Friday, November 19, 2010

The Blitz in a Book

There is a sense of guilt in being tucked up safely in your bed each night while reading an account of the Blitz.  With each page I am ever more enthralled with Vere Hodgson and her ability to record the bombings, sometimes as planes roar overhead, in Few Eggs and No Oranges.  I don't know that I would have coped anywhere near so well if my windows were rattling and the foundations were shaking due to enemy attack.  At this point, it has become commonplace for Vere to venture out in her dressing gown to check for damage in the middle of the night.  Should you meet up with some neighbours then why not have a cup of tea?  The exhaustion, not to mention the terror, must surely have done some citizens in but Vere endures it all and then writes happily about her luck in finding some cheese or tomatoes in the shop.  The slogan 'Keep Calm and Carry On' has never been so apparent.

This morning I thought I would try to find some images that would link the bombings and found the photo above.  It is St Thomas Hospital the night after a raid.  Vere's entry for Thursday, September 12, 1940...

'Felt very second-rate.  Arrived at office at 10:15 as I overslept.  What a night!  It seems that now we have mobile guns on Lorries going about the town, and we can also hear guns from destroyers in the Thames.  According to Mr Churchill Invasion is Imminent.  Hitler has it all ready from Norway to Boulogne, and we must be on our toes for the next two weeks!  Felt better as the day proceeded.  Warning in the afternoon.  Began to hear details of the damage.  Very upsetting.  Bow Church seems badly hit; St Thomas' Hospital; Gt Ormond St Hospital; Holburn - but not Staple Inn.

To find an image of the destruction Vere wrote about was thrilling and I will continue trying to match up photos with her entries.  At the midway point of this 600 page fascinating history lesson I couldn't wait to share a little of it with anyone who has been wondering how this reads.  More to follow once I have finished.


  1. Is that Churchill in the photo looking a the damage - in the middle?

    Linda J

  2. You're doing so well, I think you've inspired me to go back and try it again.

  3. One of my favourite Persephones, I've read it twice! I love Vere's determination to just get on with things. Nella Last's diary is like that too. I'm halfway through Nella's Diary of the 50s & loving it. You can't beat the immediacy of a diary.

  4. What a fantastic and interesting post. That photo was taken very near indeed to where I live - a sobering thought. It must be fascinating to get an insight into what it was actually like on a day-to-day level... when I was little I used to have a rather romanticised notion, I think, of what wartime was like. Evacuation? What an adventure! Bomb shelter? Cosy! A long, long way from the truth, obviously. And yet this was daily life, so through it people's personalities and tastes did come out, and they did I'm sure try to make the best of it through little things and through human contact.

    Still, very sobering. I for one am greatly enjoying my vicarious history lesson!

  5. elljay, I went back to the original image which is larger and I don't think that it is. Good try though!

    mary, Sometimes it is all in your mood isn't it. With Remembrance Day ceremonies and documentaries everywhere you turned last week I really wanted to immerse myself.

    lyn, So true! It's like I have a film running through my head as I read and can't go fast enough. Nothing like a sobering WWII diary to make you feel extremely grateful.

    jane, Have you seen 1940's House? Fabulous stuff watching a modern family cope with rations and being yanked out of bed to sit in a cold shelter.

    Yes, I'm quite enjoying the lesson from my cosy bed and was very thankful for my meagre supper of soup with a bit of cheese last night!

  6. Thank you for such a sobering picture and review of the book thus far. I cannot imagine living through the Blitz, night after night. I think we do sometimes have a romanticized view of it. It is through the pages and words of those who lived through it that we get a true feeling of the terror and the loss and the indomitable spirit the British people have. Please do share more.

  7. It is sobering wondering how I would cope living through a war - not just day to day life but the worry for loved ones.

  8. You've motivated me to give this one a go! I've been putting Few Eggs off for ages due to its size--very embarrassing...

    K x

  9. lifeonthecutoff, The review is still to come! I couldn't resist writing a little something after the first three hundred pages but there are just as many to go yet....stay tuned!

    Joan, It really is staggering isn't it and yet what choice would you have other than to face each day and do your best? I sat in a mock shelter at the Imperial War Museum while they simulated an air raid. Not fun but you must try it!

    kristina, Same here and you know's excellent! I can't wait to hop into bed each night to find out what comes Vere's way next!

  10. Few Eggs and No Oranges is a fascinating book, and so immediate.

    Another one along these lines is Mrs. Milburn's Diaries. She was a meticulous and dedicated journal keeper. A middle class woman (truly a provincial lady) of house-and-garden-and-local-committees type, writing the day-to-dayness of total war, keeping calm and carrying on while her one child, son Alan, was in POW camp in Germany. She lived near Coventry, and the night of the worst raids, Nov 14 1940, she is writing even as the bombs are falling. Immediate indeed.

    Mrs. Milburn's Diaries is out of print, but I found a reasonably priced copy at abebooks (under $10 including postage), so I'm sure others are around.

  11. Susan, Thanks for letting me know about this book, this is the first I've heard of it. I am in awe of anyone who documented the events of the day under those circumstances.

  12. This reminds me of Henrietta's War and the London bomb snobs!

  13. Oh Darlene! This Persephone has never grabbed me - perhaps I thought it was a cookbook? I am desperate to read it now! When I get back to England I'll have to be held down in the Lamb's Conduit Shop before I buy everything!

    What a fascinating and tantalising review, and a sobering photograph. I didn't know that's where St Thomas's used to be - the hospital has moved up the river now. I presume they were trying to hit Parliament and missed. Thankfully!

    I love the stories of the indomitable British public who got on with life without making a fuss as bombs were falling all around them. My nan's rather blase depictions of air raids always have me gaping in awe but as she says, 'it happened every day, and it just became normal - you got on with it, because you had no choice.'

  14. Carolyn, Henrietta's War was such a fun read and I've been thinking about it lately. Must sit down with it again soon!

    bookssnob, Another one that you would love but how funny about the cookbook! I will be writing a proper review about this once I've finished...this was just a bit of sharing.

    Oh to have a Nan to share air raid stories with! I keep thinking about connecting with an ex-pat here who can share her stories with me.

  15. Can you imagine having lived through that?! My library has this book and I've looked at it many a time, but it is a chunky one--will get to it sometime! Have you read Sarah Waters's The Night Watch--she wrote about the Blitz very convincingly--maybe too convincingly (in case you want to add more titles to your book list).

  16. When you've finished reading "Few Eggs and No Oranges" I'd like to suggest that you read another Persephone title, "On the other side letters to my children from Germany 1940 - 46" by Mathilde Wolff-Monckeberg.

    I'd also second Susan D's recommendation of Mrs Milburn's diary. I borrowed that one from the library earlier this year.

  17. I'll third the recommendation of Mrs Milburn. Nella Last's War is also excellent. There was a TV movie made of it called Housewife, 49 with Victoria Wood. I didn't think the film was a patch on the book but still interesting to see. Two more vols of Nella's diaries have been published, NL's Peace & NL in the 50s which I've just finished. All well worth reading.

  18. I've just finished reading another set of wartime diaries (of a rather exuberant and high spirited girl). Your post is making me want to try this again - I started it last year and liked it, but for some reason never finished. Might need to rectify that. I hope you're still enjoying it!

  19. Danielle, Night Watch is on my shelves and I'm desperate to read it! So many books, so little time but I do hope to get to it very soon.

    Geraldine, Thank you so much for your recommendations!

    lyn, I've seen Housewife, 49 twice and I really should pick up the books. I seem to always come across them out of sequence and should really just put in an order for the lot.

    makedoandread, I've had a slight interruption for the Debo memoirs as I asked for that one to review. Can't wait to get back to Vere though!