The Trickster Prince

Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.

History as method acting; or thinking again about 1920s Britain

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On a Thursday afternoon in April I am sitting in the Philharmonic pub on Liverpool’s Hope Street drinking with some of my third year students. We’re celebrating: the end of a long semester and that brief chance for some downtime before they have to start revising and I have to start marking. For the past year the students have studied the module I teach on British culture in the ‘Roaring Twenties’. They have been immersed in a world very different from their own—fascinated by ‘desert romances’ like E.M. Hull’s The Sheik, intrigued by the sensual rhetoric of Dr Marie Stopes’s sex manuals, absorbed in wandering around London looking for the location of ‘nightclub queen’ Kate Meyrick’s notorious Forty-Three Club in Gerrard Street. They have made me see that there is something strangely captivating about this vibrant and contradictory decade. Just how captivating, however, I only realised that afternoon when one young woman—arms waving, smiling away—told us how she and her friends had celebrated her twenty-first birthday by ‘dressing up like flapper girls’ and going out on the town in Liverpool. This book began at that moment when a history degree came about as close as it can to method acting.

At its simplest, The Aftermath is my attempt to understand why a group of young women decided to put on cloche hats and slip dresses for a night out a few years ago. I revisit that long-lost world that they themselves revisited so enthusiastically. That conversation in the Philharmonic tells us a great deal about how 1920s Britain is remembered and forgotten today. It highlights why I think the time is right to rethink our historical understandings of the decade and why I want to challenge some of the most powerful contemporary myths about British culture after the Great War. When my students went into the fancy dress shop their flapper ‘costumes’ came off a rail where they hung next to a ‘gangster’s’ sharp suit and fedora. Here we can see how our imagined version of ‘Roaring Twenties’ Britain takes both colour and form from a set of vignettes, characters and motifs that are distinctly American. F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Prohibition and speakeasies, gangsters’ molls and Al Capone—the images have become so enmeshed and interchangeable that it is difficult to disentangle British realities from American mythologies. Of course, the growing pace and ease of trans-Atlantic communications meant that Britain did undergo a very real process of Americanization in this period. But to focus on these stereotypical images means we have lost sight of our own exceptionalism—the things that made the British experience of the 1920s unique.

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