In my first year as a graduate student, I lived in a terrace house in York Street, Cambridge – a shabby, friendly part of town which had not yet been ‘improved’. (True, the previous owners had built an ‘extension’, but it was very ramshackle, and they left the main drain in the middle of the kitchen floor.) One of my next-door neighbours was Mrs A., a bent, frail, spirited woman, about seventy years old. Her house was heated by coal and lit by gas, because when she and her husband came back after World War Two, the landlord told them the whole street was going to be demolished in six months and it wasn’t worth putting in electricity. And after her husband died she could never be bothered.
During the war, when Mr A. was called up, she had gone back to London to work in a munitions factory and to live with her family on the Isle of Dogs – parents, two brothers, sister and brother-in-law and their two children, one a baby. Her father, a Thames lighter-man, had been crippled in an accident. The three other men had not been called up because they worked in the docks. Mrs A. was surprisingly bitter about the Blitz – I mean the bitterness was surprisingly fresh, thirty years on. The constant anxiety, the grubbiness – above all, the lack of sleep. She told me she had longed to be dead, and used to envy the peace and quiet of the corpses she saw pass by in funerals. There were plenty of funerals.
The Isle of Dogs was bombed day in, day out. At the back of the house there was an Anderson shelter, a tinny prefab half-sunk into the ground and covered with earth. (The first citation in the Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary is from the New Statesman, 3 June 1939: ‘Goats sheltered from high explosive in Anderson shelters were claimed to be quite unhurt.’) One evening, shortly after the men came home, the siren started and the whole family crowded into the shelter. In the hurry, no one noticed that the baby’s bottle-feed had been left behind. The baby was hungry, and cried incessantly. The raid was heavy and prolonged, and the atmosphere inside the shelter was stifling. Then there was a lull in the bombing, but the all-clear didn’t sound. The baby cried and cried. The lull went on for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. Finally Mrs A.’s elder brother declared that he couldn’t stick it; he was going up to the house to get the feed. No, said the baby’s father, he ought to go, and the two men had a silly, furious row about it. They decided to go together. The women tried hard to persuade them not to, it seemed so stupid, but they had ‘made their minds up’, and they went. They were just inside the house when Mrs A., who was watching at the edge of the shelter, heard that unmistakable high thin drone, and jumped back inside. A clutch of bombs fell along the line of the street, one of them directly opposite their house.
At first the bodies could not be found. It was not unusual for people to be blown hundreds of yards away. Mrs A. and her surviving brother, in their time off work, visited the local mortuaries where the unidentified dead lay for a short while before disposal. In the second or third place they were shown the remains of a man who might have been their brother. They were not allowed to uncover the top half of the corpse; they were told it was no use, anyway. The body of the baby’s father, their brother-in-law, was never identified.
What do such stories mean? Nothing I ‘know’ about the Blitz, or, indeed, about World War Two in general, whether from books or film, affects me as much as this, the only story about the war told to me by another living person. (There’s one quite like it in ‘The Good War’, on page 219, but my story is not on a page – for me.) I think of it, quite irrationally, as more real, its emotional force correspondingly more intense. And it’s more memorable, both in the sense that it’s easier for me to remember, and that it seems to me more worthy of record, than the names of generals or the dates of battles. But what happens when I tell the story in my turn? What happens, especially, when I write it down? How much of the effect, if any, can be transmitted? I am unsure of my own motive, of how to read this text of the past which passes through my hands; I find, in the two books under review, the question magnified and re-echoing, but without response.
Studs Terkel has undertaken a hugely ambitious project: to encompass the experience of World War Two for a whole American generation (a few other nationalities get a look in, but the emphasis is mainly, and rightly, on the people he knows best). Liz Heron’s project is altogether more limited: she has assembled a group of autobiographical essays by contemporaries of hers who grew up in Britain in the aftermath of World War Two. But both books, which see themselves as rooted in the concrete particularity of remembered events and feelings, are also rooted in a problem, the problem of how memory works and what it is good for. Studs Terkel himself, and many of the people who spoke to him, are vividly aware that the ‘good war’ was followed by the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, the arms race; Liz Heron’s contributors, writing in year six of the Great Leap Backward, are equally aware that the good years, the years of plenty and opportunity, have turned out leaner than was expected or hoped. What is lacking, however, is a sufficient realisation that we think of World War Two as ‘good’ only in comparison with what followed, just as our sense of post-war optimism is shaped, retrospectively, by disillusions and defeats. Memory is not merely unreliable, it is unstable. This may not invalidate the practice of history, whether written or oral, but it does require historians and auto-biographers to think about what they do, rather than just do it.
Both ‘The Good War’ and Truth, Dare or Promise, though they differ in every other respect, share the premise that memory conveys the past in its most essential form: how it was, the feel, the living texture of another time. The first paragraph of Studs Terkel’s Introduction speaks eloquently of this belief:
‘I was in combat for six weeks, 42 days. I remember every hour, every minute, every incident of the whole 42 days. What was it – forty years ago?’ As he remembers aloud, the graying businessman is transformed into a 19-year-old rifleman. ‘Much too tall for a rifleman, his mother cried.’
This transformation of old into young, whether it concerns young soldiers in the Forties or young girls in the Fifties, is taken for granted almost without exception. A recurring feature of the various contributions in Truth, Dare or Promise is the use of the narrative present, perhaps because the writers credit it with greater actuality. Julia Pascal:
My breasts are beginning to grow so that I hide them under my navy school cardigan. No other girl has breasts yet. I don’t like it. I tell the other girls that they can expect periods. They crowd round me at breaktime as I give them this secret knowledge, and I feel important.
Liz Heron moves from historical past to narrative present in consecutive sentences: ‘My mother made novenas, but the longed-for infant who would share the burden of childhood with me never arrived. I am bowled over by my first day at school; there are scores of us sitting at long bench desks in a vast wooden hut.’ The demarcation here is between the Other’s experience and one’s own, and the implication is that memory does offer immediate access to the past, at least to the individual’s portion of it. But, as Denise Riley recognises, in the last and most powerful contribution to the volume, the womb of memory gives birth, not to time past itself, but to stories of time past; such stories may have their own force, but it is not the force of how it was or what really happened, but the force of what is imagined.
It sounds callous, but the value of the reminiscences which make up these books depends ultimately on their style. Here is a middle-aged American man, remembering his experience as a teenaged infantryman during the race to Berlin in the last days of the war:
Of course, I was absolutely bowled over by Europe, the castles, the cathedrals, the Alps. It was wonderment. I was preoccupied with staying alive and doing my job, but it seemed, out of the corner of my eye, I was constantly fascinated with the beauty of the German forests and medieval bell-towers. At 19, you’re seeing life with fresh eyes.
And here is Sheila Rowbotham, ‘remembering’ her adolescence in the Fifties:
As I tussled with Christianity and to order the world in my head, I became conscious of an oscillation of temperament. I was drawn to contrary poles. I yearned towards the mystical earnestness which saw through the outer facing of existence in a oneness and blinding intensity which went direct to some essence of being. But I could appreciate a countervailing vision of tolerant scepticism in which the surface texture of life was a source of amiability and pleasure. Here reasoned choice between lesser evils was the course which brought the least ill on humanity.
It would be unjust to quote these passages as evidence of bad faith or insincerity. What is at issue is not the original feeling, but the communication of that feeling: not the ‘fresh eyes’, but the stale language. What the first passage actually tells us is that the banality of tourism can survive even in the midst of what the same speaker calls ‘this world-cataclysmic drama’. As for the second passage, how self-important would you have to be (at 15) to ‘become conscious of an oscillation of temperament’, or ‘appreciate a countervailing vision of tolerant scepticism’? Surely neither life nor Sheila Rowbotham is like that. But the sense of whatever authentic experiences underlie these passages must be dug out by the good will of the reader.
Conversely, the passages which strike home in both books are those which are rhetorically the most skilful, whether the rhetoric is natural or concocted. Robert Lekachman, ‘a helplessly awkward intellectual sort of kid’, was drafted into the Navy after Pearl Harbor:
Our first operation was in Guam. That was the first time I saw a dead Japanese. He looked pitiful, with his thick glasses. He had a sheaf of letters in his pocket. He looked like an awkward kid who’d been taken right out of home to this miserable place.
So, of course, had Lekachman; the ‘awkward kid’ is his double, his luck, the price of his own survival. Ron Veenker remembers the disappearance of Japanese Americans from his California neighbourhood in terms which, to a Jew, sound horribly familiar. He was five years old at the time:
Nobody talked about it. These were Japanese truck-garden people who had been there a long time. Their homes had pagoda architecture. I walked down this lane past all their homes on my way to school in the morning.
In Truth, Dare or Promise Alison Fell, reincarnating a crucial episode in Rousseau’s Confessions, describes a child’s experience of injustice, and an adult’s reflection on that experience:
For her these are dangerous times. Dangerous if you tear your hand-me-down coat. Dangerous if you just cannae get bread-and-butter pudding (so slimy and white) down your throat at the tea table. Dangerous if you accidentally break a rationed egg. So full of beatings and beltings. Twenty or more years later those chickens will all come home to roost, and in a therapy group I’ll hear an awful young scream sirening up from that black basement place: ‘It isn’t fair, it isn’t fair’ ... No wonder, then, that I put up such a fight for justice, equality, socialism and what have you: it’s no mere matter of ideology or principle, but an obsession in the very flesh.
That same writer ends her bravura piece with a satirically Freudian put-down of ‘Big Eric’, her first would-be lover: ‘On the way home from The King and I, he stops the landrover in a lay-by beside the old aerodrome. He’s six foot three, and in the moonlight a white tower of flesh erupts from his cavalry twills, tall as the Scott Monument and smelling of smoked haddock, and he’s whining at her to do something for him.’ But Ms Fell is determined to be ‘a college girl, not just another village girl, another teenage shot-gun bride ... She sticks her nose in the air and orders Big Eric to drive her home immediately.’
One further difficulty arises from the form in which the two books are composed. The method of ‘oral history’ which Studs Terkel has made his own (Working, Hard Times, American Dreams: Lost and Found) is intended to short-circuit the distance and stylisation of written narrative, and to confront the reader, directly, with the voices of the participants. In one sense at least this method has a huge advantage over the more conventional method of Truth, Dare or Promise, the collection of memoirs. The artificiality of spoken reminiscence is as nothing compared to the artificiality of writing. Given patience and tact on the part of the compiler, most people will eventually relax and speak freely. That’s not to say that what they remember will be unstructured or artless, merely that their self-consciousness will have one less twist than it would if they were required to write instead of speak. Everyone speaks, but writing is the preserve of a few, a privilege of education, and writing is supremely reflexive. Spontaneous speech is possible; spontaneous writing is literally unthinkable. As a result, whereas the only condition of appearing in ‘The Good War’ is physical survival – just be there to speak, Studs Terkel and his team of transcribers will do the rest – the condition of appearing in Truth, Dare or Promise is having become a writer.
‘The Good War’ has a comprehensive social range; in Truth, Dare or Promise the range is uncomfortably, even ludicrously restricted. The contributors have been carefully chosen to represent widely differing backgrounds (middle-class, working-class, black, Jewish, metropolitan, provincial etc) but this variety and openness are deceptive. For how have they all ended up? As (in order of appearance) writer, dance editor of City Limits, novelist and deputy literary editor of the New Statesman, academic, writer, historian, journalist, writer, writer, writer, political activist, and – guess what? – writer. How could these careers be representative of ‘girls growing up in the Fifties’, when the most typical experience must be that of past and present inarticulacy? What links the writers’ contemporaries – left behind as small-town shop assistants, swallowed by suburban marriages, pursuing careers as nuns or police officers or motor mechanics – is their silence, their absence from the rite of remembering. This is particularly ironic in a collection dominated by the radical politics of class and gender, where the emphasis in recent years has been to do with reversing the exclusions and exclusivities of discourse.
Against this, the scope of ‘The Good War’, its hospitality to a host of voices, is one of its most attractive and compelling features. But here, too, there is a snag. Shouldn’t oral history be presented aurally – and visually? What happens between tape recorder and printed page is much more than a process of selection and editing, which would be the same if the material were to be shown on television, or even acted on stage. It’s to do with the difference between, on the one hand, hearing people’s voices breaking under stress, interrupting themselves with laughter or tears, seeing them grimacing or gesturing; and, on the other hand, reading the script of their performance. Take the following passage, spoken by Olga Nowak, a Polish woman separated from her family by the Germans in 1939:
I didn’t see my family either. That was the last time. When I said goodbye, for me – just awful. (Cries.) Being young you think you survive everything, and you come back. (Cries throughout.) It’s very painful to say goodbye to your mother, your sister, your father.
The pathos of this is peculiar to a written text: it rests in the evenly-paced march of the words, punctuated by the laconic stage directions. I am not saying that the text is less moving, or less true, than the original utterance, only that the kind of experience it offers is different. Here is Ted Allenby, a gay man who enlisted in the Marines ‘to prove how virile I was’. He became a machine gunner. He describes the return from Iwo Jima to Hawaii:
Had our usual nightmares. Weird being on board ship at night, listenin’ to guys screaming and hollering. My recurring nightmare was a ghastly one. (Laughs.) There was this dead Jap, maggoty, decomposed, with a rusty rifle in his hand, and he gets up and chases me. You’re running, but your feet won’t go fast enough and he’s gaining on you. Then I would wake up in a cold sweat.
What kind of laugh was that?
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.