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Extract from: Sources for the History of London 1939-45
Subject: Leisure bookjacket: Sources for the History of London 1939-45
Source: Chapter 5, selected pages 117-128

Literature and the Arts (p.117)

In spite of manifold practical difficulties literature and the arts flourished in Britain during the war. Any imaginative escape from grim reality was welcome, but there was also a conscious feeling that cultural matters must not be overwhelmed by the sheer struggle to survive, and reading, listening to music, art appreciation, theatre and concert-going probably had a wider audience than in peacetime. Books, poetry and music of lasting importance were written and paintings made, as well as an impressive quantity of less enduring work that was nevertheless enjoyed at the time, and now provides a flavour of the period. A great deal of this activity took place in London. Robert Hewison’s Under Siege: Literary Life in London, 1939-45 (1977) is an invaluable guide.

Many writers and artists served in the Forces, or were employed in some capacity by government departments, like the Ministry of Information, during the war and information about them can sometimes lie among departmental records in the PRO. The government’s main effort in cultural matters, however, was channelled through the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), which was to evolve later into the Arts Council. The Pilgrim Trust provided its initial funding, with a matching grant from the Board of Education which provided a chairman, Lord MacMillan, officers and staff. Its papers in the PRO are in classes EL 1-3. It organised cultural events and concerts of all kinds, including entertainment for factory workers. The War Artists’ Advisory Committee, set up by the Ministry of Information and documented in PRO WORK 54, also played an important role in cultural affairs by commissioning artists to record Britain at war.

Reading (p.117-119)

Reading assumed greater importance to many people in wartime circumstances. Hours of sheltering during air raids, ARP and firewatching duties, slow and delayed journeys by public transport could all be enlivened by an interesting book or magazine. ‘Blacked-out evenings - take home some books’, urged posters on railway bookstalls. Paper rationing restricted the size and quality of book production, but the advent of the cheap paperback, pioneered by Penguin Books in the thirties, opened up an enormous range of choice covering everything from favourite classics, crime fiction, new poetry and novels to non-fiction ‘specials’ on current events, history or politics. Other publishers maintained a steady output. The public libraries, and subscription libraries like Boots, supplied some of it. Voluntary societies organised book collections, particularly for the troops, and friends lent each other favourites from their own collections. There was a marked revival of interest in classics by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope through which people could lose themselves in the safer and more reassuring world of the past, though some preferred stronger meat. George Orwell pointed out the enormous popularity of James Hadley Chase’s brutal thriller No Orchids for Miss Blandish during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. ‘It was, in fact, one of the things that helped to console people for the boredom of being bombed’, he wrote in his 1944 essay ‘Raffles and Miss Blandish’.

Magazines like Picture Post, Illustrated, Horizon, Lilliput, Punch, Women’s Weekly, Times Literary Supplement, The Listener, Contemporary Review, Fortnightly Review and many more, were comparatively cheap, catering for all tastes with a mixture of war-related articles and others to take the reader’s mind off the subject. They provide a useful guide to current preoccupations from month to month. Newspapers of all kinds were widely read, too.

Novels, short stories and poetry written during the war can provide background information about attitudes, expectations and social conventions of the period, frequently conveying a sense of atmosphere lacking in more factual material. Leisure reading inevitably had some influence on public opinion, making imaginative as well as factual literature worth considering as an additional historical source.

It is, of course an enormous field. The bibliographical section of this guide includes some titles about wartime fiction, notably Mary Cadogan’s Women and Children First, which deals with both World Wars, and Alan Munton’s English Fiction in the Second World War Neither sets out to concentrate on London in particular, though plenty of London examples are included. The bibliography in Philip Ziegler’s London at War also lists some relevant novels. Many writers lived in London anyway, many more worked there in wartime and drew on the experience for fictional purposes. The pivotal importance of the capital in the experience of war, and especially the effects of the Blitz, made the subject matter compelling. The examples that follow provide a small sample from the vast range available.

Established novelists were quick to turn their wartime lives into potential copy. E.M. Delafield, already popular for her Provincial Lady books, based the Provincial Lady in Wartime (Macmillan, 1940) on her experiences as a volunteer ARP canteen helper at the Adelphi station, deep under the Savoy Hotel, in the autumn of 1939. The passages describing this establishment, with its motley staff and customers, during the phoney war, with food still plentiful and no urgent incidents to deal with, carry the ring of authenticity: ’Trousered women are standing and walking about in every direction, and a great number of men with armlets... Rather disquieting notice written in red chalk on matchboard partitions, indicates directions to be taken by decontaminated Women, Walking Cases, Stretcher-bearers and others... Canteen is a large room, insufficiently lit, with several long tables, a counter with urns and plates, kitchen behind, and at least one hundred and fifty people standing and sitting about... Atmosphere thick with cigarette smoke and no apparent ventilation anywhere...’. Later passages relate the Provincial Lady’s attempts to persuade the Ministry of Information to give her a job - a popular ambition of many writers at the time - where an official says ‘that what those whom he designates as "All You People" have got to realise is that we must all go on exactly as usual. If we are novelists, we must go on writing novels; if poets, write poetry just as before... But keep away from war topics. Not a word about war.’

Elizabeth Bowen’s great novel The Heat of the Day (Cape, 1949) came later, but is generally agreed to give a vivid picture of London life in the war. Here Stella, the central character, reflects on life in the autumn of 1942: ‘And it was now, when you no longer saw, heard, smelled war, that a deadening acclimatisation to it began to set in. The first generation of ruins, cleaned up, shored up, began to weather - in daylight they took their places as a norm of the scene; the dangerless nights of September two years later blotted them out... This was the lightless middle of the tunnel’.

Marghanita Laski’s cheerful satire Love on the Supertax (Cresset, 1944) is ‘a story of the spring of 1944’ and follows the adventures of Clarissa, daughter of a duke, and her infatuation with Sid Barker, a Communist activist. The plot is slight, but there are some intriguing sidelights on social life. Clarissa visits Lyons Corner House for the first time and finds the queuing arrangements an improvement on those at expensive restaurants: ‘At last they arrived at the door. There had been none of the pushing and shoving Clarissa was accustomed to, no specially favoured patrons wheedling their way in out of turn. Instead they were taken in charge by a courteous Viennese refugee who led them to an admirable little table just sufficiently far from the music’. She found the food an improvement, too: ’Every dish on the menu looked as if it might represent real, solid food, and none of them was crossed off’. ‘Clarissa, while she ate, had no words. She had completely forgotten what it was like to feel completely satisfied...’

Graham Greene’s Ministry of Fear (Heinemann, 1943) and George Orwell’s 1984 (Secker, 1949) are both said to owe something to their authors’ employment in the Ministry of Information at Senate House. Greene’s The End of the Affair (Heinemann, 1951) contains a vivid description of an air raid and its aftermath. Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags (Chapman Hall, 1942) carries the atmosphere of the phoney war, with a billeting officer taking bribes from householders wanting to avoid awful child evacuees. Scores of other titles also convey some flavour of life in London at this time. Some written long afterwards, like Muriel Spark’s Girls of Slender Means (Macmillan, 1963) are nevertheless useful for this purpose.

Theatre (p.122-124)

The fear of immediate air attack led the government to close places of public entertainment as soon as war broke out, to avoid putting large numbers of people at risk. The entertainment world had known this would happen, ‘...so that the grave dislocation of the theatre industry throughout the country, with its attendant distress and unemployment, was not unforeseen’, wrote the editor of Theatre World in October 1939, noting that most suburban and provincial houses had now reopened as the government gradually relaxed the rules when no enemy action materialised. Only a handful of West End theatres had, as yet, risked it. It rapidly became clear that the continuation of normal leisure facilities would be essential to maintain general morale and some sense of normality. Londoners and visitors alike needed some distraction from long working hours, CD commitments, travel problems and air raids, and theatre-going was a popular pastime.

The West End theatres faced grave operating difficulties, not least because so many of their staff - actors, stagehands and box office workers - were eventually called up for war work. Stage costumes and makeup were rationed, late afternoon or early evening performances became common because the blackout deterred suburbanites from travelling in. Air raids disrupted performances. These problems were ventilated regularly and fully in trade journals like Theatre World which lamented in October 1940 that due to the Blitz ‘The choice of the Londoner is now restricted to the delights of the Revudeville at the Windmill and the lunch-time ballet hour at the Arts Theatre Club, to which must be added the brave venture of Shakespeare at the Vaudeville, matinées only’. Things got easier once the Blitz was over, but the flying bombs of 1944 brought another crisis, closing many shows although Theatre World’s editor noted in August that ‘the remaining plays have certainly shown increased takings as Londoners accustom themselves to the new form of aerial attack and begin to put on a bolder front’. Troops were an important component of the West End audience. When Army leave in London was banned in the early summer of 1941 their absence was keenly felt by the box offices. The Theatre Museum has runs of Theatre World and other theatrical journals and files on many West End theatres with wartime programmes, reviews, newspaper cuttings and publicity material. The programmes always include instructions on what to do in the case of an air raid. Audiences were warned that an air raid was in progress through illuminated signs, and were free to leave for a shelter if they wished: ‘All we ask is that ‘ if you feel you must go you will depart quietly and without excitement’, as the programme for Olivier’s Richard III at the New Theatre put it in September 1944. Many theatregoers preferred to stay put and enjoy the play.

Records for several theatres at this period survive in the Theatre Museum’s collections, the Ambassadors, St James’s, the Unity, the Windmill, Wyndham’s and the Tennant Theatre Company among them, while Bristol University’s Theatre Collection has others, including Her Majesty’s. Biographies and autobiographies of leading actors and impresarios of the period often contain useful background on London theatrical life. Tapes of several actors in the IWM Sound Archive mention their professional work in the war as well as their other activities, such as Ballard Berkeley on 5340/2; Maurice Denham on 11811/1 and John Houghton on 11346/2. London productions through the war years are meticulously recorded in J.P. Wearing's London Stage, 1940-49. Theatre premises, like others used for public entertainment, were subject to LCC safety regulations, which required detailed plans to be submitted for inspection. The LCC;s Safety Committee papers, LCC/PC/ENT can prove useful for specific buildings.

Holidays (p.128-130)

Non-essential travel was discouraged during the war in order to conserve fuel supplies and ensure that train accommodation was available for troop transport and other official purposes. Private cars were mostly ‘laid up’ for the duration because of petrol rationing. ’Is Your Journey Really Necessary?’ asked the posters, not always effectively. ‘I wish more people would heed the official notice...’, wrote Joyce Grenfell during a theatrical tour in August 1943, ‘Mine is, but theirs, at the moment, isn’t. It’s the holiday season and crowds pour all over the country and are a hell of a nuisance to people who must travel’ (Darling Ma. Hodder, 1988). Londoners could not resist the temptation to get away for a break. The sun seaside resorts of the South and East coast were ruled out, their beaches being barricaded with barbed wire and their hotel accommodation mostly requisitioned for military use. But for there were parts of the country which, by London standards, seemed almost untouched by the war. Peace, relaxation and fresh local food sent visitors back to face London life in a better state of health.

Mass-Observation investigated holiday behaviour, as it did so many other aspects of the life. Its boxes covering ‘Holidays 1937-51’ contain material of all kinds including cuttings and questionnaires relating to how people spent August Bank Holiday in 1941, in File C, and travel out of London for Easter 1942, in File F, for which observers counted the number of people queuing with luggage for tickets at Euston, Charing Cross, Waterloo and other mainline stations, and noted their comments and conversations.

Official attempts to dissuade people from making such trips led to the campaign for was ‘Holidays at Home’ in 1942 and 1943. The scheme encouraged local authorities to draw up a programme of events and amusements for the summer months, using local parks and local sports facilities. M-O’s Holidays 1937-51, in File E, deals with the ‘Holidays at Home’ campaign for 1942, and contains programmes, newspaper cuttings and reports on events in various London areas, including Beckenham, Willesden and Paddington. Open air concerts, dances, children’s games, swimming galas and other sports competitions were typical ‘Holiday at Home’ events. Other institutions added their own contribution, like Westminster Abbey’s historical lectures. There was a special cricket match at Lords over August Bank Holiday weekend in 1942, Middlesex and Essex played Kent and Surrey, attracting a crowd of 22,000. Local collections often contain programmes and publicity material about the arrangements, usually preserved with the Parks Department records. Among the records of the LCC Parks Department is correspondence about outdoor summer entertainments such as Sadlers Wells’ ballet season in Victoria Park in July 1942, LCC/MIN 9014. Council Minutes may refer to the appointment of temporary organisers for such schemes. East Ham, for example, advertised for one in Theatre World in 1943, offering £6 a week from April 12 to August 31.

Interesting background on the organisation of a large-scale wartime outdoor event at local level is provided by Hendon Ministry of Information Local Committee’s material on the ‘Rout the Rumour Rally’ held in Hendon Park on Sunday, 21 July 1940. A bound volume contains cuttings, photographs, posters, correspondence, stewards’ instructions, song sheets, draft and finalised programmes and other ephemera, in Barnet Archives L940.66. Designed as a morale-building event, the programme presented an afternoon of sketches, songs and music intended to reinforce the message that gossip and rumour prejudiced the national war effort. An official speaker from the Ministry of Information was to come - the organisers hoped for Duff Cooper, but got Harold Nicolson - and an impressive array of stars. Renée Houston, Will Fyffe, Flotsam and Jetsam, Jack Hawkins, Jack Warner, Lucan and McShane and others gave their services free. Among the correspondence are letters of complaint from local clergy about the rally profaning the Sabbath with ‘entertainment’, an accusation vigorously refuted by the Committee Chairman in letters to the local press: ‘Yes, we are going to have flags and marching and stirring music by the Band of the Grenadier Guards, and why not?... No better day is available for the vast number of the general public who will attend. The Artistes, too, could not have come on a weekday’. Other protestors objected to local authorities about Sunday activities on occasion. In August 1942, for instance, the Lord’s Day Observance Society tried but failed to overturn the LCC Parks’ Department’s proposal to open children’s gymnasia and playgrounds on Sundays, in LCC MIN 9014.

Some large employers sometimes offered holiday provision for their workers. Lyons’ active staff club, which had extensive grounds at Sudbury, ran a ‘holiday camp’ there for employees and their families in the summer of 1942. It was advertised in the house journal, Lyons Mail, in July 1942, promising a tent with four bunks for 30/- a week, or a bunk in the communal tent for only 10/-. Three meals a day for seven days cost adults £1 and children under twelve 12/6d. There was an organised programme of entertainments every week. Lyons Mail is in LMA ACC 3 527/289.


List of Extracts from: Sources for the History of London 1939-45

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