from David Vincent in Shrewsbury: General Montgomery and my Mother

General Montgomery
My Mother

July 6.  In his Memex 1.1 blog yesterday, my friend and colleague, John Naughton, reproduced the letter sent by General Montgomery to the troops about to launch the D-Day landing in 1944, which has turned up in the papers of his wife’s father.  ‘The time has come to strike the enemy a terrific blow in Western Europe’ it begins.

I too have seen a copy of the message, sent not to my (as yet unmarried)  father, who was on a ship off the coast of West Africa, but my mother, who spent the war in an anti-aircraft unit, plotting incoming planes and V-bombs* – you may have seen the films in which uniformed young women push models across a map on a table before the order is given to the anti-aircraft gunners.  She was moved down to the south coast as part of the preparations for D-day and was sent the letter.

Her technical role in the war always puzzled me.  During her life as my mother she never once showed the slightest interest in, or affinity for, machines or science.  Her OU degree taken in her retirement was in literature and the social sciences.  I once asked her how she had been recruited for such a role.  She told me that when she was called up, she was given an aptitude test, which was to construct something out of Meccano.   She had spent her childhood playing with her younger brother’s set, made a model in no time, and was sent off to track aircraft. 

In the same way my father, a civil servant in later life with no responsibility for radio technology at work and no competence in it at home, was a chief petty officer in the navy specialising in the arcane skill of listening to Japanese Morse code.   Global conflict took people to places they never visited again, and caused them to learn capacities which died upon the instant peace was declared.

There are two possible conclusions to be drawn from this wartime experience.

Either we humanities people have deep inside us a technical capacity which it requires a well-organised world war to bring out.   I have my doubts, but who knows.

Or major technical ventures, think of Bletchley Park, think of NASA, succeed by bringing together all sorts of skills, some scientific at a high level, but many others which have nothing to do directly with the science but nonetheless are crucial to the outcome  of the project.  My new book, The History of Solitude, is dedicated to an aunt by marriage, who died not long ago, and who was at Bletchley Park in the war.  Later in life she was, again, a literary woman, who eventually published books of fiction, poetry and memoir.  She was sent to Bletchley because she was (a) very bright, (b) had security clearance, and (c) had fluent German.  Not a codebreaker, but, along with many others in the huts, critical to the outcome.

So, perhaps, with the skills discovered or mobilised to counter Covid-19.  Except, as world wars go, this has not been well organised.   That is to say not by the British.  The Germans have beaten us hands down.

*A propos my last post on cherries, I discover that V-Bombs were colloquially known in German as ‘kirschkern’ – cherry stones.  I don’t know why.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: England expects …

April 15.  England expects every driveller to do his Memorabilia.

The ordinary people began to write and publish accounts of their daily lives at the beginning of the nineteenth century.  The innovation was not universally welcomed.  The editor of the Tory Quarterly Review denounced the new voice: “The classics of the papier mâché age of our drama have taken up the salutary belief that England expects every driveller to do his Memorabilia.  Modern primer-makers must needs leave confessions behind them, as if they were so many Rousseaus.  Our weakest mob-orators think it a hard case if they cannot spout to posterity.  Cabin-boys and drummers are busy with their commentaries de bello Gallico; the John Gilpins of ‘the nineteenth century’ are historians of their own anabaseis; and, thanks to ‘the march of intellect’, we are already rich in the autobiography of pickpockets ([Lockhart] 1827, 149).”

Since then the literary marketplace has become accustomed to the diaries and memoirs of the common people.  Their popularity has surged at moments of public crisis.  Lockhart was protesting at accounts that were appearing of the Napoleonic Wars, the first conflict to foreground the role of ordinary soldiers and sailors.  Subsequently the First and Second World Wars, and the Slump of the 1930s, stimulated the keeping of private accounts and the publication of more structured literary narratives.

There is ample evidence that the Coronavirus crisis is another such moment.  The Covid2020 project is only one amongst a multitude of personal or collective ventures.  It differs from others in its immensely valuable international perspective.  Diary-keeping is driven by three obvious conditions.  Firstly, it is evident that we are living through a global crisis on a scale that historians will be writing about for the rest of the twenty-first century.  Secondly everyone has a role in the drama.  Whilst scientists, medical professionals and politicians have their particular responsibilities, the behavior and experience of every citizen of almost every country will be critical to the outcome.  Thirdly, those with something to say, now have the time to say it, in the old way in private diaries, or in the new media of semi-public blogs, which surely would have horrified Lockhart.

The problem for historians will be that of engaging with this mass of material in any kind of systematic form.  In the Second World War, the pioneering social research body, Mass Observation, which had been founded in 1936, was used by the government to investigate the morale of the Home Front.  It both undertook its own surveys and commissioned the keeping of 480 diaries.  Its material, which has been digitised and archived by the University of Sussex, is an immensely useful resource for historians, including myself.  In 2020 there are a host of opinion-poll organizations, campaigning organisations for at-risk groups, hurriedly commissioned academic inquiries, such as the project at Oxford looking at children’s mental health in the crisis, together with all the memoirs which are more or less available. 

I am tempted to see whether I can write a rapid sequel to my History of Solitude to which Brenda kindly drew attention yesterday.  A project which began as something of a niche subject three years ago is by complete accident appearing at a moment of maximum relevance.  The advantage is that many of the categories of inquiry in my book could be taken forward into the present crisis.  I would have both the historical context necessary to measure change, and an outline structure of analysis.  Isolation. A Social History might well find a market.  The challenge, which I am still contemplating, is whether, even as an interim report, it would be possible to marshal the cornucopia of evidence into a coherent and representative narrative.