A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Looking back on anything from a distance – especially through the lens of ‘history’ – all too often gives us a false perspective. When, for instance, we read about the Second World War, we tend to think of it in terms of vignettes … critical moments that were the highs, lows and turning points: the Phoney War, Dunkirk, The Blitz, The Battle of Britain, the Fall of Paris, Stalingrad, D-Day, Hiroshima.
It runs through our brains like a newsreel … like a compilation of every war film we’ve ever seen, with the ordinary people affected by it just bit part players, flitting around in the background somewhere, like so much moving scenery.
Our Longest Days, published by Profile Books, is a superb corrective. In it, we see the war through the eyes of ordinary British citizens – housewives, civil servants, a teenage land girl, a conscientious objector, a member of the Home Guard, a retired electricity board inspector …
They were actually writing for the Mass Observation project, which recorded the views and opinions of the ‘Man in the Street’. Tom Harrisson (described by Philip Ziegler in his foreword as ‘a turbulent amateur anthropologist’) became incensed by Fleet Street’s regular pronouncements on what the Great British Public thought about this, that and the other. His contention was that they couldn’t possibly actually know what the public thought … so in 1936 he set about finding out. The result was Mass Observation – diaries kept by men and women as they went about their daily lives.
For Our Longest Days the late Sandra Koa Wing chose to follow just over a dozen of the 500 or so people who wrote for Mass Observation. Some we meet in 1939 and stay with them for the duration. Others disappear part way through, to be replaced by new names and voices.
George Springett was a (rather pompous) conscientious objector, absolutely determined to avoid conscription. Kenneth Redmond a civil servant who was an active communist party member. His brother Tom died in the war, and Kenneth’s entries are soaked in grief and anger. Edie Rutherford was a South African living in Sheffield with her husband and family. She worked in the Ministry of Labour and wasn’t shy about sharing her socialist opinions … many of which (with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight) were remarkably shrewd.
For me, though, two voices stand out above the others: Muriel Green and Nella Last.
Muriel was 18 at the outbreak of war – naive, frightened, excited – she eventually becomes a Land Girl and we travel with her from 1939 to 1945 as she grows up in a world at war. By 1945, she’s an adult, and she knows it. Along the line, she managed to enjoy herself but the change in her ‘voice’ over the years is quite marked. On VE Day the girl who had earlier admitted to getting herself into a bit of a mess dating two airmen at once was writing:
All the flag-waving and dancing will not bring alive the dead to their homes … Life will always be the sadder for those of us who think.
Nella Last was one of the best known of Mass Observation’s contributors. She achieved a posthumous fame of her own as “Housewife, 49”. An articulate middle-aged woman living in Barrow-in-Furness, she had already been through one world war – and it showed. She knew how to make do and mend, and shook her head disbelievingly at the foolishness of others. She was an intelligent, literate women who in another age would have had an independent career. Her marriage was far from perfect … and by the end of Our Longest Days she makes no secret of it:
I looked at my husband’s placid face blank face critically, thinking with a slight sickness, how dreadfully like his family he was growing, their utter ‘mindlessness’, their fear of anything different in any way. I marvelled at the way he had managed to so dominate me for all our married life, when to avoid ‘hurting’ him, I tried to keep him in a good mood – when a smacked head would have been the best treatment … I know I’m not the ‘sweet woman’ I used to be, but then I never was.
Of the men, 70 year old Herbert Brush, Digging for Victory with a vengeance, comes across as the most likeable, taking even the accidental destruction of his allotment in his philosophical stride. When reporting on the terrible damaged inflicted by the Luftwaffe on the city and people of Norwich, he can’t resist commenting wryly:
Jerry did not hit the castle or the town hall or the cathedral, mostly shops and small houses. The ugliest town hall in the kingdom: a bomb would have made it look more interesting.
Peter Baxter, a Cambridge graduate, became a corporal at RAF Padgate where he trained recruits. He is one of the most clear-sighted diarists – a humane man who had never learned to hate in plurals. On hearing of the bombing of the Ruhr dams, his first thought was for the ordinary German people caught in the flood waters. He wrote:
I know this is Total War, but are we to abandon all standards of mercy and humanity? An act like this makes us all barbarians. I’m sorry to say that I haven’t yet found anybody to agree with me. The other fellows say, ‘The more Jerries we wipe out the better’ … It’s very saddening. When one’s fellow countrymen are so callous, one can’t feel over-confident about the chances of getting a peaceful civilised world in the future.
What comes over most strongly throughout the book, however, is the way that people – all of them – just ‘got on with it’. Even in the midst of the Blitz, they did their level best to go about their normal lives. They also complained incessantly about food shortages, petty bureaucracy, greedy neighbours, black marketeers, the shoddy standards of utility clothing, pettifogging civil servants … and class prejudice was alive and well and thriving amidst the air raid sirens. The human need to whine remains constant, apparently.
There IS however, in nearly all the diarists, a realization that they can never go back to being the way they were. The peace may have been won, but it wasn’t simply going to be a case of picking up where they left off … like Nella Last, they and the world had changed forever.
The book closes, quietly and fittingly, with dear old Herbert Brush. It is Monday, the 3rd of September, 1945 – a month after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and six years to the day after war was declared:
I wonder what I was doing six years ago: it’s too much trouble to look for my diary of that date, but I remember Chamberlain’s lugubrious tones when he said, ‘We are at war with Germany’.
A dull morning; looks like rain, Barometer 29.74.
Each new year’s entries are prefaced by a short explanation of the main events of that year and the endnotes provide details on any comments that need further elucidation, so no in depth knowledge of the war is necessary – although it certainly helps. The book also contains a selection of well-chosen photographs, a short biography of each diarist and a short section on the Mass Observation, which I was very surprised to learn was alive and well and apparently thriving.
Profile Books. Paperback. 2008. ISBN: 978-84668-088-5. 320pp.