First published in October 2012.
These Wonderful Rumours! is the wartime diary of May Smith, a young schoolteacher from Swadlincote, Derbyshire. When the Second World War is declared, she is twenty-four years old and living with her parents. The diary has been wonderfully preserved by Smith’s son, Duncan, and has an insightful introduction, written by social historian Juliet Gardiner. Gardiner explains that war, with ‘its rationing, the blackout, shortages, privations, restrictions and regulations – as well as destruction, loss, injury and death – all impacted on the civilian population’. She also outlines the Mass Observation scheme which urged civilians to keep records of their wartime experiences, stating that ‘it is because the Second World War was a “people’s war” in myriad ways that the people’s experience is so valued’. Perhaps the most famous of these Mass Observation diaries is Nella Last’s War, which was serialised as Housewife 49 by the BBC. As a nation, our interest in these diaries has peaked in recent years, and May Smith’s contribution is a welcome addition to the genre.
Smith’s diary begins in 1938, before World War Two begins. Each entry is dated at the start and the first section includes an informative introduction to set the scene. This collection of diary entries is vivid from the outset, and each is filled with such warmth and personality. Humour is injected into almost every page, and the book as a whole is rich in detail. Smith jumps from the pages, coming to life once again before our eyes. The reader is both amused and humbled by the war which she describes – the rationing of food and clothes of which she is so fond, her love of going to the ‘flicks’, her various suitors, and the men she knows who have been sent off to war – and the way in which these events affect her.
More trivial aspects of life for a woman at the time have been included alongside the darker details of World War Two. Smith describes horrendous hairstyles which she is stuck with when her perms go wrong, being ‘bankrupt and in debt. Woe is me’, to ‘that most nauseating of all missions, Buying a Hat’, as well as entries such as one she makes in April 1939, which states: ‘There seems to be only one possible end – war and on a horrible and dreadful scale’. A vast array of subjects have been covered, from Smith’s description of her school duties and pupils to deliberating over ‘Christmas reading’ at her local library, and from various shopping trips to the way in which wearing gas masks make her feel ‘like a boiled lobster’.
The scope of her diary is impressive, and the balance between her own life and the events occurring across Europe has been perfectly achieved. She writes about the events around the globe with compassion: ‘the poor Poles are hopelessly outnumbered’, as well as disgust: ‘Old man Hitler,’ she writes, after an attempt is made to murder him, ‘seems to bear a charmed life! It will take more than a puny bomb to remove him from the face of the earth’.
When war is declared, Smith’s lack of compassion towards her job as a schoolteacher becomes clear: ‘Have 48 [children] in my class this year, but have hopes that they’ll be brighter than the last lot, who were dull and dozy’. She also humorously states in one diary entry that ‘… this week the children have been like demons. I’ve snarled like a hyena, roared like a lion and bellowed like a bull, and still have failed to curb their spirits’.
As the diary progresses, we get to know those dear to Smith – her friends and grandmother, as well as her parents. One particularly funny journal entry describes how ‘Aunty 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’. Amusing anecdotes of other people whom Smith knows well have also been included throughout. One of the most humorous characters is a woman named Mrs Tweed, who arrives at the Smith residence at mealtimes, insisting that she hasn’t come round to be fed but would always ‘eat a hearty meal, nevertheless’.
These Wonderful Rumours! is an incredibly well written and absorbing account, which highlights how the Second World War impacted upon an entire town in South Derbyshire. Smith is a gifted writer, and one who surely deserves to have her utmost thoughts and feelings, wit and sarcasm, and love for life printed on such a large scale. Her diary is a wonderful memoir which brilliantly demonstrates the power of the human spirit over the adversity which prevails in wartime.