‘Oh horrors. Germany has invaded Poland. Now for hell let loose!’
At the outbreak of the Second World War, May Smith, 24, lived with her parents in Swadlincote, a small village near Derby, and taught at the local school.
She was an ordinary young woman living through extraordinary times and like many of those who experienced life on the Home Front, she recorded those six eventful, and often monotonously mundane, years in her diary.
Inevitably, the war brought changes, many of them captured for posterity in May’s entertaining and acerbic diaries. She was intelligent, clear-eyed and down-to-earth, and her moving and darkly funny diaries provide a compelling and authentic snapshot of life as it was really lived.
Evacuees arrived in the village, nights were broken by the wail of the siren as bombers flew overhead, the young men of May’s circle donned khaki and disappeared to far-flung places to ‘do their bit’ but, like many other Britons, May and her family took it all in their stride.
‘Auntie F came in announcing dramatically that Hitler is coming tomorrow, at which my father remarked that He Would, now that he’s Just Finished Papering Upstairs,’ May noted with some hilarity (and the use of capitals!).
A zealous rumour factory worked overtime but through it all, May still enjoyed tennis parties, holidays to Llandudno and going shopping for new outfits (coupons and funds permitting) and it was during these difficult time that May fell in love.
But however dull life might have seemed, every day brought reminders that Britain was at war. Rationing, the blackout (‘am getting quite used to lurching about in darkness now’ wrote May at the end of 1939), shortages, privations, restrictions and regulations – as well as destruction, loss, injury and death – all impacted on the civilian population.
May’s diaries highlight the anxiety, fear and, above all, the exhaustion of a long war that ground everyone down. Swadlincote received hundreds of evacuees from inner city Birmingham and these children had to be fitted into already overcrowded schools. In May 1944, May rejoices that she ‘only’ has 40 children in her class for once.
Inevitably, May looked forward to holidays, frequently cut short because ‘inessential’ travel was discouraged, and to pay day as her fondness for shoes, clothes and books often left her in debt to her family. ‘Only 4d to live on for the rest of the month,’ was a frequent refrain.
But May’s war was not just a chronicle of food eaten, clothes bought and altered, hair permed and frizzed and weather reports. She also listened to Churchill’s speeches on the radio and found them uplifting and inspiring, and worried about the course of the war.
Wartime life was a strange mix of dreadful events, freezing winters, anxiety, bereavement, chilblains, cold rooms, borrowed wedding dresses and what May called ‘Stygian gloom.’
May and her parents were typical of the average British family in wartime ... stoic, ever ready to dilute the exceptionalism of war, good at improvisation and determined to achieve victory whatever the cost.
Her observant, witty diaries are a joy to read and a hilarious yet heart-breaking account of life on the Home Front, a battleground where, Churchill recognised, a war can be won or lost.
(Virago, paperback, £7.99)