Tag Archives: air raids

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

With so many good books in the world there must be some special reasons for rereading one. I recently took my copy of The Night Watch from my shelves and enjoyed several days in the company of Viv, Helen, Kay and Duncan. I first read it 14 years ago in 2007, a year after it was published.

I had two reasons for wanting to return to this novel. First, I am having something of a binge on wartime novels at the moment. It started when I began a short story set during the war, but I’ve neglected that story recently, while my enjoyment of wartime novels has continued.

Second, Sarah Waters employs an interesting structural device in this novel. The three episodes are present in reverse chronology: the characters are introduced in 1947, their experiences in 1944 follow and the final section concerns their lives in 1941. It’s a bold way to tell a story and I wanted to think about its effects. 

The Night Watch

We first meet the four protagonists after the war is over in 1947. None of them is happy and one of the effects of the chronological structure is that their histories are gradually revealed. Their backstories come later. The influence of the past on the present, of chance, of kindness and innocence are revealed in this way which makes everything unpredictable.

If you think about it, this is how you usually find out about people that you meet, and I don’t mean the ones in novels. You get to know them a little and you ask them about their past, where they’ve lived, their jobs, or education and so forth. We see how the person we have just met fits in with our understanding about the past that they reveal.

However, novels usually take the chronological development of their story in a traditional sequential way, albeit with flashbacks included. Sarah Waters in an exceptional storyteller. I would love to know why she chose to tell The Night Watch in the fashion.

It certainly makes the reader pay attention. They must try to sort out the puzzles that she lays before them. Why was Duncan in prison, for example? Or what is the mystery of the ring that connects Viv to Kay? And how did the war and their experiences in the war change the directions of the lives of the four characters? Part of the pleasure of reading The Night Watch is to resolve such mysteries. 

It is somewhat unsettling to read while keeping the later story in mind as she takes us backwards first to 1944 and then to 1941. The reader is constantly having to make the connections in reverse, as it were. The effect is to show up the accidental nature of so much of life, and, with the background of the war, how dark and dangerous life can be.

And perhaps this is one of the questions being posed – what are the limits of deploying conventional chronology in fiction and what happens when you reverse them?

Another experiment in telling stories backwards is Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis (1991). He employs a different device, telling the whole story in reverse, from a reverse consciousness: death leading to a strange rebirth, the person arriving in the prime of life, recovering their innocence in childhood and finally being reabsorbed into their mother’s body. Slightly yucky but it does raise questions about cause and effect, and moral responsibility especially as the protagonist is a Holocaust doctor who works in the camps. The effect in this novel is also unsettling and raises questions about morality and how we develop and judge moral behaviour.

Within this experimental way of presenting the stories in The Night Watch there are some very vivid scenes. There is a walk during the air raids of 1944 by two women through the city. They must guess where they are by landmarks such as churches as all the street names have been removed in case of invasion. In the same section Duncan experiences a terrifying air raid from inside his prison cell. 

Other aspects of the novel only slowly emerge. For example, we learn where Viv met her older married boyfriend, in the final section. But we have already wondered why she had not ditched him. And her decision not to see him again in the post-war section is really only explained by the long experience of her affair with him.

So I learned more about being on the night watch during the Blitz, and also about playing around with chronology. It’s tricksy, destabilising and an intriguing technique.

Sarah Waters

Born in Wales in 1966, she came out as a lesbian in the 1980s. She came to fame as a result of the success of the television version of her first novel Tipping the Velvet in 2002. The Night Watch was her fourth novel, which took her four years to write. She has described it as like a wrestling match. 

Like her other novels it has been a success, shortlisted for both the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize (later the Women’s Prize) for fiction.

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, published in 2006 by Virago.

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These Wonderful Rumours by May Smith

Diaries are interesting because when they are written people do not know the outcome of the events they are describing, as I remarked in the previous post. This is especially true of war diaries, such as the subject of this post: These Wonderful Rumours. It is also true of my Covid-19 diary. How long, oh lord, how long?

Tuesday 3rd September 1940: The first anniversary of the war. It seems to have been going on for ages. I wonder how many more anniversaries there will be.

There were to be five more, and it did seem endless.

Friday 3rd September 1943: 4th anniversary of the war – my stars! And we have landed forces on the toe of Italy this morning at 4.30. Have a short service in school from 11 to 11.15

And the D Day landings were noted with caution.

Thursday 6th June 1944: A day of dither. We have invaded Normandy, and landings have been going on successfully since early morning. Oh dear! Sit around listening for news and poring over paper.

Meanwhile everyday life still had to be lived. May Smith is an excellent diarist, recording her reactions to international events and goings-on in her own world.

These Wonderful Rumours

In 1938 May Smith was 25, a school teacher in the primary school in Swindlincote near Derby. Throughout the war she lived at home with her parents and a few doors from her grandmother. Her grandmother’s cellar was used during air raids. By the end of the war her grandfather, grandmother and mother had all died from illness. 

May’s diary begins soon after she has been jilted by Ron. We learn that he has just been ordained as a priest in the Church of England and is thereafter referred to as Bishop Ron or some other such sarcastic phrase. May had been very much hurt by his rejection.

She writes nearly every day. There is a great deal in the diaries about her local friends. She plays tennis as often as she can in summer, and parlour games at home with her family. Two men are interested in her: Dougie a farmer in Norfolk and Freddie (who she eventually marries) who is a local school teacher. He retrains in meteorological skills during the war. She has a healthy correspondence with many friends, including those who trained with her at Goldsmith’s, and her two suitors. 

It seems from her diary that she was very keen on clothes, and spent most of her earnings on her wardrobe. She has clothes made for her by the local dressmaker Mrs W (frequently in ‘Narky and Independent Vein’) and visits the department stores in Burton and Nottingham. As the war progresses this pleasure becomes more difficult to indulge. Not only are there shortages of materials for making clothes and prices rise  but rationing comes into force and she even resorts to making her own brassieres.

Despite the war her work in school goes on. Sometimes her class is augmented by evacuees from Southend and Birmingham. A class of 40 is considered small. She does not say much about the pupils, except to refer to her need to keep them in order, absences after air raids and their excitement at snow, Christmas and the building of the air raid shelter in the playground.

The air raids begin in June 1940. At first, despite rehearsals, it was chaotic. 

Friday 7th June 1940: Something always happens on my birthday, and this one opened at 2 a.m. with an air-raid alarm. The awful wail of the sirens broke out, so said ‘oh lor’!’ and clambered out of bed, downstairs, grabbed the gas mask, and we all migrated to Grandma’s to the fringe of the cellar. Took us hours to get safely parked, as we were all pottering about in the dark, distrusting the efficacy of Grandma’s blackout.  … Finally we all moved into the cellar, Grandma leading. It took an age to pilot her down, and when she got there she decided she wanted to visit the lavatory and turned to come back up but was firmly checked.  … Just as we were finally settled, the All Clear sounded, so we had to march aloft again. Drank tea and ate biscuits with relief before retiring to bed about 4 a.m. The birds were just beginning to chirp.

As the weeks and months of raids went on the family and their lodgers became more efficient. There was damage nearby, especially on collieries and other industrial sites. They were near enough Birmingham, Nottingham and the Rolls Royce aircraft engine factory in Derby to be constantly disturbed.

May writes about books she reads, WEA lectures she attends and records her frequent visit to the flicks. She notes the food they ate, not bad despite rationing. They had friends who supplied some items. She also records some holidays, hiking near Buxton or at the sea at Llandudno, welcome breaks from the daily privations of war at home.

One thread of the diaries is her recovery from the despised Ron, and the constant attentions of two of her male friends. She keeps both at arm’s length for much of the war. One is called up into the Army motor corps, and the other is relieved of his school teaching job to train as a meteorologist. The threat of his posting overseas prods May into accepting his attentions. She marries Freddie in August 1944 and they have their first child in Autumn of 1945.

The diary is merrily written, with lots of capital letters when she is quoting people.

Some thoughts on diaries

Of course, as I read These Wonderful Rumours I compared it to my diary. Like May, I focus on new situations such as Lockdown for example which quickly become normal as the air raids did. Humans seem to adjust to new situations very quickly.

This is apparently an identified response. Writing about after the Coronavirus, Oliver Burkeman suggests that it will not feel very different, rather it will feel normal. We have a ‘tendency to swiftly adapt to positive or negative changes in our circumstances, drifting back towards our baseline levels of curmudgeonliness or cheer.’ In addition we always overestimate the impact of future changes.

Finally he reminds us that we are not passive in the face of the future and what it will bring us. We are, on the contrary, creating it as we go. I find this a comforting thought, and an empowering one.

We know from the section called Afterward that May and Freddie continued with their lives, well into the end of the 20th century, creating a family and continuing to contribute to the education of the young.

I find it reassuring to learn about the immense changes brought by the Second World War and how people adapted. We are told that the Covid-19 emergency will be over, at some point. We too will make our future.

These Wonderful Rumours: a young schoolteacher’s wartime diaries 1939-1945 by May Smith, edited by Duncan Marlor, published by Virago Press in 2012. 401pp

Life in a post-coronavirus world: will it feel so very different? By Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian in June 2020

Other Experiences of 2nd World War on Bookword

A Notable Woman: the romantic diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

So much more than an amusing Provincial Lady – EM Delafield

Maidens’ Trip by Emma Smith

The wartime stories and letters of Mollie Panter-Downes

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