The Last Dance: 1936 – the Year of Change

It started with a royal succession and ended with an abdication under the clouds of looming war. It

"Taking one year with another . . ." the chancellor likes to say in his Budget speech, but one year is not like another: some years are more equal than others. In the past century, 1914, 1929, 1956 and 1989, all for different but obvious reasons, have a particular resonance, and so does 1936.

There are few to match it in terms of high drama, with Hitler's remilitarisation of the Rhineland, the outbreak of the Spanish civil war, the "Nazi Olympics" in Berlin and, at home, everything from the Jarrow march to the royal crisis.

This was "the year of three kings", opening with the death of George V and his succession by Edward VIII in January, and closing with Edward's abdication in December. As the months went by, the national atmosphere was a mixture of manic gaiety and acute apprehension, and by the turn of the next year few could escape a sense of foreboding.

In The Last Dance, his stimulating and highly readable portrait of 1936, Denys Blakeway sets the scene with a kind of metaphor that is none the worse for being fairly blatant. The Queen Mary, last of the great Cunard liners, was launched in the summer. In late December she sailed into a storm in the Atlantic. Although mighty and magnificent in appearance, the ship had been badly designed, without stabilisers, and she rolled so badly in a heavy sea that it became almost impossible for her 2,000 passengers to remain on board, as pianos careered terrifyingly across ballrooms. Likewise Britain and Europe careered out of control.

Using a technique rather like film-editing (he is a television producer by trade), Blakeway cuts from the dying king at Sandringham to John Cornford, the communist undergraduate poet, at Cambridge. Days before the king's demise came the death of Rudyard Kipling, the embodiment of everything hated by Cornford, who could not know his own fate before the end of the year.

Then we cut again. Shortly after the glamorous new king ascended to the throne, George Orwell set off on the northern journey that would produce The Road to Wigan Pier ("for which Wigan would never forgive him", as Blakeway drily writes). That book has left an indelible image of "the hungry 1930s", enhanced by the poignant story of the Jarrow marchers trudging to London from their desolate Tyneside home town (and being shown much kindness on the way - not least, Blakeway notes, by provincial Conservatives ashamed of their own mean-spirited government).

And yet, as A J P Taylor pointed out long ago, that picture is misleading. For those British people in work - the great majority - the 1930s were easily the best time there had ever been, with rising prosperity and an undreamt-of standard of living. Blakeway takes us to the Ideal Home Exhibition in March, along with the vast numbers who visited it. This was a year when more than 300,000 new houses were built.

Because Blakeway is giving an impressionistic or pointillist portrait, he can pick and choose. He doesn't mention one of the year's highest dramas, the Moscow Trials, but pays much attention to the Olympics and the Spanish civil war. Although the Games were a publicity triumph for the Third Reich, Lord Decies wrote grimly on his return from Berlin that what he had witnessed there was "a new race . . . ready to go anywhere under the orders of the Führer".

Tragedy mingled with absurdity. At the beginning of July, the surrealist Salvador Dalí appeared at the New Burlington Galleries in the West End of London wearing a deep-sea diver's suit, a stunt that nearly suffocated him. Just over a fortnight later, Francisco Franco's rebellion began the civil war in Dalí's home country, and as the young painter Julian Trevelyan said, "for the next three years our thoughts and consciences were turned to Spain".

It is not true, as the book suggests, that those who went off to fight in Spain were generally young intellectuals: most of the volunteers in the International Brigades were working-class men, many of them miners. In fact, Blakeway then says as much, and there are one or two other contradictions, as well as repetitions and the odd outlandish misprint: the "anti-Marxist Moscow militia POUM" in which Orwell served in Catalonia must mean "anti-Moscow Marxist . . .", although this is the kind of gremlin that computers can introduce and no amount of proofreading can expunge.

This past is indeed a foreign country where they did things differently. Manners and mores have changed so much that it is hard to believe 1936 is within living memory. In particular, sexual life was a mixture of desire, repression and hypocrisy. Homosexuality was still a criminal offence, and it is heart-rending to read the lines written by David Strain, a young Belfast draper whose remarkable diary Blakeway found in the archives. He recorded "feeling absolutely desperate", and wrote: "I have never known or had a moments real love [sic]"; if only "I could meet a boy I loved, and of whose love I was assured, I would give up all".

At the same time, the prime minister was coming to silent terms with the fact that his son was living with his boyfriend. Stanley Baldwin was often called a humbug, but that wasn't quite right. As the year wore on, his life was dominated by the new king, or rather the king's liaison with Wallis Simpson, a twice-married American adventuress with whom Edward was infatuated. It wouldn't matter if "she were what I call a respectable whore", Baldwin said, but Edward was determined to marry her, whatever the consequences.

One man looms over the story - not quite the ghost at the feast, but maybe the bad fairy. Winston Churchill had been out of office since 1929, his fortunes sometimes rising but more often falling. His year began on holiday in Morocco, where his crony Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail, bet him £2,000 (worth £75,000 today) that he could not give up alcohol until his 62nd birthday the following November. "Life would not be worth
living" on that basis, said Churchill, but he did accept an offer of £600 - several times a miner's annual wage - to refrain from brandy and other spirits.

Not that this much cramped his style. He was seen drinking large quantities of beer at lunch, followed by "five large glasses of port", and there were important occasions when he was clearly acting under the influence. He took up the cause of Edward and his mistress, firing off letters that read very much as if they were written in vino, if not quite veritas - "Sir, News from all fronts! No pistol to be held at the King's head! . . . It's a long way to Tipperary."

By the end of a year that had been "the hinge of the decade", and the end also of this absorbing book, the Queen Mary was limping home with all her furniture nailed down, Cornford had been killed at the front near Córdoba the day after his 21st birthday, Edward had abdicated and Churchill's career was at its lowest ebb. Even Churchill might have been astonished to be told where the country, and he, would be within three and a half years. But one young man was not alone in saying, "We knew then that another major war was inevitable".

The Last Dance: 1936 - the Year of Change
Denys Blakeway
John Murray, 448pp, £25

Geoffrey Wheatcroft's books include "The Strange Death of Tory England" (Penguin, £8.99) and "Yo, Blair!" (Politico's, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 24 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Greece now, Britain next