By Nick Rennison

Oldcastle Books. 255 pages. £12.99. ISBN 978-0-85730-467-4

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Nick Rennison describes the 1920s as having a “distinctive character”. It is said to have been the “Jazz Age”, the “Roaring Twenties”, a time when the stock market boomed, lots of people thought they could make money quickly, and there was a determination to party and have a good time. I’m not sure it was that way for everyone. To point to just three contrasting factors - there was plenty of poverty around, in Britain there was a General Strike which bitterly divided the nation, and civil unrest, of one sort or another, occurred in various countries. But I suppose it’s like the so-called “Swinging Sixties” and we choose to pick out certain happenings and events and suggest that they represent the decade when, in fact, there was much more going on that didn’t involve pop music, flower power, and summers of love.

But Rennison’s brisk survey of 1922, a “turbulent year” in his view, helps to dispel the notion of the Twenties as being all fun and games. He doesn’t get far into January when a major snowstorm has hit Washington D.C.  in the United States and the weight of the snow on the roof of the Knickerbocker Theatre has caused it to collapse. Almost a hundred people died and many more were injured.

January, 1922 was also when “the second trial of the comedian and film star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle began”. It may be significant that the account of how and why he came to be in court takes precedence in terms of space over the death of the explorer Ernest Shackleton, the first performance of Edith Sitwell’s Façade accompanied by William Walton’s music, a successful treatment of diabetes with Insulin, and the Washington tragedy. I’m not criticising Rennison, but it’s a fact that we all like a good scandal. And the details of the Arbuckle case certainly provided enough material for the public to gloat over and feel morally outraged by. It involved a wild weekend with hints of an orgy in a hotel room, and the possibility of some odd sexual practices. A young woman died and Arbuckle’s glamorous Hollywood career was destroyed, as much by inference than proven hard evidence.   

Arbuckle’s  wasn’t the only scandal in 1922, and in Britain in December of that year newspaper readers picked up copies each day to learn how Edith Thompson and her lover Freddy Bywaters had killed her husband. Rennison again devotes ample space to the case. But it’s justified because of the way in which the trial brought out “the extraordinary frenzy of righteousness into which elements of the media had whipped themselves”.  There were doubts about how far Edith Thompson was  involved – Bywater always insisted she knew nothing about his intention to kill her husband – and Rennison probably has a point when he suggests that, given the moral climate (or hypocrisy) of the time, she was really hanged for her sin of committing adultery with a younger man.

There may have been sexual scandals at both the start and the end of 1922, but plenty occurred between those dates. What Rennison says is “One of the most significant works of twentieth-century literature” was published in Paris in February. He’s referring, of course, to James Joyce’s Ulysses, a book beloved by professors, at least, who can analyse it in every which way and find allusions on every page. Academic careers have been constructed around it. The story of its creation and publication has been told many times, with the bookseller Sylvia Beach playing a central role, and a key little magazine of the period, The Little Review, bringing it to the attention of a limited American readership. There were few readers of the actual book itself at first for the simple reason that it was banned in Britain and the United States. And reactions even among informed readers who somehow got hold of a copy varied wildly. Virginia Woolf wrote disparagingly about it. But other writers and critics were more positive.

Rennison also writes approvingly of “The most influential poem in twentieth-century English literature”, meaning T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. It was published in another little magazine, The Criterion, in October. Like Joyce’s Ulysses it immediately attracted extremes of attention. One critic called it “a pompous parade of erudition”, and John Squire, editor of the London Mercury, said that he was “unable to make head or tail of it”. But there was nothing in it that caused it to be banned, and it went into circulation and provided more material for those who like to ponder and even puzzle over what they are reading. I have come across comments to the effect that its influence was not necessarily widely beneficial. Too many other poets wanted to imitate its “parade of erudition” and instead simply left comprehension behind.

If there were battles in the literary world they didn’t result in deaths. That wasn’t true of the world of industrial relations in America. In June major strikes broke out in the mining and railroad sectors. American labour disputes were often violent affairs and 1922 was no exception to that rule. In Herrin, Illinois, a small mining town, a strike in June led to management bringing in strike breakers and armed guards to protect them. The miners were also armed and, after an exchange of gunfire, which resulted in deaths on both sides, the strike breakers agreed to leave the mine if they were given safe passage out of the district. Once out in the open, however, they were rounded up, marched away, and many of them gunned down or otherwise killed. Rennison says that 23 people died. Around the same time more deaths occurred as railwaymen fought with guards hired by the rail companies to break a strike.

It wasn’t only in the United States that violent situations occurred. In Ireland in June a vicious Civil War started as pro and anti-Anglo-Irish Treaty forces battled in Dublin and around the country. If we jump ahead to August Michael Collins, who had been blamed for signing the Treaty, was killed in an ambush by IRA dissidents. And in November the newly-established Irish government tried and executed Erskine Childers, author of the spy novel, The Riddle of the Sands, for being in possession of an unlicensed firearm. He had supported the anti-Treaty forces when the Civil War got underway.

It’s a relief to turn from the killing for a time and look at sport, and I was delighted to see my old home-town of Preston mentioned on a couple of occasions. In April the last FA Cup Final before they were held at Wembley Stadium took place at Stamford Bridge. The teams involved were Huddersfield Town and Preston North End, and Huddersfield achieved a one-nil victory when the Preston goalkeeper, Jim Mitchell, failed to save a penalty kick by Billy Smith.  Mitchell, we’re told, “may well have been the only person to appear in both a Cup Final and an international match wearing glasses”.

The other Preston reference relates to the Dick, Kerr Ladies Football Club which toured around the United States in September. The team had been formed during the First World War from workers at the Dick, Kerr and Co., munitions factory and achieved some success. Rennison notes that a match they played at Goodison Park on Boxing Day, 1920, attracted 53,000 spectators. But “It was all too much for the men of the Football Association. In December, 1921, they banned women’s football matches at their members’ grounds”. Which is why the Dick, Kerr Ladies played the initial game of an American tour in September. The name was changed to Preston Ladies FC later in the 1920s.  Dick, Kerr and Co. was taken over by English Electric after the First World War, but the factory was still sometimes referred to locally by its old name when I worked for English Electric in the early-1960s.

Scott Fitzgerald’s collection of short-stories, Tales of the Jazz Age, was published in August 1922, and may have been partly responsible for establishing the term as descriptive of the 1920s generally. There’s no doubt that jazz firmly established itself then, much to the dismay of social critics who saw it as leading to a widespread moral collapse. Doctors, journalists, and religious leaders lined up to point to its dangers, with the Ladies Home Journal launching an anti-jazz crusade and calling for its “legal prohibition”. But, as Rennison makes clear, “Jazz was not intended for middle-class matrons and septuagenarians. It was the music of the post-war younger generation and they lapped it up”.

Some of the future stars of the music – Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Sidney Bechet, Fats Waller –were already performing, and the availability of cheap radios and phonograph records meant that they could be heard across America and in other countries. There were, too, efforts to make jazz more respectable by incorporating it into semi-classical settings. White bandleader Paul Whiteman came up with a large orchestra including strings and “A watered-down version of African-American jazz”, and, in August, George Gershwin’s “jazz opera” Blue Monday was staged as part of George White’s Scandals of 1922. For anyone really interested in jazz they were poor imitations of the genuine stuff.

I’ve moved around Rennison’s book, and by doing so I’ve tried to give an impression of what it has to offer.  Which is, largely, something that is, in his own words, “entertaining and enlightening”. But I hope that I’ve not suggested that it is in any way designed to avoid the disturbing. Racial violence reared its ugly head in May in Kirven, Texas, when a white mob burned alive three blacks who had been accused of murdering a white girl. When they tried to crawl out of the fire onlookers pushed them back in. The mob then went on the rampage and “somewhere between 11 and 23 blacks died”, while many others moved away from the area. Across the world in September Turkish troops embarked on an orgy of murdering, raping, and looting in Smyrna, a town in Turkey but with a largely Greek population. The ambitions of politicians in both Greece and Turkey had brought about a war between the two countries. Not much has changed in that line in the past one hundred years.

1922: Scenes From a Turbulent Year is a good book for armchair browsing, and reading about Mussolini’s march on Rome in October, and the staging of Bertolt Brecht’s first play, Drums in the Night in September. It’s sad to read about events like those in Texas and Smyrna, but it’s amusing to follow the account of the decline of the Dada movement. In May members of the group staged a mock-funeral “at the Bauhaus school in Weimar”. There was an inevitability about the death of Dada. It wasn’t designed to last for very long and had been a hotbed of rival egos almost from its inception in Zurich in 1916. By 1922 two of the leading egotists, Tristan Tzara and André Breton, were competing in Paris (where else could something like it happen?) for leadership of the so-called avant-garde. Breton came out on top and took his followers into the longer-lasting Surrealism.