Michael Burleigh

The shape of things to come

Among writers of history a variety of genres flourish: they include battles, biographies and a significant date, such as 1066, 1492 or 1940.

The shape of things to come
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The Last Dance: 1936, The Year of Change

Denys Blakeway

John Murray, pp. 448, £

Among writers of history a variety of genres flourish: they include battles, biographies and a significant date, such as 1066, 1492 or 1940. The television documentary maker, Denys Blakeway, has opted for 1936 in the belief that it was a better vintage, so to speak, than 1935 or 1937. Many Britons lived parallel lives, some in the new Ideal Home suburbs; a residue in what were euphemistically called Special Areas in the North East, South Wales and Scotland, as desperate then as they often are nowadays, even though the deprivation is not entirely material.

The year 1936 was certainly an auspicious one for television, with white-coated Nazi cameramen filming the summer games for relay to 18 tiny public screens, while later in the year, transmissions commenced from Alexandra Palace, all of two hours a day beamed to 400 receivers. ‘Television is an awful snare,’ confessed a disapproving Sir John Reith to his diary.

It was also a significant year for documentary film, symbolised by Harry Watt’s Night Mail, largely made in a GPO Film Unit studio in Blackheath rather than on a mail train hurtling between London and Glasgow. With evident fellow feeling Blakeway writes of the first showing of the rough cut to the fanatical producer, John Grierson:

Every director dreads the viewing … many executive producers have found it impossible to resist the temptation to bully and hector, and to denigrate the efforts of those who have laboured so hard.

Other harbingers of things to come were the Mass Observation surveys, inaugurated by Tom Harrison, in the wake of an abdication crisis which reeked of an elite stitch- up without proper regard for the views of their Majesties humbler ‘subjects’. The year ended with the monarchy saved and a badly designed HMS Queen Mary pitching dangerously in Atlantic storms which sent the furniture and pianos skidding.

Last Dance has all the virtues of books which narrow their focus to a limited period of time; not quite James Joyce, but something to make readers ponder the quotidian contingency of it all. Blakeway is a witty writer. My favourite among many good stories involves Hitler’s response to Thomas Jones’s claim that his friend Baldwin was a ‘shy and modest statesman who had never entirely got over his astonishment at finding himself Prime Minister’. ‘Me too’ interjected the bashful Führer.

Blakeway is fair-minded and has a keen eye for telling detail, no more evident than in his chapter on the Jarrow marchers, where he repeatedly reminds us that these unemployed Tynesiders were supported by The Spectator, as well as quartered and provisioned by Conservative local councils, outraged by the mean-spiritedness of some like Sir Walter Runciman who had vetoed a modern steel works to supersede the defunct shipyard. A Labour party that feared being tainted with Communism ostentatiously ignored the marchers. That the poor fellows (half of them war veterans) needed support was evident when one removed the ham from a sandwich in order to post it home to a family that had not eaten meat in six weeks. In Sheffield, a Tory agent bade them farewell saying:

We are told you will not be received by the Powers-That-Be. To the devil with that. Your march is a good thing, in my opinion, and whether my head office likes it or not, I don’t care.

Another Tory who comes out well from Blakeway’s account — although he detested fellow clerics who jumped on the Jarrow bandwagon — was Hensley Henson, Bishop of Durham, who would become Churchill’s favourite wartime clergyman. At a time when plenty of fashionable upper-class folk were eager to trade anti-Semitic badinage with their Nazi friends, notably the bishop’s Durham neighbour Charley Londonderry and his ghastly wife Edie, Henson got the measure of the Nazis early on, aiding Jewish refugees and urging a boycott of Germany’s Aryanised universities.

A major part of Blakeway’s year is taken up with posh Brits flirting with what Diana and Unity Mitford called their ‘darling storms’, the Nazi leaderships’ SS bodyguards. This tends to underplay the many Oxbridge intellectuals who flirted with Communism, a trend largely reduced here to the rather grim Stalinist poet John Cornford, shot by a sniper in the Spanish Civil War, as opposed to the grubby Burgesses and Philbys and all their fellow travellers. The social apogee of the SS set was the marriage in Berlin of Diana Guinness to Oswald Mosley. Diana wrote:

I felt everything was perfect, the Kit [her nickname for her new husband], the Führer, the weather, my dress, Magda ...

A somewhat tense day, in which Mosley felt overshadowed by his host, rallied somewhat as the newly weds spent the evening with 20,000 in the Sportspalast listening to one of their host’s rousing speeches.

The vaguely trashy Ritz bar set may have been attracted to Nazism by virtue of its brash modernity, though one should not discount the more sinister temptations of the cloven hoof kind which so appalled old Henson. Blakeway uses this tradition versus modernity paradigm in his lengthy analysis of the abdication crisis, with the racy ‘modernists’ represented by Edward VIII outfoxed by the moralising Baldwin-Chamberlain-Lang gerontocracy which had evaded premature death in the trenches.

Although Blakeway knows his way around the British establishment from his years filming its members, perhaps this is too forced an approach, for a sexagenarian Winston Churchill was one of the King-Duke’s most fervent supporters, while the field-sports and kilt-loving young Yorks were young at heart if not in manner.

But this is to quibble with a lively book which in important respects queries and qualifies the Left’s mythological approach to the 1930s when apparently no one went to school or visited a doctor; it was in fact the Tories who introduced compulsory maternity care through the 1936 Midwives Act, ‘the first time that the principles of a state medical service had been put into effect’. Same old Tories? Nasty Party? No, not really, and they should be a great deal more historically literate about their own contributions to modern British civilisation.