This is bound to happen from time to time. Every now and then a heritage story’s going to get plain daft, and I’ll feel the need for a flag on the play. This morning, Saturday August 9, Radio 4’s Today programme came up with a classic example of media inventing history for editorial purposes. The First World War, Mishal Hussein suggested in her best Oxbridge trill, turned British women into drug abusers.
The death of a showgirl from a drug overdose in 1918 was quoted as evidence of the claim, and the authors of two books, one about wartime mental health issues, the other about the birth of the British drug underground, were wheeled in to discuss it. Both authors began by pointing out that female drug abuse in wartime Britain was extremely localised, meaning it was essentially restricted to women involved with various entertainment industries in the West End of London. After that, both struggled bravely but in vain to find anything that supported the story’s main thrust. It was desperate stuff, with the woman responsible for Shell Shocked Britain, the stress book, reduced to suggesting that civilian women took drugs because the noise of Zeppelins was freaking them out.
Ridiculous. According to witnesses I’ve interviewed (years back, obviously) the scariest thing about a Zeppelin attack was the machines’ eerie silence, but that’s what happens when editorial imagination forces specialists to go off piste. The real point here is that the whole story is fiction, cobbled together by some bright BBC spark in possession of three facts and no history. The First World War did not turn British women into drug abusers. Women in and around the show business enclaves of Soho and theatre land had been abusing various substances for centuries; working class women all over industrial and urban Britain had been doing the same for at least as long, in gin palaces, through opiates and stimulants in patent medicines, any way they could find. The War may have increased the need for escapism felt by some civilian women (and men), but I’m not sure the idea that raised stress levels encourage people to get off their face is particularly newsworthy. No, the BBC wanted a war angle so it made one up. After a series of embarrassing attempts to justify the story had failed, Mishal Hussein should have ended the piece by declaring the case unproven and unlikely. Instead the show’s silly premise, a small piece of misleading, false history, was allowed to stand.
Invented angles on the First World War will be turning up all over the media for the next few years. I’ll keep an eye open for them, because they’re poppycock.