Mustn't grumble!

6th September 1996 at 01:00
Was there a spontaneous Blitz spirit among East Enders? Pupils researching the evidence learn how historians interpret 'facts' very differently.

What happened in the past is capable of a variety of interpretations; different historians use the same "facts" very differently. These valuable historical lessons are being learned in a variety of ways by a Year 9 history group at a large rural, mixed comprehensive at Marlborough in Wiltshire. Their teacher, Andrew Wrenn, takes one of several Year 9 groups and has also set up a lunch-time history club. All the groups are studying the Blitz as part of their key stage 3 work.

Over the year he bombarded them with evidence, beginning with a traditionalist historian and key participant, Winston Churchill. His version of what happened between 1940 and 1944 is summed up in the phrase "London can take it".

Then came a revisionist, Dr Nick Tiratsoo, whose basic viewpoint was that Britain was very much a divided society, that the effects of the bombing were felt unequally and that the poor, who suffered most, did not experience "a Blitz spirit".

The class was presented with this view on a video clip from a 1995 television programme Myths and Memories of World War 2. They noted Tiratsoo's statement that in the poorer London boroughs 93 per cent of the houses were damaged.

Then came the views of another historian, Philip Ziegler, in his book London at War. He put forward the thesis that there was no Blitz spirit until the Government deliberately created it through propaganda when morale seemed to be sagging.

To try to resolve these contradictions Mr Wrenn's Year 9 group carried out some research of their own by speaking to veterans of the Blitz. They evaluated the interviews, giving a bit more credence to the experiences of a 13-year-old at the time of the Blitz than the testimony of an eight-year-old. They made allowances for factors such as the social class of the witnesses or the amount of bombing they actually experienced.

Next they turned to Mass Observation, the polling organisation which secretly collected evidence on how people were experiencing the war and conveyed it to the government. The pupils found the geographical and social spread of the interviewees in this source useful. All the classes visited the Imperial War Museum with their teachers. By now thoroughly sensitised to retaining a proper historical detachment, Mr Wrenn's class reacted to the museum's Blitz Experience with a suitable critical reserve.

At least one was disappointed: "Not up to my expectations. I had expected that there would be two or three convincing actors, for example, someone with a leg severed at the knee."

Another took the ambivalent view that while the actors gave "the impression of having a really jolly time and that it really was all so easy. The other parts of the Blitz Experience, like the sound effects and the shelter, made it seem very dark and dismal".

To try to give the group some entertainment as well as information, Mr Wrenn showed them the feature film Hope and Glory, John Boorman's view of the Blitz as he experienced it.

By now the Year 9s were becoming super objective: "The problem about making a film about one person's memories so long after it happened," ran one comment, "is that you could forget the really nasty times, the many nights of boredom stuck in an Anderson shelter all huddled together, scared stiff."

After the museum visit and the examination of the oral, written and video evidence, the pupils started their assignments. They had to categorise as traditionalist, revisionist or counter-revisionist various statements and show how they might be used. For instance: * "Nazi bombers could not tell who was rich or poor when they dropped their bombs, but the Luftwaffe did choose to bomb industrial areas most heavily."

* "The Underground in London was only opened for shelter two months after the start of the bombing, and even then only as a result of public pressure. "

* "There was greater equality. The diet of the poor actually improved because of rationing."

* "Portsmouth - looting and wanton destruction, feeling of desperation, nerve has gone. Plymouth - the people cannot stand this intensive bombing indefinitely." (Mass Observation.) After the written work came a debate. Two pupils represented each of the three points of view and argued it out under the careful chairmanship of their teacher. The result was videoed by another member of the class and it was easy to see on the tape just how familiar the pupils had become with the idea that evidence could be manipulated, used selectively and also demolished.

Members of the history club made it clear in discussion that they were equally divided about the issue of whether there really was a spontaneous Blitz spirit, but very few had downright opinions on the matter. They were well on the road to a sceptical objectivity.

The year group spanned a wide range of ability and there were several types of activity. While some were in the local library studying Mass Observation, others were building models of the D-Day landings at Omaha Beach complete with landing craft, German gun emplacements and American marines waist deep in the water (this involved cutting in half some of the makers' cherished toy soldiers).

Looking back, the pupils were pleased with the way, in the videoed debate, that some of them had been able to argue a case for a particular point of view without necessarily believing it. "You've got to keep cool, to be able to think on your feet," said one. All in all, it seemed that they were being well prepared not just for GCSE but for a variety of other challenges too. One intriguing question which Andrew Wrenn had put to the group remained: "Do you think that this country would remember the Blitz in the same way if Germany won the war?" The evidence on that may be hard to find.

Andrew Wrenn is leading a workshop on the Blitz at the Historical Association's conference next week.

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