The Thirties: an Intimate History

The plate section of The Thirties signals Juliet Gardiner's intention. Among almost 30 pictures, there is only one image of a prime minister, Neville Chamberlain - no Stanley Baldwin, no Ramsay MacDonald. There are two pictures of royalty, and two more of people whom the reader might conceivably have heard of. The rest show you the lives of ordinary people in the Thirties: a Fascist wedding, the happy couple walking underneath an arch of raised arms; an Edinburgh contingent on the hunger marches; the swastika flying at half-mast over the German embassy in London following the death of George V; passengers waiting patiently at Victoria coach station in 1939. This is the history of the people. The story of kings and prime ministers, industrial moguls and trade union leaders is relevant only insofar as they changed the way the people lived.

And the people had a thin time of it in the Thirties. Gardiner has the good storyteller's understanding of how small details sustain a narrative. She presents graphically the misery of unemployment and near-starvation, the daily humiliation of the means test. And she shows how employers in what were called "distressed areas", knowing there were plenty of unemployed people about, would not give jobs to men with shabby clothes, or those who showed signs of demoralisation; so joblessness meant conti­nued joblessness. Nothing fails like failure.

Gardiner has a wonderful eye for the human story that tells us more than pages of description. A passage from a 1935 novel shows us a housewife who, when the family can afford kippers, gives the biggest to the father, who must keep up his strength in order to continue bringing in food - until, that is, her husband becomes unemployed and her 14-year-old daughter Ada is the only one with a job. Then Ada gets the biggest kipper. Here is one of many voices from the abyss:

When our baby was born we had to borrow a mattress from next door and spread newspapers on it. I used to feed the baby on a bottle of warm water. We made nappies out of newspapers. When I went before the Public Assistance Committee they asked me if the baby was being breastfed and when I said yes, they reduced the allowance for a child.

J B Priestley saw what was happening more clearly than most. Every time any important decision was made - going off the gold standard, say, or coming on to it again - he was told that the City had ordered it. "The City, then, I thought, must accept the responsibility . . . It must take the blame." But it did not. The City of London was seen as infallible by the leaders of both political parties. When the economy crashed down around the ears of the poor, the Labour premier, Ramsay MacDonald, started arranging lunches with financiers at No 10, in the vain and pathetic hope that they might reveal to him the magic formula for building it up again.

The Labour Party had abandoned the poor at the moment when they needed it most. A torrent of Labour members rushed leftwards - to the Communist Party and the Independent Labour Party, but these organisations sank into all-consuming sectarian squabbles, and by the time the Thirties were well under way they had completely lost sight of their objectives. No one was left to speak for the poor, and the poor were too busy fending off starvation to speak for themselves.

Gardiner's huge and comprehensive book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand those times. It is also easy reading, as it is written with luminous clarity. A guilty part of me still longs for a conventional history of the decade, which follows the advice the king gives to Alice: "Begin at the beginning and go on 'til you come to the end; then stop." Gardiner almost does; her story starts with a great cinema disaster in Paisley on Hogmanay, 1930, in which 71 children died, and ends, quite properly, on 3 September 1939 (no decade is encased entirely by the calendar). But she does not quite offer a chronological history, and maybe W H Auden's "low, dishonest decade" does not lend itself to one.

On the front cover, the publishers have written "Britain's forgotten decade". That's the sort of meaningless soundbite publishers like, though it is not clear in what sense the Thirties are less well remembered than, say, the Twenties. But if Gardiner has helped ensure that they are not forgotten, then she has done us a great service. If we forget that decade, we shall be condemned to relive it. Perhaps we are already starting to do so.

The Thirties: an Intimate History
Juliet Gardiner
HarperPress, 957pp, £30

Francis Beckett's most recent book (with David Hencke) is "Marching to the Fault Line" (Constable, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Game on