Monthly Archives: November 2022

Blitz Spirit edited by Becky Brown

Was there such a thing as the Blitz or the Dunkirk spirit? How were people feeling during the war? Did people pull together, willingly make sacrifices and submit to detailed rules and regulations? During Lockdown we were invited to believe they did as we ate our scones, drank our tea, and waved our union flags to celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE Day, all while socially distanced. And in some ways the Lockdowns felt like war, against an unknown, new, and powerful enemy. 

This collection from the wartime diaries, collected at the time by Mass Observation, reveal a variety of views and beliefs. The diarists wrote about every topic: rumours, Churchill, invasion, uncivilised world, funny stories, outrage, fatigue, food and rationing, rules and regulations, V1s and V2s, class divisions and ‘after the war’.

Born in the aftermath of that war, I am fascinated by how people responded to the conditions of the time. What was changed, what was preserved, how were the post-war years and children shaped by those long six years? Many of us have experienced the silence of our parents on the topic, and most of that generation have since died. But the war seems to me to have had a profound influence on my childhood, so I seek to understand it, in literature, in films, in photographs and in diaries and to see some parallels with our responses to Covid-19.

Blitz Spirit

Many people will be familiar with Nella Last’s War, and the film Housewife 49 which Victoria Wood made memorable. There were many such personal records in the form of diaries sent regularly to Mass Observation. From these archives Blitz Spirit has been made.

In 1940 the phoney war came to an end, during which extensive arrangements had been made, including for refugees and evacuees. Some responded to the plight of others with generosity, others did not.

Diarist 5378. F. Writer and Artist. Tadworth, Surrey. 17/05/40
V. has been going around billeting refugees. I asked her if she had had much luck. ‘Oh rather,’ she replied enthusiastically. ‘I think people have been marvellous. One man said they had no spare room but they would put up a bed in their lounge. I only came across one woman who was difficult. She was very sniffy and said she thought we had enough troubles of our own without worrying about other people’s – silly creature couldn’t see that other people’s troubles in this case are our own.’ (50)

The Blitz itself began in the Autumn and tested the population to the limit. Enduring the Blitz on London and other areas was a most difficult experience. One diarist resented the official upbeat response.

Diarist 5205. M. Shop Assistant. Great Baddow, Essex. 10/09/40
The ‘Daily Sketch’ today: ‘Six hundred enemy aircraft came and made heroes of our Londoners … on Saturday. How the fact of being bombed makers anyone a hero I fail to understand. The nonsensical emotionalism which some papers are now printing is annoying and disturbing. (75)

Rationing of food was a frequent topic in the entries.

Diarist 5364. F. Secretary. Kingussie, Inverness. 28/07/41
Oh for pounds & pounds of fresh, cream butter again. (I’ve no direct war comment today. All I can think of is delicious or varies meals!) (115)

Bombing raids and fire watching were also frequent topics although as the war progressed the dangers receded until the final year.

Photo Credit: Wiki Commons Children of an eastern suburb of London, who have been made homeless by the random bombs of the Nazi night raiders, waiting outside the wreckage of what was their home. September 1940. New Times Paris Bureau Collection. (USIA) Exact Date Shot Unknown NARA FILE #: 306-NT-3163V WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #: 1009

The war dragged on for six years, with little to celebrate for the first three. One response was to use humour.

Diarist 5412. F. Teacher. Beckenham, Kent. 06/02/43
Placard reported from Manchester Fish Shop

WE HAVE PLENTY
OF PAPER
PLEASE BRING
YOUR 
OWN
FISH (195)

And some diarist reported some very frightening events:

Diarist 5004. M. ARP Worker and Food Packing Manager. Belmont, Surrey. 02/11/44
With my wife we were exercising the dog on the Downs in the late afternoon, and whilst I was telling her of my impressions about an ‘unknown missile’ which fell near me in London today, there was suddenly a terrific flash and an explosion which is indescribable. […] Rather shaken we got up, and the sky overhead was covered in black smoke reaching up to about 2,000 feet. Yes, of course, it was a V2. The bomb had fallen about 200/300 yards away. (274)

And eventually people began to dream about not just ‘the end of the war’ but even ‘after the war’. The Beveridge Report had led to some policy proposals, which eventually led to the setting up of the NHS, and the Welfare State. Not everyone was happy about peacetime prospects.

Diarist 5358. F. ATS Clerk. Grays, Essex. 06/02/45
The gratuities to be awarded to the forces on demobilisation have been announced. […] Once again however, the old distinction creeps in – A.T.S are to receive two-thirds as much as the men. I am not a feminist, but I do like to see equal pay for equal work. At the Headquarters where I work in London, A.T.S work side by side with soldiers unfit for overseas service, doing exactly the same work and duties. Why should these men receive half as much again as the girls? (287)

(ATS stands for Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the Army.)

I have quoted some examples from this very dense book. After I had got over the awkwardness of checking the diarist’s number, gender, occupation, location and date I found much to absorb me here. The entries range from very short (two or three lines) to a page. They come from all over the country, from all walks of life, and as far as can be ascertained all ages. Some of this felt familiar, from Nella Last and Jean Lacey Pratt (see below). Some challenged the notion of Blitz Spirit as we have been encouraged to think of it: grumpy, mean, outraged at neighbours or those who deliberately flouted the spirit and even the letter of regulations. 

When the experiences of Covid-19 pandemic become more distant and have been subjected to more reflection, and when the varieties of opinions and experiences have been gathered, perhaps we will see ourselves much as the people are revealed in this book.

Related Posts

A Notable Woman: the romantic diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt (Bookword Blog January 2017)

Mass Observation and the writer (Bookword Blog August 2017)

Blitz Spirit: voices of Britain living through crisis 1939-1945 edited by Becky Brown, with the Mass Observation Archive. Published by Hodder in 2020. 312pp

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Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

A conversation with another reader led me to Mansfield Park. She said that she had picked it up again after many years and found that it was a rewarding experience. I decided to have another look too. Many questions remained from my first reading. Why is the novel named after a house? What was so dreadful about the young people enjoying theatricals? Is Fanny Price a prig? Is it Jane Austen’s most boring book? Would it be worth rereading?

Of course it was worth rereading. Jane Austen’s books are all worth reading countless times. You will always find new things in them. I can’t remember when I last (or first) read Mansfield Park, but it wasn’t within the last 14 years. I know because I have kept a log of all the books I read since April 2006.

Mansfield Park

This novel was published in 1814, the first book she wrote after she became a published writer. Sense and Sensibility had appeared in 1811 and Pride and Prejudice in 1813. 

The story follows Fanny Price, brought from Portsmouth at age 10 to her aunt’s house, Mansfield Park, which is in rural Northamptonshire. She grows up with her four Bartram cousins, a fragile and quiet young person, happy to avoid the spotlight and befriended only by her cousin Edmund. Sir Thomas Bartram is called away for more than 12 months to his plantations on Antigua, taking his spendthrift elder son with him. While he is away Mary and Henry Crawford come to stay at the nearby vicarage, with their sister who is married to the clergyman, Dr Grant. The Crawfords have come from London and bring gaiety and colour to life in the big house. Tom Bartram returns to England before his father and when he returns to Mansfield Park he is followed by Mr Yates, whom he met at Weymouth. This young man has ‘habits of fashion and expense’. He brings with him a longing to resume amateur theatricals, cut short by a family death at his previous visiting place. Fanny opposed the play, seeing all its dangerous potential and then observing the behaviour of the actors. 

The rehearsals for Lover’s Vow are interrupted by the return of Sir Tomas Bartram, who is horrified to find that his family have indulged in such an activity, which might compromise the reputation of one daughter, Maria, currently engaged to a wealthy neighbour.

Henry Crawford turns his attentions to Fanny, intending to make her fall in love with him, but finds that he falls in love with her. Everyone is in favour of the match, except Fanny who steadfastly refuses his attentions. She has observed his behaviour towards women, stoking the rivalry between the sisters Julia and Maria, encouraging Maria when she was already engaged to Mr Rushworth. The reader knows that on top of her understanding of Mr Crawford, Fanny loves Edmund, who is caught in the seductive coils of Mary Crawford. 

Her uncle sends Fanny back to Portsmouth to reacquaint herself with her family. While she is away disaster strikes the Bartrams: Tom falls gravely ill, Maria (now a married woman) runs off with Mr Crawford, and Julia elopes with Mr Yates. Fanny is needed at Mansfield Park where he judgement of Mr Crawford and her stance on proper behaviour is seen as justified. It ends happily.

Fanny Price

Fanny Price is often referred to as a prig, someone who is smugly self-righteous and narrow-minded. I was struck on this reading by how the action revolves around her, without her involvement. She joins the household, she bears the taunts and barbs of her second aunt (Mrs Norris) and the neglect by most of the family. She is almost omitted from the visit to Mr Rushworth’s estate. The young people tour the grounds and she is quickly abandoned by Edmund and Mary, witnesses the flirtation of Henry Crawford and Maria Bartram, and notices the display of jealousy by Julia. 

Being quiet, compliant, passive, guided by the men of the family, useful to her aunt Bartram, Fanny was all that was seen as good in young women in the early 19th Century. Yet it is possible to make a case that Fanny displays feminist behaviour, for Fanny is defiant in the face of Mr Crawford’s marriage proposal. He appears to be everything a penniless young woman should hope for: landed, rich, accomplished, true he is rather short. But he is a good horseman, and an obliging companion, especially to women. Fanny sees beyond his appearance and cannot respect this man. She makes up her own mind, refuses to be guided by her uncle, or seduced by wealth (as Maria is in her marriage to the luckless and dim Mr Rushworth). She embodies sincerity and an ability to distinguish between appearance and hypocrisy on the one hand, and truth and sincerity on the other. In standing up for herself she is neither priggish nor passive.

She is shocked by Mary Crawford’s light-hearted dismissal of the role of the clergy, shocked because this is Edmund’s chosen profession, and she displays disrespect and lack of consideration to Edmund. And shocked because Fanny values good clergymen. She does not support the idea of the theatricals because she can see the dangers to which it may expose the young people. She is right; Henry Crawford teases Julia by taking on the role of Maria’s lover. These two rehearse their scenes to excess, and often in private. 

Through Fanny’s eyes we can see that the Crawfords bring, from London, a love of display, money, and an emphasis on appearance. When Maria is known to have run off with Henry Crawford, Mary hopes that it can all be covered up and remain a secret. This attitude appals Edmund and he immediately gives up the idea of marriage to her. For him, as for Fanny, the shame is in the act, not in the discovery of it.

And we see the chaotic family from which Fanny escaped when she returns for a couple of months to Portsmouth. Her mother is coping with too many children, her father is uncouth. Her brothers are noisy and quarrelsome. The maid is not up to her responsibilities and Mrs Price is unable to teach her to do better. The household is a stark contrast to the orderliness and quiet of Mansfield Park.

And throughout the 48 chapters Mrs Norris has been behaving with great toxicity. She has indulged the two girls, exploited every occasion to her own advantage and taken every opportunity to put Fanny down. Sir Thomas has begun to see her hypocrisy when he returned from Antigua, surprised that she had not exerted her influence to prevent the theatricals. One of her many meannesses was to deny Fanny a fire in her attic rooms. Even as she defies Sir Thomas in his wish for her to marry Henry Crawford, she is touched to discover that he has countermanded Mrs Norris’s order and henceforth she will have warmth in her rooms. 

By the end of the novel those that conduct their relationships through hypocrisy and deceit, or by valuing appearance over substance, or who do not value the natural setting of the countryside, its avenues, wildernesses, prospects, these people have been found wanting. Mansfield Park and its rather intimidating owner stand for proper behaviour, as in propriety, for genuine unselfishness, consideration of others and orderly life. London and Portsmouth serve as contrasts to its gentle manners.

Mansfield Park – the house

It is the representation of these values that led Jane Austen to name the book after the house. And any well-informed reader of the time would have been aware of the Mansfield judgement of 1772 in the case of a Black slave James Somerset. According to David Olusoga 

To those who heard it, and to those who were to read about it later, the judgement appeared to grant freedom not just to James Somerset but to all black people in Britain. (Black and British p137-8) 

Much has been made of the undercurrents related to slavery and the slave trade in this novel. Sir Thomas Bartram’s wealth, after all, comes from his plantations in Antigua. Naming her book, which would reference the judgement, we can imagine that she was drawing attention to decency in relationships with people beyond your circle as well as within it.

The reader is also conscious of a great deal of wit, humour and sharp exposure of her characters. This lifts any danger of this novel being too worthy. 

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, published in 1814. I used the edition from the Penguin English Library (1966) 457pp

Related posts on Bookword

Lady Susan by Jane Austen 

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Secrets in Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

In the Society of Jane Austen

Pursuing Jane Austen

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Ghost Signs by Stu Hennigan

It starts out being an account of delivering food parcels to people in Leeds during the first lockdown in the spring of 2020. But as this book goes on, it becomes about poverty in the UK. The reader must conclude that this poverty will have been made worse by the pandemic and today has become ‘a cost of living crisis’. I believe this phrase, so beloved of politicians and the press, is a synonym for ‘even more poverty’. 

I had already thought of this book as the equivalent today of Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell (published in 1937) which exposed the dreadful living conditions in the industrial northern towns just before the Second World War. I have since discovered that others have made the same connection. 

Like many readers, despite the warning of the subtitle – poverty and the pandemic – I was shocked by this account of Leeds in the pandemic. Shocked and moved, for Stu Hennigan is a very sympathetic writer. He has succeeded in putting human faces to some of the more general descriptions of Covid. 

Ghost Signs: poverty and the pandemic

In April 2020 Leeds Council recruited volunteer drivers to deliver food parcels from the Food Distribution Centre that had been set up to provide for people in difficulties in the lockdown. Unable to work at his usual job as a librarian because of the lockdown, and stuck at home, Stu Hennigan decided to volunteer. 

Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw during those months. I took on the driving role thinking it would simply be a useful way of spending lockdown – delivering parcels and having a chat with whoever I met along the way. Nothing could have been further from the truth. It was an emotionally draining experience, stressful and bruising at times, unutterably sad at other, always tiring, and with an intermittent threat of violence that took me completely by surprise. I saw some things that will stay with me forever, plenty of which I hope to never see again. (4) 

After a couple of weeks, the drivers were also required to collect and deliver prescriptions for people who could not get out. The book is the detailed account of his first 9 weeks as a delivery driver. This was the first day.

Friday 10th April
Leeds is like a scene from a sci-fi movie. Across the Eastgate roundabout I can see the bus station, empty and silent as the tomb of Christ on this Easter weekend. In the middle distance there’s the brand new John Lewis and Victoria Gate shopping centre with its multi-storey car park, built on the site of the old Millgarth nick, which was bulldozed to make way for it a few years ago as part of the plan to modernise the city centre. […]
It’s like aliens have come down in a spaceship and removed all the people; I’ve lived in this city for thirteen years and been a visitor here for most of my life, but I’ve never seen it like this before; it’s freaking me out already. The stillness, the silence, the complete lack of sound or motion from anything but my own car, the feeling that we’re in the midst of something completely unique and epochal, wondering where the fuck all this is going to end up – it’s a real head trip and I haven’t even started the job yet. (6-7)

Reading this passage, describing a scene from 30 months ago I realise how quickly we forget. Perhaps it’s because we don’t want to revisit the fears and strangeness of that first encounter with the Coronavirus and the mandatory social isolation. But it was strange, even in the middle of the countryside it was strange and frightening.

Driving and delivery food and medicines around Leeds, the author soon comes to see that there was a huge amount of poverty in Leeds even before the pandemic. Many people had nothing, no furniture, no food, no decent clothes, no decent roof over their head, no-one to help and instead a huge suspicion of authorities and officials. Very quickly he understood that people could not afford food, were starving in some cases, and everywhere the social and economic outcomes of poverty and drug abuse had pulled down lives.

He meets gratitude from people, especially when they understand that the service and the food is free. Also, indifference and resentment. And terrifying dogs or hostility when he searches for an address for a delivery. Many people are on the very edge, and some need much more assistance than is being supplied, like Leslie who has collapsed in pain, needing her morphine. Stu Hennigan brings her food parcels, but he is required to do so much more for her as she is quite unable to help herself. Help arrives from within the community, and eventually from paramedics too. It’s a shocking episode, poverty, ill-health, inappropriate housing dependence upon services that are not forthcoming in the pandemic and perhaps not even in normal times. It is with the episode when he helped Leslie that Stu Hennigan chooses to end his narrative.

We have met countless people in dressing gowns or ‘trackie’ bottoms, sick and gaunt from drug abuse, lonely, helpless, resentful, and apparently abandoned. He has cheery, grateful conversations with a few. Being thanked is rare and always affects him.

And what I asked as a reader is – will all of this improve at the end of lockdowns? Of course it has not. Poverty was widespread before Covid-19, and the infrastructure to provide for the needy was already failing. 

By placing individual people, including his own family, in his account of lockdown he brings home the immediate effects, but raises questions about the long-term effects of lockdown, especially on young people.

Ghost Signs: poverty and the pandemic by Stu Henniganpublished in 2022 by Bluemoose Books. 208pp

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The Trees by Percival Everett

To understand the title, The Trees, think of the song Strange Fruit, sung by Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. 

Southern trees
Bearing strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
And blood at the roots 
Black bodies
Swinging in the southern breeze [lyrics by Abel Meeropol, 1939]

To understand the novel it helps to have an idea of the story of Emmett Till. Another song always moves me: Emmylou Harris singing My Name is Emmett Till. She reminds us of the lynching in the summer of 1955 of the Black 14-year-old, who came from Chicago’s South Side to visit family in Money, Mississippi. He was accused by a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, of improper behaviour. Her husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother WJ Milam found the boy and beat him up and shot him and dumped him in the Tallahatchie River. Emmett Till’s mother insisted on an open casket funeral when her son’s body was returned to her in Chicago, so that people could see what had been done to her son.

Funeral photo via Wiki Commons: Emmett Till’s parents at his funeral by David Jackson September 15 1955

The toxic mixture of violent racism in the time of Jim Crow, fears of emasculation and lynching are the background to the novel The Trees, but you may also have heard that it is funny, a pastiche and has paranormal aspects too, a Black comedy.

The Trees

The action begins in in the present time in Money, Mississippi 

Money, Mississippi, looks exactly like it sounds. Named in the persistent Southern tradition of irony and with the attendant tradition of nescience, the name becomes slightly sad, a marker of self-conscious ignorance that might as well be embraced because, let’s face it, it isn’t going away. (11)

This is the opening paragraph: sardonic, knowing, arcane (what is this word *nescience? – see note below), amusing, showing familiarity with the Southern states. These are characteristics of tone and style of this novel. It unfolds as a detective novel. 

Two detectives are sent from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation. They are sent to Money because two bodies have been found: a White man – Wheat Bryant – and an unknown decomposing body of a Black man clutching Bryant’s testicles. Then the Black corpse disappears, and another murder takes place, with a similar disappearing Black corpse. Jim and Ed from the MBI are not welcomed. It came to me in a jolt that they are Black. Their wisecracking, world-weary attitude is inherited from the golden age of American ‘tec fiction. 

The connection with the lynching of Emmett Till is soon noted by the MBI agents, although they are shocked that a murder from nearly 70 years ago is being referenced. The story takes off from there, as a Black and female FBI agent is also involved. A 103-year-old woman, Mama Z, seems to hold some clues, and it emerges that she has records of the thousands of lynchings that took place in the Jim Crow era.

A whole chapter records the list of names that a Black scholar from Chicago makes from her records. The list takes up 10 pages of the novel. Emmett Till’s name appears about two thirds of the way through. Several lynching victims are recorded as ‘unknown male’, or are bundled together (16 adult men), some women are recorded in the list along with many Chinese names. 

“When I write the names they become real, not just statistics. When I write the names they become real again. It’s almost like they get a few seconds more here. Do you know what I mean? I would never be able to make up this many names. The names have to be real. They have to be real, don’t they?”
Mama Z put her hand against the side of Damon face.
“Why pencil?”
“When I’m done, I’m going to erase every name, set them free.”
“Carry on child,” the old woman said. (211)

Mama Z tells Damon that she has compiled 7,006 dossiers of murdered people. She tells him that fewer than 1% of those responsible were convicted of these murders. 

More lynching-related murders are committed, each with its testicle-clutching Black corpse in attendance. The law enforcement officers gradually put together how the murders have been committed, where the bodies are from and the stories behind these new victims. The killings continue to accelerate and spread throughout the country. It becomes obvious that the original perpetrators have lost control of their original plot. And we are in the dark territory of racism and backlash in the US, historically and in the present day. 

The pastiche of the detection continues to the end – there is even a locked-in-a-fridge scene. Some jokes are corny (the three detectives who introduce themselves as Ho, Chi, and Minh, for example). But the juxtaposition of the features of the ordinary plot with the carnage echoes the way in which White history has failed to explore the history of Black murder and simply got on with writing about the White American dream.

I have a few scruples. The present-day victims from Wheat Bryant to the victims of the hordes that are eventually activated, while gross and racist, were the children of the murderers of the ‘50s. The issue of culpability is tricky, for no doubt they have benefited from the racism that fuelled the appalling death rate during the period of the lynchings, and the murders of all those enslaved peoples before that, but they did not commit them themselves. I guess Percival Everett want to make the point that all White people are implicated – then and now.

And I always find extra-judicial killings hard to accept, although it is clear that justice under Jim Crow laws was completely inadequate. And unlike most detective stories, the motives and methods of the murderers are not neatly explained in the final chapter. Indeed, the paranormal appears to have taken over, with the hordes chant Rise! Rise! We are left with a sweet love story and Armageddon. 

Perhaps that’s how it will be. 

Percival Everett

Born in 1956 and working as a professor of literature at the University of South California, Percival Everett is a prolific writer: of poetry, short stories and 23 novels. His work embraces many different traditions in English literature, and he claims the influence of Mark Twain. In the Guardian review of The Trees, he was described as a ‘seriously playful’ writer, which seems about right. 

The Trees was shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2022.

The blog review which alerted me to this book can be found on Jacquiwine’s Journal, in September 2022.

*Note: Nescience is the state of not knowing.

The Trees by Percival Everett was published in 2021 by Influx Press 334pp

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