Coming of age in the 1930s

Brian Vickery

In the autumn of 1931, in my first 'teen year, I came to England for the first time, to study and reside at a "public" (i.e. fee-paying) boarding school in Canterbury, Kent. Though I did not realise it at the time, Britain (and the world) was going through a difficult period. The New York stock market crash had occurred a couple of years before, and the world was in economic crisis. Unemployment was climbing to unprecedented levels. Mussolini was il Duce in Italy, Japan had begun an attack on China, and by 1933 Hitler would become Fuhrer. Just as I arrived, the weak Labour government of the UK had fallen, and its leaders had joined with the Conservatives to form a "National Government".

Wages were being cut throughout industry, and even in the Royal Navy. During my first month at school, the crews of the Atlantic fleet, then in a Scottish port, went on strike and refused to put to sea. "The scene in the Firth has to be seen to be believed. The Repulse stands like a sleeping sentry, not a wisp of smoke from her mighty funnels. Behind her in the line stretching along the whole Firth lie Valiant, Malaya, Warspite, Nelson, Barham, Hood, Rodney .... From the shore I can see the crews on the foredecks, with the leaders addressing them from the gun turrets, and their cheers and shouts which are picked up and passed on from ship to ship" (a newspaper report). Would the Empire survive?

An eminent conservative, Harold Macmillan, later wrote: "Up to 1931 there was no reason to suppose that social changes would not, or could not, follow the same evolutionary pattern which had resulted from the increased creation and distribution of wealth during the nineteenth century. Now, after 1931, many of us felt that the disease was more deep-rooted. It had become evident that the structure of capitalist society in its old form had broken down, not only in Britain but all over Europe and even in the United States. The whole system had to be reassessed. Perhaps it could not survive at all; it certainly could not survive without radical change. Something like a revolutionary situation had developed, not only at home but overseas".

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The Norman arch at King's School Canterbury

Looking back, it seems to me that a public boarding school was one of the most sheltered enclaves of English life. No doubt we saw newspapers from time to time, and we listened to the radio. Each school "house" commonroom clubbed together to buy weekly magazines, that included the Illustrated London News. I was an inveterate filmgoer, and would see "the news" that was a feature of every cinema performance. For the senior forms, one enterprising master ran a "social studies" class. We knew that the dean of Canterbury Cathedral was nicknamed by the press "the Red Dean" because of his socialist sympathies. Nevertheless, we were mostly all too unaware of the economic and political realities outside our walls.

Towards the end of my six years at school, this isolation must have begun to break down. The well-known author of whimsical children's stories and poems, A.A. Milne, published in 1934 a booklet denouncing war. I bought and read this, and by the end of my schooldays was calling myself a pacifist, as did others in my class - though I cannot remember that we discussed it much. I do not know whether I then knew that in 1933 the Oxford (student) Union had passed a resolution "that this House will in no circumstances fight for its king and country", and that in 1934 the League of Nations Union organised a "peace ballot" in Britain, calling for armaments reduction and collective security – signed by over 11 million people, overwhelmingly in support.

The book that I read during my schooldays that had the greatest influence on my general thinking was The science of life by H.G.Wells and Julian Huxley, chosen by myself as a school prize. It was a wonderful introduction to evolutionary biology, but much more. In its final chapters, the book moved beyond biology to discuss "the trend of social evolution". The authors looked forward to a world rid of "the blundering wars, social disorganisation, individual and mass tragedies, misconceptions and suppressions", to one in which man "must take control not only of his own destinies but of the whole of life".

It was not until I moved to Oxford University in the autumn of 1937 that I began to widen my vision and to become better acquainted with the literature and ideas that the 1930s had spawned. (A list of publications during the decade that I gradually came to know is given at the end of this essay.) Oxford had a flourishing repertory theatre, the Playhouse, and here I watched plays that were, indeed, not new in themselves, but new and enriching to me - plays by Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen. Shaw's writings - in particular, the prefaces to his plays, and The intelligent woman's guide - became and have remained a permanent source of insight and wit.

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Another student took me to see O’Neill’s play Mourning becomes Electra, and introduced me to the working class Unity Theatre in London. New young poets were then "exploding like bombs" – Auden, Day Lewis, Macneice, Dylan Thomas – and Yeats, as well as his own late poems, had produced the Oxford book of modern verse. More explosively, I discovered Blake, Browning, Manley Hopkins. Going beyond my early jazz enthusiasm, I started to listen seriously to classical music, falling in love with Beethoven and Bach, and to look seriously at art reproductions – Durer, Titian, Leonardo, Botticelli, Rembrandt, van Gogh - and soon discovered Picasso.

I quickly came into contact with the Labour Club, then the largest and most vigorous student society in the university. Britain’s university students in 1937 were still quite a small community of only fifty thousand; at Oxford there were something over two thousand. In Britain as a whole, 80 per cent of the students still came from fee-paying schools, and at Oxford the percentage was most probably higher. Most of the UK "left" student political activity was centred on Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics.

What was the motivation of those students who enthusiastically joined the socialist movement? As noted above, few of us had got to Oxford "the hard way", with personal experience of social suffering. Becoming aware, even if only at second hand, of poverty, violence and dictatorship, we probably had an instinctive "romantic" reaction in favour of peace and the brotherhood of man. In Europe, the rise of fascism seemed to be threatening all that we held dear. Few of us had the experience of a working class struggle for a living wage, or had faced a police baton charge, let alone put our lives on the line. Not many accompanied John Cornford, leader of the Cambridge student communists in 1936, when he volunteered for the International Brigade to support the Spanish Republic, and was killed in Spain (like 500 other dead Britons, and a thousand more injured).

Conservative, Liberal and Labour politicians, then as now, seemed too often to be immersed in narrow, short-term, parochial controversies. "Left" socialists, particularly the Marxists, talked of the sweep of historical events, politics on a global scale, and the possibilities of a future that would see an end to all that appalled us in today’s society. They pointed to a country which, they believed, was struggling towards that future – the Soviet Union. People whom we felt to be trustworthy, like the respectable old socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb, wrote solid books that expressed the same belief. We learnt about the poverty and misery of British working class life from books by Ellen Wilkinson, George Orwell, G.D.H.Cole, Allen Hutt and Wal Hannington. Glimpses of America were given to us by writers such as dos Passos, Lincoln Steffens, Steinbeck, and of the wider world by Snow and Nehru. In 1936, the publisher Victor Gollancz had started a Left Book Club, and this poured out a succession of cheap texts on political and economic affairs. Robert Graves wrote that "the club titles were like an armoury from which a weapon could be selected for argument on any conceivable subject". A sampling of its publications can be read in Paul Laity (ed.) Left Book Club Anthology (2001).

The peak point of pre-war Oxford Labour student activity came in the autumn of 1938. First, we helped in campaigning for the university parliamentary seat – campaigning for a Liberal against the Tories – and lost. Then we spent the rest of term raising money for the Spanish republican cause. Spain had become a democratic republic in 1931, but in 1936 an army revolt led by General Franco began an attempt to overthrow the elected government. Germany and Italy soon gave recognition to Franco's rival government, and provided military support. In April 1937, their aircraft bombed and obliterated the town of Guernica. The anger aroused by the Spanish civil war and German/Italian intervention was something like that aroused by the Vietnam conflict (I have already mentioned the International Brigade). It has been said, for example, that the war gave rise to a burst of finer and more poignant English poetry than did the whole of World War 2. But the republic went down to defeat in March 1939. Six months later, the UK was at war with Nazi Germany, and I reached the age of 21.

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I remained at Oxford until the autumn of 1941, completing a chemical degree, before being despatched to work in an explosives factory for the remainder of the war. What I learnt during my years at Oxford left me with a lasting conviction. First, that capitalism, despite the power of its productive forces, was incapable of putting an end to gross inequality, poverty and consequent violence, and that we must find a way to move beyond it. Second, that our problem was a world problem, that could not be solved at purely national levels, so that international cooperation among the peoples of the world was the key to forward movement. Meanwhile, there was a job to be done - to stop fascism.

Some publications of the 1930s

Ortega y Gasset, Revolt of the masses
S.Freud, Civilisation and its discontents
T.S.Eliot, Ash Wednesday
John dos Passos, 42nd parallel
R.H.Tawney, Equality
Pearl Buck, The good earth
Lincoln Steffens, Autobiography
H.G.Wells and Julian Huxley, The science of life
John Strachey, The coming struggle for power
Aldous Huxley, Brave new world
H.G.Wells, The work, wealth and happiness of mankind
Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian revolution
A.N.Whitehead, Adventures of ideas
A.Malraux, La condition humaine
A.Hutt, The condition of the working class
Lewis Mumford, Technics and civilisation
Bertrand Russell, Freedom and organisation
J.B.Priestley, English journey
Clifford Odets, Waiting for Lefty
H.G.Wells, Experiment in autobiography
R.P.Dutt, Fascism and social revolution
Bernard Shaw, Collected prefaces
William Morris, Centenary selection
Left Review started
Partisan Review started
S. and B.Webb, Soviet communism
E.Wilkinson, The town that was murdered
Penguin Books started (1937, Pelicans and Penguin Specials)
L. Hogben, Mathematics for the million
B.S.Rowntree, Poverty and progress
L.Huberman, Man's worldly goods
T.A.Jackson, Dialectics
C.E.M.Joad, Guide to philosophy
J.Nehru, Glimpses of world history
Franz Mehring, Karl Marx
Britain without capitalists
Science and Society started
Left Book Club started
Aldous Huxley, Ends and means
George Orwell, The road to Wigan pier
Rex Warner, The wild goose chase
G.D.H.Cole, The condition of Britain
Wal Hannington, The problem of the distressed areas
Edgar Snow, Red star over China
C.Caudwell, Illusion and reality
Ford Madox Ford, The march of literature
Hendrik van Loon, The arts of mankind
A.L.Morton, People's history of England
A.Kolnai, The war against the West
J.B.S.Haldane, Marxist philosophy and the sciences
H.Levy, Philosophy for a modern man
L.Hogben, Science for the citizen
C.E.M.Joad, Guide to the philosophy of morals and politics
J.Mulgan, ed, Poems of freedom
W.H.Auden and C.Isherwood, Journey to a war
John Steinbeck, The grapes of wrath
J.D.Bernal, Social function of science
John Dewey selections: Intelligence in the modern world
Poems for Spain
J.Lindsay and E.Rickword, ed, Handbook of freedom
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