Saturday, 23 November 2013

Generation gaps and girly men

One of the central background issues in my study of the Pace case are the changes in the ways that femininity, masculinity and marriage were seen in the inter-war period in Britain.

The current issue of the London Review of Books has a fascinating review by Alan Allport of a new book by Melanie Tebbutt, Being Boys: Youth, Leisure and Identity in the Interwar Years. 

It emphasises the new opportunities for young men in the 1920s and 1930s.

And also some of the new challenges:

Together, the cinema and the dance hall transformed courtship. Film provided instruction in manliness and the dance hall was where young men put what they had learned into practice. But it could be an unforgiving venue. [...] At the approach of a 16th or 17th birthday, dancing, in the words of one young man, ‘assumed, quite suddenly, a devastating importance, an arcane significance’. There were just as many male as female wallflowers at the Hammersmith Palais, self-conscious boys shuffling awkwardly at the periphery of the dance floor.

Unfamiliarity with the latest dance steps was only one of many sources of unease for the new young man. As courtship moved beyond neighbourhood circles, so appearance and deportment acquired a heightened importance. The availability after the war of good quality off-the-rack suits from Burton’s and Fifty Shilling Tailors created an expectation that men would dress smartly and fashionably in public, opening up a possibility of embarrassment hitherto unknown to working-class men. [...] Advertising of personal hygiene products was aimed mainly at young women, but boys were also swept up in the new insecurity about perspiration and bad breath. As working-class men became more visibly indistinguishable from the middle class, so they acquired all the hang-ups of embourgeoisement.

And they also became the target of a good deal of criticism from the older generation:

With his ‘constant combing of well-oiled locks of long hair, tidy clothes and well-kept hands and nails’, as one exasperated army physical training instructor put it, the new teenager was symptomatic of a greater national effeminisation that was undermining Britain’s ability to defend itself in an ever more dangerous world.

And here lies a great historical irony. For while at the beginning of the 21st century our fading ‘Greatest Generation’ is lauded for its hardscrabble upbringing and its stoic sacrifices, on the eve of the Second World War it was being lambasted by its elders for being spoiled, self-absorbed and dandified.

‘By comparison with the French, or the Germans, for that matter, our men for the most part seem distressingly young, not so much in years as in self-reliance and manliness generally … they give an impression of being callow and undeveloped,’ General Auchinleck was to warn the war cabinet in 1940. Not so long before Dunkirk, Britain’s heroic Tommies had been its wayward youth.


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