My Great Aunt Norah's wartime diaries, 1938-1948
When read against her diary, it becomes clear that Norah’s list of crushes, composed at the end of 1938, was not written in quite the order in which they happened. The arrow moving ‘Arthur’ above ‘Woolley’ (right) suggests her uncertainty: who came first during that frisky spring?
And although Henry the Fish Boy comes in at number seven, just before the second appearance of Bira, the racing-driver prince, he is first mentioned in Norah’s diary in April. She’s told her brother Richard about her interest in him and they try to get a glimpse of him whenever they go into the village. 19th April: Rich saw Fish Boy and didn’t think much to him. Poor lad.
Henry is temporarily forgotten, however, as Uncle Will and Cousin Eric come to visit in early May. Uncle Will has a car and drives them to Newstead Abbey, once home of Lord Byron. Eric, then in his late teens, is tall and dark like all the Hodgkinson men. After a grand day, Norah switches her affections: I adore Eric.
20th May 1938: Played cricket with Frank and Jimmie. Lovely but Jimmie can’t play. Warm, sunny. As the Australian cricketers arrive in Derbyshire to prepare to defend the Ashes, Norah plays cricket with her brothers and the Hill Top boys. She is sweet on Jimmie who, after discovering that she is a skilled batswoman, is shy about joining them again. This doesn’t put her off. 6th July: Practised in Gym. Open Day. Ma came. Gave our gym display. Jimmie sat with us and made me want to kiss him. Love him. Rainy Cold.
And then there’s Woolley, a friend of her brother Frank, whose visits to the house and waves from the school bus add a frisson to her days. And Arthur. He only features for one day, but it is an important day and I’ll come back to him later. And Bernard, a ‘lovely Grammar boy’ who gets on the school bus each morning in the village of Belton, midway between Donington and Loughborough.
15th July: Had French & History results. 42% and 31. Peg got 35 for History. Sat with Bernard. I absolutely adore him. Birthday on Jun 9 or 11. Jimmie fought Fanny. Hughes landed round the world in 3 days. Rained.
16th July: Thought of Bernard all the day. Hope he gets on well with his exams. Frank had all-day-holiday. Rich’s cricket cancelled because of rain. Dull, rainy.
17th July: Got up late. Worked. Did English prep in the afternoon. Went round Hemington. Got nearly to the dumps but it rained. Thought of B. all day.
18th July: Had art results. Me top with 85%. Wonders! P 50, E 52, K 52, Peggy and I went crazy over Bernard. Both love and adore him. Had Latin dictation. Didn’t go in baths. Talked to B all the way home. Sunny, rain.
‘I adore Bernard’, Norah wrote on 21st July. The next day she is told off by Miss Shellie for day-dreaming (‘looking ponderous’). Both days that weekend, she thinks about Bernard ‘all day long’. She even manages to whip best-friend Peggy into a giddy state over him as well.
I have recently found a Bernard Limb in the phone book and wonder if I should call. All the others are long gone and it would be lovely to know if he remembers Norah and her attention, and the days when he didn’t have the nerve to sit in too close proximity to such enthusiasm on the bus home from school.
Now. I am not sure why, but I feel duty-bound to emphasise that Norah’s 1938 diary is not only about boys. She writes about much else besides. She has her friends, noting who sits with whom on the school bus, swapping gossip and confiding crushes. There is the occasional falling-out (’Kathleen and Enid snubbed me all day’) and a whole lot of high-spirited fun (‘couldn’t stop laughing all afternoon.’) There are the lessons she enjoys – Art, Verses – as well as the occasions she is caught cheating in French and Latin, or receives ‘order marks’ for bad behaviour. I wonder what it is that she did, to warrant having ‘to write out Anaerobic Respiration five times at 4pm’.
At home, Norah is a feisty little sister who fights with her brother Richard. (She once told me I should have grown up with a tormenting older brother like him, and then I wouldn’t be so bothered by my partner’s aggravating ways.) She is a devoted daughter who helps her mother with the chores, fetching eggs from the farm, picking caterpillars off the cabbages and drowning them in salt-water, and skinning a rabbit in record time (ten minutes). She makes lemon curd and Cornish pasties (which Richard liked, so ‘they must be good’), picks primroses and daffodils from the garden up the lane and sets sweet peas in a pot. Already an accomplished knitter, in 1938 Norah makes bed socks, a blue jumper, a scarf and a bolero and learns to sew, delighting in using her sister Helen’s new Singer machine to run up a frock. She enjoys family sing-songs with Marsie at the piano and evenings spent playing push-ha’penny, draughts and Sorry, listening to Gracie Fields on the gramophone or Carol Gibbon on the wireless.
Unusual in the English Midlands, Norah sees the Northern Lights in the late January sky. A few weeks later she tastes her first Cadbury’s ‘Milky Way.’ She follows world events, noting the rather hopeful news on 11th February that Hitler had been assassinated and, a few weeks later, Eden’s resignation and the ‘government crisis’ that followed. She begins to read a memoir of Lloyd George. Although she doesn’t accompany Pop and the boys to the Baseball Ground for Derby County’s home fixtures, she records their result every Saturday. She is a regular visitor to the picture house in the village, and in early 1938 she sees Jack Hulbert and Gina Malo in Jack of all Trades (‘good’) and Jeanette Macdonald and Nelson Eddie in Maytime (‘Excellent. Grand. Lights faded and Ciss acted silly’). Disney’s now-classic Snow White, in 1938 a cutting-edge animated feature, is ‘absolutely the most marvellous thing out,’ ‘the best ever’. At the end of the year, she requests a Snow White jigsaw for Christmas.
While she still has lots of childish interests, therefore, Norah is moving into adolescence. In the summer of 1938 she starts her periods and makes a journey alone to Bamford in Derbyshire – two train rides, from Derby to Sheffield, and then out to the Peak District – where she stays for a week’s holiday with her sixteen year old cousin, Peggy Hodgkinson. She spends her days roaming the moors with Jeff the dog before meeting Peggy out of work in Sheffield on the shopping street also called The Moor. Two nights running, they go early doors to the cinema, seeing Jane Withers in Checkers and Constance Bennet in Merrily We Live (both ‘very good’). Sharing a bed, the girls gossip about Colin, Peggy’s love interest.
In September, Bira is back:
3rd September 1938: Father, Ma & I went to the TT at the Park. Saw Gwen Earl’s wedding first. Bira racing for the Germans. Went crazy over him again. Got wet thro’. Bira was not trying to win (see other notebook). Had some new shoes. Helen & Joe went to L(ong) Eaton and brought me back an autograph album. Jolly nice. Poured with rain.
4th September: Got up late. Decided to use autograph book for such people as Bira only. Went a walk with Ma & Pa down Lady’s Close & through Hemington & up to the station. Sunny. Cold.
Sadly, Norah seems to have written a detailed account of the race elsewhere, in a notebook that hasn’t survived. We know from her diary that she is cross with Bira; I’m not sure how she comes to this conclusion, but in her view he doesn’t seem to be trying to win. But she is delighted with the new autograph book, in which he signs his name. On another pale pink page, she sticks in the scrap of paper from the previous year.
Bira leaves and Autumn arrives and Norah’s romantic attentions return fleetingly to Henry the Fish Boy: Made up my mind to see Henry. Did see him a bit (at close quarters). War looms and is then averted, and Norah enjoys further frisson with the boys. ‘Grave week in politics,’ she writes as Hitler invades Czechoslovakia and Chamberlain goes to Munich. She queues at the Council School to have her gas mask fitted, and the High School girls join the Grammar School boys to dig a trench in the school grounds:28. Germans (racing drivers) went away. The boys did make a trench. Dozens! Lovely. We joined in. Went to Council Schools and had our gas masks fitted on. Awful (bugs).
29. Awful talk of war. Germans (racing drivers) back at the Park. Dug trenches in Gym. Lovely among the boys. And in English in the afternoon too. Awfully warm. Frank & Den went to pictures. Sunny, warm. Chamberlain went to Munich.
30. Chamberlain came back. Saved us from war. 3 cheers. Took a spade. No need now though. Chamberlain was given a terrific welcome. Everyone went crazy over him. Rained. German Racers Gone. Bad.
As Chamberlain turns his back on Czechoslovakia, Norah takes her spade, just in case, and declares herself ‘Not much interested in Bernard now.’ Winter arrives, and some German marionettes perform at her school, one of them ‘a lovely handsome young man. We’re all crazy over him.’
And finally: Frank Soo. A Stoke City striker and team captain, Soo is the reason that Norah compromises on her Derby County loyalties: Derby lost to Stoke (0-3). Bad. Good. In early December 1938, she is off school and bed- bound after Richard accidentally scalds her foot. She spends her days listening to the radio and looking at photographs of Soo.
14th December 1938: Water was turned off about all day. I can walk quite alright now, except for the limp. Listened to Bandwaggon. Saw a picture of Frank Soo. He’s a beauty. Crazy over him.
15th December: I’m still crazy after Soo. He’s a Chinaman & plays for Stoke City. Can walk on my foot now. Wall’s house in Eastway set fire. Absolutely burnt to the ground. Made mincemeat.
16th December: Made the Christmas puddings. Spent the afternoon looking at his photos (FS). He’s grand. Frank taught me how to play Patience. Knitted a lot. Tommy fought Lou Nova (lost). Rained.
17th December: Read about Soo in bed. He’s stupendous. Derby’s playing Everton in the cup & Leicester’s playing Stoke City. Hope SC wins. Had the electric fire. Lovely. Uncle Frank (Bristol) came. Stoke lost to Arsenal. Derby lost 4.1 to Middlesborough. Leicester lost 6.1 to Grimsby.
That’s not what she meant, of course, but I can only cackle at Soo being stupendous in bed.
When I was thirteen, I still shared a twin room with my mum; we were on the council waiting list and got a house the following year. Donny Osmond and David Cassidy adorned the cupboard doors next to my bed. At Hill Top in 1938, Norah was sharing a room and a bed with her elder sister Helen. The picture of Lord Kitchener, pinned up by their father to hide the damp patch on the bedroom wall, would not have been her poster of choice. We can guess that Norah would have liked a film poster: Snow White maybe. And we can be quite certain that she would have loved to gaze up at her two favourite celebrity sportsmen, Prince Bira in his pale blue silk overalls and, in his red and white Stoke City strip, the beautiful Frankie Soo.
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