Book of the week
Sing as we go: by Simon Heffer (Hutchinson Heinemann £35, 960pp)
One minister, Sir Thomas Inksip, who criticized Sir Neville Chamberlain for failing to meet Hitler’s rapacious territorial demands in September 1938, noted: ‘Mr Chamberlain descended into the thieves’ kitchen as if he were the Carlton walked into the club.’
That’s an all-too-accurate picture of what it was like when the 69-year-old prime minister, a true English gentleman who expected other men to behave like gentlemen, flew to Munich in late September 1938 and attempted a promise from Hitler.
He believed – or desperately wanted to believe – that if he and Hitler were alone in a room together and had a pleasant man-to-man conversation, a relationship of genuine trust could be established and war averted.
Hitler promised: if he were allowed to take over the Sudetenland without Britain and France declaring war to defend it, it would mean the end of his territorial claims in Europe.
A Cabinet minister, Sir Thomas Inksip, criticized Sir Neville Chamberlain (pictured with Hitler in 1938) for failing to act against Hitler’s rapacious territorial demands in September 1938, noting: ‘Mr Chamberlain descended into the kitchen of the thieves as if he walked into the thieves’ kitchen. the Carlton Club.”
When Chamberlain flew back to England and announced ‘peace for our time’ to a deeply relieved populace, he wrote to his sister Hilda: ‘I came closer to a nervous breakdown at home than ever before.’ But he was sure that Hitler had told him the truth. “It’s different this time,” he told her. “This time he made his promises to me.”
That was pure delusion. Hitler’s promises meant nothing. Within five and a half months he had invaded all of Czechoslovakia, thinking that no one would stop him. And that was when the British public began to feel a deep sense of shame at the policy of appeasement that Czechoslovakia had thrown to the wolves.
As Simon Heffer writes in his compelling overview of the past twenty years: ‘the journey to the Second World War, begun at Versailles, accelerated by the rise of Bolshevism and driven headlong by Hitler, had reached the point of no return used to be.’
That’s what this entire sprawling 960-page book covers: those two rollercoaster decades, sandwiched between one world war and the next – a turbulent time of unrest, unemployment, fear, anger, denial, fun, jazz, radio listening, film- go and build roads.
The title, Sing As We Go, is inspired by the 1934 Gracie Fields film of the same name. Born in 1898 in her grandmother’s chip shop in Rochdale, ‘Our Gracie’ summed up what Heffer sees as the British national character, which gives us saved from the kind of revolution that had engulfed Russia and the right-wing extremism that would engulf Germany.
That character consisted of “a sense of humor, resilience and a lack of compassion,” which made it possible to persevere through whatever life threw at you. As soon as PG Wodehouse invented the absurd character of Sir Roderick Spode, the fascist who happened to be an underwear magnate, the splendor of fascism was punctured and Britain could never take it entirely seriously.
Hitler (pictured with Chamberlain in 1938) promised: if he were allowed to take over the Sudetenland without Britain and France declaring war to defend it, it would mean the end of his territorial claims in Europe
I measured this book against a stone in our garden, and it is exactly the same thickness. At times I got bogged down in the seemingly endless 80-page chapters, and the never-ending onslaught of statistics about unemployment rates and whether the pound was rising or falling.
But Heffer’s knowledge and depth of research are impressive, and he clearly couldn’t bear to leave anything out, as every detail, every cabinet meeting, every ripple of unrest in cities across the country adds to the bigger picture. to understand (say) the general strike, you have to experience every political and industrial event that preceded it. But god, it can be tough. Certain details emerge, bringing the interwar period vividly to life. Dame Nellie Melba did the first live broadcast from a studio in a disused packing shed at the Marconi factory, using a microphone made from a telephone receiver, a cigar box and a coat rack.
In 1935, 875,000 horses were still working the land. George V’s last words were ‘How is the Empire?’ or ‘Bugger Bognor!’ (someone suggested that perhaps he should go to Bognor to recover, and he was having none of that). And when Chamberlain flew to Munich in 1938, it was his very first flight, apart from a short demonstration flight over Birmingham.
Sing as we go: by Simon Heffer (Hutchinson Heinemann £35, 960pp)
One of the most enriching aspects of this book is that it makes us reevaluate Chamberlain, whose reputation was ‘crucified’ after the Munich failure. Watching the pain he endured as he completely unwittingly led the country into the thing everyone feared most, another war, is like watching a tragedy unfold, for both a man and a nation.
His letters to his sisters Hilda and Ida are truly moving and show us a man doing everything he can to save his beloved nation from destruction. That first week of September 1939, Heffer writes, “was Chamberlain’s personal moment when he confronted the failure he had created.”
Yet Heffer argues that Chamberlain can be seen as agile and full of keen foresight. His chiefs of staff had made it clear to him that Britain was not yet sufficiently armed to fight a war in 1938, so averting war through appeasement was perhaps a crucial tactic to give the country time to rearm.
And whose fault was it that the British army was in such a dilapidated state in the early 1930s, with not nearly enough aircraft or a large enough army or navy?
It was from Winston Churchill, Heffer says. When he was Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1924 to 1929, he cut deep defense spending and was (then) not exactly Mystic Meg when it came to predicting war. “Why should there be a war with Japan?” he said. “I don’t think there’s even the slightest chance of that happening in my lifetime.”
As Heffer writes, “These underfunded, moribund forces were an invitation for potential enemies to throw their weight behind them, but by the mid-1920s no one seemed to notice.” And you can hardly blame them for not noticing, or not wanting to notice; they had only just buried their own fathers, sons and brothers, and the thought of another war was a horror.
Churchill’s other major mistake, according to Heffer, was returning to the Gold Standard of 1925, which made British industries less competitive and caused a huge rise in unemployment, later exacerbated by the Wall Street Crash and subsequent slump – although Heffer reminds us that Britain did not suffer nearly as badly as America as a result of the crash – ‘don’t jump out of the window at the Square Mile’. At its worst, the drop in real income for Americans was 37 percent; in Britain it reached just 0.8 percent.
This is a richly convincing portrait of interwar Britain and its politicians, and reminds us how difficult it is for anyone to govern a country. Headache follows headache. It seems to be the human condition.
“Give us a moment of peace!” I found myself begging when the book opened in 1919, and looters were already setting fire to Luton Town Hall, enraged by the plight of war veterans, just months after the end of the First World War.
But no, it was immediately a struggle again: domestic and international anger, arguing and protest, which have never stopped and perhaps never will stop.