By Jonathan Croall
Jonathan Croall's introduction to this collection of reminiscences about life in Britain during the Second World War includes an interesting and important discussion about the nature of memory, and the relative value of accounts written in the fever of the moment and those recalled after many years. (Croall interviewed his sources in the late Eighties.) I know what he means. Did I really see American trucks in our village, and call out "Gimme some gum, chum" to black soldiers lounging beside them? Or was that something my friends told me about?
Maybe it doesn't matter. Incidents like that definitely happened, and as Croall writes, "personal reminiscence is not just about verifiable facts".
This introduction shouldn't be skipped; it's a valuable discussion document in itself.
The accounts are familiar enough: gas masks, air raids, evacuation, absences that often made the heart grow fonder of the wrong people. The added value comes from the fact that they're so varied they include a civil servant, a country housewife, a public schoolboy, a pacifist and a Jewish refugee. Also, many of the accounts are long enough, and carefully enough chosen, to start filling in details that we haven't been aware of before (or had lived through and forgotten). Kate Eggleston, remembering her primary schooling in Nottingham, brings so much back: incompetent teachers, because those fit in brain and body were in the forces; wartime writing paper that messily soaked up your ink and had visible wood chips in it; getting the cane for turning round; the child given half a crown and told to join any queue she saw, for whatever it was.
In many ways it was a dismal and squalid time. Think of your classroom now, and consider the reality, described by Eileen Jameson, a teacher during the London Blitz, of having a chemical toilet in the corner because it was too dangerous to go down to the yard with bits of anti-aircraft shell falling from the sky. Or think of taking food secreted up your knicker leg to your aunt, locked up to prevent her running off with a man. In truth it was a different world, and that wasn't all to do with the war. The section called "Two Nations" describes divisions of class and gender about which we all need reminding, just as we need to be told again and again that anti-Semitism didn't start at the German border.
Don't You Know There's a War On? (the universal answer to anyone who asked for something absurd, such as a tin of salmon or a second egg) is a labour of love, and a wonderful act of respect for a generation, now too often sidelined, who have within them stories to make your hair curl.