My Great Aunt Norah's wartime diaries, 1938-1948
31st August 1939: Ma & I went down for tea to Helen’s. Came back early. Went down to Hills & post. Started to read ‘In Search of England’ by HV Morton. Cold. Hitler trouble.
1 September: 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 September: 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 September: 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.
Chamberlain’s radio broadcast, making black-out curtains, the balloon barrage over Derby’s Rolls Royce plant and helping with the evacuees, all take place among the usual stuff of life: domestic chores, neighbours fighting in the street, a brother’s love interest, a visit from a newly-married sister, Derby County’s footballing triumphs and the English weather.
‘Nothing much happened’: Norah was not alluding to school holidays and lazy weekends, but to the expected disruption, destruction and catastrophe of the war. ‘All cinemas, theatres, football etc. off. Nothing much happened,’ she wrote on 8th September: ‘Helen came up. Germans tried to get into England but failed. Cool.’
I read ‘cool’ wrongly: it is Norah commenting on the autumnal weather in 1939, and not my ten-year-old daughter celebrating the ‘awesome’ fact of the German failure to invade. The next day, and then three more days the following week, ‘nothing much happened’: Norah walked in the lanes, enjoyed visits from her sister and started to read Hugh Walpole’s John Cornelius. Ivy Harris, a neighbour, gave birth to a daughter.
The frenzied non-activity of the ‘Phoney War’: theatres, cinemas and music halls were all closed and top-flight football fixtures abandoned. Derby County was to be out of action for seven years.
Loughborough Girls High School opened as normal on 19th September, and Norah returned to a new school year in Mac’s Form, Cloister 3. Parents were reassured that covered trenches had been constructed in the quad, the tennis courts lost forever. Norah’s diaries sketch a new wartime topography, as searchlights lit the sky and aircraft flew low. The colours on the street changed to khaki and slate blue. The town centre could have a slightly menacing air, at least for a young woman. ‘Nasty,’ Norah wrote, after she’d encountered a group of soldiers hanging around one lunch time, dismissing as an ‘ass’ the one who took the liberty of giving her a kiss.
Norah gardened and blackberried as usual that Autumn. She knitted a scarf, a red and white bolero and a green jumper. She enjoyed Bandwaggon, the popular mid-week band show compered by comedian Arthur Askey (‘Big hearted Arthur that’s me’). Frank’s (eighteenth) and Marsie’s (fifty-second) birthdays passed.
Before long, Norah was again celebrating Frank Soo’s goals for Stoke City. She made no more trips to the Pictures in 1939, although for many, regular cinema habits were also quickly resumed, with The Great Dictator and Gone with the Wind among the box office hits the following year. While restrictions continued on the size of crowds, theatres and dance halls re-opened and, as England descended into the gloom of the black out, Glenn Miller seduced the nation into Swing.
Still nothing happened. Christmas came and went. Norah revised her view of Nollie, her brother Dennis’s new wife (‘not bad now’). She heard carol singers from her bed on Christmas Eve, and enjoyed pheasant for Christmas dinner. After ‘a big tea,’ they played ‘banker’ and had a singsong round the piano (‘made a terrible row’).
The decorations came down on 30th December, and the family relaxed to ‘Stainless Stephen,’ the comedian from the steel town of Sheffield, doing his music hall turn on the wireless.
New Year’s Eve was so uneventful, it didn’t warrant a diary entry at all.
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