Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Voices from the Past

by Beryl Kingston

Throughout history, the actions of the great, the rich, the powerful have been well documented, not necessarily always truthfully, but at least giving the facts. Thoughts and language are something else, however, and whilst the words they spoke publicly are on record, their private words and thoughts are not and it is often a surprise to come face to face with a strong opinion we do not share. Sometimes history is revealed more through the words of those who lived through documented events, witnesses who reacted to what they experienced, rather than those who dictated policy.

I was alive in London during the Blitz. And fortuitously I kept a diary all through the war, which was very useful. But memory plays tricks and paints pictures. I was writing about the bombing of Hiroshima and assumed - without thinking about it - that I would have been appalled and horrified by it. Later on in 1959 I joined CND and the Committee of 100 and was as opposed to nuclear weapons as it was possible to be, but I thought I would check to see what I had said at the time. It was not what I expected at all and it made me shudder at the person I had been then. I wrote 'they have dropped a new bomb on a town called Hiroshima in Japan and killed everybody in it. Good, they had it coming to them.

It's just as well we don't go on thinking the same things forever. We are capable of development and understanding but it is salutary now and then remind ourselves of what we thought when we were young. And when we write about, read about, or study earlier times, we should always be aware that people spoke in a different English language then and thought different thoughts for a variety of different reasons.


In the late 30s when the members of the newly emerging ARP (Air Raid Precaution) were being prepared and trained for the jobs they all knew they would soon be doing when the air raids began, they were given clear instructions. ‘Always stay calm,’ was the first and most important. ‘No matter what you are seeing or what you might be feeling, don’t let your casualties know it. Tell them ‘We’re here. We’ve got you. You’re going to be all right.’ If you cry or panic you will put them into even deeper shock than they’re in already. Stay calm.’

And through the ten terrible months of the London Blitz and the bombing of ports and cities all over the country, and all through the attacks by doodle-bugs and rockets, that’s what they did. I saw it at first hand.

Let me tell you a true story about what the war was really like. I found it in the Mass Observation diaries, the first-hand day-to-day accounts that ordinary people kept all through the war and sent to the Mass Observation team, and it was written by a young woman in the ARP. She had been on duty all night long rescuing people from the wreckage of their homes and shelters, as the bombs continued to fall and she was cycling home ‘feeling very tired’ when she was hailed by a rescue team who were still working on yet another bomb site. They told her she would do because she was skinny. They explained that they had an injured man at the bottom of a pit. They’d managed to dig down to him but they couldn’t get him out until the heavy lifting gear arrived or they would bring the rest of house down on top of him, and he was in pain and needed morphine. Would she go down to him?

She stripped off her uniform so that it would be easier to squeeze down and was lowered into the stink, darkness and danger of the pit. When she reached the bottom she found that the man was horribly injured. Most of his face had been blown away. There were black holes where his eyes, nose and lips had been and he was plainly in agony. ‘But,’ she reported, ‘I remembered my training and kept calm. I told him he was going to be all right and that we would get him out and I gave him the morphine.’ She stayed with him until the drug had taken effect and the heavy lifting gear had arrived and then she was hauled out. She wrote about it so calmly, it made me weep. ‘I put my clothes on,’ she wrote. ‘Then I was sick.’ I’ll bet she was. ‘Then I went home.’

Now that’s courage and compassion of a very high order and that’s how most people were. Diaries reveal what we thought and how we behaved when we were at war and what it was like to spend our nights in the cellar waiting for a bomb to fall on us.

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Bio: Beryl Kingston has been writing historical novels for the last thirty-four years and her latest will be released in September 2019. It will be her 30th book and is called ‘Citizen Armies’. It tells the story of a Warden, an Ambulance Driver and their two daughters who are nurses. It starts on the day the war was declared and is written from diaries which Beryl kept at the time, so the speech, thoughts and actions are as accurate as she could get them. You can find more of Beryl’s writing on her website and on Amazon



7 comments:

  1. Thank you for writing this, Beryl. It's an excellent reminder for anyone writing historical fiction to think past the historical record and consider how opinions may have been softened and for many reasons.

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    1. Thank you Cryssa, this was exactly the point I wanted to make.

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  2. Thought-provoking post. When I was younger, I did not enjoy reading diaries or letters; it felt like an invasion of privacy. Now I read them, as one gets a much clearer picture of a time, a place, a situation from those sources. It gives what's in the history books some perspective, and gives clues to how we have developed opinions and ideas we hold today.

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    1. I can sympathise with that entirely, it does feel like an invasion of privacy but my word what a clear picture diaries do give you.

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  3. As always, an excellent post. Currently reading through my collection of Patricia Wentworth books written during the war, and it's sobering to realise that glossed over accounts like hers colour our view.

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  4. A very moving reminder that actually accounts often carry more invaluable information than distant accounts. In a way, your reaction to Hiroshima was real but you were getting a distorted and distant account. Or am I wrong?

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  5. Lovely post. Thought provoking. My mom was a freshman in high school when the war broke out. By the time she was a senior, most of the boys had gone to war, many of them into the Pacific theatre. One boy came back and told the story of the death march. My mom went to her death still angry with the Japanese and what they had done. It was a difficult time. Thanks for sharing.

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Comments with opposing viewpoints are allowed if they are not written in an unnecessarily confrontational or arrogant manner.