The year 1922 marked a turning point for culture. It marked the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the founding of the BBC, and the start of a small production company by a young animator named Walt Disney. It was also when TS Eliot published his magnificent, gnarly poem The Waste Land, propelling modernism to the forefront of English-language poetry. And Music Hall artist Marie Lloyd was buried at a funeral that is said to have drawn the largest crowd since the Duke of Wellington’s 70 years.
These last two events have more in common than mere chronology. Lloyd was a woman of the people, a singer of popular ballads, some wistful, some nudge and wink, whose death plunged Eliot into a state of theatrical grief. She began her career as a teenager singing temperance songs in church, and suffered from the cruel irony that the last song she sang was about a woman – like herself – who had ignored such warnings. Her death, wrote Eliot, was a significant moment in English history because of her appeal to working-class audiences and “the extent to which she represented and expressed that part of the English nation which was perhaps the most vital and the greatest is interested”.
A century later, Eliot may appear as a weak, politically unattractive character who has captivated the Academy with his willful darkness. But The Waste Land also breaks the boundaries between high and low culture. He was also the author of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, whose posthumous alliance with Andrew Lloyd Webber through the musical Cats saw publisher Faber through many lean years. His lighter side has come out as the vaults are opened over his often inflammatory, vulgar private poems and the thousand love letters he wrote over decades to his American college sweetheart, Emily Hale.
The Hale letters will be published this fall. However, the Wasteland celebrations don’t take place in October, but in April, which he famously proclaimed the “cruelest month”. His connection to Lloyd is rightly acknowledged. “No other comedian has done so well with the life of [her] audience by elevating it to a form of art,” he wrote.
The same could be said of Eliot himself. He lived through two world wars and left a memorial to both of them. But it’s often his less grandiose interventions that resonate. What better abbreviation for today’s political salaciousness than Macavity: the Mystery Cat with its repeated refrain that when you reach the scene of the crime, “Macavity isn’t here!” getting old… I’m getting old… / I’ll wear the pants of my pants rolled up” from The Lovesong by J Alfred Prufrock?
“Of all the years of that dramatic decade, 1922 was the most turbulent,” says author Nick Rennison in his latest book about those 12 months. “It was a year that changed the map of the world.” How little things change a century later, as the old world struggles against the new and society is shaped by the trauma of war and the pandemic.