Headlines about a ‘return to the roaring 20s’ have started to appear in newspapers, inevitably accompanied by black and white photos of flapper girls with bobbed haircuts and wearing pearls.
While there can be no doubt that some 1920s Brits were able to enjoy a life akin to that described in The Great Gatsby – visiting nightclubs and drinking cocktails in haute couture clothing, for most survival was the main pursuit.
With a generation of young men lost in The Great War and many more returning home to squalid housing, no health care and an expectation they should never discuss or demonstrate any ongoing suffering from the horrors they had endured, life was grim.
Whilst the Education Act of 1921 did, at least, raise the school leaving age to 14, schooling standards remained low. In the country, pupils at some schools were still practising writing with a tray of sand and a stick, progressing to a slate and chalk as they became more proficient. Classes were large, learning was by rote and books were shared between groups of pupils, as books and paper were expensive.
Coal reserves had been depleted during the War and Britain was importing more coal than it was mining. A lack of investment in the new industrial techniques led to a period of depression, deflation and decline in the UK’s economy.
By the mid 1920s unemployment had risen to over 2 million!
Wages were low, rents were high and there was little or no job protection. Industrial action persisted, culminating in 1926 in The Great Strike. It was called by the TUC in protest against mine owners who were using strong-arm tactics to force their workers to accept longer work hours for less take-home pay.
In pre welfare state and NHS Britain poverty and desperation were common, as was premature death and despair. So it’s interesting that photos of well dressed women dancing the Charleston are the defining image of the era. I wonder, if this is because history is, of course, written by the winners. The winners of any non war era are, inevitably those who enjoy power and wealth.
Talk of a new “roaring twenties” era strikes me as ludicrous in a country where 320,000 people are homeless (Shelter).
14 million people, including 4 million adults who are in employment, are in poverty (Joseph Rowntree Foundation) and schools are £2 billion worse off than in 2015 (Schoolcuts.org.uk). Other problems appear to be returning, for example infant mortality rates have risen for the last four years in England (British Medical Journal).
Studies appear to be indicating that unsurprisingly, poverty is a factor.
For some, of course, this is a golden era. Britain’s total wealth grew by 13% in the two years to 2018 to reach a record £14.6tn, with wealth among the richest 10% of households increasing almost four times faster than those of the poorest 10%.
I don’t begrudge anyone their wealth BUT I am seriously fearful of what the future holds for a country where work no longer provides a route out of poverty,homelessness is a reality for many people and access to a good education is seriously under threat.
I also wonder if those taking about the good times being here are aware of just how much suffering and strain there is in this country, and whether in the future people will look back of photos of wealthy people celebrating and will think they are typical of this era