The Guardian, 21st October, 1938.

In 1939 Faber and Faber  published The Long Weekend by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge. A survey of Britain from 1919 to 1939, it casts a somewhat baleful eye over the inter-war years, finding very little to praise in the political, cultural and everyday doings of the country. It’s also quite catty, especially where left-wing politics is concerned: Cecil Day Lewis is a “…simple minded red”, Stephen Spender “wrote poor-little-rich-boy poems” and W.H.Auden “wrote satirically of existing British society and rather vaguely drew the moral that only the teachings of Marx, Freud and George Groddeck [a follower of Freud who developed a theory that linked symbols with illness] could reform it.” They drew on newspapers for much of their information, cheerfully admitting that this led to errors. The Guardian titled its review of the book “History as Haggis”, which you feel is someone trying to settle a score with either or both of the writers.

They probably read a lot of newspapers. I, on the other hand, have read one issue of The Guardian from October 1938. I chose this date because my copy of Literary Taste: How to Form It was published in the Pelican Special range in the same month.  and I wanted to see what it would have felt like to have read the book in that final year before the outbreak of war. As if, in some way, I could recreate the feel of the period and, from that, extract a pithy conclusion about life, culture and politics. As I found out, you can’t. All you end up doing is reading downloaded articles, adverts, radio listings and readers’ letters, in this case, from the 21st of October, 1938, which is another thing altogether.

Faced with a quote from Goebbels: “…we do not want to export anti-Semtism. On the contrary, we want to export the Semites. If the whole world were anti-Semitic, how could we get rid of our Jews?”; a report on the finding of Miss Nuthall’s dog in Torquay, involving the Coastguard, who for some inexplicable reason found the dog in a garden (perhaps it was near the sea and they could see it from their boat) and the tennis player Ronald Shayes (he had gone out in the 4th round of the Pacific Coast Championship earlier in the month to John Budge, 6-4, 6-0); and the drowning of Doris Llewellyn Evans a 22 year old domestic servant, buried without a name and later identified from a photograph, I’m sure it’s not just me who superimposes one upon the other knowledge gleaned from grim retrospect, the welcome presence of whimsy and the sadness arising from one of life’s small and personal tragedies.

There was the cinema, however. Jean Renoir’s Underworld was being shown at the Manchester and Salford Film Society – “the men..may wear the boots of Russian peasants, but most of them have quick, cynical French faces.” There was the radio. Reginald Williams and his Futurists Dance Band was on at 10:25; earlier that night, at 7:35, there was the fourth programme in the series “A.R.P. and You” – “Fire”, presented by the Chief Constable of Nottingham, Captain A. Popkess. You could even watch television: at 5 o’clock Rumania was featured on the programme “Maps.”  Everton had beaten Manchester 3 − 0 but, as the report pointed out, “their play fell short of the championship standard one looked for.” Car sales fell 16%, but this was better then expected; the cases to be heard by Sir Reginald Powell Croom-Johnson at the Manchester Assizes included those that alleged libel, false imprisonment, seduction and malicious prosecution; and King Farouk of Egypt stated, in his opening of the Egyptian parliament, his intention to create a Navy. All signs that life was carrying on as usual. And somewhere in all this, people bought Literary Taste: How to Form It, and promised themselves that this time they meant it.

There’s no graph this time because there is no direction to map, no speed to determine. There is however this:

As the world moved closer to war, food prices dropped compared to 1937. That is, except cheese -Colonial, Cheshire, Scotch Cheddar and Lancashire – which stayed the same or increased in price. It should give us all pause when looking at the past for easy answers. Given all that would happen over the following six years, we’re never going to look on this period as the Age of Cheese.

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