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