Antic Hay

We went to see the exhibition The 1920s: Beyond The Roar at the National Archives in Kew.

This is more than simply a trot through the usual images of the Jazz Age etc. as it includes material from the 1921 Census now available.

How the national biopower was logged and inscripted:

We can see leaflets on Venereal Diseases for returning soldiers, as well as adverts for the earliest forms of hearing aids for those who had suffered “gun deafness”. And of course the new developments of The Woman Question:

There is also plenty of detail about how Empire and the colonies fitted into the proud victorious nation, stories which get lost even in versions that give space to the Slump and the General Strike, and The Economic Consequences Of Mr. Churchill. No African servicemen were included in the victory march.

Details of racial tension in Liverpool, and a letter sent to the Home Office.

The Empire was promoted whilst restrictions imposed on anyone travelling from it into Britain.

The R101 project and its disastrous failure, which must have been a major trauma since my grandmother was still recalling it sadly 60 years later.

Queer business:

The “contamination and corruption of English fiction” caused by publication of The Well Of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. Actually there are 2 other big issues occurring in this fragment of the Sunday Express from 1928: “ENGLAND IS IN DEADLY PERIL!” is warning about German industrial advances since 1918, in particular in chemicals and aviation. The fear of new warplanes was current in the 20s, for example in The Broken Trident (1926) by E.F.Spanner, in which a new German nationalist government quickly overpowers the complacent British. The editorial column on the left hand of the page is also very concerned about a “mysterious Anglo-French naval entente” at odds with the mother country’s relations to Empire and the USA. “The worst of these vague and nebulous Continental commitments is that they tend to drive England and America apart, and to draw us deeper into the vortex of European rivalries and wrangles.” So we stayed out, resulting 10 years later in having no clear idea of how to respond to Hitler and whether to support the French and their constellation of central European allies, giving out guarantees too late and with no plans to support them.

We do also see some of the usual 20s imagery, with a reconstruction of “The 43 Club”.

Upstairs at the archive are more detailed displays of individual lives identified from the 1921 data. Because we are now living in the technological future, there is a room full of electronic devices in which we can sort through that information. We both looked for our grandparents. I found my mother’s mother, 8 years old living in a house in Lancashire with 10 other people, including 3 older sisters whose occupations were already given as “Domestic”. My dad wasn’t born until 1931 and he would have missed that year’s Census, though I found a reference to him in the registry for 1939. I’m quite sure we found his dad in the right place in 1921, working as a carpenter for a firm of builders. That fitted with the very little he told me that one time about his memories of the years before the Blitz. Something about older relatives, veterans of the First World War, dying in poverty and misery, out of work in the Slump; in the 30s, hearing on the radio that the Japanese were using tanks in their war with China and asking his dad what it meant, so he arranged a trip to the Imperial War Museum.

Some modern art:

The scientific worker of the future will more and more resemble the lonely figure of Daedalus as he becomes conscious of his ghastly mission, and proud of it.” – we all know where that quote comes from, of course it’s Daedalus, or Science And The Future by J.B.S.Haldane. And we know that it influenced Brave New World. But did you know that Haldane’s wife had written her own version before Aldous? No, I didn’t either until I googled earlier on for the author of The Broken Trident and found a big list of Utopian/Dystopian fiction, which included this summary:

But Aldous did also write some books set in the 20s amongst the smart people trying to make something in the gloomy world of 1922, sometimes reaching for the old service revolver kept in the desk drawer in case it seemed too gloomy after all. Antic Hay was the novel that got mentioned in Brideshead Revisited 20 years later as the book all the smart people at Oxford were reading at the time, and it’s stayed in print for 100 years now. The picture at the top is “Big City” by Otto Dix, which was on the cover of the edition I read in the 80s.

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