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"The Age of Illusion: England in the Twenties and Thirties, 1919-1940" by Ronald Blythe

The Age of Illusion - Ronald Blythe

Ronald Blythe's idiosyncratic social history of England in the 1920s and 1930s, is wonderfully interesting and informative. With no introduction, it is difficult to tell how Ronald Blythedecided what to write about. All the events described happened between 1919 and 1940, and throughout each chapter Blythe captures the mood and detail of the two decades following the carnage, confusion, grief and senselessness of the First World War.

The book concludes with Winston Churchill's appointment as Prime Minister of a war time coalition Government that was preceded by one of the most famous parliamentary debates of all time, and which resulted in Neville Chamberlain's dismissal. AsRonald Blythe observes, "there are a few sights more quelling - a cannibal banquet, perhaps - than one Tory slaying a fellow Tory for the good of the country. Against such fury the rage of the Opposition is the cooing of doves."

Ronald Blythe begins the book with the burial in Westminster Abbey of the Unknown Soldier. This was nearly two years after the last shot had been fired in the First World War, and the near-delirium of 1919 was giving way to the uneasy realisation that the world was still unfit for heroes. 

The extent to which you will enjoy the various chapters in this book will probably depend upon your interest in the various topics Blythe chose to cover. For example, I am not especially interested in cricket so found the chapter on the body-line bowling scandal less interesting than those on the Left Book Club, the Brighton trunk murders, and - of course - the Rector of Stiffkey. That said, it really is all varying degrees of excellence - and for anyone interested in the era, chock full of insight and interest.

I really enjoyed the chapter on Sir William Joynson-Hicks, alias Jix, who as Home Secretary waged war on the progressive spirit of the 1920s. Likewise the chapter on Amy Johnson is marvellous and inspires me to find out more about this remarkable woman. And of course, TE Lawrence, the enigma, forever vacillating between post-fame anonymity and wanting something more. I was very interested to read more about Victor Gollancz, who founded the Left Book Club in 1936. I've come across his name a few times and am now intrigued to read more about him. 

The chapter on Harold Davidson, aka the Rector of Stiffkey, aka the "Prostitutes' Padre" is very interesting. He's a character who would have garnered headlines in any era. As the "Prostitutes' Padre" he approached and befriended hundreds of girls, and although there was little direct evidence of improper behaviour, Davidson was frequently found in compromising situations. He neglected his parish to such an extent that he was in London six days a week, sometimes not even bothering to come back on Sundays and getting someone else to deputise. After a formal complaint, the Bishop of Norwich instituted disciplinary proceedings. Davidson's defence was severely compromised by his own eccentric conduct and was damaged beyond repair when the prosecution produced a photograph of Davidson with a near-naked teenage girl. Harold was ultimately killed by a lion at Skegness Amusement Park - truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

Reading The Age of Illusion: England in the Twenties and Thirties, 1919-1940 is akin to being in a pub with a very well informed raconteur, who throws out a stream of interesting facts and stimulating anecdotes, that bring the 1920s and 1930s to life. This is a wonderful companion piece to The Long Week-end: A Social History of Great Britain, 1918-39 by Robert Graves. As with all interesting social histories, I had to keep pausing to make notes about references that I want to follow up.