Streetlife: The Untold History of Europe's Twentieth Century

Ian McCulloch (Troon, UK)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 11 October 2011




McCulloch, I. (2011), "Streetlife: The Untold History of Europe's Twentieth Century", Library Review, Vol. 60 No. 9, pp. 837-838.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Jerram puts a different perspective on the usual histories of twentieth century Europe by focusing on the “where” as opposed to the “what” and the “why.” He examines social and political change from the point of view of the man in the street by looking at what happened in the homes, workplaces and bars of the great conurbations of Europe. The book is neatly divided into five categories: the change in political systems, the upsurge in women's rights, the transformation in sexual attitudes, the cultural revolution and the impact of town planning on how people lived and communities developed.

The book traces the mass migration of Europeans from the countryside to cities by the beginning of the twentieth century and the effect that this had on the various political systems operated by governments in an attempt to cope with an increasingly urban population. From the rise of fascism to the disintegration of the USSR, Jerram describes how change was driven not necessarily by central policy or legislation, but by the demands and aspirations of ordinary people. He asserts that factory life enabled workers to network more easily. This power, allied to the physical layout of city streets and suburbs provided a new urban environment that facilitated political change and social upheaval.

The feminist contention that women need to get out of their houses to take on important roles in society and the workplace is acknowledged, although Jerram argues that at the start of the century many women aimed to get into a house rather than get out of one. He suggests that the increased availability of safe, comfortable housing in the latter half of the century has done as much for women's standards of living as any rights' movement. Before First World War, he argues that the campaign for the vote was less important to women than the demand for better pay, improved working conditions and the development of career pathways. Of necessity, many women took up jobs in the street during this war – a radical change that gave women the confidence to go about cities during their leisure time without having to be accompanied by a man. This was important as women struggled, and continue to struggle, for acceptance in the workplace and wider society. Many are still burdened with the expectation of holding down a full time job while still being expected to take responsibility for the upkeep of the home.

“Streetlife” traces the cultural revolution from museums and galleries to bars, cinemas, clubs and football stadia. Jerram suggests that the use of space has been important in how we socialise, with fixed seating in music halls and later cinemas defining how we behaved and how we were restricted in movement during performances. Conversely, the space available in dance halls led to greater mobility and freer forms of dance. The rise in popular music is traced from the introduction of American music in dance halls and bars to the global technological industry of today. With television becoming widely available from the 1950s in Western Europe, Jerram contends that we no longer have to leave our homes for much of our entertainment. His belief is that art and classical music have had little impact on the majority of people but that TV, popular music, cinema and football have.

The chapter on “Sex and the City” looks at sexual identity and how this has been perceived by both individuals and the state. Curiously, Jerram focuses almost exclusively on sexual activity between men, citing the lack of research material for heterosexuals. The author explodes the myth of Victorian prudery, giving examples of the hotbed of sexual activity prevalent in London's streets. As planners transformed the spatial organisation of cities in an attempt to increase the quality of living, the establishment of public transport, parks, toilets and sports facilities led to increased opportunities for sexual activity. With the expansion of social housing in the latter half of the century and the consequent movement of people from the city centre to suburbs, sex has largely moved from the street to the bedroom. Attitudes towards minority groups moved from a liberal stance in the beginning of the century to targeted persecution in the USSR and Nazi Germany in the 1930s and still continue today. As a consequence, a “gay” lifestyle has been established in cities where men feel safer living in “gay” quarters.

Jerram laments the lack of expertise of some city planners as they tried to tackle poverty, disease and overcrowding through the growth in suburban housing in the inter‐war years. The destruction of many city centres during Second World War necessitated major rebuilding with high‐rise tower blocks appearing as a quick fix. Despite this, Jerram argues that urban life is popular and has been portrayed far too negatively by the media. More people now live in cities than ever before. Suicide rates are higher in the countryside. Even in large housing estates with all of their inherent problems, he can recognise a quality of life and communal spirit of many who live there.

Jerram acknowledges the limits in which he has set his work. For example, there is no mention of the impact of twentieth century economics on people's standard of living and the resulting impact on social upheaval and demographics within and beyond Europe. His Europe is focused mainly on the west with the notable exception of the transformation undergone in Russia. There is no mention of Scandinavia or the Balkan states, surely another book waiting to be written. His twentieth century ends in the 1970s, probably wisely given the political and social upheaval that took place between then and the end of the millennium.

There are a few irritating features within the book. The chapter on “Sex and the City” is written in a very narrow context and could have been much more diverse. The city of Manchester features largely throughout – Jerram is a lecturer in Manchester University – to the exclusion of more relevant examples that could have been given from other major European cities. However, these are minor issues within an excellent read that can be enjoyed by social historians and others alike.

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