Friday 13 September 2013

Bombs, Boats, and Daffodils...

War Messages: Endpapers in Persephone's Few Eggs and No Oranges
are from a design called London Wall, printed from a fragment of
 rayon  headscard produced by Jacqmar Ltd c.1942.
For those of us born after the Second World War it’s hard to imagine what life must have been like during the six grim years of conflict. History books give the facts, but can be awfully dry, while films and novels tell the story from a particular perspective but rarely give the bigger picture or small details of everyday life. My mother and her friends provide lively images of the war as it touched them, snapshots almost, of events and people who have long gone. Mum remembers her school days when she was the first local girl to attend the London school which moved to her area, and one of her neighbours (who is slightly older) recollects her time as a Land Girl when she drove tractors, operated farm machinery, repaired all things mechanical and was ‘as good as any man’.

However, it’s difficult to know how people actually felt, and I’ve always found that trying to visualise what happened is a bit like trying to do a jig-saw where some of the pieces are missing, and there is no picture to help. But Vere Hodgson manages to fill some of the gaps, and present a portrait of the times which combines lots of different views and is one of the most comprehensive accounts I’ve come across.

Her war diary, Few Eggs and No Oranges (written at the time and edited later), is riveting stuff but, as regular readers will know, I decided on a ‘slow read’ to give myself time to reflect on it. You can see my initial thoughts here and this month I’m looking at the period between January and June 1941. What strikes me most about the entries for these months is the contrast between horror and destruction of the Blitz, and the way Hodgson (and everyone else) was able to find pleasure in the small things of life – a sunny day, flowers in the park, ‘heavenly’ trees. Perhaps the horrors of war, and the uncertainty of life, made these things even more important, providing a touch of beauty and calm amidst the ugliness and chaos of war, boosting people’s spirits and somehow contributing to the symbol of ‘Britishness’ they were trying to defend. 
Anti-aircraft guns pictured in Hyde Park by an official War
Office in photographer in 1939. (Pic courtesy of Wikipedia)
The catalogue of disaster in London, where Hodgson lived and worked, goes on and on, as houses, shops, offices, churches and all kinds of other places are flattened by Nazi bombs. Night after night she hears the ‘thrum’ of enemy planes and noise from anti-aircraft guns, along with terrific bangs and the sound of falling masonry. She sees fires in the distance, as the glow of flames and smoke lights up the sky. On one occasion she feels the house ‘sway like a popular tree’. She relates other people’s experiences, like the woman in a café where the cups and saucers dance and rattle on the tables as a bomb falls nearby, and everyone calmly carries on eating their meal. Or the lady fire-watcher who declares that during one raid she saw’ the two walls of the corridor almost meet – and then the house right itself’.

Hodgson is endlessly interested in what is happening, not just in London, but elsewhere in Britain. She notes reports that pour in from Swansea, Cardiff, the south coast ports, Clydeside, Merseyside, Coventry… it’s hard to grasp the scale of the damage and the loss of life. I found her description of damage caused to places I know the most moving. After visiting her mother in Birmingham for Easter (in April 1941), she writes:

At Snow Hill we were aghast to find the platform an awful mess. A bomb had fallen direct on it – the whole place was all churned up. Fortunately not on the line, but they were mending the platform for us to get out. I was met, and heard the story of the big raid. An awful night! Bombs and landmines everywhere. The Great Western Arcade had looked pretty bad before; but now it was a ruin.
Workmen clearing a platform at Snow Hill after Birmingham
was bombed on the night of April 10, 1941.  This is what Vere
Hodgson saw as she arrived in the morning.
(http://www.warwickshire railways.comdd caption)
The gas main in Victoria Square had been struck and the flames, still burning when she passed by, had reached as high as the top of the Council House. The General Hospital had to be evacuated, there were delayed action bombs in the grounds of the university, and about two thirds of the city centre was destroyed. She adds:

Midland Arcade a ruin in all directions. Round to the Bull Ring. Worcester Street closed for a delayed action bomb. Many firemen still playing hoses on the smoking ruins. St Martin’s Church had a good slice off. We had seen enough. We realised there was plenty more.

When I was a child and we caught the train to Waterloo you could still see war-damaged buildings alongside the railway line. There were gaps in rows of houses filled with rubble where wild flowers bloomed, and dirty, fading scraps of wallpaper and paint still adhering to broken walls, while the ragged remnants of curtains flapped around vanished windows. Over the years we watched tall flats rise up, and the street scene changed. But somehow, when I moved to the Midlands I failed to connect those views of London with Birmingham, and although I knew the city was badly bombed, I never realised the full extent of the damage.  It may sound naïve, but I just assumed that all the newer buildings were the result of modern development, road schemes, and so on, and never questioned why they were needed. I had no idea that so much of central Birmingham had to be rebuilt – in fact, after reading Hodgson’s diary I’m surprised that so many historic buildings survived.

There, I got side-tracked, just as I always do, but I’m sure Vere Hodgson would not have minded – she was a great one for meandering from topic to topic. In her diary she maintains a sense of humour and remains cheerful, continuing with everyday life as best she can, and enjoying the small pleasures that come her way, and everyone else was doing exactly the same.

On a sunny day crowds bask on the grass in the park, or relax in chairs, unbothered by the fact that there are unexploded bombs just a few yards away. Her joy in such scenes is unexpected, almost shocking, and the juxtaposition of the ordinary against the extraordinary throws the hellish happenings of the Blitz into even sharper relief. 
Daffodil: Was it a s symbol of defiance and resistance in the
dark days of  World War Two?
On April 20, for example, she tells us about a raid and, but goes on to describe the thundery weather, adding:  

Walked in the Park – all lovely and green. The daffodils were lifting their great horns proudly, in spite of the storm; a great white magnolia tree was out.

Whether she intended the image to be metaphor for the desperate situation of those days I don’t know, but the daffodils seemed to be raising their trumpets, defying a storm in the natural world, just as Londoners were defying Hitler's man-mind storm of the war.

A week later (April 27) I liked the following entry:

Saw the guns in Hyde Park for the first time. Sun came out and the Serpentine looked lovely. The weeping willows are all yellow green and their graceful light branches trailed down to the water. Many people were boating. Chestnut trees were well on.

Again, it’s the picture of normal life alongside the paraphernalia of war which is so touching, that makes you stop and think. 


  1. Stories about the war are so interesting in their extremes of amazing things and pure sadness. A wonderful post.

    p.s. your name was drawn for the Rosamunde Pilchard book. Contact me and I'll send it to you :-) psbparks at ymail dot com cheers Pam

    1. Oh Pam, that is such a kind comment - thank you. And thank you for the book! That's cheered me up.

  2. I love books about the war and have added this to my TBR list.

    1. Jackie, this is well worth reading. It is very long, but it is such a fascinating account of the way ordinary people felt about the war, and the effect it had on their lives. But Vere Hodgson also describes major national and international events, and it's the juxtaposition of those momentous incidents alongside the more mundane goings-on which make it such an unforgettable read.

  3. This is a period I really enjoy reading about. I'm adding it to my TBR list as well.

    1. Oh, I do hope you enjoy it. I'm always worried in case people don't like the books I enthuse about!

  4. I'm amazed how much of London survived - it seems just incredible. I am going to get this down off my shelf and start it now, nice and slowly, as you recommend!

    1. Oh, please do! And I do hope you enjoy it. Actually, somewhere along the line, I may do a 'tie-in' post and write up my mother's memories. I scribbled a lot of stuff down last time I was there, and never got round to writing it up properly, but some of Vere Hodgson's diary entries made think of things Mum says about the war.

  5. I is important to show the whole picture, with normal life against the fray, and beautiful daffodils to remind us all that there is hope.

    Thanks for sharing...and for visiting my blog.