These Wonderful Rumours: A Young Schoolteacher's Wartime Diaries
Auntie 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. At the outbreak of World War Two, May Smith was twenty-four.
She lived in a small village near Derby with her parents, and taught at the local elementary school. The war brought many changes: evacuees arrived in the village; nights were broken by the wail of the siren as bombers flew overhead; the young men of May's circle donned khaki and disappeared to far-flung places to 'do their bit'. But a great deal remained the same: May still enjoyed tennis parties, holidays to Llandudno and going shopping for new outfits - coupons and funds permitting.
And it was during these difficult times that May fell in love. These Wonderful Rumours! gives a unique and surprising insight into life on the Home Front. Through May Smith's observant, witty and sometimes acerbic diary, we gain a new understanding of how the people of Britain coped with the uncertainty, the heartbreak and the black comedy of life during wartime.
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The somewhat abstract title is a quotation from 1940, the year of spy and invasion rumours, and the publisher, Virago, could have chosen better. May Smith was a well-educated and intelligent young woman with a lively sense of humour and her diaries make fascinating reading. We know what happened but she is living through the war day by day. Family photographs illustrate the text and footnotes explain anything which might be obscure. The end-boards show a reproduction of her writing (blue ink on pale blue paper) and show an entry not reproduced in the text. Her son edited and selected the entries but on what basis? Did he leave out anything personal? Her engagement near the end of the book seems rather sudden (no, she was not pregnant). Could this have altered the balance and tenor of the diaries?
Teaching was not a vocation for her: ‘Friday - thanks be!’ More time is devoted to other concerns in her life: juggling her two boyfriends, clothes, books, and perpetually running out of money. The times she lived in are vividly presented - the exhaustion of going to work after almost nightly air raids, bitter winters, public transport and no central heating, rationing, the blackout, radio broadcasts by Churchill, evacuees, conscientious objectors, tennis parties, frequent nights at ‘the flicks’. Iconic performances she sees include: Goodbye Mr Chips, Wuthering Heights, Fantasia, and The Maltese Falcon. War news is, to us, oddly juxtaposed with ordinary life: ‘Paris raided - over 200 killed and 900 casualties altogether. Another brilliantly sunny day’.
The obvious comparison to make is with the diaries of Nella Last, Housewife 49 of the Mass Observation Archive. They contrast nicely: Professional teacher/Housewife, single woman/wife but both are clear-eyed observers allowing one to eavesdrop on people living in extraordinary times.
Friends of The National Archives.