Review & Recollection: ‘The Morbid Age’ by Richard Overy

IMG_20150403_185423Though not wishing to morbidly dwell on it, I must first say that my grandmother recently died. I have to say that because it is most of the reason I read this book. I found her death very affecting, which isn’t in any way unusual since she was a close relative, but in actuality I really wasn’t close to her. In fact I hardly knew this woman, and most of what I knew about her I had learned second-hand from my father (she was his mother) – and there were never many positive reports. Even during my own few childhood experiences of her she was never particularly warm, and I have heard of periods in my parents’ life together in which my grandmother was a pretty severe and vocal critic of my mother’s relationship with my father. My parents are still together forty years later, and despite my grandmother’s cruelty they both cared for her in her final years.

In these later years Grandma became more volatile as her memory lapsed and her body weakened, and I could see her shrink and change each time I would travel down to Cornwall to visit my parents. My mother would tell me stories of how Grandma would sometimes confuse her for one of several very committed carers or nurses who regularly visited her, and sometimes even have conversations with my mother about relatives and friends who were long dead, almost confessing to cryptic family secrets before the fog eventually lifted. Grandma would mentally travel back in time within her own turbulent history, believing she was surrounded by old familiar faces and stuck in the middle of a fraught scandal, the secret of which she has taken with her to the grave. Her deterioration and her death has made me realise how little I really knew about her. I don’t believe that in talking to her more during her life I would have found out more or ever understood why she was so unkind to my father, but I felt that I could find more about her formative years through the photographs she left behind, in third-hand stories about her and her family, and in books about that period in history, thereby keeping my distance from her raw emotional edges in a way I think she would have felt proper.

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Left to right: my grandmother, a family friend, and her mother

My grandmother was born a year before the end of the First World War, and in her early twenties by the beginning of the Second. Her formative years took place between two of the bloodiest wars in our history, and she lived in London for all of this time – at the centre of cultural drama during the 1920s and ‘30s, and then of the terrorising dogfights and air attacks of the 1940s. My knowledge of this period is disappointingly limited to a handful of facts gleaned from secondary school lessons and Hollywood movies, so Richard Overy’s The Morbid Age was the perfect education. Sure there are tales of glamorous parties filled with jazz and coke dancing alongside those of poverty and unemployment, but these were symptoms of a greater problem that arose with the devastation left by the end of the First World War – one of how a society can survive a trauma as unexpectedly heavy-handed as this one. The British people believed that civilisation itself could not bear another injury so great, and lived with the anxiety of it every subsequent day.

Overy details the shell-shocked mood of the British in several cleanly organised chapters, each discussing a vital area of importance: the desperate economic situation post WWI which nursed a massing interest in communism and socialism; a growing understanding of genetics and birth control which led a disturbingly large number of people to take a great interest in eugenics; the desire for self-assessment on a wide communal scale brought on by a rising interest in psychoanalysis; the Spanish Civil War and it’s effects on a widely encouraged absolute pacifism throughout Britain; and the rise of fascist power in Europe and its effective quelling of the peace movement. The Morbid Age presents the reader with the intricacies of the mood changes and undeniable passion (both good and bad) of the British people during this period, and the final imperative point that nothing much has changed – we are still now incredibly easily swayed and manipulated by media and politicians, only now we are far less likely to join a society or committee to communicate our feelings. Unless of course it has something to do with Jeremy Clarkson’s career.

The picture of tense chaos that Richard Overy paints is captivating, and my only complaint is that he focuses too much of his attention on the highly privileged classes of the period, though I can see reasons for doing so. Despite this, his writing is…perfect. I honestly loved the way this was written. There were certainly moments where I needed a breather, unable to catch up quick enough, hampered by my modest intellect, but I could still find the moments when the author’s own opinion slipped in through a good-humoured but sardonic tone, although he rarely revealed a clearly defined personal agenda. At some points there are names dropped in connection to certain odious activities I won’t detail here, which gave these passages an almost tell-all quality that was compelling to me. I also commend Overy’s defence of Neville Chamberlain – a man demonised by historians for favouring appeasement at the risk of many European lives, and someone I have also felt was weak and morally careless. He positions Chamberlain in his rightful context: a period in which a huge proportion of the population genuinely felt that another war would literally end civilisation. He was far from the only appeaser, and he strove for peace until peace was no longer an option.

I don’t think this book has told me any more about my grandmother, and I would have been foolish to think it would, but I think it has put her in her rightful context. She grew up in a sort of limbo, a time of panic and scaremongering public voices, living in the shadow of a war she couldn’t remember. She was the daughter of a German immigrant during a time when that would have been a frightening thing to be. She was a young woman after Marie Stopes had widely publicised birth control and sexual health. Would she have seen the peace protests through Trafalgar Square? Seen the shops and offices campaigning for Spanish aid? What was she thinking when war was declared? It all fascinates me as much as it did when I first opened the book, and although no one will never be able to answer any of my questions, I feel like my eyes have been opened a little wider. My grandmother wasn’t just a stern old battle-axe. She was once a young woman caught in a strange time. She was the sum of many parts, each as rich and affecting as the other, just like anyone else.

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