Tag Archives: rationing

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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84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Here is a book about the love of books and about generosity and how together they developed into a warm friendship between many people. That is the pleasure of reading 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff.

We have reached the 1970s in the Decades Project featuring non-fiction by women from each decade of the 20thCentury. This book is not especially important in the history of women or of Anglo-American relations. But it has a great charm and its popularity has endured since its publication in 1971. Helped by a film with good-looking actors.

84 Charing cross Road

84 Charing Cross Road is a book of letters. Mostly it is the correspondence between Helene Hanff, a writer living in New York and Frank Doel, who worked at Marks & Co at the eponymous address in London. Helene Hanff first wrote to request copies of books that were difficult to find in New York at the end of the Second World War. Marks & Co was a second hand and antiquarian bookshop.

October 5, 1949

Gentlemen,

Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialise in out-of-print books. The phrase ‘antiquarian book-sellers’ scares me somewhat, as I equate ‘antique’ with expensive. I am a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books, and all the things I want are impossible to get over here except in very expensive rare editions, or in Barnes & Noble’s grimy, marked-up school-boy copies.

I enclose a list of my most pressing problems. If you have clean seondhand copies of any of the books on the list, for no more than $5.00 each, will you consider this a purchase order and send them to me?

Very truly yours,

Helene Hanff

(Miss) Helene Hanff

The books she wanted were non-fiction: Hazlitt essays, Oxford verse, and so on. Helene Hanff was a writer, of articles, tv scripts and children’s history books. She did not earn a great deal from her writing.

The responses came first from FPD, later Frank Doel, finally Frank. At first Frank Doel was formal and scrupulous in his replies. But as she responded with wit and warmth to the books she received or did not receive, he dropped the reserve.

The turning point in the relationship, turning it from a commercial transaction to a friendship, was when Helene Hanff sent a food parcel containing ham at Christmas 1949 to the staff of Marks & Co. Rationing continued in Britain until1953, so she continued to send food parcels.

Here are some examples:

March 1950

Frank Doel, what are you DOING over there, you are not doing ANYthing. You are just sitting AROUND.

September 1950

he has a first edition of Newman’s University for six bucks, do I want it, he asks innocently.

Dear Frank:

Yes I want it.

April 1951

To All at 84, Charing Cross Road:

Thank you all for the beautiful book. I’ve never owned a book with pages edged all around in gold.

Gradually other members of staff began to write to Helene Hanff, for they too benefited from the food parcels. Frank Doel’s wife joined in and even their neighbour. Helene Hanff clearly had the gift of creating a community even through the vagaries of the British and American postal services.

And then in January 1969, not quite twenty years after that first letter Helen Hanff received this letter.

Dear Miss,

I have just come across the letter you wrote to Mr Doel on the 30thSeptember last, and it is with great regret that I have to tell you that he passed away on Sunday 22ndDecember, the funeral took place last week on Wednesday the 1stJanuary.

… Do you still wish us to try and obtain the Austens for you?

What is special about 84 Charing Cross Road?

The pleasure in this correspondence is the evident love of reading and the love of books.  Another pleasure is to see the beneficial effects of generosity of spirit. And the death of Frank Doel was not the end of it. This book was published two years later. The chief correspondents had never met, but she had always wished to visit London, and now she had friends to meet. When she could finally afford the airfare she visited to celebrate the publication of this book. Following her London visit Helene Hanff wrote The Duchess of Bloomsbury, included in the edition I read.

And then in 1987 there was the film, starring Anthony Hopkins at his warmest as Frank Doel, and Anne Bancroft as Helene Hanff. It is hard to reread the book without these two occupying my mental image of the writers. But they did an excellent job. And at least it wasn’t made into a rom-com with a happy-ever=after together ending.

Helene Hanff died in 1997. She was 79 years old.

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, first published by Andre Deutsch in 1971. I read the paperback edition published by sphere. 230pp

The Decades project on Bookword

In 2018 I am featuring non-fiction by women for each decade in the project having focused on novels in 2017. I select one book each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc). Suggestions are always welcome.

Here are links to the previous three books in the 2018 Decades Project:

The Diary of a Young Girlby Anne Frank (1947)

Elizabeth David’s books in the Kitchen (1950s)

Silent Springby Rachel Carson (1962)

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project