Our hidden lives

 

My portraits of Chinese peasants before, during, and after the decades of Maoism, like the villagers of Gaoluo or the Li family in Yanggao, lead me to consider people’s lives elsewhere, including Soviet Russia, Czechoslovakia, the GDR, and even Britain (such as this sketch of my great-aunt).

All over Europe, not just World War Two but the years immediately following it were deeply traumatic, as evoked tellingly in

  • Keith Lowe, Savage continent (2012).

I cited his bleak opening passage in the biography of my colleague Hildi. Thoughout Europe it took many years to remould the physical and ethical landscapes. Amidst displacement, famine, vengeance, ethnic cleansing, civil wars, and the consolidation of Communist regimes, people continued to face moral dilemmas as they struggled even to survive. Britain, never occupied, plays a rather minor role. Allied observers who had experienced the Blitz were still unprepared for the scale of the destruction of the landscape that they found in Germany. And the devastation was worse the further east one travelled.

Heilbronn

Housing displaced persons in Heilbrunn.

* * *

The battle against the cold this long winter, the continual Government crises and blunders, the cold, wet, delayed spring and everlasting austerity have exhausted us all to the bone.

Maggie Joy Blunt, 2nd April 1947

  • Simon Garfield, Our hidden lives: the remarkable diaries of post-war Britain (2005)

intersperses the daily diaries of five ordinary people writing at the behest of the Mass-Observation Project, evoking the period from the end of the war to 1948. Of course, both diaries and biography can be instructive windows on social history. How I wish we had such detail for the lives of Yanggao peasants at the time—themselves still mostly illiterate, of course.

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In their daily lives, often mundane, food shortages and rationing loom large. The diarists show concern for the wider world (the Nuremberg trials, Palestine, the assassination of Gandhi), along with some disturbing anti-semitism. The victors find the continuing deprivation and drabness hard to take, bemoaning the diversion of much-needed funds to help rebuild Germany. Hopes for greater social justice are tinged with concerns about lawlessness.

For ordinary Russians too, despite all their appalling losses, the war had brought similar hopes, and their disillusion was even greater.

On the cultural front, Maggie Joy Blunt receives a letter from a British soldier serving in Austria:

Then we are whisked off to a luxurious flat which is a Russian officers’ mess, where sober, stiff, disciplined soldiers serve us with caviar and vodka. There are about twenty officers and a number of Austrian girls all well dressed and crowding round an elderly officer who is playing Chopin on a grand piano. A senior officer with a ravishing blonde enters, and she says to me in lilting French, “I am a displaced person”, and gives me her hand to kiss. Suddenly they all begin to sing magnificently in harmony, a wild rousing song that on inquiry I find has the delightful, incredible title of “Yo Ho For The Day, the 10,000th Tractor Cut The First Furrow at Ekaterinoslav”.

The Colonel announces that he will sing an English song, and with a voice to challenge Paul Robeson sings with fervour “Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me A Bow-Wow”. He then turns to me and asks what the words mean, for he learned them by heart without knowing the meaning. I hadn’t the heart to tell him the truth so I said it was called “The World Shall Be One People”.

Several diarists sing the praises of the new Third Programme. And B. Charles gives an intriguing take on Vera Lynn:

It seems this woman admits that she has never had a singing lesson in her life, never practises, can’t play the piano, yet manages to earn, so we are told, £1,000 a broadcast in Australia if she goes there. […] I have never heard Vera Lynn, and I certainly do not want to. But the idea of making £1,000 a broadcast for making a noise over the air seems fantastic. Money, really, has ceased to have any value.

They are most impressed by the 1945 film Brief encounter, reminding us how bold and truthful it must have seemed at the time.

Edie Rutherford’s comments on an item in The Brains Trust now look quaint:

The question asked was whether the phone had destroyed the art of letter writing. From the answers you’d have thought every home in the UK has a phone. No doubt all those round the table had phones and have had for years, but that obtains in so few homes that I could not help realizing how The Brains Trust is NOT representative of the people. No one thought to point out that phones are the luxury of the few. We, for instance, have never been able to afford one.

For the first landline in Li Manshan’s village, and Alexander Graham Bell’s prophesy, see here.

Reservations about royalty are nothing new. Edie reports some overheard comments:

Housewife: “I wish all I had to do was dress up and smile.”

Typist, aged thirty-five: “All that nonsense about not enough coupons and how they make over their clothes, as if anyone believes it!” […]

Housewife: “I thought we were supposed to be hard up. They are all the time telling us we are and yet we throw away thousands at a time like this for four people to swank at our expense.”

She also notes:

Chinese laundry near here has a new notice up, “A few customers taken in”.

Even by the early 1950s, as Andrew Marr (A history of modern Britain, 2007) notes,

People still look different. Few schoolboys are without a cap and shorts. Caught breaking windows or lying, they might be solemnly caned by their fathers. Youg girls have home-made smocks and, it is earnestly hoped, have never heard of sexual intercourse. Every woman seems to be a housewife; corsets and hats are worn, and trousers, hardly ever. Among men, a silky moustache is regarded as extremely exciting to women, collars are bought separately from shirts and the smell of pipe tobacco lingers on flannel.
Above all Britain is still a military nation…

Most of the challenges that British people faced may seem minor in comparison to the terrible tribulations of their fellows on the continent; but it’s a reminder of the changing world of our own parents.

 

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