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By Melvyn Bragg

Britain in the course of the darkish a long time is the environment for the interesting tale of Bega, a tender Irish princess who turned a saint, and her lifelong bond with Padric, prince of the north-western nation of Rheged. This dramatic, far-reaching story brings to existence a land of warring kings, Christians and pagans, and tribes divided through language and tradition, illuminating a little-known but serious interval in British heritage.

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The writer Robert Graves (born 1895) and his wife Nancy Nicholson found themselves in money trouble in the 1920s—the village shop they had bought failed. ’ Nancy’s father, the distinguished artist William Nicholson (born 1872), sent her ‘a hundred pound note in a matchbox as his contribution’. Parents’ sense of responsibility overrode deep prejudice. The painter Hannah Gluckstein (born 1895), daughter of a wealthy businessman, rejected her family’s bourgeois Jewish way of life. She abbreviated her name—it was as Gluck that she exhibited her work —cropped her hair and wore mannish clothes.

Undergraduate society was dominated by the ‘poshocracy’. In the 1920s an Oxford undergraduate might still inform his tutor ‘with imperious condescension’ that he had ‘managed to get four days hunting’ a week and would, therefore, miss all the lectures and tutorials in the coming term. In 1940 Edward Heath (born 1916), who went up to Oxford from a Kent grammar school, wrote a piece for the Spectator that revealed the discomfiture experienced by the ‘Secondary Schoolboy’ ‘whose home and 42 BETWEEN THE WARS, 1920–1939 whose parents did not come up to the standard set by other undergraduates’.

A turn on a pin-table cost a penny—the prize was generally a packet of cigarettes. Cinemas—even seedy ‘flea pits’—opened windows onto glamorous and thrilling worlds. By 1939 three out of four households had a wireless, often bought on the instalment plan. In Nottingham, the feckless working-class Sillitoes were ‘transfixed’ by broadcast serials. ‘There was nevertheless a strong undercurrent of anxiety that the shopkeeper might walk in to claim his set back before the entertainment was finished’.

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Credo by Melvyn Bragg


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