25 November 2015

We Shall Never Surrender: Wartime Diaries 1939 - 1945 Edited by Penelope Middleboe, Donald Fry and Christopher Grace

'We are accustomed to our familiar fears; in the same way even in the midst of a bombardment with planes droning overhead and the noise of the barrage I can sleep quite comfortably, but if through this monstrous uproar I hear the still, small voice of a dripping tap, I get out of bed unable to sleep until the sound is stopped.'

- 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
(1943)

12 comments:

  1. What an intriguing collection and, miraculously, one I'd not heard of yet. How could I have missed something that features both Ritchie and Nicolson, two of my favourite diarists? Unforgiveable. Looks like some of the other diarists are old acquaintances, too. I read Hermione Ranfurly's To War with Whitaker last year and really enjoyed it. Less keen on Vera Brittain and Clara Milburn, though. But what a great cross-section of perspectives and voices!

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    1. This was one of those books that you pull from the shelf, try it one for size, and before you know it an hour has gone by. I thought of you so often while reading entries from Ritchie and Nicolson...the latter didn't come across at all how I imagined him. He was quite insecure, but I did so appreciate his frankness.

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  2. What a wonderful collection - a great find.

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    1. For the life of me, I can't remember this book arriving at the house! It must have been ordered based on a review because it's brand new but whatever...it was money well spent!

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  3. Thank you for writing about this book, I shall order it shortly. It is the kind of book I really enjoy reading; have your read 'Few Eggs and no Oranges' ? It was, to me, an amazing story.

    I missed Good Reads and hope that I can find it on iPlayer. I do so admire Dame Shirley. South Riding is a favourite of mine, Holtby was a powerful writer.

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    1. Few Eggs and No Oranges is one of my very favourite Persephone titles! It is an amazing story and one I'm looking forward to reading again.
      I'm thrilled you found a copy, Toffeeapple...and what a fabulous deal! You're in for a treat.

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  4. Ordered, Awesome Books, hardcover, £2.69!

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  5. This has made me want to read the diaries. Do you think people felt as disconcerted as we do as we get further into the strange world of 2015? They can't have known where war would take them in 1939 or indeed until it was over. And then everything was different...
    Thanks great post.

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    1. They were certainly very brave. When the people of Paris were under attack last month it made me feel sick and I was halfway around the world. The citizens of 1940s Britiain listened to planes fly overhead as they went about their business. I am in awe of their resilience.
      Thanks for stopping by, Caroline!

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    2. Had to come back and say thankyou again because I really enjoyed reading this book. The combination of diaries from different people and the imperatives of war made it very readable. Thanks for drawing it to our attention.

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  6. What a good collection this sounds! I didn't know that Penelope Middleboe edited anything else - I know her as the name on Edith Olivier's edited diaries.

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    1. Well this is one to look for, Simon! I never tire of reading these accounts, in fact, I'm hoping my copy of A Notable Woman arrives in the mail today.
      Lovely to see you!

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