Earnestly knitting for victory

3rd November 1995 at 00:00
Personal memories, archive photographs and voices from the past bring the local impact of the war years vividly to life, writes Sean Lang.

Some of the best material on the Second World War deals with its local impact. So popular is the topic that the number of children re-enacting evacuation each year at railway stations up and down the land must sometimes approach the number who went through the real thing.

Local archives are usually well off for source material about the war's impact in the area, from photographs and newspapers, and particularly on film and audio cassette. But not all teachers are able to get to archives to find the materials, and even if they are, the material is not necessarily in a suitable form for classroom use.

These two resource packs each address that problem by packing a wide selection of prime material be-tween a single pair of covers for class use. The Birmingham pack will cost a fiver, for which you get a cassette tape of oral history, with people talking about their experiences during the war, a good set of photographs of wartime Birmingham, and cards with questions and notes to go with the source material. The tape alone is worth the modest outlay: the extracts are short and grouped by theme, and exert their own powerful fascination.

One man's matter-of-fact account of clearing children's bodies in the blitz is heart-breaking to listen to. Here too is the anguish of parents watching their children being evacuated to unknown destinations. The photos cover familiar scenes like bomb damage and VE Day street parties but also include less familiar ones, like black American women GIs marching through the city centre or a couple of Birmingham children self-consciously shaking hands with some Punjabi troops in full ceremonial uniform.

Where the pack falls down is in the support materials. Everything is presented on separate sheets of card, even the contents page, when in fact only pupil materials really need to be. The questions on the photos are unimaginative, and in far too many cases they are only indirectly connected with the pictures. Much more thought is needed in this area for future productions which, with archives that good, certainly ought to be in the pipeline.

From the north west comes a videotape with 95 minutes of archive footage from 14 separate films looking at the home front, mainly in and around Manchester. Again, the archive material is invaluable, the more so since so much of it will be unfamiliar. There is a training film for the ARP, a terribly plummy voice explaining over the jaunty newsreel music how "Menchester ken take it" just as well as London, and Lancashire soldiers out in India send greetings home on camera. Look out for the colour home-movie footage of life at Elworth School, Sandbach, shot by the headmaster in 1942, which at one point includes all the children, boys included, earnestly knitting for victory. This is one of a number of pieces of silent film footage on the tape, which will make for some very different and rewarding viewing in class.

This pack gets the support materials just right. The work cards are clear, with suitable tasks on them, and there is plenty of background material on the film extracts to give the teacher confidence to use it, including full transcripts of the film soundtracks. As well as photographs, the extra sources in the support materials include extracts from school diaries in the original handwriting. Considering its price, this is a one-off buy; the Birmingham pack is cheap enough to consider buying a class set. Most importantly, you don't have to live in either place to benefit from these professional and fascinating packs.

Se n Lang is head of history at Hills Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge WAITING FOR THE ALL CLEAR: LIFE IN BIRMINGHAM DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR Age range 11-plus Birmingham City Council Pounds 5. - 0 7093 0209 6. Social History Department, Birmingham Museum of Science and Industry, Newhall Street, Birmingham B3 1RZ

THE SECOND WORLD WAR: THE HOME FRONT IN THE NORTH WEST OF ENGLAND Age range 11-plus North West Film Archive Charitable Trust Pounds 39.95. North West Film Archive, Minshull House, 47-49 Chorlton Street, Manchester M1 3EU

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