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Archive for the ‘Peter Donnelly’ Category

Can I ever resist a volume of wartime diaries?  No, not really, which is why I picked up Mrs Milburn’s Diaries: An Englishwoman’s Day-to-Day Reflections, 1939-1945 by Clara Milburn, edited by Peter Donnelly.  I had come across it in history book a year or two ago and since then have seen other bloggers reference it, always enthusiastically.  Because of that, I really did not expect to be so underwhelmed by this book.  And yet I was.  I was dreadfully bored before I was even half done and have to admit to skimming the remainder.

Clara is dull.  There are moments where we glimpse what Clara’s day-to-day life was like – discussions of gardening, Women’s Institute meetings, dentist appointments, and her husband’s ailments – but there aren’t really enough to build up a strong idea of how this woman spends her days, who her friends are, what she reads…all the cosy, personal details that make diary-reading so delightful.  Mostly, she keeps very detailed records on the progress of the war, marking down the number of planes lost or ships sunk with the diligence of a war-mad adolescent boy.  Clara has an accountant-like dedication to personally meaningless details.  As a record of what the people were being told, I suppose this information is valuable, and it certainly does show how closely some people were following war reports, but it makes for very boring reading.  Clara’s editorial comments are basically limited to ‘Hurrah!’ when things go well or ‘death to the Germans!’ when things go poorly.

What does make this book special are Clara’s experiences as the mother of a prisoner of war.  For that reason alone, this book is well worth reading.   Alan Milburn, Clara’s only child, was captured at Dunkirk in June 1940 and his absence haunts her for the remainder of the war:

One’s mind seems numbed, and the last day or two I go on, keeping on the surface of things as it were, lest I go down and be drowned.  Every moment Alan is in my thoughts, every hour I send out my love to him – and wonder and wonder.  This queer unreal world, carrying on in some ways here just as before, with this gorgeous weather and summer heat heartening us, and yet most other things so sombre and heartbreaking.  (11 June 1940)

The Milburn household (Clara, husband Jack, and devoted servant Kate) delights every time one of Alan’s letters arrives and views all war news in terms of when it might mean Alan could come home.  They write him faithfully and keep in close contact with the families whose sons are in the same POW camp, sharing news among themselves any time someone receives a letter.  Mostly, they just miss him.  Every Christmas is marked with longing, every birthday spent wondering if he’ll be home before the next.  I found the details relating to Alan’s time as a POW fascinating, especially learning how he spent his time in the various camps and what sort of things his parents were able to send him through the Red Cross.  When Alan does return in May 1945, when the phone call comes to say he was back in England and would be with them soon, I found myself crying.  For Clara, the war was now truly over and she stopped the diary only a few days later; with Alan’s return the “bad years of war begin to fade a little” and “the house is one more a real home” (12 May 1945).

As affecting as I found Clara’s devotion to her son, she never really grew on me.  I did not feel antagonistic towards her (as I did with the excellent but seemingly rather mean diarist Nella Last) but I never came to respect her.  Clara does not seem particularly intelligent and I was annoyed by her fervent patriotism.  My lip curls whenever I come across sentimental tosh like ‘God bless Winnie!’  Clara, who never expresses a sentiment not already emblazoned on government propaganda, seems perfectly happy to follow the guidance of others without ever pausing to consider why she agrees with them.  If there had been some evidence of this ability to reason, I could almost have respected her.  But there wasn’t.  I know there is always going to be a large portion of the population who will be happy to be told what to do and think (as long as the person doing the telling is skilful and Churchill certainly was that) but it also follows that such mindless sheep make for dull diarists.

I know how fascinating ordinary lives can be in the hands of gifted diarist – but Clara Milburn did not particularly have that gift.  She was a nice woman with a very ordinary life and very ordinary thoughts and a very ordinary way of expressing them.  Still, if simply as a glimpse of how families handled the long, uncertain years while family members were in POW camps, this is worth a read.

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