Socks for the Boys!

My Great Aunt Norah's wartime diaries, 1938-1948

Storying Norah’s diaries

It became clear early on in this project that I can’t just present Norah’s diaries to the world as they are. They are pocket diaries – Letts’s School-Girl’s, Railway Clerks’ Association – which contain tiny little windows for daily entries. They are not literary or confessional diaries, nor are they about special occasions, personal crises or spiritual journeys.  Ordinary, private diaries, they were not written to be read and are not always understandable to a reader unfamiliar with their context. They contain very little retrospection, characterisation, little in the way of a story and are presented in a style which is disjointed and telegraphic. As was pointed out to me recently, they are written like tweets. Here is an example from fourteen year-old Norah in early September 1939, as Britain went to war:

1st September 1939. Hitler declared war on Poland. Had to dye curtains. Everyone got wind-up. Ma went to help evacuation kids in. Not many came. Balloon barrage over Derby. Went to Helen’s with Pop. Everyone must have dark curtains. Sunny, cold.

2nd. Hitler bombed six Polish citys. Ma went to help with evacuees. Frank had letter from Jean! Chris had fight with Mrs Marcer in street. Pa went to match. Terrible storm. Four balloons burned down. Derby beat Villa 1-0. Stoke drew 2-2 with Middlesborough.

Aug Sept 19390002

3rd. Got up latish. England declared war on Germany at eleven o’clock. Terrible. Chamberlain spoke on radio and King at 6. Helen & Joe came up. Stormy morn. Sunny.

4th. Washday. Helen came up. Went down to Hill’s. Germans torpedoed English ship ‘Athenia’. Most people saved. Air raid warning during night. All got up at 6 O’clock. False alarm. Sunny.

5th: Worked in garden all morning. Ma and I went down to Helen’s for tea. Went down to Baum’s etc. Jean is a nice kid. Sunny. Cold. Air raid attempt on London failed.

6th: Did gardening all morning. I like young Spooner. Went down to P.O. and saw Peggy, walked round with her. Made a new black-out with cardboard. Sunny.

7th: Worked. Helen came up. Went in garden. Gave doll and cradle to Jean. Very pleased with it. Ma, Pa and I went down to Helen’s for tea. Helen and Joe came up here. Sunny.

8th: All cinemas, theatres, football etc. off. Nothing much happened. Helen came up. Germans tried to get into England but failed. Cool.

And so on. It’s delightful, I think, and creates lots of lovely images, but you wouldn’t carry on reading for 80,000 words, presented as tweeted diary entries. I wouldn’t either, and Norah was my aunt.

To draw on Jennifer Sinor’s wonderful book, The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing, the diaries need storying (1). This blog is about creating Norah’s story. During the writing of the book, I have reflected a lot on life-writing and fiction and creative non-fiction and what they bring to history (or History). I’ve recently been bowled over by HHhH, Laurent Binet’s award-winning ‘novel’. I’ve been moved by Colm Toibin. And frustrated by The Hare with the Amber Eyes. I am now reflecting on other wartime diaries, such as Joan Wehlen Morrison’s Home Front Girl, for example, and May Smith’s Those Wonderful Rumours; and working-class life-writing more generally. Anyone catch Kathryn Hughes’ savage review of Lemon Sherbert and Dolly Blue?

I crave historical writing which speaks to the emotions as well as presenting a new interpretation. Sometimes, when a journal editor tells me to change a paragraph because it is ‘too narrative’, I realise it is the story part that I am most attached to. Other historians seem to feel the same. I’ve noticed that whenever I have given a paper on Norah’s diaries – most memorably, the first time at a conference on Narratives of War at the University of Greenwich – the response has been like nothing I have ever experienced when delivering (what I would in the past have seen as) a ‘proper’ academic paper. At the Social History Conference in March 2013, at the end of a paper on reading emotion in the schoolgirl diary, the first question wasn’t about my argument. It was ‘what happened to Norah?’

The blog is about Norah and her diaries, and principally, her wartime love affair, its origins in the sock-knitting, her correspondence with the mucky sailor, her love affair with the handsome airman and the dreams and deceptions along the way. As well as her diaries, it will draw on Jim’s letters, various domestic artefacts and Norah’s extensive collection of photographs, including this one, taken in 1941 to send to her new correspondents:

cropped-norah-19422.jpg

But it will also discuss issues to do with being a historian sometimes frustrated by the constrictions of academic history, exploring the writing of history in other forms – memoir, life-writing, fiction and more – and working out how to write a history that Norah would recognise as her story.

(1). Jennifer Sinor, The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing (University of Iowa, 2002)

13 comments on “Storying Norah’s diaries

  1. janerobinsonauthor
    June 6, 2013

    How refreshing to hear a professional historian talk about ‘storying’ and the importance of narrative. I’m not an academic, so feel I have an excuse to write narrative, character-driven history, but it’s sad that I need an excuse. Your book will be just what Norah’s story deserves; important, and a pleasure to read for us all. Can’t wait!
    By the way – great to find someone else frustrated by The Hare with the Amber Eyes…

    • Alison
      June 9, 2013

      Thank you Jane, this is a really interesting point and has got me thinking about the development of the discipline and the different ways in which we strive to ‘know’ the past. I’ll come back to this in the future and look forward to more discussion!

  2. Pingback: Storying Norah’s diaries: An English Diary | Home Front Girl

  3. Gail Grunst Genealogy
    June 9, 2013

    I enjoyed reading your post. Thanks for Sharing Nora’s Story.

    • Alison
      June 13, 2013

      Thank you Gail, it is good to know you enjoyed the post.

  4. iwaites
    June 17, 2013

    Hello Alison. Great to meet you at Unofficial Histories this weekend, and what a fabulous blog – I love Norah’s list of her ‘crazes’! As you know, I’m also really interested in how to write history in ‘un-academic’ forms in that I’ve made attempts to ‘fictionalise’ my early life, and that of my family, post-WW2. This all depends on writing style as well I think – it would not be for everyone I’m sure but I experimented by writing that past in a present-tense, and by adopting a kind of dreamlike, magic-realist, style of prose, in an attempt to make it seem both immediate and strange (history can and should be both). Big influences for me are Woolf’s The Waves, and Emma Tennant’s wonderful Alice Fell, about a child growing up in the 50s and 60s, which I mention in my blog here: http://instancesofachangedsociety.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/falling-through-air-with-minimal.html and here http://instancesofachangedsociety.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/the-people-known-as-overspill.html. Do let me know what you think if you have a minute. Ian

    • Alison
      June 17, 2013

      Hi Ian, Thanks v much for this – and for pointing me to your blog, which I have now looked through but will return to peruse properly very soon – I really like it, design as well as content, very attractive :-) I will email you about one or two things shortly. My next-but-one post will be on council houses. Maybe there’s a whole generation of us writing about them, all unknown to each other?! I enjoyed your paper on Saturday very much and look forward to keeping talking. Best, Alison

  5. Ian Waites
    June 29, 2013

    Hi Alison – this film, Stories We Tell, looks interesting: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ytq4VZ2Nyxg. Review here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2013/jun/27/stories-we-tell-review?INTCMP=SRCH.
    Best wishes, Ian

    • Alison
      June 30, 2013

      Many thanks for this tip – just seen that it is on in Sheffield this week… It looks right up my street (and you didn’t even know that my next book will be about adultery and illegitimacy!)

  6. Sheryl
    September 28, 2013

    I first read this post several weeks ago, but stopped back this morning. I’m also drawn to the story behind historical facts. Trying to make sense of the story is much more interesting to me than lots of facts and figures. I’m going to have to look for Jennifer Sinor’s book.

    • Alison
      September 29, 2013

      Thanks for your comment Sheryl. Jennifer Sinor’s book is really good, for the questions it raises about the sorts of diaries you and I have, and for its insistence that they are important historical documents. At the same time as finding her analysis really stimulating, however, the book also made me realise all the more how much I want the story and not just academic interpretation!

  7. Pingback: the extraordinary adventures of ordinary girls | Socks for the Boys!

  8. Pingback: Kernels of Truth | Socks for the Boys!

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This entry was posted on June 6, 2013 by in diaries, writing history, WW2 and tagged , , , .
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