I’ve been reading a strange little book for the last few days. Published by Virago, it’s called: ‘These Wonderful Rumours’, and is; ‘a young schoolteacher’s wartime diaries’. It’s the diaries of a woman called May Smith, who was a primary school teacher in a small Derbyshire town called Swadlincote during WWII.
I know Swadlincote quite well, and I love a good wartime diary, so I snaffled it off the library shelves and have been dragging it about all week.
I confess to having found it a bit hit and miss. Swadlincote isn’t industrial enough to have seen much action during the war, which I am sure was an absolute relief for the inhabitants, but not so much if you’re trying to read about war time experiences. May spends significantly more time playing tennis than writing about her experiences of war and what it means, other than in the most perfunctory manner.
I find it rather perplexing that she is published as a war time diarist. She seems to have had a fairly significant amount of disposable income for a start, and despite rationing and clothing coupons etc, always manages to eat heartily, shop heartily, and buy clothes as if it were an olympic grade sport. There is nothing wrong with this at all, but it doesn’t tally with the general picture you get if you study the Home Front in any detail, of people struggling for food and having to wear the forty third best counterpane as an underskirt etc.
Maybe that’s why it has been published, to show that not everyone lost four stone eating powdered eggs and trying to make soufflé out of grated carrot with only a picture of Margeurite Patten to console them.
May is also more concerned with her ongoing man troubles than any war related activities. She has two suitors, Dougiedear, who lives in the Fens and woos her constantly with care packages of silk stockings and fattened chickens, and Freddie, who is rather feckless, and borrows two and nine from her to take her to a dance and never pays her back. She also has a rather uncomfortable encounter with a married man at the tennis club, which causes no end of grief in a small community where everyone knows everyone else’s business and the rumour mill goes into overdrive.
The most interesting years of the diary, in terms of the war experience bit, are 1941 to 1943, before and after that not much happens in May’s life that really enlightens the reader as to what was going on, and what she does recount you could pick up from any book about the war. The later years in particular are much more focussed on her increasingly serious relationship with Freddie, who seems to have pulled his socks up rather on the wooing front.
It is a book I found easy to put down, and I wouldn’t write about, nor recommend it here, were it not for the fact that every now and again she made me howl with laughter, and you got the sense of a woman with a really wicked sense of humour and a razor sharp wit lurking beneath all the froth about whether this hat goes with that coat or how much money Freddy has shelled out on a box of chocolates this week.
Here’s her reaction when Dougiedear promises to send her a cockerel for christmas:
Tuesday December 19th:
News from Dougiedear. He is going to send me A Cockerel for Christmas. I think I’ll send him a hundredweight of potatoes. Volunteered very generously to sell it, but Mother wouldn’t respond. I think I’ll stuff it and keep it in his memory.