The Blitz Spirit?
Last year comparisons were often made between the pandemic and the Blitz in WWII. I thought of that recently as I read Margaret Kennedy’s Where Stands a Winged Sentry, her splendid memoir of the months between May and September 1940, when German invasion appeared imminent and it seemed likely that Britain would lose the war.
Margaret Kennedy is best-known as the author of the best-selling novel, The Constant Nymph (1924). In 1940 she was forty-four, married to a barrister, and the mother of three children, two girls aged twelve and ten and a boy aged five. In May she and her husband decided that she should take the children to Cornwall to escape the bombing and her husband would remain in London, where he was an Air Raid Warden.
Until I read this, I hadn’t quite realised what a terrifying time this was, with invasion seeming inevitable after Dunkirk, and the beginning of the Blitz. Well-to-do people wondered if they should send their children to Canada or the US for safety. Kennedy thought they were in for ‘an unspeakably horrible experience’ and that their fate could be that of Poland where ‘they are shooting men like David [her husband] by the thousand. They are carrying off little girls hardly older than Ellen [her daughter] and Claire [a friend’s daughter in her care] to German brothels. They will do the same here, and worse, if they get the chance.’ She had a list of things to do, which began with ‘Money. Have quite a large sum, in notes, safely locked up in the house, ready to be sewn into my stays.’
Not so many similarities with the pandemic then …
However I was brought up short by this:
‘I went into Woolworth’s and the girl who served me, seeing my paper, asked: “What’s ‘e bin doing now?”[meaning Hitler].
‘We talk about “him” too much. In the last war we talked about “them.” He is getting too much of a hold on our imagination … He is a spell-binder, an illusionist: he does things which we know are phony and yet we can’t show him up … His finances beat the Indian rope trick. His house is built of cards, but he huffs and he puffs and he blows the world down.’
Sounds like anyone we know?
And yet this is far from being a gruelling read. Kennedy’s powers of observation and her sense of the absurd made me laugh out loud. The two younger daughters ‘have got a craze for playing marbles. They each have a racing stud of marbles, and they talk of nothing else. Ellen [the elder daughter] complained to me: “It was bad enough when they spent the whole day playing with marbles. But now they have sunk to a lower depth of imbecility and have begun to pretend that they are marbles themselves.”‘
Kennedy writes brilliantly about the way that every day life somehow continues even in times of great stress and anxiety. There are little details that bring the situation vividly to life. I loved this:
‘Charles [aged five] said today: “It’s so sad. In wartime we can never see my grandmother’s parlour.”
‘He meant that phantom room you see outside the window in the dusk, when the lamps are lighted and the curtains not drawn – chairs and tables with the garden bushes showing through them. The blackout has banished it. I had forgotten, and the fascination it has for all children.’
Of their gardener, Cotter, she writes, ‘It would take the last trump to dismay Cotter, and even then he would probably appoint himself an usher and marshal us all to our places before the mercy seat. He runs the entire village, the British Legion, the Cricket Club and the Parish Council. It’s my belief he was born giving instructions to the midwife.’
I could go on and on quoting from it. The book is a fascinating social document and such an engaging read. I loved it, and I know I will read it again.