George Blake’s The Shipbuilders

September 25, 2009

I picked this book up pretty much at random a couple of months ago, because its title and subject looked interesting – it’s a 1935 novel set on 1930s Clydeside, based around the relationship between Danny Shields, a riveter, and Leslie Pagan, the son of the shipyard owner. To be honest, I was struck by it because I wanted a well-written source on shipbuilding, but it turns out that it touches on older interests of mine as well. Shields was Pagan’s batman when they were both infantrymen during the First World War, and their emotional link as a result is a central facet of the book. It seems to draw on some of Blake’s own experiences: according to the DNB, he was wounded on Gallipoli (before becoming a journalist, and then a director of Faber and Faber after the war). Regimental reunions – formal and informal – crop up repeatedly. Blake apparently believed that he’d ‘failed with his proletarians’ (DNB again), and there is something a bit patronising in the depiction of Danny, but the meditations on the connections between old soldiers are heartfelt – and complex. Here’s Blake on a formal reunion dinner, ‘fantastically mixed as to type, disposition and social standing’:

The King, the Country, the Regiment… None of these symbols furnished an explanation. Few men ever fought for an idea. Old Colonel Gall over there, rolling in the fat, false profits of stockbroking, would be absurdly generous to any individual case that might appeal to him and could yet classify the unemployed as ‘shirkers’ and work and vote against them. Tall Fred Tierney, to whom he was speaking, professed Revolutionary Socialism and would, according to his utterances, hang all stockbrokers from the lamp posts. Yet here they were, and scores of pairs like them, melted into a harmony by a sentiment. But of what? Of hard experience shared, of common congratulation on escape, of esteem for fundamental worth? There was no answer. Significant, perhaps, that they all talked, and loudly, of ‘the Old Mob’. There was the symbol, possibly. Strange, however, that the spirit did not prevail in the conduct of their lives and affairs in industrial civilisation! Could it be that the warmth of the reunion was an illusion? Perhaps it was the expression of a fundamental reality,. Perhaps it was nothing at all.

(G. Blake, The Shipbuilders (Edinburgh, 1993 (first published 1935), 259.

Leslie is put off by the toasts and speeches at dinner, but there is a moment when everyone can revel in their (drunken) camaraderie, before they become quarrelsome and the party eventually breaks up. It’s a fascinating portrait – well worth a look for anyone with an interest in the remembrance of the First World War.

Sacrifice in the Second World War II

September 25, 2009

A belated juxtaposition to the Waugh quote below:

Inequality of Sacrifice

There is growing evidence of a feeling among certain sections of the public that ‘everything is nto fair and equal and that therefore our sacrifices are not worthwhile’. In particular, there is some belief that the rich are less hit by rationing than ‘ordinary people’ for the following reasons:

a) they can eat at expensive restaurants

b) they can afford to buy high priced goods in short demand, such as salmon and game

c) they can spend more on clothes and therefore use their coupons more advantageously

d) they receive preferential treatment in shops, as ‘people giving large orders are favoured and the poorer people wanting ‘little bits’ are refused.

e) They receive preferential treatment as regards petrol rationing. To quote a postal censorship report: ‘ We can see Big Bugs riding in their posh cars and poor beggars can’t get petrol for business’.

The feeling of ‘inequality of sacrifice’ between the services and civilians, frequently mentioned in these reports, continues. Ill-feeling between the two is said to be growing as tales of slacking in factories, high wages and black markets increase the belief among servicemen that civilians are not pulling their weight.

(Ministry of Information, Home Intelligence Division Weekly Report No 77, 25 March 1942, National Archives, Kew, INF 1/282)

There are some problems with the way that these reports were assembled, but as Ira Zweiniger-Bargielowska has shown, these were far from isolated or unjustified sentiments. What interests also interests me here is the mention at the end of the perception at the time of a service/civilian split.

Last post

July 30, 2009

The Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, has written a poem (at the request of the BBC?, it’s slightly unclear) to mark the passing of the last British combatant veterans of the First World War. You can read a transcript and listen to her read it (at least UK readers can do the last bit, not sure if international readers can).

I could have done without the Owen quote, and I wonder whether the last post trumpet was her idea or the producer’s,  but I don’t think it’s a sentiment that many will disagree with.

Sacrifice in the Second World War

July 10, 2009

Probably few readers left of this blog, since I’ve been writing the book rather than updating this. So to keep things ticking over, I’m going to use it to put up some interesting quotes about perceptions of the equality of sacrifice in Britain during the Second World War. Then when I’ve got time, I’ll link them together to make some wider points.

Let’s start with a letter from Evelyn Waugh to Randoph Churchill, 26 September 1941, from M. Amory, ed, The Letters of Eveyln Waugh (London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980), 154.

‘England is very uncomfortable and everything is being done by the bureaucrats to aggravate the discomfort. There is a splendid new idea called ‘equality of sacrifice’ which means that life is reduced to the level of a pre-war unemployed miner – in every sense for extreme idleness is combined with privation.’

And that was before the advent of many of the most severe austerity regulations in 1942.

D-Day anniversary

June 6, 2009

Isn’t it great when you see a comments thread that makes you feel that your work might still be needed?


May 2, 2009

Hat tip to Dr James Beach of Salford, who sent me this example of a contemporary remembrance of the high command in the Great War. Shame about the spelling, and getting the wrong king, but never mind: there are more details about William Robertson, the only soldier to rise all the way from private to field marshal, here.

It put me in mind of another echo of Robertson, during the Second World War. This is from John Kennedy (DMO at the War Office)’s memoirs, The Business of War (London, Hutchinson, 1957), 254. The moment is half way through July 1942. The Americans General George Marshall and Harry Hopkins were on their way to London to discuss Anglo-American strategy:

In a telegram which Dill had sent us just before Marshall’s arival, he mentioned that Marshall had been studying Sir William Robertson’s Soldiers and Statesmen, and that he had sent him a copy of Volume I of this work, in which he had marked Chapter 3. We looked it up, and found that this is the chapter in which Robertson emphasizes the importance of concentration upon the decisive point, and in which he states his view that the Dardanelles attack was an unjustifiable diversion of effort from the Western Front. The Americans had evidently drawn the deduction that, in July 1942, France was the decisive front, and that new operations elsewhere [ie an invasion of NW Africa] must, therefore, be wrong. In this same chapter, Robertson also lays stres on the duty of Service advisers to state their opinions whether asked for them or not. The Dardanelles Commission had supported this view when they pointed out that Mr Churchill had obtained the support of the service chiefs to a lesser extent than he himself had imagined, because they had not spoken out.

Brooke told me, on 18th July, that he had discussed this telegram with Churchill, whose hackles were up over the reference to the Dardanelles. He had said to Brooke that he would make short work of Marshall if he tried to lay down the law on the lines advocated by Robertson. One of my officers told me he had been unable to get a copy of Soldiers and Statesmen from any of the libraries – there had been a run on it by Ministers, who were said to be waling about with copies under their arms.

Whether Robertson would actually have been in favour of a cross Channel invasion in 1942 is another matter. He’d have been in the same position as Brooke (and Dill before him) of lacking the military resources, and as a former Quartermaster General and Chief of Staff of the BEF, he’d also have known the importance of logistics. Only once the Atlantic seemed secure would he have been keen to risk his neck in France, I think.

Snow and the blitz

February 3, 2009

A freak weather event stops London’s transport system, and the blitz is brought out as a stick with which to beat TfL. ‘Not even the Blitz stopped London’s buses running…’ proclaimed newspapers such as the Daily Mail (although it illustrates its article with a picture of a bus blown to bits by a German bomb, which seems rather to contradict its case). Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the TfL spokesman has just made the mistake of trying to introduce an element of rational thought into the mindless rescitation of the myth – London, he pointed out, was a very large city, so of course bombing didn’t stop the transport network completely – just in those areas that were worst hit. Snow and ice, on the other hand, hit the whole network at once, so were actually far more likely to cause it to shut down completely. Good luck with trying to get that point across, when the Prime Minister is also busily trying to mobilise the Second World War to help him out of a political hole.