Friday, December 31, 2021

Wartime Britain 1939-1945, by Juliet Gardiner

This enormous volume - 591 pages before the exhaustive acknowledgements, notes, bibliography and index - is a detailed history of the Second World War from the perspective of those at home. It's an extraordinary read, full of horrifying detail, and very useful for something I'm currently working on.

What really struck a chord was some people's response to the things they could do to protect themselves and others. 

“In November 1939, the Daily Mail had asked its readers, ‘What part of the war do you mind most?’ … ‘Women in Uniform’ came first and ‘Blackout’ second.” (p. 45)

Gardiner quotes from JBS Haldane's 1938 book ARP (ie air-raid precautions), concerned that his unemployed neighbour will not be able to afford the paints and blinds required for blackout. 

“As a result he will probably show a light, and my life, not to mention the King’s, will be endangered.” (p. 47)

Another neighbour, said Haldane, 

“can afford paint and blinds but she is an absolute pacifist, who says that she will have nothing to do with war … She says she is going to keep her lights on, and if a bomb hits her house she will be well out of a wicked world. As I have never yet seen a bomb hit the mark at which it is aimed, I think it is much more likely that a bomb aimed at her skylight will hit me … If lights should be covered, as I think they should, then this should be made a matter of law, like the lighting regulations for vehicles.” (p. 48)

“Which it was,” adds Gardiner. But there are still examples of people ignoring the rules, or feeling they should be exempt, or blacking out parts of their houses - like not having your nose inside your mask. There's even a doctor concerned about the effect on people's mental health.

The Blitz itself makes for harrowing reading. The scale of devastation would be hard to grasp if Gardiner did not thread the narrative with awful detail - names, what they were doing as the bomb landed, the bits of body never identified. Each school and hospital is like a knife being twisted. There's so much tragedy and suffering, it's easy to see why some people felt conflicted about celebrating the end of the war when it eventually came.

Gardiner is good at explaining how, after years of war and bombardment, the V-1 and V-2 managed to feel different:

“many people found them a particularly scary form of warfare, an unreckonable mechanical monster impervious to human interference, a science-fiction horror. George Orwell [in Tribune, 30 June 1944] noticed the widespread complaint that the V-1s ‘“seem so unnatural” (a bomb dropped by a live airman is quite natural p. 551 apparently.’)” (p. 550)

And there's more contemporary resonance in the people who fled Liverpool and Bristol once the bombing started in earnest there.

"it was largely in response to the unwillingness of many provincial towns and cities to learn the lessons of London and prepare for the homeless and the disorientated, as well as the dead and the injured. ‘It seems that each city and town had to experience a major attack before making adequate plans for the relief of the community.’ [this cited from Richard M Titmuss, History of the Second World War: Problems of Social Policy, p. 307.] In this context trekking can be seen neither as a tendency to scuttle nor as mindless flight, but as a largely rational response to a desperate situation.” (p. 366)

There's another modern parallel in the realisation, in late 1944, that the war wouldn't be over by Christmas and there was yet more to be endured - and yet more lives to be lost. The book concludes with the end of the war, and a sense that the British people had voted for a better, more equal future, the Labour Government able to build on the nationalised systems imposed during war. But there are hints of the difficulties to follow: the rise in divorce rates (hitting a peak in 1947), the problems of living standards when about half the housing stock in London and much in cities elsewhere had been damaged, the economic hit to the country as a whole, the scale of those physically and/or mentally injured...  

Getting through the crisis is one thing; dealing with its long-term impact is another story...

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Journeys into Genealogy

I'm a guest on the Journeys into Genealogy podcast with host Emma Cox, talking about my efforts to research the history of my own surname as the descendant of refugees, and also sharing some stuff about my current work in progress to uncover the life of David Whitaker, first story editor of Doctor Who.

Podcast website: 

Also available on:

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

In the Springtime of the Year, by Susan Hill

I made slow progress through this short, slight book, in part because of work and life and everything else at the minute. But its quiet, intense grief is also pretty gruelling, protagonist Ruth passing through a well observed kind of madness.

Ruth is 20 when her beloved husband Ben is killed, quite suddenly, by a falling tree. His family, especially his domineering mother, then want Ruth to behave and grieve and do things as they deem appropriate, while she can only lock herself away. She talks to Ben. She ventures out into the countryside to somehow connect with him. She begins to live with the idea that he is gone.

A lot of this I well recognised in my own loss. It came as no surprise that Hill based this novel on lived experience. As she explains in her Afterword,

"A few days after the death of the man I loved, a close friend of ours wrote me a note. He said, 'You should write about it, that is what you are for.' [Doing so] was a wholly cathartic experience, and I felt better for having done it - though I had by no means done with grieving - I had given a shape to a mass of messy emotions and reactions, and distanced myself slightly from them. The end of the book marked the beginning of the healing process, though it was a dreadfully slow business, and I came out of it all a changed person. But I was very conscious - I still am - of my immense good fortune in being a writer, able to a certain extent to make something positive out of the negative." (pp. 171-2)

Yesterday, queueing for an hour in the drizzle and fog for my anti-COVID booster, I read the bits where Ruth, given time, can put things more in perspective and even help others through their own loss and trauma. She knows the things not to say, and to ignore the barbed, unreasonable words and behaviour of the newly grieving. She recognises the madness, and gets on with the washing up, the small tasks that need doing and are all that can be done.

Every half-page of this, the queue shuffled one or two steps forward. People around me were spiky about  having to wait, the lack of shelter and of anyone to tell us that there was one queue for those with pre-booked appointments and another, longer queue for us walk-ins. It wasn't right. It wasn't how it should be.

Just keep going, I thought. That's all we can do. 

Thursday, December 09, 2021

James Bond in the Lancet

The new issue of medical journal Lancet Psychiatry includes my essay, "Was it obvious to everyone else that I'd fallen for a lie?" on James Bond, and also Len Deighton and John le Carre. I wrote it before I'd seen No Time To Die.

You need to be signed up to read the whole thing, but the teaser first paragraph goes like this:

"When actor Sean Connery died in October, 2020, media coverage focused on his success as the secret agent James Bond. The franchise is still going strong, with Bond now played by Daniel Craig and No Time To Die, the latest film, now in cinemas. That enduring appeal is partly due to the movies consciously keeping up with the times and reflecting contemporary trends. Yet Connery's Bond films are still screened on prime-time TV in the UK; remarkable, given that the first of them, Dr No, is nearly 60 years old and invidiously features White actors made up to look Asian. The best of Connery's Bond films, Goldfinger (1964), was even back in cinemas at the end of 2020. They are exciting movies, and sexy and fun, but their persistence is down to something more profound. The world of espionage portrayed by mid-20th century writers was deeply concerned with scientific and political issues concerning individuality, identity, and the human mind..."

Simon Guerrier, "Was it obvious to everyone else that I'd fallen for a lie?", Lancet Psychiatry vol 8, issue 12, pp 1040-1 (1 December 2021)

Sunday, December 05, 2021

HV Morton's London

Having read Michael Bartholomew's biography of HV Morton, I'm now on to Morton himself. HV Morton's London is a collection of three earlier books, The Heart of London (1925), The Spell of London and The Nights of London (both 1926), first published together in 1940. Mine is an 18th edition from 1949.

Basically, they're vignettes from all round the capital, edited versions of Morton's column for the Daily Express. He visits Big Ben, goes back stage at the Old Vic, sits on more than one night-time riverboat on the look-out for suicides. There are flea markets and dances, a tour of the Royal Mint, a boxing match, a gambling den and much more. At one point, he's in the tower at Croydon Aerodrome, gazing across the Surrey fields to the twin towers of Crystal Palace - and somewhere in between, my old home.

At his best, Morton has access and insight so that it feels authoritative. Quite often, though, he gives full rein to whimsy, allowing himself to imagine the conversations - the whole lives - of people he merely glimpsed in passing, many of them salt-of-the-earth Londoners he names "Alf". More than once I was left thinking, 'But how could you know this?' or 'How could you have overheard?', so it lacks the authenticity of my friend Miranda Keeling's observations of real life.

At worst, Morton is misogynist and racist. His wandering eye falls, for example, on a pretty girl, but he assumes she is Jewish and will therefore soon grow fat. Another time, he describes the Chinese community in Limehouse as monkeys and is baffled by evidence that the men might be good to their wives. They allow him into their homes and bars; the threat of violence is all imposed by Morton. All of this stated quite openly, and shared in the popular press. It's not merely shocking; it is not the London I know.

Morton's is a strikingly dirty and polluted London, full of junk markets and rag fairs, worthless rubbish even sold from the windowsills and steps of the crumbling tenements. Almost every description of a landmark is shrouded in mist. One particular smog comprises,

“Many flavours. At Marble Arch I meet a delicate after-taste like melon; at Ludgate Hill I taste coke. … Everywhere the fog grips the throat and sets the eye watering. It puts out clammy fingers that touch the ears and give the hands a ghostly grip.” (p. 25)

The landmarks, too, are sooty. Viewed from the clock tower that houses Big Ben, he spies Nelson's column,

"stood up jet black like a cairn above the mist of a mountain top" (p. 160).

This juxtaposition of the modern and the mythic is a favourite trick of Morton's - wowed by a room in which Dickens once stood, or sounds that might have been familiar to Romans. It can get a little repetitive and yet his interest in the ancients can often provoke his most evocative writing, such as this from a visit to Cleopatra's Needle:

"Did you know that beneath the famous stone is buried a kind of Victorian Tutankamun’s treasure, placed there to give some man of the future an idea of us and our times? Did you realise that the London municipal authorities could do anything so touching? … In 1878 sealed jars were placed under the obelisk containing a man’s lounge suit, the complete dress and vanities of a woman of fashion, illustrated papers, Bibles in many languages children’s toys, a razor, cigars, photographs of the most beautiful women of Victorian England, and a complete set of coinage from a farthing to five pounds. So the most ancient monument in London stands guard over this modernity, rather like an experienced old hen, waiting for Time to hatch it.” (p. 78)

Again, he can't resist playing this against aching modernity:

"I stood there with the tramcars speeding past and the criss-cross traffic," (p. 79). 

But it's a spot I know very well, and those tramcars are from a lost world.

In describing how omnibuses have changed within his own memory, Morton reveals what else is different (as well as his usual predilection for women's underthings):

“In 1925, when this was written, London omnibuses had open roofs, and the seats were protected by black tarpaulin covers which travellers could adjust in wet weather. Nowadays the London omnibus is an enclosed juggernaut and wet seats are things of the primitive past. Also, the Strand has changed since 1925. It has been widened in parts, and it is no longer an exclusively masculine street. Silk stockings are probably now more in evidence there than pith helmets and spine pads [from the imperial outfitters].” (p. 34n)

This throng of Londoners heading out into the Empire he finds straightforwardly heroic, but anything of that world coming into London is straightforwardly threatening. In Morton's view, all foreigners are at best suspect; often they're also monstrous. Then, while out on the Thames at 2 am, he spots, “a queer fleet at anchor” in Limehouse: 

“‘The smallpox boats,’ said the sergeant [giving him this tour]. ‘They are always fitted up ready to take patients [arriving in ships] down to the isolation hospital in the event of any outbreak.’” (p. 400)

It's not as if the capital is otherwise a bastion of good health. There are no gyms or joggers in this London. Morton's description of conditions in the few free hospitals in a time pre-NHS is gruelling, for all he admires the good-hearted people running such charity. He also visits St Martin's by Trafalgar Square, where the homeless men offered shelter are divided into three types: ex-prisoners with a grudge against the world; those who won't work; and,

"those who went to the war as boys and came back men with boys’ minds" (pp. 42-43).

There's pity for these wounded men, but no sense that they are owed something more by a grateful nation. That contrasts with the dead of the same conflict. Morton passes the six year-old Cenotaph, that "mass of national emotion frozen in stone", where,

"A parcels delivery boy riding a tricycle van takes off his worn cap [as he passes]. An omnibus goes by. The men lift their hats. Men passing with papers and documents under their arms, attache and despatch cases in their hands—and the business of life—bare their heads as they hurry by." (p. 19)

That's all the more poignant given when this edition was compiled. Morton's first introduction to these three books was written in August 1940, addressing fellow imperilled Londoners. His theme is the pride and interest the Second World War has ignited in their city as it faces devastation.

"Men who in former years hardly knew where their town hall was to be found, now sleep there regularly, and have become familiar with many a municipal mystery. Men and women, to whom a fire hydrant was once a technical term which cropped up occasionally in the newspapers, can now draw you an accurate map of the water-supply of their district. Countless diligent wardens know by heart streets which, until recently were an untracked wilderness to them, although they lived just round the corner." (p. vii)

A second introduction, written in February 1941, is for American readers. London, he informs them gravely,

“has experienced the mass raid; the single nuisance raider; the high explosive raid; the fire raid; the mixed h.e. and fire raid; the raid directed against docks and warehouses; and the raid directed, apparently, against Wren churches and hospitals.”

But there are broadly two types of air raid: day and night.

“When London is raided by day, people no longer rush into shelters and cellars at the first note of the siren, as they used to when they were new to bombing.” (p. viii)

Instead, Londoners look around for signs of alarm or haste, but the traffic otherwise continues. Yet, hyper-vigilant to all sounds and senses, they will suddenly scatter. Night raids are another matter - altogether more tense and exhausting, even before the bombs come.

"As darkness approaches people become restless and begin to think of getting home before the black-out. Shops and businesses close early in anticipation of ‘siren time.’ Dusk falls, and the streets empty. It is not a pleasant experience to stand, say, in Bond Street, the pavements deserted except for anxious groups round the bus stops, every taxi-cab either occupied or else driven by a man who cannot take you back where you wish to go because he is himself trying to race the black-out to the other side of London." (p. ix) 

Despite the hardships, Londoners have met hardship - says Morton - with their usual stoicism and good cheer. He tells us about ordinary City clerks who've been transformed into lions, the "man of books" who became a man of action. There's a mug of tea with the wardens, sharing tales of their modest heroism night after night. It's all good propaganda, these honest, good people remaining quietly dignified despite the ravages of war.
"The task of such civilians in war is infinitely more difficult than that of the soldier, who is a single-minded man trained to fight with others and untrammelled by any struggle to maintain the normalities. … Most gallant, and tragic, are those others who have been bombed out of flats and houses, some of them losing everything they possessed. The ability to ‘double-up’ with relatives and friends in times of misfortune, formerly an exclusive habit of the poorest classes, is now a general tendency. Admiration for those who have no homes, who spend their nights in other people’s shelters, and turn up at their offices in the morning to carry on as usual, is beyond expression.” (p. xix)
But one line is haunting. It's surely meant to reassure, yet in a book that is testimony to all that stands to be lost.
"The result [of the Blitz] is a grim city, a shabby city, a scarred city, but not a devastated city, except round and about Guildhall, where several famous streets have been burned to the ground.” (p. x)

Friday, December 03, 2021

My Mum recently asked how many books I've written, and I realised that I didn't know. That then led to a conversation with my boss Julian Bashford at Visionality, who suggested that I might get some benefit from having my own website.

So, is where you'll find a list of things I've written in the past 19-and-a-bit years as a freelance writer.