Nuthouse Al

Penelope Fitzgerald

  • Whistling in the Dark: Memory and Culture in Wartime London by Jean Freedman
    Kentucky, 230 pp, £28.50, January 1999, ISBN 0 8131 2076 4

‘I began this study with the fairly simple idea of “the finest hour” ’ Jean Freed man says: ‘Greer Garson as Mrs Miniver singing bravely in the bombed-out church, Winston Churchill’s broadcast inspiring and uniting people in all parts of the country’ – that’s to say, with two fictionalisations, at quite different levels, of what may or may not have happened. Her enquiry was eventually modified to ‘How does the standard image of wartime London match with memory and experience?’ This means that she has to consider the loss of confidence, by professional historians, in themselves, and she decides, in her introduction, that she cannot do better than quote David Lowenthal: ‘Even if future insights show up present errors and undermine present conclusions, evidence now available proves that some things almost certainly did happen and others did not.’

Freedman’s parents, Jewish refugees who settled in America, told her stories of their war years in London. That aroused her interest. Her next step was a doctoral dissertation at Indiana University, and for this she came to England and interviewed about fifty people who remembered London during the air-raids, ‘focusing on under-represented groups, including women, Jews and working-class citizens’ (40 per cent were Jewish and 80 per cent female). They were also, of course, restricted as a group by their age. To remember 1940 in 1992, when Freedman started work, you have to be elderly and are likely to be increasingly indulgent to your younger self. Freedman seems conscious that she is working from rather a small selection, but says that her theoretical base is ‘broadly conceived and interdisciplinary. My work is heavily indebted to the fields of folklore, ethnomusicology, history, literary theory.’

The most interesting part of her study is the relationship between Londoners and the Ministry of Information. During 1940 it ‘changed ministers several times, discovered that upper-class rhetoric would not work in every situation, and settled down to creating an ideology that would be acceptable to a diverse population under siege’. She makes use of Ian McLaine’s Ministry of Morale, but has also considered the Home Intelligence Reports, Home Morale Emergency Committee Reports, Morale: Summary of Daily Reports and so forth, where the authorities’ anxious manipulations can be seen at work. It was a two-way interaction, hit or miss, the Ministry always a little way behind. The control of rumour was felt to be the first necessity, but the Silent Campaign (with posters of Mr Knowall and Mr Glumpot) and the Report Your Neighbour Campaign were early total failures. The voices of George VI (who had not expected to be king) and Winston Churchill (who had not been expected to become prime minister) were of priceless reassurance, probably all the more because they were heard and not seen. They created the warmth which the anxious Ministry craved.

Freedman goes on to subdivide her subject ‘Four wartime needs predominate in verbal manoeuvres’: the need for silence, the need for humour, the need for unity and the need to talk about the future. The complication here, which she doesn’t note, is that these needs weren’t all evident to the same people: the first and third were felt by those in authority, the second and fourth by the citizens themselves. With her discussion of humour she struggles gallantly, but it is just as depressing as every other discussion of humour. ‘Joking was an index of patriotism; therefore many jokes emanated from governmental institutions,’ Freedman says. But did they make people laugh? This was the particular concern of my father, who had retired from his job as editor of Punch before the war broke out but had now, perhaps rather reluctantly, gone back ‘for the duration’. By nature he was a courageous pessimist, sunk in the English humorist’s delicious gloom. That, however, didn’t prevent his appreciating a radio comedy which Freedman herself treats with something like awe, Tommy Handley’s ITMA. She calls it ‘an incredibly zany, self-reflexive and densely-packed bit of wordplay’, although it wasn’t incredible to anyone brought up on pantomime. Handley went on the air as the mayor of Foaming-at-the-Mouth – a name ‘similar to many English villages’, Freedman explains – and as Head of the Ministry of Aggravation and Mysteries. Humour in wartime Britain did exist, she concludes, and ‘was a technique for survival’.

The next section, ‘Time Long Past’, classifies the narratives of bombed London as anecdotal, historical and epochal. Anecdotal narratives are subdivided into humorous (again), love stories, horror stories and near-miss stories. ‘These stories,’ she says, ‘correspond roughly to the dramatic conventions of comedy, romance and melodrama. I do not believe that any of them represent tragedy in the classic or Shakespearean sense.’ (This is because they have no feeling that the sadness and loss are without a purpose.) The tellers of bomb stories, however, were not artists and not historians. They can’t be held guilty of ‘emplotment’, meaning that their interpretation affects their selection of facts, and I get a distinct feeling of over-definition and of the thesis-writer biting off more than she can chew. The section on historical narrative, on the other hand, is unexpected, but it concerns something that Freedman evidently very much wants to discuss – the Stoke Newington raid in October 1940 in which 164 people died, fifty of them because the bomb struck a water main and the shelter was flooded, and the (much better known) Bethnal Green disaster of 3 March 1943, when someone tripped over and fell, and 173 were suffocated. It has been said, and was said at the time, that the shelterers were mainly Jewish and that both these incidents were the consequence of ‘Jewish stampedes’. Freedman shows that this could not have been true. She has pretty well given up the structure of her book here, but she has said what she wanted to say.

By an ‘epochal’ narrative, Freedman means one told with a consciousness ‘of the great supernarrative of wartime Britain, with London as its central character’ – in short, the myth, about which she very well says: ‘The use of the word “myth” is always distancing; the term may not be insulting, but it always alludes to the beliefs of someone else.’ She goes gallantly to the defence of her interviewees against Tom Harrisson (who after fifty years of Mass-Observation felt able to trust only information recorded at the time and on the spot), against the intemperate Paul Fussell, and against Angus Calder’s classics The People’s War and The Myth of the Blitz. She protests against the assumption that the myths – calm, confidence, cheeriness, the breaking down of barriers, the ready hand of friendship – ‘were swallowed wholesale by the people for whom they were fashioned ... with none of the critical scepticism shown by Calder, Harrisson, Fussell and others’. Rallying her eyewitnesses, she finds that they made their own reservations. ‘People remember what it suits them to remember,’ said Anne Lubin, who had worked in factories in Birmingham and the East End.

But for Lubin, as for all of them, it was of course a matter of long-term memory.

But what good came of it at last?
Quoth little Peterkin.
– Why, that I cannot tell, said he
But ’twas a famous victory.

Tom Harrisson pointed out that the same people described the same events quite differently in 1940 and 1970. Freedman’s reply is that of course they did. ‘Memory is an analytical tool by which the past is interpreted in die light of the present,’ providing a kind of double-take, which it is the scholar’s business to interpret. (She doesn’t adopt Paul Thompson’s noble defence of his Edwardians: ‘Many social pressures against openness diminish in retrospect, and the last years of life for many people are a time of reflection and special candour.’)

She next considers music, or rather ‘the image of music in wartime London and the ways that this art form contributed to wartime hegemony and wartime life’. In 1940, for the first time in its history, the BBC broadcast dance music on Sunday. That, of course, would not have been possible under John Reith, who had retired in 1938. November 1941 brought the first transmission of Sincerely Yours – Vera Lynn, billed as a ‘sentimental presentation by Howard Thomas’. These dates represent significant stages in the defeat of the old BBC. Vera Lynn, the Forces’ Sweetheart from East Ham, with just the right traditional music-hall break in her voice, is contrasted here with Myra Hess, whose classic lunchtime concerts in the National Gallery began in October 1939 (they lasted for one hour and admission was one shilling). Dame Myra’s enterprise too, however, was immediately successful, her standards were never lowered, and the authorities concerned could take comfort. ‘Her mission is not only to interpret the work of great composers to those who can appreciate it, but also to enable more and more people to make contact with beauty by learning to love the finest in music.’

Freedman finished her book too early for a discussion of New Labour, but she did ask her interviewees to recall, if only as a myth, their hopes of the 1945 election. Ettie Gontarsky went into the needle trades at 15:

I think there was this great turn of the tide. That the lads, the boys of the troops, forces, all the forces, they thought: ‘Right, we’re going to have our own government’ ... And then came the Beveridge Report, the National Health was built, though it’s being killed now by the Tory Government, of course – I’ll get that little bit in for you.

‘The finest hour’, then, might be remembered as a sequence beginning with Churchill’s speech and running through to the implementation of the Beveridge Plan. ‘From the vantage point of 1993, the dangerous Forties and the bleak Fifties might look golden indeed.’ Loyal to her witnesses, Freedman won’t accept that these recollections might be a piece of retrospective nonsense. She concludes with a moving tribute to memory itself. ‘Without memories, we have no way of knowing that we have even lived.’ It’s true that in the course of her book she has extended the meaning of ‘memory’ to cover diaries, letters, documentation and records of all sorts. But she started out, after all, from what her parents could tell her. History, for her, is the voice of the group, memory the voice of the individual.

Since Freedman meets her readers on personal terms, I let myself wonder what sort of showing I should make if she interviewed me. During the Blitz I was working at Broadcasting House, as one of the lowliest employees, a Recorded Programmes Assistant. I have no shelter stories, because I never went into a shelter, this being due to a crass lack of imagination. I felt obstinate – let them all come! – this, too, being a matter of ignorance. I woke to the unmistakable rustle and hiss of glass being swept up. I walked to work, proud to be earning £400 p.a., and taking more and more elaborate routes as the streets were cordoned off on account of unexploded bombs. At times there was no bread in Lyons shop windows, only cold baked potatoes. In the evenings we all went, sometimes under blazing skies, to Soho, to the Nuthouse, very crowded, blacked-out, of course, and stuffy. Under the direction of the compère (perhaps the proprietor) Nuthouse Al, we all joined in his signature tune, which went from simplicity to simplicity: ‘We’re all nuts at the Nuthouse.’ He was still untired, still raising the mortarboard, which he wore for some reason, to new arrivals, when, with the first light, the All-Clear sounded. What became of you, Nuthouse Al?

What trivialities, before anyone I cared deeply about had been lost or killed. But shouldn’t I, in the face of an interview about cheeriness and togetherness, have stayed inarticulate about the things that concerned me most? The trouble about memory is that it develops its own defences, against truth-telling and in consequence against history.