Book Review: Martin Pugh, “We Danced all Night”

“We Danced all Night – a Social History of Britain between the Wars” is readable and full of interesting information. We learn about diet, attitudes to crime (varying hugely between one working-class community and another), the changing position of women, sport and class (football had rapidly become a working-class sport, but cricket maintained a gulf between “gentlemen” (well-off amateurs) and “players” (professionals) – about motorists who regarded any government restrictions as unacceptable, the insecurity of rented accommodation, attitudes to Empire and monarchy – you name it.

One of the main messages is that living standards rose throughout the period. The effect of the Great Depression was not as great as we tend to believe, except in specific areas of heavy industry or mining such as the Welsh valleys or Tyneside.

Inevitably there are a few gaps. Martin Pugh mentions that Trade Union membership rose, but has nothing to say about the significance of the unions in the lives of industrial and transport workers, or about industrial disputes other than to note their numbers. Differences between North and South within England are stressed, with some reference to Scotland, but I could not have worked out from this book if the social history of Scotland or even more, Wales was different from that of England in this period in any way, except in the high unemployment in South-east Wales. Odd that, as Pugh is a Welsh surname.

On the political front, one of the main findings is just how conservative the newly-powerful Labour Party was. He has a bit of a thing about George Orwell and snipes at him in several places – not without justice at times, but he says Orwell was disabled as a social commentator by his left-wing views and upper-class origins. Left or right wing views do not disable you as a commentator. They give your comments an angle others should take into account. And Orwell’s origins were middle-class (in the British sense), not upper-class.

 

Well worth reading, though!

The Old Airfield

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THE OLD AIRFIELD

 

Over the flat space

Dry grass speckled with bramble, a couple

Of people in coats walk small dogs.

Two men and a boy

In baseball caps fly radio-controlled

Red aircraft in great lazy loops and dives.

 

Two generations have passed

Since this held Spitfires and uneasy laughter

While raw young men played dog-eared cards

Donated by some others not now named

And waited, not for long

 

School, training, first beer, first kiss, death

A story only missing the belief:

A job that with a churning stomach must be done

And the brief freedom of the veering skies.  

 

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Servants

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Another old poem from my collection – this time about fundamentalists. My apologies to the guy in the picture: I spent a long time looking for pictures to illustrate religious fundamentalism, but who’d have guessed it – all the pictures showed people who were identifiably Muslim! Now my contact with evangelising fundamentalists has mostly been with Christian ones because of my background.

They’re not all bad and my poem is about what is probably a particular sub-set, those who are determined to convert people and prepared to be dishonest and deceitful to do so (some undoubtedly wouldn’t do this) and who also are absolutely determined to appear to be happy because to cry or show depression would be to deny God’s power. The poem is an argument against this. In case it’s misunderstood, it absolutely is not an argument against Christianity or religion. I count myself religious and a Christian.

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SERVANTS

 

With fervent voice they praise the Lord;

The fundamentals of their choice

Wrenched from the Bible they enforce

And with a smile apply the sword.

 

They weave a web for passers-by

Of friendly chat and neighbour’s aid

Until the friendship is betrayed

And spider sucks another fly.

 

Into a gap they’ll pour such glue

No wind or wave will shift the wall;

Determined that they’ve heard the call

They’ll say they’re certain what is true.

 

They smile and sing and never cry;

Their outside dark has inside spread.

Who cannot laugh and cry is dead:

Knowing no deep, reach nothing high.  

Copyright Simon Banks 2014

Book review: Geoffrey Hindley, A Brief History of Magna Carta

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I hadn’t heard of Geoffrey Hindley. Well, I do have a history degree, but the Middle Ages? They Aren’t My Period. He’s written a series of “brief histories” and he’s a medieval historian, that is, a contemporary living guy who writes about the Middle Ages.

I hadn’t known a lot about Magna Carta. I was slightly ahead of Tony Hancock (look him up in Wikipedia) and his “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?” quote, but I had a lot to learn.

Geoffrey Hindley writes well, if a little cosily-chattily at times. As far as I can tell he deals with detail in the story of King John’s confrontation with his barons with authority and verve. The complicated story of John’s troubled relations with the French king and his series of wars with the French doesn’t – for me – become too complicated and he manages to convey a lot about feudal relationships. When we think about feudalism as a rigid pyramid, we oversimplify. It was a system based on land. Each bit of land was farmed by person A and held from a lord B who taxed A and used his labour but also had a duty to protect him. B in term held the land from someone greater and in the end all land was held by the gracious will of the king, who could demand services and money from his barons but was expected to help them too. However, over time land-holdings and feudal relationships got complicated and it was theoretically possible for Lord A to hold land from Lord B and to be for that land his feudatory (subordinate), but for Lord B to hold another bit of land from Lord A and owe loyalty to him for that. In the case of the English kings and France, a King of England was subordinate to no-one (except perhaps the Pope) in respect of England, but from 1066 to 1558 English kings held land in France for which they owed loyalty to the French king. They eventually got round that by claiming to be the rightful kings of France themselves.

Complicated? Hindley explains it well.

He’s also good about teasing out the influence of John’s agreement with his rebellious barons on later events including the English Civil War and the American rebellion of 1776. He shows how views of the events around Magna Carta changed in different periods depending on current beliefs and interests, and shows that some English-influenced countries, former colonies like the U.S.A., Australia and India, seem to take it more seriously than the English today do.

Three quibbles. For my taste there are a few too many throwaway contentious remarks about contemporary or recent politics. There are two long chapters about interesting and important subjects of very limited relevance to Magna Carta – the position of Jews in medieval England and the role of women in the society of the time (might these have been to tempt the American market?). And there is one glaring historical boo-boo about the period I DO know well (which just makes me wonder about some of his facts I can’t easily check). Referring to Nottingham Castle, an important stronghold in the wars of John’s reign, he says it was a stronghold for the King throughout the English Civil War. Wrong. It was a stronghold for Parliament throughout, and that’s fairly well-known because it was held for Parliament by Colonel John Hutchinson, whose wife Lucy’s account of her husband’s life is a major source for historians wanting to get behind the headline events.

Still, not a bad tour-de-force, and here, to explain why it’s important, is the thing itself:

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Over Rannoch Moor

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Rannoch Moor in the Western Highlands of Scotland is a wild and bleak place, bleakly beautiful on a day like this above, but a killer in bad weather.

But is this just about the Moor?

OVER RANNOCH MOOR

I wandered over Rannoch Moor in my mind

By an old track where dragonflies veered and hovered

Round the boggy margins of a lochan

Past the last stones of a long-fallen shieling

And there was nothing to do, nothing to fear

The wide and shifting sky was blue and grey

Only a single unseen skylark singing.

Lochan: a small loch or lake.

Shieling: a summer shelter for herdsmen and maybe animals; a small farm building in upland Scotland and Northern England.