with a pal from Cornamona: “Only a navvy like the rest of us until he started up on his own and now he has a contracting business almost as big as Murphy over there in Finsbury Park. We said goodbye to him at last and didn’t he give us a quid each into our hands before we left. A generous man”.
Our History of the 20th Century has its flaws and inconsequentialities, and grows duller and more repetitive in the last two decades. But it’s a worthwhile wander through great events and small ones, and especially into great minds having small moments.
To read the full article, please login
Get the world's leading literary journal from only £1.50 or $2.40 per week Subscribe