Friday, 17 August 2007

The Age of Illusion

The Age of Illusion. England in the Twenties and Thirties, by Ronald Blythe (1963). Another recent find in a second-hand book-shop, from the author most famously known as the writer of Akenfield, Portrait of an English Village (1969), a portrait of agricultural life in Suffolk from the turn of the century to the 1960s.

Did you know (I didn’t) the whole story of how the Unknown Soldier came to be laid to rest in Westminster Abbey? Or the amorous adventures of the Vicar of Stiffkey? (I’d heard of him, vaguely, but didn’t know the story – fascinating stuff worthy of space in any red-top….) Or exactly how the Jarrow march came into existence and what happened to it? (My father had told me about seeing the marchers arrive in London – he was, apparently, one of a not particularly welcoming, or large, crowd of onlookers who watched as the marchers wearily trooped to the soup kitchen arranged for them in Garrick Street.) By selecting fifteen topics, people and events, and giving the personal stories AND the politics behind each one, Blythe conveys the atmosphere of the times he’s writing about and gives a more convincing feeling of what it was like to be there, of what really happened, than many a more academic and objective account. There are chapters on, among other things, T.E.Lawrence, Mrs. Wallis, Amy Johnson, The Brighton Trunk Murders.
I particularly enjoyed an absolutely riveting account of the great body-line bowling controversy which began in Adelaide on Saturday, 13th January, 1933, at the third Test between the MCCV and Australia. The controversy spread to ‘every anglicized acre of the world’, and was ‘compulsory conversation wherever the English met’, but Blythe ends this chapter by quietly reminding us that, during what he calls this ‘three weeks’ wonder’, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of the Reich and Captain Goring took control of the police in Berlin, and over more than half of Germany besides. As he says, the public obsession with the body-line bowling controversy could be compared to Drake’s game of bowls……..

Blythe’s style is jaunty, even racy, and carries the reader along at a great pace. Altogether, he’s entertaining as well as being informative. Call it ‘history lite’, if you will, but I enjoyed every word of it – I’m re-reading some of the chapters and savouring them all the more.
(The picture shows Ronald Blythe with Rex Pyke. In Peter Hall's 1974 film Akenfield, the director used the residents of East Anglian villages to act in stories of rural life. Thirty years after the release of this unusual film, a 2006 documentary saw the original producer/editor gather together crew, including Sir Peter Hall, author Ronald Blythe and members of the local 'cast' to see how life has changed for those featured and to recall the making of the production. )

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