We Danced all Night

Martin Pugh’s book does what it says on the tin, because the subtitle is ‘A Social History of Britain between the Wars’. A few years ago this is not the sort of thing I would have expected me to be reading, but it was top of my ‘books to buy in England’ list when I went home last month and even the fact of its enormous hardback weight did not deter me. 

I’m only about half way through, but it is just the sort of treatment that I like: thematically structured, snack sized chapters. So far it has covered all the subjects one would expect: food, health, property owning, work, unemployment, crime, marriage, sex and sexuality, women and feminism, childhood… There are lots of facts and figures that I am making no effort to retain, because my brain doesn’t work that way, but it is not by any means dry. Anyway, here are 10 things I have learned from the book so far:

  1. Jelly Babies were known by the Victorians as ‘Unwanted Babies’, and by the next generation as ‘War Babies’ – I love this snippet of information. How typically pragmatic and slightly macabre of the Victorians to name a children’s sweet like that.
  2. Those bloody awful Tudorbethan houses went up in the 1920s and 1930s.
  3. It didn’t matter whether the Conservatives or Labour were in power – the working classes still got shafted.
  4. The character of Pinkie in Brighton Rock, was based on one Jimmie Spinks. I found Pinkie a profoundly disturbing character and I’m even more disturbed now that I know about Spinks.
  5. Despite the fact that women had kept the country going while 740,000 men died in war, they were promptly booted out of the workforce and expected to go back to being good little wives and mothers as soon as the men made it home. 
  6. Driving tests were introduced in 1935. Before that, people just blithely took to the roads.
  7. Until 1930 the BMA opposed giving even married women any information about contraception.
  8. Noel Coward had a fling with the Duke of Kent.
  9. Peach Melba and Melba toast were named after Dame Nellie Melba. Who was the first opera singer to sing over the radio.
  10. The newspapers focused on sensational stories; women’s magazines told women to ‘stay young and beautiful’; speed limits were largely disregarded; the government was trying to encourage healthy eating and exercise. Sound familiar?
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5 thoughts on “We Danced all Night

  1. Kate S.

    I like the sound of this one. A lot of the fiction that I’m reading these days is set in that time period and a bit more historical context would be a happy thing. And what fabulous snippets of information!

  2. litlove

    I love no. 10 ! Oh plus ca change….. Yes, this does sound an intriguing book. I wish I knew how to write non-fiction in snack sized chunks. Three pages seems to be my absolute minimum for explaining, describing or even mentioning something!

  3. musingsfromthesofa Post author

    Kate – Me too, which is why I was interested in this. Coming up soon I have something to add context to the post-war years too (Austerity Britain, David Kynaston).

    Litlove – On the other hand, maybe my definition of snack sized is not everyone’s – 20-30 pages? I call this sort of thing history lite, which is not to denigrate the author’s research or ability in any way. But it’s not dense and riddled with footnotes either.

  4. Emily Barton

    #5 happened in America, too (although not so many men killed).
    #8 is a wonderful little tidbit
    And, yes, #10 sounds frighteningly familiar.
    The book is definitely one that can go in the “to lend to Emily” pile.

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