Socks for the Boys!

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


Hello, I’m Alison Twells and I am Norah Hodgkinson’s great niece (her elder sister, Helen, was my maternal grandmother). I grew up in the East Midlands, in the same village as Norah, and now live in Yorkshire with my two teenage daughters. I teach history at Sheffield Hallam University. Reading and writing history take up too much of my time, but I also love growing beans and tomatoes, making stuff, walking my dog, the Peak District, travelling when I can (almost anywhere, but Scandinavia is top of my list) and being a mum to my two girls.

me, Norah (right), my mum and my two daughters, Elvaston Castle 2006

me, Norah (right), my mum and my two daughters, Mothering Sunday 2006 at Elvaston Castle

Yes, I know it is a cheesy photo, but I have very few of me with my aunt Norah (lots of her with the girls, that I’ve taken, but few that I am in…) We don’t normally walk round holding hands in our family – this was on daughterly insistence.

I have interests in many areas of social and cultural history. My first job at the Development Education Centre in Sheffield was to write a resource for secondary school history which explored the relationship between local and global history, with a specific focus on the British Empire. From there, I became interested in a collection of sources in Sheffield Local Studies Library and Archives, about a group of early C19th Christian reformers and missionaries. The cultural encounters involved in the missionary movement, both at home and overseas, kept me occupied for a long time. This sparked an interest in C19th religious cultures more broadly, particularly in relation to women’s lives and the feminist movement. I have a particular love for the warm and witty travel writing of the Swedish novelist Fredrika Bremer, who travelled to America in 1849-1851 to explore the social role of women and who expected to be bowled over by Unitarians and Quakers in the North but who was transformed by the religiosity of enslaved men and women she met in the South.

While I really see the value of academic history in terms of exploring aspects of the past in their complexity, my real passion is for the varied contexts in which history is made and the different uses it can serve. I teach public history and run a website which brings together community-based historians in South Yorkshire.  I have also been writing (almost finished!) a history walk for the Friends of Edward Carpenter, a local group dedicated to commemorating and celebrating this amazing (and under-sung) man who lived in and around Sheffield for most of his adult life.

When my great aunt Norah’s diaries fell into my path at the end of 2009, I was immediately smitten. I found them really absorbing; not just the family stories, but the way they reveal a woman’s life over a period of unprecedented social and cultural change. They speak to a number of issues that have pre-occupied me over the years: ‘class transition’ and the experiences of the scholarship generation; changes within the post-war working class; women’s experience of love and sex; and memories of the Second World War. They also present challenges: far from literary diaries, they are ordinary pocket diaries which contain no more than twenty or thirty words per daily entry.  And then there is the specific story about the socks, the sailor and the airman…

I knew when I received the diaries that I wanted to learn to write about them in a ‘different’ way. It took me a long time to work out what this might mean. I would have struggled for even longer had I not signed up for the MA Writing at SHU. Don’t listen to anyone who says writing cannot be taught! You need a literary ear, yes, but for me, being taught by some fabulous writers and, most of all, being guided through by a poet and life-writer, has been a fantastic experience.

So: now I am writing a book, based on Norah’s WW2 diaries and letters, which sits in the borderlands between history, biography and memoir. I am also writing academic history about interpreting the ‘ordinary’ pocket diary and about writing history for a range of audiences. And I’ve got another book up my sleeve which will focus on Norah’s 1950s and 1960s diaries; women’s lives again, but this time, single womanhood, adultery and illegitimacy.


4 comments on “Me

  1. ebarrett293
    June 3, 2013

    Finally got myself signed up for wordpress so I can follow you 🙂 Love your Blog.

  2. Nick Metcalfe
    June 9, 2013

    I came across this while researching Bernard Limb. It takes a lot to distract me but I was wholly captivated. I’m looking forward to more.

    • Alison
      June 9, 2013

      Thank you for your lovely comment! Is it the same Bernard Limb, ex of Belton village and Loughborough Grammar? I’d like to know more too…

  3. Pingback: Jack Hilton’s Caliban Shrieks | proletics

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