It’s become almost a comedy trope in itself to say that the elderly are obsessed with the war. Consider your family Christmases: count up how many times your grandparents (or parents, I suppose, depending on your age) mention it. Quite apart from the fact that there seems to be a more general cultural obsession about the whole thing. No year is complete without at least one large-scale film about the heartwarming and life-affirming reactions of Ordinary People to the depredations of Mr. Hitler. Not necessarily English people (viz. The Book Thief), but definitely Ordinary People nonetheless. And if we can get through a year in publishing without yet another goddamn Churchill biography, I will sing and dance.
However, it does seem to me that there may be some method in all of this military madness. Wars have a way of burrowing into the national psyche. Whether you’re fascinated by every detail of Operation Overlord (and believe me, some people are) or want to throw things at the television every time another episode of Dad’s Army comes on, you have to admit that the war affected people in big ways. If they’re still talking about it seventy years after the fact, it’s probably worth knowing something about.
Which is why I’ve been reading history. Admittedly, David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain: 1945-1951 (Bloomsbury, £12.99) isn’t actually about the war; it’s about what happened after the war. But the post-war British political and cultural scene was (and still is, I suppose) one of the war’s most lasting effects. When my grandparents talk about their childhood, this is what they mean; the war itself ended before my grandmother turned ten, but she can acutely recall the fact that the rationing of sweets continued for ten years.
Consider that: ten years. Ten years of limited sweets, meat, eggs, flour, milk, nylon tights, paper, petrol, shoes, nearly every other form of clothing. One of the strengths of Kynaston’s work is that he uses diaries from the general public and from Mass Observation archives as well as government documents to build a picture of post-war Britain. This allows a window onto the feelings and reactions of people to government decisions and everyday events that is not possible in most other kinds of history writing; the overwhelming impression a reader receives of Britain in the late 1940s is of incredible hunger. “Oh, for a little extra butter!” one woman wails, after stoically enduring eight years of tedious and tasteless meals under rationing.
Kynaston is careful to point out that it is difficult to prove malnutrition; everyone was more or less receiving the amount of food they needed to live. (Oh, hurrah.) But imagine living in a country where everyone is hungry, and no meal is particularly satisfactory. Imagine the strain on tempers, on marriages, on households. At the moment I am both unemployed and trying to keep my savings in the bank, and trying to live on no more than £20 a week; although I am nowhere near malnourished, I am also almost constantly hungry. It does things to your mind, I discover, and also on your ability to deal with stress and the unexpected. In one of the book’s most telling anecdotes, two low-level government officials, John Belcher and George Gibson, were dismissed ignominiously from their posts in 1949 for granting favors in return for the “pathetically minor” rewards of a couple of decent meals, a bottle or two of whiskey and some cigarettes.
Another great virtue of using diaries as sources is that readers get to know the diarists fairly intimately; they become characters in the narrative of the whole nation. There is bitter but clear-eyed North London schoolteacher Gladys Langford; fussy bureaucrat Henry St. John; stolid and wistful Northern housewife Nella Last; harried but overall cheerful housewife and mother Judy Haines; and about half a dozen others. Together, they enable a contemporary reader to understand infinitely more about daily life in the 1940s than a more formal, top-down academic history could ever do. Though Kynaston doesn’t skimp on the politics and economics either–there is a respectable number of chapters devoted to analyzing Labour’s electoral success, and its subsequent crippling weaknesses–I found myself hurrying through them at a faster clip. They’re not uninteresting, but it was always illuminating to read a diarist’s take on current affairs.
Perhaps this is one reason why the elderly like war histories so much: it allows them to see their experiences analytically, to place their own lives alongside others and compare or contrast them. They can plug into a bigger picture–what they lived through can now be explained, historically and socioeconomically–and achieve a sense of perspective on events the significance of which might not have seemed obvious to them at the time. If, in fifty years, there is a spate of popular history books on 9/11 and the decades following it, I shall almost certainly be reading one or two of them, for the relative objectivity that they might provide.