Sunday, March 29, 2015

Michael Roper on growing up in the shadow of the First World War

The Victorians get an unfairly bad press. They did not cover table legs because they thought them indecent. That was a joke 19th-century Britons made about the more prudish Americans.

And I am convinced that the British obsession with respectability and emotional repression dates not from the Victorians but from the early decades of the 20th century.

It may even date from after the First World War.

You know those little shrines that appear today where someone has died in a car crash? The ones that people tend to find a bit unBritish?

Backwatersman (aka the blogger across the road) once wrote a post showing that they existed during in the First World War:
I’ve recently been reading (or partly re-reading) “Vanished World“, the first part of the autobiography of the Northamptonshire author H.E. Bates (b. 1905). I came across this: 
“even a child couldn't escape the eventual insufferable gloom of the holocaust that every morning was reflected in the long columns of the dead, wounded and missing that darkened every newspaper and still more intimately in the little mourning shrines set up in every street with their own lists of agonies and pitiful jam jars of flowers” 
and a little later: 
“the effect of those long, black, mortifying lists of killed, wounded and missing that filled column after column of every morning newspaper had made a searing impression on me that has never left me; nor can I ever forget the little improvised street shrines decorated, as one still often sees in little Italian cemeteries, with faded photographs of the dead and a few jam jars of fading flowers.”
If British emotional repression was a reaction to the losses of the First World War, then the moving video above may provide more evidence,

I was in the audience for this talk by Michael Roper, live-tweeting it as part of my day job.

Professor Edgar Jones' fascinating talk on shell shock, which I posted last year, was given at the same event.


Frank Little said...

Those flower-bedecked shrines may have originated in Wales pre-Victoria.

Helen Pender said...

And the first great war was post Victoria who died in 1901. You're thinking of an Edwardian era when skirts shortened and piano legs and ladies ankles could be admired for being 'well turned'.