Welcome (back) to the Roaring Twenties

Matthew Chatfield

This article was first published in the Isle of Wight County Press in May 2021, just after the end of the first lockdown, and before we knew what was yet to come.

In the early months of 2020 in certain newspapers there was a brief hyperbolic vogue predicting a decade of rampant prosperity and economic success by comparing the coming 2020s with the so-called ‘Roaring Twenties’ of the last century.

This American-focussed view of history was shot down by commentators who pointed out that for the UK, the 1920s was not an economic success. The US boomed with the Jazz Age and mass production of consumer goods, but the UK endured recession and stagnation across the decade, including the general strike of 1926.

But what if we move the focus from the economic to the social sphere? For some British people, particularly the wealthy, the early 1920s really was a time of freedom and fun which had never been seen before. The ‘Bright Young Things‘ were a well-documented group of London socialites who typified this movement, and although few reached the heights of sybaritic hedonism they reputedly enjoyed, there was a new social liberation and mobility that permeated many parts of society. This was partly a reaction against the horrors and privations of war; but also against another disaster that has become more significant to us today: the Spanish Flu.

The flu pandemic, often described as one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history, killed four times more people than World War I itself. In pre-NHS Britain the response was uncoordinated and in many cases ineffective. Like COVID-19, all of society was affected. Social restrictions were imposed, as today. Many schools, theatres and cinemas were closed, shaking hands and kissing was discouraged, regular fumigation and disinfection took place. Just as Britain was celebrating the Armistice, this new threat on the home front had a huge effect on the lives of everyone. The flu burnt itself out by late 1919 – coincidentally 100 years before the first cases of COVID-19 arrived on our shores. But the social effects were long-lasting, with young people particularly reacting enthusiastically to the lifting of influenza restrictions as much as, if not more than, the end of the war.

So to today. In the last fortnight, like many others, I’ve visited the mainland to see friends and relatives, I’ve dined, with delight, at a restaurant – outside – and I’ve supped a proper pint of draught ale at a pub. Around me, the towns and beaches are coming to life as we at first cautiously, then vigorously, and above all joyfully re-engage with the Isle of Wight. Like our ancestors in the 1920s we are rejoicing in the new freedoms that have been so hard won.

And we do, after all, live on a pleasure isle. Our heritage is to entertain and delight tourists, and we are good at it. With foreign travel still an unlikely luxury or ill-advised risk, post-pandemic Britain needs the Isle of Wight like never before, and we’re stepping up to the mark. I predict that this season, and quite a few to follow, will be for us Island folk our true Roaring Twenties.

Image credit: “City of London” by Leonard Bentley is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Matthew Chatfield

Uncooperative crusty. Unofficial Isle of Wight cultural ambassador. Conservation, countryside and the environment, with extra stuff about spiders.

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