Archive for the ‘Juliet Gardiner’ Category

The Thirties by Juliet Gardiner is a big book, both in terms of sheer size and of material covered.  It was such an eventful decade and, not surprisingly, Gardiner’s response to it is a long, detailed book.  In many ways, what this book did best was illustrate just how quickly change can happen and how arbitrary is it to lump the disparate activities of ten eventful years together under one heading as though they were related by something other than proximity.  And that’s what I love history books based on chronology rather than themes: you get a much richer portrait of how daily life evolved over a period than if you focus on just certain social, political, or economic developments.  This is not a quick read certainly, with so much to cover and with Gardiner’s usual level of magnificent detail, but it’s always an interesting and educational one. 

Chapters eighteen (“A1 Men and Consuming Women”) and nineteen (“Holy Deadlock”) were my favourites, the first dealing with physical fitness and consumer trends, the second with the status of women, family planning, and attitudes towards homosexuals.  These were the fun, relatively light chapters after hundreds of pages detailing the plight of the working man (and, in quite some detail, woman) and the escalating political tensions across Europe (always an interesting topic, never more so than during this eventful era).  Gardiner, as usual, surprised with delightfully esoteric details on the mundane features of daily life that were certainly never covered in my school textbooks.  For example:

Mothers were simply dying in childbirth at a far greater rate in the depressed areas: poor nutrition during pregnancy meant that in the 1930s it was four times as dangerous to bear a child as it was to work down a coalmine. (p. 71)

A report in 1935 estimated that 91 per cent of boys between fourteen and eighteen years of age never engaged in any form of physical activity at all (Newcastle presented a particularly inert picture).  While boys at public schools were drilling in Officer Training Corps, playing strenuous games of rugby and springing effortlessly over vaulting horses in the gymnasium, it was rather different for other chaps.  Yet, to the disquiet of the Board of Education, officer recruits to the elite military academies of the Woolwich and Sandhurst were found to be pretty weedy too, and it was claimed that the War Office was having to review the amount of baggage a soldier could be expected to carry.  It seemed pointless to contemplate undertaking a comprehensive and cripplingly expensive military rearmament programme if the bodies required to operate the arms or drop the bombs would not be up to the task.  (p. 515)

In 1931 the average age at marriage was twenty-seven for men and twenty-five for women – though working-class couples tended to marry younger than middle-class ones.  While only 34 per cent of women between the ages of fifteen and thirty-nine were married in 1901, this had increased to 41 per cent by 1931.  (p. 554)

The Thirties covers many years and many topics – in surprising detail – and though I worried at the onset that Gardiner had been perhaps over-ambitious, I was impressed by the skillful result.  It’s vastly informative and, more importantly, entertaining!

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The Blitz by Juliet Gardiner has cemented her place in my history-loving heart.  I adored her Wartime: Britain 1939-1945 when I first read it in 2007 and was worried that this would pale in comparison, particularly since it covers such a short period (7 September 1940 – 10 May 1941) and one that Gardiner has handled repeatedly already.  But I was wrong.  The anecdotes and sources all seem fresh compared to what I’ve read from her before with the kinds of interesting details (on sanitation in shelters, changes to BBC radio programming, and concerns about collecting pensions, to name but a few of the eclectic topics discussed) that I’ve never come across before.  This was my first book of 2011, begun on 1 January and finished just over twenty-four hours later, and it was the perfect way to start the year being intelligent, fascinating, and incredibly informative. 

As usual, Gardiner excels at bringing to light the little things that are usually glossed over or ignored.  I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve read about WWII, all of which cover the blitz in vary levels of detail, but it’s the facets of everyday life, of how people prepared each afternoon before a raid, of how the mass burials were conducted afterwards, that are so often ignored.  But I love that stuff.  Learning about a typical evening in the life of a fire warden is my idea of a good time, the more specific the detail the better.  Adorable stories about royalty are also always encouraged:

Since the railway into Coventry was so disrupted [after the first raid], the King motored from Windsor, arriving on Saturday morning.  He offered to bring his own sandwiches so the royal visit would not strain Coventry’s limited resources…(p. 153)

Though intellectually I knew how disorganized things had been, particularly at the beginning of the blitz, Gardiner’s statistics and examples really brought that home for me:

In effect, one person in every six in London was without a home.  And with the loss of a home went the loss of the means of sustenance: no food, no cooking facilities, only the clothes the victims stood up in – and those would often be filthy, soot- and brick-dust-stained, wet and torn, and smelling of cordite and charred wood.  And often the places that suffered the most in the blitz were working-class areas clustered around docks and factories, where people had little money or resources, or opportunity to leave. (p. 116)

But if the Londoners were both unable and apparently unwilling to leave, Britons elsewhere were, sensibly if not courageous, fleeing their cities after the first raids.  Yes, I can understand the logic of needing people to stay behind and put out fires and whatnot but, I have to tell you, I would be running for the hills.  My sense of self-preservation is much stronger than my sense of patriotism.  In Plymouth, for example:

It has been estimated that as many as 30,000 people left the city every night after the raids had begun.  They would pour out into the countryside by train (vouchers were issued), car or by lorry if they could manage to hitch a life, by bicycle, or trudging on foot.  An endless column, clutching all they could carry, most of them with no specific destination, no idea who might put them up, just determined to get away.  They were sometimes dubbed the ‘yellow convoy’ or the ‘funk express’ by a judgmental press.  While it is hard to think of a more rational response to the raids, their absence cast a heavy burden on those who ‘stayed put’ as they were instructed to do.  On them fell increased fire-watching duties and other Civil Defence functions, and it is no wonder that resentment smouldered against those who left. (p. 312)

I loved the bits that discussed citizen’s frustration with the information (or lack thereof) being provided by both the government and the BBC.  In many cases this silence led to misinformation as informal rumours among civilians inflated the casualty numbers or exaggerated the damage done.  As Gardiner describes it, the Ministry of Information (also known as ‘the Ministry of Aggravation and Mysteries’ and ‘the Ministry of Disinformation’) “patronized and infantilized the population” (p. 161).  Frustrated with being dismissed this way, many turned to alternative sources for more reliable news, even if it was coming from the enemy:

Thirty per cent of adult Britons with radios were reported to listen to Lord Haw-Haw regularly by January 1940, although his appeal had begun to wane by the time the blitz started, and of the sixteen million who turned in to BBC’s main nine o’clock news bulletin, six million turned over to Radio Hamburg afterwards.  This was partly due to fascination at the unerring inside knowledge of Britain in wartime that Joyce [Lord Haw-Haw] seemed to possess, but also to the feeling that the BBC was too much under the thumb of the government, that what it told the people was propaganda rather than an accurate account of the situation. (p. 171)

I was delighted to see some very familiar sources quoted: Nella Last was mentioned several times, as were Persephone favourites Vere Hodgson and Marghanita Laski.  How I wished that I had my copy of Few Eggs and No Oranges at hand to delve straight into after I finished this!  But, alas, it is currently still enroute somewhere between Vancouver and Calgary (hopefully closer to Vancouver by now!).  I do enjoy the variety of perspectives Gardiner includes: usual suspects like Duff and Diana Cooper and Harold Nicolson (husband of Vita Sackville-West) appear regularly but leading literary lights appear almost as frequently, particularly John Betjeman (who worked for the Ministry of Information) and Virginia Woolf.  Gardiner’s bibliography is one great TBR list for readers like me!  I’m particularly eager to get my hands on Nicolson’s Diaries and Letters, 1939-1945

I was both interested and pleased to see how often the Mass-Observation archives were referenced.  As Gardiner points out, they may not have had the most scientific methods (they eavesdropped and reported on conversations in public places in addition to gathering information through their interviews and regular correspondents/diarists) but this documentation is invaluable in giving insight into the general population’s attitudes and reactions to what was going on around them, particularly during a period when media was so heavily censored, compromising its value as a reliable source.  The kind of negative and defeatist attitudes that rarely appeared in the press are preserved in the M-O documents.  Tom Harrison and his team were in fact hired on by the government to conduct studies on public morale using the M-O tactics during the war.

This wasn’t quite as engaging as Wartime: Britain 1939-1945 but then it didn’t cover nearly as much information.  My only quibble was the lack of maps or a timeline.  The sheer number of raids across so many regions in such a short period does make it difficult to put each into perspective.  Still, it was a wonderful, approachable read and I can’t wait to start Gardiner’s The Thirties (which I have on hold at the library).

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