A History of Britain Through Books: 1900 – 1964: Christopher Tugendhat on writing the British experience through the prism of books

By   Hannah Bickerton 5 min read

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Christopher Tugendhat is a politician, journalist and businessman with experience directing brands such as Rio Tinto and Eurotunnel. A History of Britain Through Books is Christopher’s fourth book and explores political and social change from 1900 to 1964 through the lens of literature. An innovative exploration of history, Tugendhat’s new book has already received acclaim from award-winning authors, hailed as ‘a fantastic book’ by Peter Hennessy and a ‘tour-de-force’ by Lucy Riall

My aim in writing A History of Britain Through Books 1900 – 1964 is to convey the British experience during those decades through the prism of books that were written or published at the time. I want to show what it was like to live in this country, to capture the feel and mentality of the period and to show how the experiences, attitudes and prejudices of the recent past have contributed to making us the people we are today.

Conventional history books are written with the benefit of hindsight, when we know what has happened and how things have turned out. They can paint a more complete and balanced picture of the past than those written at the time. But they also reflect contemporary views and judgements and they are written about the past rather than from within it. By contrast contemporaneous books are like photographs that capture the mood and feeling of the moment when the camera clicked. If you mix and match them, read them in different combinations and look at them from different angles, they can throw up unexpected insights into the period when they were written and stimulate a re-assessment of received opinions.

These days the Second World War is always presented in heroic terms. Not so in the 1950s. In John Braine’s Room at the Top, Joe Lampton, the central character, explains how lucky he was to have been out of harm’s way in a German Prisoner of War camp where he was able to pass his accountancy exams under the auspices of the Red Cross. In Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning Arthur Seaton admires those of his cousins who were deserters during the war: ‘let them start (another) war’ he thought, ‘and see what a bad soldier I can be’. Minority views, no doubt, and, as I recall, not widely expressed, but it is still a shock to find them expressed in two of the most iconic novels of the decade.

Before 1914 the British Empire covered a quarter of the earth’s surface and a fifth of its population. Yet far from feeling on top of the world people of this country felt threatened, as can be seen from the first edition of Robert Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys, which was published in 1908 and launched the Scout movement. He warns that Britain might be invaded at any time. In that event, the scouts’ signalling skills could be ‘of the greatest value’ to the defending forces and he urges them to become ‘good rifle shots in order to protect the women and children of your country if it should ever become necessary’. So called ‘invasion’ novels were very popular at the time. The most famous, Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands, published  in 1903, so realistically described how the Germans might attack the East Coast that it not only became a bestseller, it was credited as well with being among the factors that led to the establishment of naval bases at Scapa Flow, Invergordon and Rosyth.

Christopher Tugendhat holds a collection of books

Another aspect of life in the first part of the last century that I suggest should be reassessed is the struggle by women to achieve political and social equality. Today, it is the battles of the Suffragettes and their middle class leaders to obtain the vote that get all the credit. Not unreasonably so, as the right to vote was crucial in the long term to the advancement of women. But it has meant that the great practical work done over many years before the vote was secured, by the working class trade unionist Margaret Bondfield – and women like her – on behalf of women being exploited in shops and factories, has been overlooked. Yet she was influencing political and public opinion and giving evidence to a Parliamentary committee way before Mrs Pankhurst had even appeared on the scene. Eventually in 1929, she became the first woman to enter the Cabinet. Her recollections in her autobiography tell us far more about the conditions and privations under which the great majority of women in this country actually lived and what needed to be done about them than books about the heroic struggle of the Suffragettes.

We tend to view the past from a middle class perspective, even in terms of attitudes to sex. The conventional wisdom is that women were as far as possible kept in ignorance of everything to do with sex until marriage and that was indeed the theory – if not always the practice – among the well-to-do classes. But in the overcrowded conditions in which working class families with large numbers of children lived, such delicacy was impossible. Margaret Bondfield was shocked by the incidence of incest which these conditions gave rise to, while in Walter Greenwood’s classic novel Love on the Dole about the impact of the Depression in the 1930s on the north of England, a young woman tells her boyfriend that among the reasons she wants to get away from home is that she can’t bear hearing her parents having sex.

One of the joys of researching my A History of Britain Through Books was the opportunities it provided to learn more about some of the authors, to reassess those whose works I had last read many years ago and to find others I had never read. Perhaps my most surprising discovery is the extraordinary foresight of that arch reactionary Evelyn Waugh. In his 1931 travel book, Remote People, he writes approvingly of the racial discrimination practiced by British settlers in Kenya, while suggesting that European colonisation will be over within twenty-five years. Elizabeth Bowen and Arnold Bennett emerge as being much better than I had remembered and I have been most pleased to discover Sam Selvon. His description in The Lonely Londoners, of life among West Indian immigrants in London in the 1950s, combines lyricism and gritty realism to a remarkable degree. But the individual who I most admired when I started and still do now that I have finished is George Orwell for his moral courage and the limpid clarity of his writing.

Click here to pre-order your copy of A History of Britain Through Books, publishing on the 7th of November 2019. 

Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.