The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars

Jon Lawrence enjoys a stimulating portrayal of a nation so in thrall to pessimism that by 1939 it believed that war was inevitable

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Reviewed by: Jon Lawrence
Author: Richard Overy
Publisher: Allen Lane
Price (RRP): £25

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Richard Overy’s argument in The Morbid Age is bold and arresting. Britain between the wars was a nation enveloped in an all-embracing culture of pessimism and crisis. The horrors of the First World War had confirmed that civilisation was irreparably fractured. Crucially, Overy claims that this morbid culture of decay and entropy was not the preserve of a small, modernist elite, but rather the ruling sensibility of the age, transmitted to the nation at large by new mass media such as radio, the cheap press, paperback specials and public information films.

Most of the book is devoted to charting the contours of this ‘culture of crisis’, but in a brilliant final chapter Overy argues that it was because Britons had become accustomed to seeing the world in apocalyptic terms that they came to accept that the crisis in international relations in the 1930s could only be resolved by a new war.

Having charted the pessimistic tone of public debates on economics, civilisation, psychology and public health, Overy argues that even movements based on the politics of hope proved too fragile and too contradictory to redress the balance. Indeed, he argues that it was “the paradoxes of pacifism” and “the fruitless search for a progressive consensus” that made it possible for a second world war to become imaginable for most Britons.

The book is both a good read and a serious work of scholarship. Overy’s arguments are based on a mass of primary research using private papers, institutional records and frequently obscure contemporary publications. He uses records of local debating societies and educational bodies to show that the concerns of intellectuals were avidly debated throughout society. He reminds us that new ideas flowed freely; that alongside the ‘frivolous’ mass culture of music hall, the pictures, and the seaside postcards decried by the gurus of ‘high culture’, Britain retained a vibrant autodidact culture that was less conservative than is sometimes supposed.

On the other hand, Overy appears to take for granted the ability of this activist minority of concerned citizens to reach and influence the majority whose lives remained bound by more immediate concerns – including the distractions of cultures of pleasure rather than crisis. Tens of thousands may have bought Penguin Specials, hundreds of thousands may have joined the League of Nations Union, but millions flocked to the pictures to see Garbo, or did the Pools.

Whether these people came to accept the inevitability of war through exposure to the culture of crisis must surely be doubted – the residual strength of older ideals about duty, obedience and patriotism must be more likely contenders. Nor does Overy explore the possibility that for many the ‘culture of crisis’ itself was simply part of the pleasure industry – just another distraction from the mundane realities of prosperous suburban lives.

It is unfortunate that Overy never engages directly with rival interpretations of inter-war Britain which suggest a more optimistic and contented nation, confident that the most intractable problems would succumb to reason and technical expertise. Recently, historians have begun to focus on the emergence of a new managerial and technocratic middle class in the 1930s, confident in both ‘progress’ and in its own indispensability to the modern state. 

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Others have argued that even modernism itself took a strongly Whig, progressive form in Britain, stressing continuity with the past rather than rupture and chaos. Or they have claimed that a powerful current of Idealist thinking ran through the rich associational culture of inter-war Britain, reinforcing its deep faith in liberal, constitutional values, popular citizenship and the benign powers of the State. Since none of these arguments are refuted one is left to conclude that Overy’s vision is of the glass half empty variety.