My Great Aunt Norah's wartime diaries, 1938-1948
If I am honest, I expected Norah to find life difficult as a working-class scholarship girl in a posh grammar school. I scoured her early diaries for any suggestion that she felt out of place. This is my sensitivity. As a university student in the 1980s, I hungered after writing about the emotional dimension of ‘class mobility’. Tony Harrison’s School of Eloquence poems, Saville by David Storey, Carolyn Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman, all tell stories of a disruption more profound than the lack of familiarity with courgettes, or the assumption that the nation enjoyed salad cream with its lettuce.
Rob Colls, Professor of Cultural History at De Montfort University, movingly describes his own moment of recognition, reading Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy while lying on his bed in his parents’ South Shields flat in 1965, and seeing the neighbourhood beyond as a ‘culture.’ ‘For the first time in my life,’ Colls writes, ‘I felt like I was learning what I knew already… fairly big news for a grammar school boy who, at the time, was being trained to purge himself of who he was and where he came from. From that moment on I started looking differently at these people in the street, seeing their life as somehow external from mine, though not apart from it, and valued, though not necessarily by them… The trouble is, once you start looking at, rather than with, everything changes and the moment of realization is also the moment of estrangement.’
But Norah didn’t feel at all ‘purged’ at Loughborough Girls High School.
While she would have agreed that the scholarship girl and boy was one of the great phenomena of Twentieth Century social history, she would have had no truck with such angst. Despite the economic gulf that existed between herself and some of her school friends, she felt well-prepared for a grammar school education. This was not only because her brothers Dennis and Frank had paved the way for her, but because she had a deep sense of her own entitlement.
This was, I believe, a Labour thing. Perhaps more specifically, it was born of 1890s socialism, as the north of England and parts of the Midlands were swept up with the ILP and an accompanying array of cultural and leisure societies: cycling clubs, vocal unions, handicraft clubs, Clarion scouts and rambling, Cinderella clubs. As I have written elsewhere on this blog, Norah’s father, Tom Hodgkinson, was a big Labour man, while her mother, Milly, grew up in a lock-keeper’s cottage on the Trent-Mersey canal with parents, Arthur and Harriet Leadbetter, who pored over socialist writing. The dignity of labour, the love of the rural, the assault by women on domestic drudgery: all would have been familiar to them, not least from their enjoyment of The Clarion, an early socialist paper that came out of Manchester in which Robert Blatchford serialised his own Merrie England and included stories, poetry and art, notably the beautiful drawings of Walter Crane.
Milly, as we have seen, was faintly disapproving of her parents’ neglect of housework and children as they preferred to sit and read aloud to each other from Walt Whitman’s poetry. At the same time, she admired their self-education and independence and they passed on to her an unshakable belief that not only was a good education a natural right, but that no badge of inferiority should be attached to their cultural origins. To my great pleasure, I can see Norah’s home life in John Baxendale’s discussion of the ‘rich, democratic and self-sufficient cultural life’ which resonates down the decades to shape the work of the popular writer and broadcaster J.B. Priestley (2).
What did it mean for Norah? The breezy tone of her diaries, the lack of evidence of any culture clash at school, intrigues me. Possibly, we might see something of it if we look to the back of her Letts’s School-Girl’s Diaries for 1938 and 1939, where printed pages provide grids for recording Books Read and Film Seen:
Norah is at ease in her positive assessment of middlebrow novels and her enjoyment of memoirs which tackled social and political concerns. Elsewhere she records reading Wanderings and Excursions by ‘Ramsey Mac’ (‘Goodish’), Lloyd George’s Memoirs (‘Very Good’). Here, J.B. Priestley’s They Walk in the City is described simply as ‘Lovely.’ Norah read without discrimination, with no special reverence afforded to ‘high brow’ culture or the classics. It is with some irony that I note her dismissal of Kipling’s Rewards and Fairies (‘No good’). And as for Bloomsbury: they don’t even get a look-in.
Norah was able to embrace her education, to feel entitled, to know that she belonged at LGHS. There was no great gulf between the education she received there and the conversation topics at home. Indeed, her parents would have thought of themselves as offering a broader experience of the world; a critique as well as a lapping up. But writing her diary each evening through 1938 and 1939, Norah also knew that she was on the move. Just as the family left behind the Hill Top cottage for a brand new council house in 1938, just as Dennis, her eldest brother, had moved away to a white-collar job, she knew she would have a different life. She might not go to art college or marry a Siamese prince but she wouldn’t end up in Gibson’s hosiery factory or spend her days in a poky, damp house overflowing with children, her dreams squashed by some kill-joy husband. I will explore this more at a later date: the difference between her parents’ socialist New Life and Norah’s experience of modernity. When we finally get to the heart of this story, the WW2 romance, I surmise that this will prove to be a factor in Norah’s choice of Danny the airman over Sailor Jim.
 Rob Colls, ‘When we lived in communities. Working-class culture and its critics,’ in R Colls and R Rodger, eds Cities of Ideas. Governance and Citizenship in Urban Britain 1800-2000 (Ashgate, 2005), pp. 283-307, here pp. 284, 286.
 John Baxendale, Priestley’s England: J.B. Priestley and English Culture (MUP, 2007), p. 39, chapter 2 passim.
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