Everyday life in the 1930s – part 1

I’m fascinated by the 1930s. That’s why I write a series of detective novels set in the 1930s and featuring Dottie Manderson, a young female amateur detective, as the protagonist. I write cosy mysteries, or cosy crime, and therefore there’s not a lot of space for too much social reality. Besides which, life is already tough enough, we all could do with a bit of escapism now and then, right?

I wanted to show just how different life was back then for everyone, not just women, in the 1930s. I’m writing from a British perspective, as that is my own nationality and my research and my writing centres around this.

Loretta Young, the actress whose soulful expression gave me the character of Dottie Manderson

I often portray the glamour of the era–the fashion, the socialising, all the dancing in long flowing gowns, the polite flirting with gentlemanly fellows in smart evening wear who offered one a drink or a cigarette and didn’t (most of the time) immediately pinch our bums. This glamour and glitz is what I love about it, but even I as a die-hard romantic idealist would have to admit this is the stuff of dreams—of the wonderful cinematic fictions of the time. It’s largely a gloss put over real life to get us through tough times and keep us keeping on. In reality we didn’t dance down to Rio or sip champagne, we were too busy trying to put bread on the table and keep the rent man happy.

So let’s go back to Britain in the 1930s. What was life like for the majority of people?

It was very much a time of transition. Things were still getting back to normal after the war. Attitudes were poles apart with very liberal ideas sitting at the same dinner table as conventional, very reactionary, right wing beliefs. And these differences would grow to a huge divide that came to a head in the 1940s, although as many other things, many of the same issues still rumble on today.

To set the scene for this inter-war period: the gaiety and extravagance of the 20s was over. The harsh reality of the 30s set in with mass unemployment, vast financial meltdowns that would devastate the economies of the richest nations and wipe out many fortunes leaving plenty of millionaires bankrupt and desperate. For the poor, things went from bad to worse, with job cuts and losses, and the increased mechanisation of tasks previously done by human beings left many without work and therefore without the means to feed themselves or their families. But for many middle-class families—those with money, skills and professional qualifications and the less demanding costs of keeping up their homes and lifestyles, things were not too bad at all.

Gary Cooper, irresistibly ‘cool’.

The Great War, as WWI was known, was becoming more of a distant memory, and the Second World War was as yet undreamed of. In fact, there was a common consensus regarding the Great War that ‘it could never happen again’. It was ‘great’ in the sense of huge and terrible, not in our modern sense of brilliant and something admirable. Even language has changed since then! It’s no exaggeration to say that millions of lives were changed forever.

There were an estimated 40 million casualties, a little less than half of whom died, the rest were injured, many very seriously. 40 million. How could such an incomprehensibly vast sum of people die in the space of just a few years? Is it any wonder that people, especially the young, were a little bit crazy, a little bit over-exuberant in the 20s? Yet even in the early 30s, there were already the rumblings and murmurings that would lead to a repeat of the disaster.

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Anywhere in the world!

You might have noticed I sometimes get stuck for ideas for a blog post. When that happens, I usually sneakily use an old one and hope you won’t notice, or I put in an interview, or a short piece about my books etc.

BUT… (and you’ll be proud of me for this) I actually decided to research ‘what to write about on your blog’ and hey presto: Write about ‘If I could spend a month writing anywhere in the world, where would it be?’

That’s easy.

I love to write in cafes. But with lockdown the way it is, I’ve become a stranger to that. And I do have an office where I do most of my writing (picture the smallest bedroom in the house, no longer needed after the children grow up) and I sometimes write at the dining room table, or in the sitting room, snug on the sofa complete with snoring cat.

Many years ago, we lived in Australia, in Brisbane. It’s hot and sticky there, but I enjoyed it. And our first house there was an absolute hovel (sorry Aussies, but it was, honest), but when the kids had gone to school, I used to sit on the front steps with my morning coffee, a few dozen tiny lizards around half the size of a pencil, a couple of plants in pots, and my notebook and pen.

These little guys just need the water from your flower pots!

I could sit there for around two hours until the sun was so hot, I had to go inside. I used to water the plants in the pots, and the lizards would come and drink the water that ran out of the bottom of the pots onto the wooden steps. The lizards were so shy, I had to keep really still so they thought I was a tree or something. Occasionally a kookaburra would sit on the fence and stare at me, but usually it was just a pigeon or a magpie. I’ve searched my photos but can’t find the one I can picture in my mind that shows the steps and the plant pots. You’ll just have to conjure up your own image of front-step perfection, and write there.

Whereas these guys want to lie on your compost heap in the sun and stuff themselves with leftover fruit and veg

The road was called Farm Street, but I’m guessing that was to commemorate where the farm used to be before it was bulldozed to make way for the street. Neighbours would go by and wave or stop to chat. Gradually they got to know the new Brits at number 12. One guy was very sweet and kind when we were afraid to go past something that looked like quite a large snake in the storm drain by the pavement, but the neighbour explained it was a blue-tongued skink, and nothing to be afraid of. We were still pretty nervous to begin with, I can tell you.

Anyway, so I had two hours of writing most weekdays, sitting on the front steps. I can picture myself there, writing three novels in the time we were in that house, only one of which has been published (Easy Living) and the other two are very much still in the ‘I don’t know what to do’ stage of development. One was called Baby Girl and is about a well-known actress whose adoptive mother passes away and so the actress embarks on a search for her birth mother and finds a killer instead. The other one, referencing the new millennium we were about to go into (so a while ago now) was about a pensioner who goes on the run to avoid being legally euthanised because of the growth of population. Both these books were set in Australia and contain long, slightly wistful passages about my favourite cafes – Jimmy’s Uptown, Jimmy’s Downtown, and Jimmy’s On The Mall, all on the same long street in the city centre.

Life changes, and we weren’t really happy with where we were living, and we moved away. But the times of sitting on the steps and writing were as close to perfect as we could get. It was ‘very heaven’.

Jimmy’s On The Mall: It’s a lot more glamorous now than it was when we were in Brisbane over 20 years ago, they’ve added a whole top floor! If we go back, this is the first place I’ll want to go.

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A quick look at Art Deco

Exactly what we look for in an Art Deco building. Clean lines and plenty of light were important aspects of the design. Very reminiscent of a ship, I always think. I would love to live somewhere like this.

Is there any more evocative style than the one we know as Art Deco? It is immediately recognisable for its elegant lines, swirls, geometric shapes and high contrasts in both colour and texture.

A Tiffany lampshade

After appearing in the first decade of the 1900s, Art Deco actually only reigned supreme until the early 30s, but in the popular imagination it conjures up everything from the Titanic to Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective and his obsession with symmetry.

The Seven Stars pub in Earls Court, London. Unfortunately it looks as though it needs a little TLC.

We can still see Art Deco architecture and design all around us. From the smallest ornament for the front of a car to a massive block of flats, they share these characteristic lines of simplicity and brightness.

The iconic Chrysler building, once (and briefly) the tallest building in the world, built towards the end of the era.

It wasn’t just buildings or home decor that got the Art Deco treatment. This is a BMW R7 motorbike from 1934. Even I’d be interested in this! I can almost picture Dottie riding pillion with William.

Another Art Deco house, this time in Florida

another lamp

Even railway marketing adopted some of the principles of Art Deco, leaving plenty of clear space and using statement images.

The stunning Spirit of the Wind by Rene Lalique. I can’t imagine this on the front of my husband’s Ford Mondeo!

The term Art Deco came from the name of the Paris exhibition in 1925, the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes (International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts), and has come to mean pretty much all things to all people – anything which is white/cream/gold contrasting with black, anything where the design is uncluttered, or symmetrical, or consists of very straight lines.

The style was associated with glamour, new technology, modernity, and heralded a new era, moving away from the dark, fussy and cluttered styles of the Victorian era and moving forward to embrace the concept of progress. As a style it is still incredibly popular today, and for me, typifies the era of my Dottie Manderson books, a time poised delicately just before the second world war came along to change everything.

No more fussy old Victorian spinach and rust for us! We want something modern and bright!

Reblogged: I am interviewed at Maureen’s Lifestyle

Many thanks to Maureen Wahu at Maureen’s Lifestyle for this interview following her review of The Spy Within: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 6 last week.(you can check out the review here)

Caron Allan Interview

What inspired the Dottie Manderson series?

I’ve always loved the glamour of Golden Age mysteries, and so I wanted to try my hand at something like that. But I wanted to have a young protagonist as most of the books I’d read had older, spinster ladies as detectives. But I didn’t want to write anything too sweet, or too separate from the real world. So in my books, yes, there is glamour and romance, and the bad guy or gal always gets caught (though sometimes not immediately) but there is also heartbreak and the harsh reality of life not being easy, especially as my chosen era of the 1930s is so close to the war.

What is the hardest part of your writing career?

I suppose it’s juggling all the different aspects of being a writer in today’s world – the social media, obviously, I know everyone says they struggle with that, but also all the technical things – covers and document formatting, creating promotional materials, then remembering to share them, setting up a blog and remembering to create something new most weeks. And then remembering to do actual writing too, and stick to my deadlines. So much to do!

Would you ever use a pseudonym?

I always use a pseudonym. In fact have have several, but the only one that I’m using at the moment is Caron Allan. I wanted to use a pen name because to begin with, it gave me the space and privacy to completely mess up without feeling ‘exposed’. And also, I felt my real name was dreary and unromantic!

When writing a series how do you determine where a book should end and it’s sequel should start?

It’s not always easy, and I’m not very good at it, but fortunately because I write mysteries, that kind of gives a natural end, when the perpetrator of whatever dastardly deed is unmasked and taken away in handcuffs, or however they exit the story, it seems right to just have a short wrap-up and end the book. Though I do have ongoing story-lines – mainly the romantic side of things – that continue through the books and aren’t resolved immediately. In book 1 Dottie, my protagonist, is only 19. I think 19 in the 1930s was a lot younger than 19 today in many ways, and so we see her growing and maturing through the books, coming to understand the world, and relationships, but she is very idealistic and so she can be led by her emotions, and is sometimes bruised by life. She’s not perfect, she’s on a journey, and I like that about her. I don’t want to read about or write about a heroine who doesn’t change, and especially one who doesn’t have depth and dimensions to her character.

Who were your biggest critics and cheerleaders in writing this series?

My family are a huge support, my daughter especially is a massive practical help as well as my cheerleader, as writer herself she knows where I’m coming from. I have a couple of very special friends who are also writers and who are so helpful and encouraging.

If you could go back in time which historical figure would you like to meet?

Oh dear, that’s quite hard. I know we’re always supposed to say Marie Curie or someone incredible like that, but maybe just meet my great great grandmother? How did she cope in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century with all the domestic responsibilities and none of the labour-saving devices we have today? Plus she had six kids, and i only had two, so I am in awe of the women of that era. I’d like to meet Agatha Christie, and Patricia Wentworth when they were in their story-writing heyday, and get as many tips as I could, and also express my admiration for their work.

What should we expect from your upcoming series?

Well I will continue my Dottie Manderson mysteries: Book 7, Rose Petals and White Lace will be out around November 2021. In this book, we will see Dottie trying to find out who wants to get a local tea-shop closed down, and why. It’ll be a gentler mystery for Dottie after the previous couple, but nevertheless there will be at least one fatality, and if you’re not a fan of creepy-crawlies, this might not be for you!
I also will be launching a new series, set in the 1960s this time, and featuring the daughter of Dottie’s sister as the detective-protagonist – these will be the Miss Gascoigne mysteries, and begins with A Meeting With Murder. Diana Gascoigne has been ill and goes to the coast for some good sea air to recover, but obviously there are dire doings afoot and she will want to find out who killed an elderly disabled woman. the Diana books will be a little different to the Dottie books, as we know, the 60s were a time of growing freedoms especially for women, and Diana is not an ingenue like Dottie, but a little older, a little wiser and more aware of the difficulties that a woman can face, and she wants independence and more autonomy in her life. But she has the same determination to seek justice and truth.

Would you ever consider writing a biography of your life?

LOL, that would be so boring! I’m not adventurous or glamorous and I’ve done very little with my life other than sit with cats reading or writing. I really don’t think it would sell!

Do you ever experience writer’s block? Sometimes. I don’t agree that it’s not a real thing. I usually find it stems from discouragement, fear or being overtired. I tend to push myself, and I’m always thinking of plots and story ideas, so I get quite mentally tired, and don’t always remember it’s okay to just do nothing and relax. Maybe I need to watch my cats even more than I do! I find rest, music and mundane chores help.

How can your fans reach you and connect with you?

I can be found on twitter: @caron_allan or instagram: @caronsbooks or through my blog, caronallanfiction.com and I’m also on Facebook, but I have to confess I don’t go on there very much, I’m more of a Twitter person.

Find all of Caron Allan’s books on Amazon.

Thanks for stopping by!

Thank you, Maureen, it was fun!

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Living in the Past: the manageable cast

I’m in love with the idea of the closed or walled community.

Whether it is the hallowed halls of the much-loved country house of so many murder mysteries, or Brother Cadfael’s cloistered world, or a virtual closed community such as Miss Marple’s village with its familiar cottages, vicarage, post office, farms and manor houses, or Poirot’s Art Deco mansionette, with neighbours above and below, people you rarely glimpse and often only hear, or to take things a step further, your suspect or your victim could join a coach tour as in Judith Cranswick’s murder mysteries, or cruise on an ocean liner as in Dawn Brookes’ mysteries, or perhaps holiday on an island cut off from mainland, or a flee to a secret commune hidden away in the mountains, living a simple life a century behind the rest of the world. A mystery could be set in a submarine, or a plane, a train, in a hospital ward, on a space station, almost anywhere where there is a limit to how people get in and out of the place.

All these can be viewed as closed communities, separate from the wider world, with no one to turn to but themselves. As such they are excellent settings for a crime novel. This way you can limit and isolate a small group of suspects. ‘It must have been one of us.’

You’d think that with a small number of suspects, say a maximum of ten or twelve, you’d be stuck for ideas, but a number of that size, compared to, say, a group of four, actually gives quite a lot of alternatives, yet it’s not such a huge number as to be too big for readers to get to grips with. Is there anything worse as a reader than muddling the characters and forgetting who is married to who or who did or said that crucial thing which led to that big scene? So it’s got to be easy to keep track of the suspects.

All too often characters are not even remotely who or what they claim to be. In fact we as a reader more or less depend on that being the case. That’s the fun of it, after all. Secrets can be recently acquired or buried (sometimes literally) in the dim and distant past. A young couple who get on well, who seem devoted in every way. How do we really know that they are a couple? Maybe they are cousins? Or even brother and sister—oooh! What if one of them is already married to someone else?

But for me, without doubt, the best type of closed community to have is one where your story is set in the past.

If you situate a story back in the past, to before identity documents and proof-of-life searches, to a time before healthcare records, driving licenses, the internet, mobile phones, credit checks and credit cards, ATMs, CCTV and ANPR, it immediately becomes a hundred times more difficult to keep track of a person’s comings and goings. There’s a reason why there were so many bigamous marriages two hundred, or even just one hundred years ago. You wouldn’t have to travel very far to find a place where no one knew you at all. Even just the next county would be today’s equivalent of moving to the other side of the world.

You could be whoever you said you were. Who was to know any different?

In some ways it could be quite freeing: no more mistakes to hover over your shoulder like Banquo’s ghost. A goodbye to unhealthy relationships, or domineering friendship groups, toxic working environment or sad memories. Hello to bigamy, escaping justice and living the high life. If things happen to get too hot, simply up sticks and move on. A quick change in appearance, and you’re a whole different person, and no one any the wiser.

But this made it very difficult to bring someone to justice: only a parish register would contain the bare essentials of a person’s life: their date of birth/Christening, their marriage, or that of their parents. School or work records, but these wouldn’t usually have a photo or a detailed physical description. There might be the odd police record for those who had crossed paths with the authorities, but those minor obstacles aside, all you really had left was anecdotal evidence.

Of course, some people who commit crimes are not very good at keeping their head down and getting on with their new life, and making the most of the chance of a new start. Old habits resurface, and the crime is committed again, making detection a real possibility. By contrast, though, a person of reasonable intelligence, often incredibly devious or someone who was simply content to lay low and not draw attention to themselves, could reasonably expect to get away with most of the guilty secrets of their past.

But no doubt, they always looked over their shoulder, to make sure no one was watching them.

Hats for fun/frolics – we need to bring these back!

***

Sneak peek and a short extract… upcoming book The Spy Within: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 6.

It’s that time again. I’m working on a new book, the next in the Dottie Manderson mysteries series set in the 1930s and featuring an amateur detective Dottie Manderson. The new book is to be called The Spy Within and I plan and fervently hope to release it in July(ish) of this year.

In case you haven’t heard of these books, I published the first in the series, Night and Day in 2015, and it’s been followed by The Mantle of God, Scotch Mist (a novella), The Last Perfect Summer of Richard Dawlish (sorry about the long and unwieldly title of that one, at home we call it Dickie Dawlish for short, even though Richard hated his name shortened) and last year, The Thief of St Martins came out.

The main character is Dottie Manderson, obviously, she is the one the books mainly are about, and although she isn’t always the one who solves the mystery, she is nevertheless habitually embroiled in the action. Dottie is only 19 in the first book and ages gradually through the series. In the one I’m writing now, The Spy Within, she is almost 21. She is from a well-to-do family and after leaving her ladies’ college at 18, she worked more or less full time as a mannequin (model) for a Mrs Carmichael at her independent fashion warehouse, Carmichael and Jennings, Exclusive Modes, in London. Dottie lives with her parents, and has a married sister, Flora. Dottie and Flora are very close. George, Flora’s husband, adores Dottie almost as much as his wife does, she is very much his sister too.

Unfortunately the books aren’t quite stand-alone. That is to say, there are ongoing story-lines that progress through the novels. I wish I’d though about that a bit more carefully when writing them because with book 3, Scotch Mist being a novella, and therefore cheaper to buy, people often buy it and then haven’t got a clue what’s going on. I really must revise it with a bit more explanation to help those who dive into the series at book 3. Still, we live and learn, I guess! Hopefully I won’t do that next time around.

So what’s new for The Spy Within?

Well, those who have read the books up to this point will be aware that Dottie has been seeing a ‘gentleman’ by the name of Gervase Parfitt for a couple of books. Sadly in the last book, he let her down rather badly by not supporting her when she needed him most. Oh, Dottie had such hopes for Gervase to begin with. But he seems to be not quite as nice as she’d thought, and there’s a rumour going round that he’s likely to be substituted.

If you’re Team William, this could be music to your ears.

William Hardy, police inspector and all-round good guy (most of the time) has been in the background for a while now, and if you’ve loved all the flirty looks and romantic thoughts, then prepare to enjoy some more. It’s Valentine’s day in 1935, and love is in the air. I think. Or is it? You’ll just have to wait and see.

In other news, the Manderson’s maid, Janet is at last tying the knot with police sergeant Frank Maple in this book. They’ve been walking out together since the first in the series. Don’t expect any tears, it’ll be a happy day for all. And it’s about time they made things all above board, because as Dottie said in The Mantle of God, ‘I wouldn’t mind if they did any actual walking out. And how Mother hasn’t caught them, I’ll never know. From what I can make out, they spend all their time indoors.’

So that’s about all I can say at the moment. If I’ve piqued your curiosity, please take a look at a draft version of Chapter One here. Just bear in mind, I might change it a bit by publication day, and hopefully I’ll remember to tidy it up and make it a bit more succinct. I hope you enjoy it.

All that I need to do now is to say a huge thank you to my family and friends and some wonderful, loyal, encouraging and amazing readers who say nice things that cheer me up when I’m down and keep me keeping on. Thank you all. XXX

***

A quick recap of 2019.

So that was that! Here we are (almost) at the end of December, traditionally time to look back and reflect on the passing year.

Brexit loomed large in many people’s thoughts. I was dismayed by the outcome of the election. Again. I voted. My family voted. It didn’t work, and now there’s nothing we can do but get on with our lives. When I was a child, they used to say of naughty boys, ignore him and he’ll get tired of showing off and go away. So that is my new strategy with regards to Brexit, and Boris. Onward and upward, guys, and let’s hope for better things next year.

This year, I’ve published two books. I released a stand-alone novel (never a good idea) called Easy Living. I’ve written a lot of books over the years. Some of them–okay, a lot of them–too dire to be inflicted on the reading public. But Easy Living has a very special place in my heart. And even though I knew it would only sell in small numbers (very small, actually), I wanted to release it anyway, just for myself. If you’re interested, you can find out a bit more about Easy Living here.

Then just a few short weeks ago I released The Thief of St Martins. It’s book 5 of the Dottie Manderson 1930s murder mysteries, and I’m so pleased to be able to say it is selling quite well, and a few people have said some wonderful things about it, which is so encouraging. It took me the best part of a year to write. I know these days we are all supposed to write between four and six novels a year, plus write blog posts, and put together special free giveaways, but I just can’t achieve that level of output–and I don’t know if that amount of pressure is healthy.

I do blog–see, look, I’m doing it right now–although I admit I’m not always sure what to blog about. I feel embarrassed talking about my books all the time, thinking that might be a big turn-off for readers. We Brits don’t cope well with self-promotion–from a very early age, we’re taught that it’s bad manners and is boastful. So I try to write about things I’ve discovered during my research, or I write to help or support other writers, because that’s writing what I know, as writing coaches (mistakenly) tell us to do. But I try to come up with something most weeks. I’m rewarded by lovely comments and conversations with people, and by seeing the numbers of my blog followers gently rising week on week.

What else have I done this year? I’ve read quite a lot. I’ve done some editing and proofreading, a lot of social media promo, and I’ve spent hours playing on Canva and Bookbrush, as I love to create simple graphics, and find it quite therapeutic and relaxing. I’ve also started drafting several novels and novellas, some of which may never be seen or heard of again, and some of which you (hopefully) will read next year.

What shall I do next year? I’ll be blogging again, of course. And reading, as always. And then I plan to release two novels in 2020, at least one of which will be a Dottie Manderson book. I’m starting serious work on The Spy Within: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 6 in January, and will hopefully finish the first draft by the start of March. If that seems a long way off, can I say that I’ve already written four chapters? Only another 18-20 to go…. I’ve got other ideas too, but who knows what will actually happen? There just isn’t enough time for all the ideas I want to write about. I might watch some TV. I’ll keep on with my Polish lessons. I might do a spot of gardening. Housework will come in there somewhere, way down the list. Maybe I’ll travel? Who knows?

So now all that’s left is for me to say a massive thank you to all my readers, to my friends and family, for the incredible, jaw-dropping support and encouragement I’ve received. I honestly couldn’t have done 2019 without you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Now, where’s the alcohol and chocolate?

***

Gold or silver?

I found these notes in an old journal. I had been pondering the attributes, from a writer’s point of view, of gold and silver, and how whether as metal or colour, they are portrayed in literary works.

Gold is the colour of royalty, of quality, of the authorised, and acknowledged, of states and state, religions and churches and faiths, of the accepted and acceptable, of righteousness.

Gold is pure, incorruptible, reliable, ‘pure gold’, good, honest and forthright.

Gold is given in blessing and to enrich, it is security, savings and wealth. Gold is warm and appealing. It is masculine, and constant; the colour of the noonday sun, giving life to all and sight to all. The ‘gold standard’ indicates a status achieved, a level of existence and compliance, of regularity and trust, and a line by which all else is measured. Gold is laid up for the righteous, we are told.

But silver? No. Silver is ‘other’. Silver is secretive and fleeting, it is mercurial and unremarkable in nature, and always not quite good enough: doomed to be second best. It changes hands easily, each time serving or claiming a new master.

Silver works its arts by night, it is hard, feminine and bright and although it’s the colour of small change, ready money, the easily-obtained (for some people, anyway), it really is a confidence trickster: appearing cheap and easy to get, but actually constantly demanding more from us, just that little bit beyond our grasp.

It is the colour of the stars and the light of the moon, alluring, beautiful, cold. Silvery and secret, sinister and elusive, it dances through the sky, always out of reach, now hidden, now displayed. The thirty pieces of silver, the betrayer’s coin, the turner of hearts and souls, the illicit, the unauthorised, the denied, or the denier.

 

These gorgeous images from Steve Bidmead, Arek Socha, Kevin Schneider and Patricia Alexandre, all at Pixabay.com 

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Between a rock and a hard place: what was it like in the 30s? Part One

Madeleine Carroll: The 39 Steps (Hitchcock 1938). She was once the highest paid actress in the world and in 1938 earned £250,000.

I’m fascinated by the 1930s. That’s why I write a series of murder mysteries set in the 1930s and featuring Dottie Manderson, a young female amateur detective, as the protagonist. I wanted to show just how different life was for everyone, not just young women, in the 1930s. I’m writing from a British perspective, as that is my own nationality and my research and writing centres around this, but the era presented both challenges and successes for many nations around the world. Let’s go back to Britain in the 1930s. What was life like for the majority of people? It was very much a time of transition. Things were still getting back to normal after the war, as villages and towns slowly rebuilt themselves literally and figuratively. Attitudes were poles apart, with very ‘modern’ liberal ideas sitting at the same dinner table as conventional, very reactionary, right wing beliefs.

To set the scene for this inter-war period: the gaiety and extravagance of the 20s was over. The Great War, as WWI was known, was becoming more distant, and the Second World War was as yet undreamed of. In fact, there was a common consensus regarding the Great War that ‘it could never happen again’. It was ‘great’ in the sense of huge and terrible, not in our modern sense of brilliant and something admirable. Even language has changed since then! It’s no exaggeration to say that millions of lives were changed forever. There were an estimated 40 million casualties, a little less than half of whom died, the rest were injured, many very seriously. 40 million. How could such an incomprehensibly vast sum of people die or be injured in the space of just a few short years? Is it any wonder that people, especially the young, were a little bit crazy, a little bit over-exuberant in the 20s? Yet even in the early 30s, there were already the rumblings and murmurings that would lead to a repeat of that terrible disaster.

While their menfolk went to war, thousands of women left their homes to take on their jobs. For many, working outside the home was a new and liberating experience. But when the war was over, the men came back and they wanted their jobs back. The newly-emancipated women were in many cases reluctant to go home and cook and clean and have babies. They had their own money for the first time, they mixed with other women and learned new skills, often embracing possibilities that had never been available before. How could they give all that up? On both sides of the gender divide, there was social tension over the conflict between a desire to maintain the status quo, and a desire for freedom and equality. This continued to grow throughout the 20s, into the 30s and is still an issue today.

And let’s not forget that millions of men simply never did come back, and their wives, sweethearts, mothers, daughters and sisters had to become their own breadwinners. It’s not very surprising that they also wanted the same advantages as men, in terms of work, pay, sick pay, working conditions, opportunities for advancement and education. Women had won the right to vote in 1918, following many years of campaigning by both men and women. But the right to vote was only for women over 30 who were married. (Or who were voted parliamentary representatives, an almost, but not quite, impossible task) Was it presumed, as was often said, ‘your husband/father will tell you how to vote’? It wasn’t until 1928 that everyone, regardless of gender or marital status, was allowed to vote, and this came down to everyone over 18 in 1967. But in the 1930s there was still the sense of something new, something experimental, and many women either didn’t want the responsibility of political decision-making, or lacked the information they needed to make an informed choice. Women began to move into political life, but still very much, generally speaking, in a supporting role. Nancy Astor was the first British MP to take her seat in Parliament in 1919, with Margaret Bondfield, a Labour politician, becoming a cabinet minister in 1924.

People of colour and of different backgrounds were, in the majority of cases, socially separate from the white Christian majority. Again this continues today, doesn’t it, though it seems incredible to discriminate against someone due to skin colour. Reading the popular literature of the day could lead you to think there were no people of colour in Britain in the 1930s. But there have been vibrant non-white communities living in Britain for over two thousand years. We just didn’t admit it. People of colour were treated with hostility and resentment, and opportunities were often denied them through financial penalties or social stigma and racism. But here too, there were pressing demands for social change, and many welfare and interest group sprang up, working to change attitudes and lives practically and politically, for example, The League of Coloured Peoples and The Negro Welfare Association, to name two. However, there were successful non-white professionals such as lawyers as early as the 1850s, for example, John Thorpe and in the 1860s, Monmohon Ghosh. (More info available from the Society of Black Lawyers) And the Jazz age (1920s and 1930s) was enabling black musicians, artists, entertainers and actors to produce and perform their art, albeit without the same freedom and acceptance of white people.

Next week: Life in the 1930s: Technology and Fashion.

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