Time for Several Whiskies
- Auntie’s War: The BBC during the Second World War by Edward Stourton
Doubleday, 422 pp, £20.00, November 2017, ISBN 978 0 85752 332 7
In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries made ‘post-truth’ their word of the year, defining it as an adjective that described circumstances ‘in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. This hardly seems up to the job: if that’s all the word means, the wonder is that we have waited so long for it. When has our understanding of public life not been shaped more by emotion than by ‘objective facts’? When was this golden age of objectivity? Surely not in the time when press lords such as Northcliffe and Beaverbrook liked to attest to it, along with the retired army sergeant next door who had been East and seen a thing or two. George Orwell offers a sharper insight into the meaning of ‘post-truth’ in his reflections on the success of pro-Franco propaganda in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. ‘I know it is the fashion to say that most of recorded history is lies anyway,’ he wrote in 1942. ‘I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written.’
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Vol. 40 No. 17 · 13 September 2018
Ian Jack refers to the use during the Second World War of switch censors, BBC employees who were ready to cut off a broadcast instantly if a speaker wandered into ‘dangerous territory’ (LRB, 30 August). That wasn’t the only censorship technique available. Despite the entreaties of commissioning editors, the Passport Office (by which we should understand MI6) refused to grant Frank O’Connor, one of Ireland’s best-known writers, a permit to visit London to record for the BBC in 1942.
Trinity College, Dublin
Ian Jack doesn’t mention one occasion when the system of censorship at the BBC during the Second World War broke down with disastrous results. In 1942, the garrison of Tobruk, commanded by Major-General H.B. Klopper, was surrounded. In African Trilogy (1944), Alan Moorehead wrote that
When the battle was actually joined, an announcement came over the air from London suggesting that Tobruk was not after all vital and might be lost. How this disastrous and insane broadcast came to go on the air is still unexplained. The encouragement it offered to the Germans and the depression it spread among the isolated British defenders can be imagined … Klopper and his staff heard it and almost the last message that was received from Klopper said, ‘I cannot carry on if the BBC is allowed to make these statements.’
After fierce fighting, he surrendered. ‘The BBC was listened to intently every day in the desert,’ Moorehead added, ‘because it was usually the only contact the men had with the outside world.’
Vol. 40 No. 18 · 27 September 2018
My father, Denis Johnston, was a war correspondent with the BBC. He arrived in Egypt in 1942 when the Eighth Army was in full retreat ahead of Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The BBC’s Cairo correspondent was Richard Dimbleby. My father was appalled by the sardonic laughter of the soldiers listening to Dimbleby’s breezy optimistic reports, which originated from the generals (LRB, 30 August). ‘From that time on,’ he records in his memoirs Orders and Desecrations, ‘I was firmly determined not to say a word that I would not be prepared to hear coming back to the ears of the Eighth Army at Alamein while I sat among them.’ The light dawned on the BBC brass in London and Dimbleby was recalled, much to his lasting indignation. Soon after that General Montgomery arrived. He recognised the power of radio in his own self-promotion, through which he transformed the morale of the Eighth Army, the counter-attack succeeded, and the tide of the war turned.
Listening to Children’s Hour in 1940 when I was eight years old, I heard the programme interrupted by a new voice, a man speaking in a firm, calm but urgent way. If you have a boat, the man said, capable of crossing the Channel, take it now to the coast of France and bring home some British soldiers. I asked my mother about this and she began to cry. In fact, for the next few days the grown-ups (my mother and aunt, and my friends’ mothers) were often in tears. A little was rather tremblingly explained to us. Soon we began to see lorries, and even buses, full of tired-looking soldiers, driving up the main road from the coast. I have listened to the wireless every day for most of my life – forgotten most of it, but never that interruption to Larry the Lamb.
I, too, believed I heard Churchill deliver that post-Dunkirk speech over the wireless on 4 June 1940. I was 14 at the time of Dunkirk and well aware of the possible consequences. Some years ago a schoolfriend asked me if I remembered the speech. He said it was rumoured that Churchill had not given it himself; the guy who played Larry the Lamb in the ‘Toytown’ series on Children’s Hour had impersonated him. We laughed that off. But after reading Ian Jack’s article I am now convinced that Churchill did not broadcast his speech. Its most defiant and inspiring passages were read during the nine o’clock news by the regular news reader. In the original speech Churchill referred to ‘the odious apparatus of Nazi rule’. Did the BBC presenter read ‘Nazi’ with the German pronunciation, or copy Churchill’s trademark, contemptuous ‘Naarzi’ pronunciation? It’s easy to understand how, in that time of dread uncertainty, so many of us heard Churchill’s own growling voice behind those words and felt a sense of reassurance and resolve.
Vol. 40 No. 19 · 11 October 2018
Raymond Clayton refers to rumours that the version of the post-Dunkirk speech recorded for radio wasn’t delivered by Churchill himself, but by an impersonator, ‘the guy who played Larry the Lamb on Children’s Hour’ (Letters, 27 September). That ‘guy’ was Derek McCulloch, also known as ‘Uncle Mac’. My understanding has been, over the years, that it was Norman Shelley (who played Winnie the Pooh) who revoiced Churchill’s speeches.
Vol. 40 No. 20 · 25 October 2018
Gillian Nelson and Raymond Clayton’s childhood memories of the BBC prompted two vivid memories of my own (Letters, 27 September). The first is from 3 September 1939, my parents’ joint birthday; I was four at the time. It was a Sunday, and we were moving into the front room from our normal living quarters, the kitchen. There was a ritual lighting of a fire and the transfer of a large wooden wireless powered by two large batteries, recharged weekly at the village garage. Shortly after the wireless was up and running I was called to order and my attention focused on a solemn male voice. I sometimes believe that I remember the words, but I presume that is the effect of many subsequent hearings. My mother began to cry. My father comforted her. I inquired as to the reason for this dismay on a day intended for rejoicing. My father replied that a war had been declared and that it would bring a great deal of trouble and misery.
The other memory is provoked by Raymond Clayton’s recollection of Churchill’s broadcasts and the sense they conveyed of ‘reassurance and resolve’. I come from a South Yorkshire coalmining community and Churchill’s reputation was poisonous – it would have been difficult to say who was the greater enemy, Hitler or Churchill. Hitler annoyed us with his overflights of bomber squadrons, during which we were forced to take shelter in a cellar reinforced by discarded pit props. But Churchill’s voice on the wireless or appearance on the cinema newsreel rekindled memories of his role in the Tonypandy coal strike of 1910-11 and his vitriolic opposition to the miners during the 1926 lock-out, which marked the beginning of an era of hardship in mining communities that lasted until the outbreak of war. I remember the reaction to the most celebrated of Churchill’s wartime speeches. Again I am unsure of my recollection of his words. I am sure of the reaction: ‘Aye, our sweat, our toil, our tears – he’ll be eating best steak and smoking his bloody cigar’; and ‘We’ll be doing the fighting, that bugger’s got a plane waiting to take him to Canada’; and ‘He talks as though he’s got a tomato stuffed in his mouth.’
Coal production was a chronic, disabling problem throughout the war. The ‘Bevin Boy’ conscripts were generally discontented with their fate and no more enthusiastic than the existing miners. I have no memory, and can find no report, of Churchill visiting a mining community. Apparently his name is still anathema in what are now ex-mining communities.
Crafers, South Australia
It is possible that the people described by Ian Jack as having false memories of hearing Churchill’s Dunkirk speech on the wireless in 1940 did in fact hear it, less than two weeks later (LRB, 30 August). Harold Nicolson was present when the speech was made in the House of Commons on 4 June. On 17 June he referred in his diary to a speech Churchill had broadcast the previous day: ‘I do wish that Winston would not talk on the wireless unless he is feeling in good form. He hates the microphone and when we bullied him into speaking last night, he just sulked and read his House of Commons speech over again.’ Nicolson doesn’t say which speech he is referring to, but the rest of the entry suggests that it was the one about Dunkirk: ‘Now as delivered in the H of C that speech was magnificent, especially the concluding sentences. But it sounded ghastly on the wireless. All the great vigour he put into it seemed to evaporate.’
Vol. 40 No. 21 · 8 November 2018
Ian Jack writes about people thinking they had heard Churchill’s Dunkirk speech in the House of Commons of 4 June 1940 on the BBC (LRB, 30 August). There was, of course, no broadcasting from Parliament till the mid-1970s. The subsequent correspondence on this subject has mutated into a question of whether it was Norman (‘Winnie the Pooh’) Shelley or Derek (‘Larry the Lamb’) McCulloch who impersonated Churchill in a radio broadcast (Letters, 27 September and Letters, 11 October). Unmentioned is the fact that McCulloch (alias ‘the guy’ and ‘Uncle Mac’), as head of Children’s Hour, played a central role in the campaign by the BBC’s education department to prevent Enid Blyton ever being allowed on the air, on the grounds that she was second-rate and should not be given the opportunity to speak about ‘her methods and aims in writing for children’ (as she had offered to do in a letter to the BBC in 1936). When Lionel Gamlin unwittingly invited her in 1949 to appear on Autograph Album, Blyton had to warn him that she was ‘completely banned’; McCulloch followed up with a stiff memo to Gamlin warning him not to undermine BBC policy. Blyton was prevented from appearing for 27 years before finally being interviewed on Woman’s Hour in 1963.
Vol. 40 No. 22 · 22 November 2018
John Robbins scorns my characterisation of Churchill as a source of ‘reassurance and resolve’ in wartime (Letters, 25 October). Robbins’s memories of his early years in a mining community have left him with an image of Churchill as a brutish, implacable enemy of the working class. I fully understand his feelings. My early years were spent in the working-class suburbs of Manchester, the hub of the cotton industry. My father had his promising career in that industry – achieved through hard work at night school – destroyed in the Depression. In our family there was no lack of bitter talk about Churchill’s past, not least his catastrophic blunder in the ‘Great War’ – the Dardanelles campaign. But after Dunkirk the country desperately needed leadership and Churchill was the only politician in the public eye who could offer it. He had a reputation for opposing Chamberlain and Halifax’s appeasement policy and he had a gift for speeches that conveyed grim, unwavering determination and commitment. And let’s not forget his appearance: that pugnacious ‘British Bulldog’ face was a gift to cartoonists, and boosted his popularity. Leadership is a complex matter.
As for the ‘Bevin Boys’, I was one of them. Bevin assigned some recruits to the mines. The rest could choose: mines or military. I chose the mines. We got along pretty well considering our varied backgrounds and the old hands accepted us into their ranks with good humour. But they were certainly a touchy lot, ready to down tools at any perceived grievance. I had been at work for only about three weeks when I joined my first strike. As a Bevin Boy you were still a civilian.