Jingling his spurs

P.N. Furbank

  • Private Words: Letters and Diaries from the Second World War edited by Ronald Blythe
    Viking, 310 pp, £16.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 670 83204 9

The Second World War, writes Ronald Blythe in the Introduction to Private Worlds, precipitated the ‘last great avalanche of private correspondence’. Thanks to the Education Act of 1918, it was greatest such avalanche there had ever been, and went with the most furious appetite for books – any kind of books, but Penguins for preference – and with the greatest impulsion to try ‘writing’ in the other sense too. For dozens of good reasons, cultural as well as military, that kind of war is not going to happen again. But the letters and diaries and efforts at fiction it inspired have survived in huge quantities; and from private sources, and the Department of Documents at the Imperial War Museum, Ronald Blythe has assembled an expressive collage, which is at the same time a meditation – just ‘one look’ at and ‘one assessment’ of, he says, an inexhaustible subject.

Ronald Blythe is a very good writer – and not just in his books, for every now and then one comes across a review of his which startles one by going straight to the heart of some matter of feeling. All the same, I think there is something wrong with his new book. One asks oneself, to begin with, what genre or discipline it belongs to. It is, fairly evidently, not archaeology nor social anthropology: but neither is it a sentimental severing of ribbon round yellowing pages, for Blythe has gone in search of his material in proper professional-researcher fashion. I suppose we might be tempted to think it meant as a work of art, a ‘period piece’ in the style of a literary era notoriously preoccupied with making fragments cohere. (One can observe a ‘line’ or succession stretching from The Waste Land and Pound’s Cantos through Auden’s ‘montage’ poems down to Mass Observation.) There could be such a book, but Blythe’s is not it.

This leaves us with social history, but actually I do not feel that this book, unlike Akenfied is social history either. Why not, is suggested by a phrase in Blythe’s Introduction, about private letters and diaries ‘providing social history’ in public libraries. Of course one knows what he means, but it is a wrong way to talk, for documents do not ‘provide’ social history. To produce it you need to ask questions of your documents, construct hypotheses and test them, let your mind run on causal explanations, or, if you are that kind of historian, try to elicit a story. Unless I have obtusely missed it, Blythe does none of these things. He does not clearly substantiate any theory beyond the initial one that this was a peculiarly ‘literate’ war, and the only significant plot element one can discern concerns the reception of the Beveridge report, and even that comes in only glancingly. It is as if Blythe did not want to be distanced from his material by the rules of art, or of some discipline, and wished for some more friendly and intimate relationship with it. If so, he has trouble in finding the relationship, and perhaps he was under an illusion in supposing that he might. (A similar illusion dogs a certain kind of political writing.) The consequence is, that something is wrong with his tone. It goes astray, I think, in two ways.

First, his attitude to this amateur writing or ‘private words’ strikes us sometimes as too philanthropic, too tiptoeing and careful-not-to-offend-the-underprivileged. Thus he tells us that early in the war editors and publishers ‘began to receive a flow of new work which lay outside any of the literary beginnings with which they were familiar. It was sharp, colourful and often political.’ Well, very likely a tiny percentage of it actually was ‘sharp’ and ‘colourful’, whilst in the nature of things most of it must have been terrible tripe. It is a misplaced zeal which would lump it all together. Again he writes that the Blitz produced ‘three eloquent and distinctive strands of writing’ – by which he means respectively the work of London-based poets and novelists, Mass Observation, and private diaries and letters. And how, one asks, have all these earned the epithet ‘eloquent’? Eloquence is the ambition of poets, whereas Mass Observers were positively discouraged from being eloquent, and eloquence is not the most usual aim for a diarist. What Blythe really means, I suppose, is that such event-engendered writings, eloquent or not, ‘speak volumes’ to a sensitive latter-day reader. But then, this is condescension, and it is the fate of Blythe’s protectiveness to come out as condescending.

The other swerve taken by Blythe’s tone is towards identification. He has a way of ‘joining’ his human subjects, taking their colour for the moment and borrowing their particular stock-phrases and stock-notions. Of the laconic diarist Sergeant Pexton he writes, ‘Pexton’s diary lasts as long as its usefulness as a measure of his hopefulness lasts. When hope dies [italics mine] he packs it in.’ In the letters of two Suffolk-born brothers and their sister we dip into a moving war-story. Donald, an airman, is captured by the Japanese in Malaya and is murdered on a jungle march, and his younger brother Christopher, with extraordinary persistence – bombarding the Air Ministry with letters and making the journey to Malaysia, questioning villagers all along the death-route – manages to track down the grave. One is gripped and would be glad to have been offered more than this brief fragment. But here is how Blythe, in one of his impersonations, writes about the sister Jean: ‘Christopher’s and Donald’s sister, Jean, had begun the war as secretary to a Home Guard major before joining the ATS. Her letters are non-introspective, level-headed, interesting and sane, and could be described as the letters most welcomed and most posted during the war. The world would not fall to bits as long as they were scribbled and sent.’ This, though satire is nowhere in question, reads like an Alan Bennett take-off – language and sentiments cut to the measure of the breezy Jean herself.

One more, related, example: Blythe is talking about last letters from those killed in war.

One of the lessons of war is how to say goodbye, though few attempted to learn it. Death in battle was not like death in old age or by execution, or like knowing that one was terminally ill, and deliberated last words were comparatively rare. Usually, the official notification of death while on active service was followed up by personal letters from officers, clergymen and close friends. Strangely yet understandably, when a last letter was consciously composed it often lacked the intimacy of those sent by comrades to the killed man or woman’s family. The best last letters are from those who eagerly await a reply. The sudden snapping of communication at a commonplace moment is often more poignant than the valediction of the measured farewell. Gossip and grouses, love and kisses, and then not another word.

There are all sorts of oddities in this, if one is literal-minded enough to unpick it – beginning with that opening sentence; for ‘lessons’ are surely for those who mean to do something more than once, which can hardly be the case with the about to die? Then, why ‘strangely’ in the fourth sentence? The fact referred to is a moving one but no way strange. Again, one wants to know for whom ‘the sudden snapping of communication at a commonplace moment is often more poignant than the valediction of the measured farewell.’ The answer is: not for the bereaved, but for strangers like ourselves, responding aesthetically fifty years later. In such a context as this the questions ‘to whom?’ and ‘for whom?’ are crucial, and it is rash of Blythe to leave them unresolved.

So much for nit-picking. Ronald Blythe is an experienced and highly skilled anthologist, and, as you would expect, he has made one or two wonderful finds. They are good for the best and least complicated of reasons: the author can write. Wherever Gunner James Witte turns his eye he finds something interesting, needing studying, and he interests us in it too – amazingly. First, it is how, as a Territorial, to pose as a dashing royal Horse Artillery man.

There was a tailor in the village where we were billeted who had altered our uniforms. First of all he ‘boxed’ the collars on our jackets, which meant that he did away with the points so that the jacket fitted snugly round the neck. Then he ‘winged’ and ‘piped’ our riding-breeches, so that they became tight round the legs, blossoming out into ‘butterfly wings’ at the thighs. The only trouble was that it was almost impossible to get into them, and equally hard to get out. But we didn’t care about that. In my enthusiasm, I had even removed the rowels from my spurs and inserted silver threepenny-pieces instead, because they made a better jingling sound.

He and a friend, while on leave, go on an extended morning pub-crawl, and, standing in the street afterwards, with his boots at the ‘ten-to-two’ position, he wants to move but cannot and falls down. ‘I began to get worried and thought I was paralysed or something.’ ‘It’s your spurs, mate,’ his friend explains, ‘they’re locked together.’

Next, as a prisoner-of-war, it is the practicalities of reading.

The best antidote to boredom that I know of is a book, any book. I bought a Sexton Blake off a chap for five English fags and went away well content. After I had finished reading how the great detective tracked the master criminal I went round the barrack-room calling out, ‘Any books to change?’ like the knife-grinder must have done to advertise his wares in 19th-century England ... There was a studious-looking soldier lying down on his pit with a large tome propped up on his chest, which must have taken some lugging around, I got chatting to him and asked whether he would care to swap it for my well-thumbed James Hadley Chase, plus ten English fags. To my surprise he jumped at the chance and I became the owner of William Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico, and of Peru. A great work, but the only trouble was the thought of having to hump it around when we moved. But I said to myself that I would think about that when the time came, and got down to some serious reading.

From Prescott he moves on to ‘somebody’s History of France’.

His noticing eye is caught, and very pleased by the aftermath of prison-camp theatrical productions, which had of course an all-male cast.

The girls really looked like girls. Dutiful swains used to wait outside the theatre for them to appear after the show. They couldn’t take them to dinner, so they took them instead to quiet places in the compound. The trouble was, though, that there was very little privacy for a love affair of this nature. The boyfriends used to get very jealous if you so much as glanced at their girlfriends. There was a corporal in the Military Police who was violently in love with one of the actresses called Gerry. Both were kissing during a roll-call and were found snuggled together under a blanket in a corner of another compound. This amused the Italians, who put them into solitary together for a week.

He makes a study of parcel-sharing from all its points of view, economic, political and psychological, and we leave him describing his resistless rise into big business.

The contents of the English parcels varied, so merchants sprang up in the barrack-rooms to trade in commodities for a small cigarette percentage. Anyone wanting to exchange a meat loaf for a tin of Spam went to a merchant, and you went to them if you wanted to buy a Yorkshire pudding, for instance. Each merchant had a list of current prices attached to the barrack-room door which the buyers consulted. Like London’s Leather Lane, prices were much of a muchness. When the private cigarette parcels began to arrive, you could live like a king. I was fortunate enough to receive several at a time from relatives, friends and the firm where I worked. This enabled me to set up in business as an entrepreneur with business headquarters at my bed-space. The only drawback in being a tycoon was the fact that I had always to be at the premises. I grew richer and richer. I became a camp Croesus. Soon I could afford to pay people to look after my wealth whilst I strolled around the compound passing the time of day with other business associates.

Another gunner – Sir James Stephen, fourth Baronet, aged 33, Eton and Trinity – can write also, at all events he can express himself brilliantly. He was, so Blythe tells us, ‘a large, fat, dirty man’, a Catholic convert, who had studied law and journalism. He liked to write songs and to knit for the Forces and longed to fight for his country, but never got farther than the cookhouse. In the April of 1941 he is ordered to act as a prisoners’ escort and writes, philosophically:

Well, well, it’s the way the world wags. It is a dirty job, but I have not yet been on a route march, or done fire piquet, or done a guard. The reason for all this is my bad foot. But I can’t expect to spend the duration writing poetry and reading Gibbon. The prisoners cocked snooks at me, made ugly faces, giggled, implored me to lend them money, and in fact behaved like a lot of naughty children seven years old. One man was particularly irritating. He wanted me to lend him money. I pointed out that this was illegal. He then quoted St Paul on charity and said I was a sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal. The what of it was that I began to catch the infection from the prisoners and to giggle myself. I see prisoners have a bad time.

The following month he scrubs the inside of his gaiters for the first time, a colossal task, and completes a ‘Song of a Soldier whose Leave Coincided with Kit Inspection’, enclosing it with a note to the Bombardier, hoping it ‘may bring fruit in due season’. ‘I think there must be something wrong with Bob Robertson,’ he reflects anxiously. ‘Yesterday evening I discovered that he keeps photographs of upwards of twenty women in his bedroom, none of the women having the slightest vestige of clothing on.’ Another friend behaves strangely too:

Last night Baffin came in a bit tipsy at 11.30, a time when he had no business to beanywhere except in bed. He came to my bed and said something affectionate to me when I was half-asleep, so I clenched my fist and struck him unexpectedly on the nose. The result was that he set up a wail of ‘Hit me on the fucking nose, he did!’ which he repealed over fifty times, thereby causing much amusement. I expressed regret that I had not broken his neck.