- Charles Ritchie (Autumn 1940)
The accounts of daily life in Britain during World War II are shared in this book by nine diarists. I was already familiar with three contributors: Vera Brittain, Harold Nicolson, and Charles Ritchie. The others had equally fascinating and frightening ordeals to endure with the characteristic so commonly seen in across many communities during the war...the ability to just get on with things.
Some of the early entries centre around the evacuation of children to the countryside, or in Vera Brittain's case sending her children to the United States. Encouraged to lecture in America, it seemed a logical step to take but Vera felt deceived by the government. No sooner were her young son and daughter settled across the pond when the government cancelled Vera's visa. Her pacifist views were considered to be inflammatory so her ability to travel was curtailed. Another dismal scene is when the Prime Minister asks Harold Nicolson to join Duff Cooper in the Ministry of Information. Nicolson talks to his wife (Vita Sackville-West) about acquiring some form of poison should suicide be more palatable than being tortured by the enemy.
The bravery and unbelievable calm during bombing raids never ceases to amaze. Perhaps it's partly down to writing about such events after the fact and knowing you've lived to tell the tale. In any case, being barely into adulthood and collecting body parts or seeing the block of flats across the road heave as though taking a deep breath before collapsing would certainly fray my nerves.
You would think that reading about the endless recipes for mock this-and-that and rationing would paint a fairly complete picture about the dreary nature of food during wartime. You would be wrong. There are more cringeworthy culinary explorations to discover; for instance, did you know the fat surrounding tinned American sausages was lauded for its use in cakes and pastry? And when an impromptu visit by a Brigadier and five officers was made to Sissinghurst, Harold Nicolson and 'mummy' quickly shovelled over two thousand onions, that were being stored in spare bedrooms, into cloth sacks. Apparently, onion stealing was a well-known trait in certain circles of the army.
Following each diarists 'path of destiny' as they forecast what may lie ahead made this book hard to put down. Will a spouse chancing a flight across the Chanel arrive safely? Will a ship carrying evacuated children be torpedoed? Will the effects of daily bombing raids affect a pregnancy? One of the most poignant entries in the book is near the end, when Hermione Ranfurly has just been reunited with her husband after three years apart. They travel to England on a ship and book a room at Claridge's as a special treat. In the morning, before the sun rises....
'...we climbed out of bed, drew back the curtains and leaned out on the smutty ledge of our smutty windowsill. Quite soon it seemed as if the whole vault of heaven was vibrating with the roar of aeroplanes. As it grew light we began to see them - great formations of bombers heading for Europe. It was a magnificent and moving sight and we watched - fascinated - with thoughts flashing through our heads: how terrible what they must do; pray god they may return safely; can this be the beginning of the end of the war; so Overlord has started, it's not a secret anymore; when the sun comes up every plane will be a target; in a few minutes they'll be over enemy territory.'
As war diaries go, this is an outstanding collection and highly recommended. And in one of those delightful coincidences, Dame Shirley Williams was a guest on A Good Read last night. Her choice of a 'good read' was South Riding by Winifred Holtby. While listening to Dame Williams discuss a wonderful novel by her mother's very special friend, I pictured her as a little girl on a ship crossing the Atlantic while her mother (Vera Brittain) held her breath.
A Balloon Site, Coventry by Dame Laura Knight