Tag Archives: Oliver Burkeman

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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Writing and wellbeing

Writing makes you feel better?

I have been thinking about writing for wellbeing recently. This is because my writers group is organising a writing festival. We have been fortunate in gaining adequate funding from various bodies, including the Arts Council Lottery Fund, some local council community funds and from the Network of Wellbeing. 

Applications to all our funders included our two aims which reflect the value we attach to writing for everyone: 

  1. promote the participation of writers of all experiences ages and diversity in a range of writing activities with other people.
  2.  provide opportunities to gain experience and confidence in writing and creativity, reinforced through interaction and celebration with professional and other writers.

WRITE NOW TOTNES! Festival

We want to attract to the festival people who don’t see themselves as writers, who are not confident as writers or who could be helped by the writing process. We are encouraging them to engage with writing, through workshops, performance events, exhibitions and the opportunity to meet with other writers. Our group offers an on-going, permanent and social connection through writing.

The restorative aspects of writing 

As writers we spend much of our time thinking about writing for publication. While it is great to write for publication writing for oneself is also a valid activity. It may not be a different activity of course. 

Writing for publication has an intention outside and beyond the process of writing. In restorative writing the process is more important than the output. There is a body of research that supports writing as good for wellbeing, among people of all ages. For example, one team found that a very small amount of writing has a swift outcome:

Writing about personal experiences in an emotional way for as little as 15 minutes over the course of three days brings about improvements in mental and physical health. [James W Pennebaker & Janel D Seagel (1999) Forming a story: the health benefits of Narrative, in Journal of Clinical Psychology, Vol 55 (10).] 

So how does writing help? What does it mean to write for wellbeing?

Journaling and Morning Pages

Many people, and they would not necessarily see themselves primarily as writers, know the value of writing frequently. Many suggest undertaking writing every day.

To unlock their creative capacities, many writers and artists follow Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, in which she describes the daily act of writing Morning Pages. 

Here’s a quick guide. Morning Pages are done first thing every day, in long hand, over 3 pages of A4. Write whatever is in your head, on your mind: worries, plans irritations, fury everything. You keep on for three pages and then stop. You don’t have to reread them. Here’s Oliver Burkeman describing the effects of writing Morning Pages after some years of resistance:

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised at how powerful Morning Pages proved, from day one, at calming anxieties, producing insights and resolving dilemmas. After all, the psychological benefits of externalising thoughts via journaling are well-established,  … Crucially Morning Pages are private. [Oliver Burkeman does it every morning. You should, too. Guardian4.10.2014]

Form of writing

The benefits of writing about stressful events appear to come from, at the most basic level, avoiding supressing negative feelings, and relief from the stress of the events. More positively stress can be reduced by writing about experiences, such as serious illness.

By writing, you put some structure and organisation to those anxious feelings. It helps you get past them. [Pennebaker in the Journal of American Medical Association 281 (14)].

Another researcher stresses how writing about upsetting events is most beneficial when people focus on finding meaning because this allows them to develop greater awareness of positive aspects of a stressful event. 

The value of writing within a group: The Write to Life Group

I have seen how writing with the support of others can be very beneficial. The group I am thinking of often publishes and performs their work. This is theWrite to Life Group, run by Sheila Hayman for the organisation Freedom from Torture. Members of the group are survivors of torture, supported by writing mentors. 

I have attended performances of their plays, read poetry written by members of the group, and support the group financially in a small way. Recently they performed their work called Pawns, Princesses and Poets, based round objects at the V&A Museum. One member of the group is Hasani. 

A certain writer once remarked that, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’ Having gone through a terrible experience in my country of birth because of my political views, I left it for the UK. Through the ‘Write to Life’ group I have found a place that helps me to free myself from the turmoil inside.

I have written about the group, its members and successes on this blog. 

Souvenirs Writing and Home (April 2013)

Dear Jade, a letter to Jade Amoli-Jackson, author of Moving a Country (September 2013)

Souvenirs (May 2016)

Lost and Found in Exile (September 2016)

6 Things I learned from my Freedom from Torture Challenge, a project to raise awareness about refugees and literature and to raise money  (September 2017)

Wellbeing, Writing and the Writing Festival

My enthusiasm for encouraging people to better mental health and wellbeing through writing is loud and clear as I try to encourage people to join our festival WRITE NOW TOTNES! in three weeks’ time. Give it a try!

Picture Credits:

Handwriting with Pen: Visual Hunt Nfoka on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA and Crayons and Woman with tea: Visual Hunt 

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Dear Diary, today I wrote …

Why are writers so often advised to keep a diary or journal? How can regular entries support your writing? I always wanted one of those 5-year diaries with a key, kept in a box or a slipcase, bound in padded faux leather, edged with gold. Instead, every Christmas I was given an adult’s one-year pocket diary, with rice-thin paper and four or five lines per day. They were often business gifts my father had received at work, so they bore the trademark of the company and details of relevant business organisations inside.

I diligently made entries for a few weeks: ‘went on a walk’, ‘snowed’, ‘went to see the Bennetts and played charades’, that kind of thing. Then around the time I went back to boarding school (mid-January) the entries would tail off. After all, every day was more or less the same. Got up, had breakfast, made my bed, did English/Maths/Geography and Games. Rained.’ and so forth. It became boring to write, it is boring to read. But I was learning a useful skill: recording in words.

Writers’ diaries.

249 Jrnl of a novel

On writing courses I have been recommended to read writers’ diaries, specifically John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel from the time he was writing East of Eden. In this collection of letters you learn that Steinbeck was a keen amateur woodworker. He wrote in pencil and really did have a pencil sharpening routine as a prelude to his writing. He planned a fixed amount to write everyday and which scenes. It was all mapped out in advance. Nothing I read in his diary has any relevance to my writing, except it was often very hard work for Steinbeck as well.

Journal of a Novel by John Steinbeck, published by Penguin Classics. 192pp

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Virginia Woolf kept diaries. They have been edited by her husband and published, with an eye to illuminating her writing practices. When I posted about To The Lighthouse as part of #Woolfalong recently I greatly enjoyed looking up the references to the novel in the diary. The entries cast light on her writing processes, what she saw as her innovations, how she felt she was dealing with the new approaches she was trying. Recommended!

A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Leonard Woolf, first published in 1953. One edition was published by Persephone Books in 2012. 372pp.

Reasons to keep a diary

I mentioned my desire for the locked 5-year diary. Two features of my thwarted wishes indicate important reasons to keep a diary:

  1. To make a record over time. I grew up to read a history degree. Perhaps you can see the connection.
  2. To have a secret or at least a private place. An interesting piece in the New Yorker in March referred to the importance of diaries as secret places in a review of What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi: Black Women Writers and the Secret Space of Diaries by Morgan Jenkins.

And I can think of a number of other reasons why I still do have a journal of sorts:

3. As I indicated above, it is a place to make sense of the world through words.

4. It’s a place to make sense of my writing through reflection, comments, experiments, notes, mistakes.

249 deardiary

I have a daily weekday routine of getting up, making coffee and writing two A4 pages by hand, intending to focus on my writing. But it often turns out to be a reflection on activities of the previous day: a play, an exhibition, a conversation, a walk, a book or a dilemma not connected to writing. How is it helping my writing? Perhaps it just gets my writing mojo going. A way to loosen the ligaments, to use Virginia Woolf’s phrase (April 20th 1919, p13).

The benefits according to others

Writing about traumatic experiences and the associated emotions for 20 minutes a day speeds up the healing of wounds, it is claimed. Research on this was reported by Oliver Burkeman in his Guardian Blog in July 2013.

Michael Palin has an instrumental reason for keeping his diaries: a record of his days, helping him remember things he would otherwise have forgotten. But he also has this to say

I’ve tried to approach each morning’s entry as a story of the day that’s just passed, without limits and without self-censorship. And composing a story a day is not a bad discipline for any would-be writer. (The Guardian, Do Something supplement, September 2015.)

Journaling to help learning

249 blank pages

I think the most useful aspect of my regular writing is that it is part of my reflective process. I record my successes – a story completed and entered for a competition; the MS of The New Age of Ageing sent to the publishers; a target number of words achieved and so on. I record my frustrations. Periodically I review the pages of my journal, focusing on what I did, and what I learned from my actions. And sometimes I plan what I will do in future in the light of this learning.

On my tbr pile

What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

Diary of a Notable Woman by Jean Lucey Pratt

Journals of Sylvia Plath

Over to you

How does writing a journal help your writing? Are there any journals by writers that have influenced your writing?

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Filed under Learning, Reading, Virginia Woolf, Writing