My Great Aunt Norah's wartime diaries, 1938-1948
After that uneventful end to 1939, I was looking forward to the New Year and some action. Afterall, 1940 was the year the war really began.
But as it turns out, 1940 is also the year for which Norah’s diary is missing.
I am planning a class on J. B. Priestley’s famous broadcast just after the Dunkirk evacuation of May 1940. I will discuss with my first years how Priestley had movingly repackaged the horror and lies of Dunkirk to create a story of pluck and heroism; how the ‘little boats’ that pitched in to help the rescue effort came to symbolise ordinary English bravery and a national proclivity to create triumph out of despair. Norah had read Priestley’s novel They Walked the City in 1938, describing it as ‘absolutely lovely.’ I am certain that she would have approved of his politics and his sentiment, and am hopeful that she has commented on this, the first of his famous ‘Postscripts’ that made him second in popularity with radio audiences to Churchill himself. ‘Listened to JB Priestley on the wireless tonight,’ she might have written. ‘He was grand.’
But when I open the suitcase to pick out the diary, I discover that 1940 is not there. At first, I am puzzled but not unduly alarmed. I empty the case, put 1938 and 1939 to one side and then carefully and methodically stack the rest in towers of ten, ordering them according to decade. 1940 is nowhere to be seen. I look under my bed, under the piles of papers on my desk, in other boxes of material from Norah’s archive. Not there. I return to my stacks and count them again, this time working backwards: 2009-2000, 1999-1990, 1989-1980, 1979-1970, 1969-1960, 1959-1950, 1949-1941, 1939, 1938.
For a moment, I doubt that there ever was a 1940 diary. But then I remember a phone conversation with my mum, during which she’d told me about a fight between Norah, then aged fifteen, and her brother Birdy, three years older. They’d been in the kitchen squabbling over the washing up and he had shoved a dirty dishcloth in her mouth.
‘She did have a rough time with him’, my mum had said, laughing. ‘It was 1940, so he was 18 and still tormenting her.’
I gradually move my search further afield: the side of the settee, the recycled paper bin into which things occasionally fall from my desk. I phone the VW garage where I sat drinking tea and transcribing as I waited for my car to be fixed. 1940 is nowhere to be found.
By the end of the week, I am waking at 3am, eyes wide and staring, my heart racing, aware that something terrible has happened. It is a feeling reminiscent of those first early mornings immediately after the end of a love affair: the fleeting assumption of today being just an ordinary day, then the split-second realisation, somewhere in the pit of the belly, that the world is irrevocably changed.
Norah kept her diaries safe for all those years and then, in the space of a few weeks, I’ve lost one of them.
I chide myself for the momentous significance these diaries have assumed in my life. I start to obsessively scan them, and back up the scans, and safe-keep them in multiple places – at work, at my mum’s house, in my bedroom. I reason (fully aware that this is the wrong word) that the side of my bed is safer than my office, a tiny box room which adjoins the living room of the upstairs flat next door. The fact that they have a lot of ‘comings and goings’ – the (very pleasant) neighbour clearly making a bob or two outside of his tenancy agreement – fills me with worry. How careful are they with their cigarette ends? My neighbour in the flat below unwittingly fuels this anxiety: he shouldn’t be subletting rooms, she says indignantly, and if the Housing Association won’t intervene in the illegal profiteering, they can at least fit some fire doors. Maybe I should just deposit these diaries in a library, because having them in my house, living in the archive, might send me to an early grave.
There is an accompanying guilt: I have two children in this house, and here I am fretting over some old diaries. Indeed, the level of anxiety is on a scale otherwise reserved only for my daughters. For eleven years, I’ve worried about them travelling on the motorway without me (the A1 looms particularly large in my mental map of killer roads). And then there’s the out-of-town shopping centre, off limits after a local newsagent told me that its vast basement is stuffed full with body bags.
‘Waiting for a major incident,’ he says, and I imagine the stampede along the glass fronted corridors as thousands of frenzied Yorkshire shoppers attempt to vacate via the M&S foodhall.
I know how it reads, stark on the page like this. But I am secure in the knowledge that other mothers will allow me my maternal neuroses; that they are every mother’s prerogative.
My elder daughter texts me from the A14, where she is travelling with her aunt and cousins to visit her nana and granddad in Norwich.
‘U will b plzd to no aunty helen driving at 1 mph,’ she writes sarcastically. ‘In a traffic jam.’
But my sister-in-law understands. A few minutes later, when Ruby exclaims that a driver pulling off a slip road ‘could have killed us all,’ her aunt tells her gently: ‘that’s what your mum worries about, the lunatics on the road. It’s a mum thing.’
It feels like a mum thing with these diaries too. I am protector of my children’s futures, and keeper of my family’s past. Or maybe it is less healthy than that. Like a guilty bulimic, I try to conceal my diary obsession from my partner. Unsympathetic to my maternal madnesses, he won’t take kindly to my new obsession. I binge on them in his absence, dashing upstairs to scan a few more months as he nips to the shop. In a trip to the gym, I can devour two whole years.
The worst of it is, I think I lost 1940 during one of my obsessive manoeuvres. I took them back and forth to my mother’s house during those early months, and wonder now if 1940 fell out of the boot of my car into the February snow. If someone picked it up, even outside her house, they wouldn’t know it was ours. The only address is 18 Moira Dale – just round the corner – written on the opening page in Norah’s neatly rounded script.
One afternoon, as we make our way back to my mum’s house after a blustery walk with the dog over Daleacre and Eastway fields, I make a snap decision to call at number 18 to ask if the diary has been handed in. A twenty-something boy answers the door, his arms outstretched against both doorposts and his rangy frame filling the space between. I explain about the diary. It is one of those conversations: do I just launch in, or do I pursue a lengthy but self-conscious preamble? I hover painfully between the two. He humours me politely. No, he is certain the diary hasn’t turned up there, but yes, he will check and let us know if it has. Trudging back round the corner, we cackle at what he’ll say to his family, once the front door is closed and we, a windswept, bedraggled crew, are safely out of earshot.
I try to make the best of a bad job. If one has to go, 1940 was the diary to lose. 1938 and 1939 give an uninterrupted insight into a schoolgirl’s life. 1941 is a crucial log of Norah’s early correspondence with Jim and her first meeting with Danny. 1940 will be more of the same, I tell myself, school days punctuated by Norah’s telegraphic responses to national and local events (‘Sat with Peggy on bus. Coventry bombed. Cathedral destroyed. Terrible’ or ‘Had biology test. Lousy. Frank joined CD Home Guard’).
Sitting in the canteen at work, at a table of creative writers, I find myself lamenting my carelessness.
‘You could make up some diary entries,’ someone says breezily.
Well no, I’m a historian, we don’t do that. And anyway, why would you make things up when you’ve got a story like this?
‘You can use it as an opportunity’, says another. ‘Have a creative chapter in amidst all the history…’
‘Just to help it along’, someone else chips in, ‘at a point where the sources don’t exist.’
They don’t get the magnitude of it, I think. In fact, they look at me with a hint of pity, like I’m lacking in imagination.
‘But how would I signal the difference,’ I ask, ‘between what is real and what is not?’
They don’t think it matters, but for me, it really does.
I am reminded of HHhH, Laurent Binet’s ‘biography’ of Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the SS and a ‘memoir’ of the men who killed him in 1942. I am using scare quotes because I don’t really know what the book is: history, biography, a memoir, a novel? (What I do know is that on account of this uncertainty it’s the most thrilling book I’ve read in a long time.) Anyway, Binet has this scene where he reflects on a novelist’s certainty about the make of Paul Blobel’s car. ‘I wonder how Jonathan Littell, in his novel, The Kindly Ones, knows that Blobel had an Opel’, he writes. ‘If Blobel really drove an Opel, then I bow to his superior research. But if it’s a bluff, that weakens the whole book. Of course it does! It’s true that the Nazis were supplied in bulk by Opel, and so it’s perfectly plausible that Blobel possessed, or used, a vehicle of that make. But plausible is not known. I’m drivelling, aren’t I? When I tell people that, they think I’m mental. They don’t see the problem.’ (Binet, HHhH, 189).
But I think that’s the start of it. The process I go through to recover 1940 makes me think differently about history and about those altogether more capacious categories, life-writing, memoir, creative non-fiction. Even fiction, although I don’t mean I start making it up. Just that I discover I can draw on a more writerly repertoire, even a novelist’s techniques, and find at the end of it that it doesn’t feel any the less like history.
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