Hindsight can mess with history to a fatal degree, and we are lucky to have such passionately argued and reliably frank correctives as these.
Simon Garfield, We Are At War (2005)
Military epithets abound to describe our present situation, putting many of us (regardless of our age) in mind of World War Two and the so-called ‘blitz spirit’. But it can almost be harder to deal with this unseen and unknown contagious enemy than one realised in flesh and blood. And as our current prime minister recently discovered to his cost, showing no fear in the face of this invisible fiend is neither heroic nor sensible. What is needed now is often the exact opposite of that which was expected from the population eighty years ago. No wonder our initial national response to this pandemic was (at worst) chaotic and (at best) mixed!
Yet, during this strange period I’ve been reflecting on what it must have been like to live through the long years of the Second World War, which are only just still within living memory. This is not to denigrate the wars since that have taken place on foreign soil, but simply because WW2 was the last major conflict that my London family went through together, the memories of which have been passed on to future generations through their stories and anecdotes. As my own research has shown, those experiences often were different from the perception we usually have of everyone pulling together as one, with a communal mindset. Our blitz-spirit-soaked nostalgia for this era, kept alive in films and books and political rhetoric, seems rather naive when we consider that – just like today – it was a case of ordinary people trying to get by, with their very ordinary reactions to their individual situations. Some did heroic deeds, others stole and lied; and in between this, there was a wide continuum of human behaviour (with many moving up and down this invisible line as the war went wearily on).
It was the persistent idea that there was nothing extra to add to the narrative of WW2 studies which prompted writer Simon Garfield to initially focus on Britain’s post-war period while undertaking research at the archives of the Mass-Observation Project, housed at the University of Sussex. This resulted in the first of three books based on extracts from some of the diaries kept by ordinary people from the period 1939-48 (although the project actually started in 1937 and lasted for much longer).
The first book Our Hidden Lives (Ebury, 2004), focused on the three years immediately following the war, up until the birth of the National Health Service in 1948. However, while reading through the wartime diary entries, Garfield realised that much of what had been recorded during the conflict did in fact shine a light on some of the hitherto undocumented experiences of ordinary citizens. So, just like the time-jumping Star Wars trilogy (as Garfield himself says in his website), the second book, entitled We Are At War (Ebury, 2005), moves backwards to cover the period shortly before the outbreak of war and up to the start of the blitz in autumn 1940 (the so-called phoney war), while the third book deals with the period from then on until the end of the war.
It is in this final book, entitled Private Battles (Ebury, 2007), that Garfield lays to rest the idea that everyone was working together for the common good throughout the war period. He points out that: The diarists writing here – by no means a representative sample of the country’s mood, but nonetheless a valuable snapshot of it – describe a wartime Britain we may be a little unfamiliar with. Displays of genuine camaraderie and the Blitz/Dunkirk spirit of legend are matched by acts of selfishness and expressions of spite. Usually these are the result of the daily grind: beating someone else to the rationed fruit or shoes, feeling resentful about the lack of support when fire-watching. But there is a deeper malaise too, a belief that the war is not being prosecuted well and that those in power do not understand the prolonged suffering of the less privileged. Churchill is by turns revered, mocked and scolded, his ministers treated with equal parts respect and disdain.
For me this was perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the diaries: the fact that many of the writers (and their family members, friends and colleagues) expressed opinions that seemed startlingly out of line with the perceived notion of how the population thought and behaved during wartime. Some have the odd sympathy with the Nazi party and express anti-semitic tendencies, others (on the left and right) want to play their part in creating a new and better world order. All are critical of the government at some point. As one diarist succinctly points out: The trouble is that we foolishly expect our war ministers to be supermen. Another describes the theft of a much-needed (and hard to come by) torch, while a neighbour of one diarist is fined £15 for ‘causing dismay’ by spreading rumours that the BBC was not being truthful in its reporting of events. And all this played out against a background of humdrum events – regular trips to the cinema, moaning about the entertainment on the wireless, borrowing books from the library – I Married A German by Madelaine Kent (an English woman’s account of living in Nazi Germany before WWII) seemed to be popular with the female diarists. The identity of Lord Haw Haw is a much discussed subject.
Many of the issues that currently face us – such as fear of an unknown future, worries about financial security and concerns about mental and physical well-being haunt the pages of these three books, in particular the first one (in terms of chronology), We are at War. This volume documents the vacillating moods of the diarists as they receive and react to the official – and unofficial – news updates in the early months of the war. As Garfield states in the introduction: We join the diarists at a time of uncertainty, but we leave them at a time of resolve.
Some of the concerns of the protagonists may seem strange or comical in retrospect – but just like the old-fashioned language they use* (How the devil/blazes? etc.), it feels disrespectful to mock them in any way, as we in our turn will also be found outdated in thought and speech by future generations. Many of the diarists write about things that would seem racist or sexist today, a reminder to us of what society deems acceptable or not can change so rapidly. Some expressions appear to have picked up their negative connotations during war time. The diarists frequently refer to the Japanese as the ‘Japs’, yet I remember admonishing my Scottish grandmother for this pejorative term when we discussed my upcoming teaching position in Tokyo in 1991. As can be seen from reading the diary entries, war and other major crises do not only create new expressions or bring certain ones into prominence (the current term ‘ramp up’ springs to mind), but also change the meaning of words.
*I was interested to note that one diarist describes the term ‘slacks’ being a more polite form for trousers – a word my father used frequently, but rarely heard now (conjuring up, to my mind, visions of sleazy 70s loungewear).
From reading the diaries it becomes clear that the greatest worry that hung over the heads of all the protagonists was the uncertainty, along with the restrictions to their liberty. As one diarist mentions: Though these events determine our future we have no control over them. We live from day to day in a kind of resigned doubtfulness unable to make plans for more than a month ahead. These are of course things that also make our current situation so troubling. It is now easier to put ourselves into the heads of our wartime ancestors and understand better their fears and worries and frustrations, alongside the feeling that they had no choice but to trust in a government which they did not always believe was following the best course of action. There was concern that if they spoke out against the government they were being disloyal and undermining the war effort (as well as receiving a fine), yet most also realised that in a functioning democracy it was incumbent on the country’s citizens to always remain questioning and vigilant.
For my English grandparents, separated from each other through the evacuation as well as the reserved occupation of my grandfather (a cavalry veteran of WW1 – see Portrait of my Grandfather as a Soldier – and a Lambeth tram conductor*), it was undoubtedly a stressful time. And to think that it lasted for almost six years – with the effects being felt into the next decade, not to mention the lifelong implications of mental and physical wartime deprivations. All his life, my father wondered how things would have turned out for him had the war not prevented him from taking up the scholarship to Alleyne’s School in Dulwich. The smart new uniform which had been bought for my 11-year old father was never to be worn and he spent the rest of his school years in East Coker (see East Coker), attending the local school in Yeovil. In between these two events, there had been a brief stay in Leatherhead in Surrey, living with other evacuees with the acting president of the Mormon Church in the UK, the Russian-Greek emigré Andre Konstantin Anastasiou and his family. This was where my father – according to my mother – was given President Kennedy’s cast-off bicycle to use. (Joseph Kennedy had lived nearby in his role as the American Ambassador from 1938-40).
*One diarist writes in October 1939: I asked a bus conductor, ‘What will you chaps do in an air raid?’ ‘We’ve been told to leave the bus and make for the nearest shelter. We should have lists of the shelters but we haven’t got them yet.’
Kennedy Family, London 1938
While all this sounds fascinating and worthy of the kind of dinner party anecdote my father would have never wanted to indulge in (hating dinner parties, in any case), I don’t think he was particularly happy there. Consequently it must have been a relief when it was finally decided that he and his younger brother should follow his mother to East Coker to join his older sister, who’d been evacuated there with the Camberwell School for Girls on the 1st of September at the outbreak of war. She was already half-way through her grammar school education at the time and billeted with a local family, and thus it would have made sense not to disrupt her education.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons my father never got on as well with his sister as he did with his younger brother. There might have been some resentment that she was able to complete her scholarship education, while his was never even allowed to begin. On a recent visit to my aunt (see Return to East Coker) it was brought home to me how very much she resembled my father – and her own father – she was, so it was inevitable there would be personality clashes between two bright, strong-willed siblings whose lives had been overturned by the outbreak of war. Sometimes I wonder how my motherly grandmother survived those headstrong family members, but at least she had her baby boy, my uncle, who seemed to be the one who was ‘easiest’ to parent. As my aunt tellingly remarked: although they all missed their father (who visited them from London every six weeks), day-to-day life was often easier without him!
What Might Have Been, Alleyn’s School (1922)
Recently I have been interested to read about how the current situation has changed the dynamics of our relationships with others. While most people obviously miss close contact with friends and family members, some relish the chance to be free of social and familial obligations. For many (health issues notwithstanding) there seems to be an uneasy mix of both these feelings, just as there might have been during wartime. In my own family, it would appear that after the war my grandfather never continued the relationships with his Skelton siblings (to the relief of my grandmother), which was one of the reasons I knew so little about my London family initially. Although my father had many cousins on his father’s side, it was only my aunt who was able to fondly remember them all from having been a regular visitor at their home in Thornton Heath before the war.
I very much wish that someone in my own family had recorded their thoughts and feelings (wartime or not) as carefully as the diarists in Simon Garfield’s trilogy. One of my favourite characters was Maggie Joy Blunt – a pseudonym for the writer Jean Lucey Pratt and the only one to appear in all three books. It emerged that I wasn’t the only one who particularly looked forward to reading her descriptions, but that many readers also wanted to find out more about her. Therefore I was delighted when a few years later Garfield finally gained permission from her niece to edit and publish Pratt’s own extensive private diaries (which spanned over sixty years), resulting in the book A Notable Woman, published by Canongate in 2015.
The psychologist, Julia Shaw, writing recently in the Guardian newspaper emphasises in her article entitled Lockdown is distorting our memories but there are ways to gain control (link to full article here) that it is imperative to keep a diary if you really want to remember your experiences accurately. She points out that: The one thing that almost every memory scientist repeats ad nauseum is this: if there are moments in your life that you want to preserve for posterity, write them down. Now. Assume that no matter how emotional, or interesting, or historic your experiences during the coronavirus lockdown are, you will forget them. Recording these memories outside your brain is the only way to truly keep them safe.
As the Mass-Observation Project is currently asking for volunteers to write up their experiences of living through the 2020 pandemic in order to help the social historians of the future (see link here for details), could this be the year for some of us to play a part in living history? Even if we only keep a diary for ourselves in these strange and unsettling times, we never know who might find it useful eighty years hence.
The Incidental Genealogist, May 2020