Any books about British life during wartime?
September 25, 2012 5:35 AM   Subscribe

Books about life in Britain during wartime?

I've been watching a lot of Foyle's War on Netflix and find some of the bits about life in Britain during WWII fascinating and would like to learn more.

Unlike so many programs that are about the actual war, military operations etc. this show focuses on events that happen in Britain. I don't know how much of it is being a loose with facts there but I'd like to learn more. I never knew about "Funk Holes", the USA building runways from farm lands taken by the British government, manors being converted into hospitals, museums moving artwork out of London, "pole selectors"...

Any recommendations for good reads about life in Britain prior to and during WWII? Particularly interested in life outside of London and the effects there.

posted by bellastarr to Society & Culture (42 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
A few years ago a book came out, it was the diary of a woman whose son had been captured by the Germans in 1939 and who wasn't released until war's end. Her book was very much the day to day life during wartime. Searching for the title, maybe someone else remembers it?
posted by TWinbrook8 at 5:47 AM on September 25, 2012

BBC People's War is a collection of over 20,000 stories from ordinary people about their experience living in England in the war or participating in the Allied effort.
posted by parmanparman at 5:48 AM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Orwell's Coming Up for Air takes place at the very start of the war, compares protagonist's rural childhood to his current life; bombs fall. IIRC. A very good read, at any rate.
posted by kmennie at 5:52 AM on September 25, 2012

Graham Greene: The End of the Affair, The Ministry of Fear. OK, so they're fiction, but Greene lived the experience of Britain during wartime, and he is regarded as a very convincing portrayer of the backdrop to his stories. Ministry of Fear was written (or rather, published) in 1943.
posted by aqsakal at 5:56 AM on September 25, 2012

I've recommended these here before, but to get a taste of life during wartime for ordinary people (especially women) you can't really beat anthologies that use diaries collected for Mass Observation - a government led initiative that asked people to write about their day to day (often mundane and occasionally fascinating) lives before, during and after the war. Some people wrote daily diaries for years.

A couple of example anthologies I've enjoyed: (just search amazon for mass observation for more)

Wartime Women: A Mass Observation Anthology: A Mass-observation Anthology of Women's Writings, 1937-1945

Nine Wartime Lives: Mass Observation and the Making of the Modern Self

Just be aware that individual diaries are often printed in more than one anthology.

Another book I really enjoyed on life on the "Home Front" is
Wartime: Britain 1939-1945 by Dr. Juliet Gardiner.
posted by unbearablylight at 5:59 AM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

They're fiction - science fiction, no less - but I just finished Connie Willis' Blackout and All Clear, which take place mostly in 1940-41 London (with a little bit of 1944 and 2060. Time travel, you see...) Willis does amazing amounts of research and the books show a great love and respect for the people of London during what was a terrifying ordeal.
posted by MShades at 6:04 AM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's not a book, but you might enjoy 1940's House. It shows the day-to-day life of people during wartime Britain, but using a modern family.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:13 AM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

In Volume 4 of the Collected Journalism of George Orwell, you can read many of his "Letter From England"" articles that were published in the Partisan Review. Some of these touch on daily life.
posted by thelonius at 6:18 AM on September 25, 2012

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Sparks takes place partially between VE day and VJ day.
posted by griphus at 6:35 AM on September 25, 2012

Nella Last's War is one of the Mass Observation Diaries mentioned by unbearablylight. It's a great read and very revealing of the era.
posted by KateViolet at 6:38 AM on September 25, 2012

Patrick Hamilton
posted by Ideefixe at 6:44 AM on September 25, 2012

Oh, man, I love Norman Longmate's book How We Lived Then: A History of Everyday Life During the Second World War. Extremely detailed, all about the day-to-day life of UK civilians on the home front, full of personal recollections. I learned all kinds of tiny, interesting things that a broader and later history wouldn't have known or covered.
posted by theatro at 7:55 AM on September 25, 2012 [5 favorites]

In a similar vein to Nella Last is Mrs Milburn's Diaries: An Englishwoman's Day to Day Reflections 1939-45.
posted by penguin pie at 8:00 AM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

A.S. Byatt's "The Thing in the Forest" is a short story about children evacuees.
posted by Fichereader at 8:09 AM on September 25, 2012

Thank you penguin pie, that is the book I was trying to remember.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 8:31 AM on September 25, 2012

David Stafford's 10 Days to D-Day gives a great account of the experiences of a variety of people in England during the spring of 1944.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 8:47 AM on September 25, 2012

Not a book, but John Boorman's Hope and Glory is a semi-autobiographical movie about life during the Blitz as experienced by a 9-year old boy.
posted by elgilito at 9:01 AM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some of Agatha Christie's best stuff (Five Little Pigs, The Moving Finger) is set in the war years; A Murder is Announced is set in the post-war period, and the effects of rationing and rural social disruption are major elements of the story's fabric.
posted by endless_forms at 9:10 AM on September 25, 2012

The Provincial Lady in Wartime, by E.M. Delafield.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:39 AM on September 25, 2012

Slightly later, obviously, but still relevant and very good: London 1945: Life in the Debris of War by Maureen Waller.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:45 AM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sarah Waters' The Night Shift is excellent - fiction, set in London. Goodnight Mister Tom is also very good - a children's novel about a boy evacuated to the country.

Check out the list of Persephone books - I can't think of any off the top of my head (and am on my phone and can't really link or search, sorry) but they most definitely have some set during the war, and they are lovely.
posted by goo at 9:50 AM on September 25, 2012

Agh I mean The Night Watch, not shift. Sorry.
posted by goo at 9:52 AM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ben Wicks' No Time to Wave Goodbye is a collection of first person stories of the children who were evcauated out of the cities and sent into the countryside to live with strangers for the duration of the war. Ben Wicks himself was one of those children. Some heartbreaking stuff in this book.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 10:06 AM on September 25, 2012

If you're looking for some historical fiction you might try Connie Willis's Blackout and All Clear. Both are in the sci-fi genre, but still pretty entertaining and provide a unique perspective.

Also go watch Hope and Glory. Beautiful Film.
posted by brookeb at 10:06 AM on September 25, 2012

Lorna Sage's (excellent) memoir, Bad Blood, discusses her childhood immediately following the war (she was born in 1943), and I believe includes some information about her parents and grandparents' daily lives during the war itself.
posted by scody at 10:25 AM on September 25, 2012

Nevil Shute!
Also, maybe Ordeal, but since it was written before hostilities began, it's more of an interestingly inaccurate prediction, now. But it is set in Southampton, not London.

Also, Arthur C. Clark's novel about the development of radar:
posted by Rash at 10:56 AM on September 25, 2012

Growing up during and after WWII is an impetus behind much of the British Invasion bands of the 60s and 70s. The Who and Pink Floyd, among others, have a lot of songs that, maybe not so much talk about life during the war, but are very reflective of dealing with the scars of war. (The Wall and Tommy are both about people who grew up in the shadow of the war.)
posted by Doohickie at 10:58 AM on September 25, 2012

I will suggest Ernie Pyle's book "Ernie Pyle In England," which was written before the US entered the war (published 1941). It is an outsider's view of life in England during that time, and he got to go to more and different places than most writers. here is an excerpt about the London Blitz in 1940.

I wish I knew who owned his copyrights, because his prose is very nice and I wish it was in e-books. (It took a long time for me to find a printed copy, and I guard it jealously!)
posted by wenestvedt at 11:14 AM on September 25, 2012

And wasn't the last book of the "All Creatures Great and Small" series set in the beginning of the war?
posted by wenestvedt at 11:16 AM on September 25, 2012

Foyle's War is pretty darn accurate. If you haven't yet done so, I recommend browsing the Wikipedia pages for each series/season, which note each episode's historical basis and a few errors. Further reading:

Summer, 1940: The Battle of Britain unites broad military and political strategy with small-scale personal details, so that you really appreciate just how many (and not just in Britain) wound up owing so much to so few -- in particular, to Air Chief Marshall 'Stuffy' Dowding (who like Foyle was underappreciated and battling self-aggrandizing jerks), and to 'Dowding's Chicks', i.e. his fighter pilots.

For more information about what Andrew Foyle et al. were going through, see biographies of fighter pilots R. R. Standford Tuck and Johnnie Johnson. They're both lively reads -- Tuck's is stylistically a bit more over-the-top boy's adventure story, thanks to his biographer, while Johnson's is a more modest memoir.

If you liked Andrew's buddy Rex, check out The Charioteer. Before Mary Renault wrote her better-known homoerotic novels of Ancient Greece, she was chronicling and participating in gay life in WWII Britain, where she served as a nurse. High camp melodrama, wartime dreariness, and Bunny, a not-terribly-closeted gay fighter pilot.

If you were intrigued by the difficult and dangerous situation of pacifists, you'll find it futher explored in The Charioteer as well as The Night Watch (though I reckon it's the weakest thread in each book).

Thirding Blackout and All Clear, which are beautifully researched. Since you mention you're especially interested in life outside London, note that they also include settings such as the evacuation of Dunkirk ('The White Feather'), a manor house taking in London slum kids ('A Lesson in Murder') and various intelligence operations in the countryside.
posted by feral_goldfish at 11:18 AM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

thelonius mentions Volume 4 of Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. The other three volumes also have lots of detail about living in the UK during the war.
posted by Bruce H. at 12:19 PM on September 25, 2012

Out of the Cage: Women's Experiences in Two World Wars. Originally published 1987 and about to be re-published, not sure if it has been updated.
posted by paduasoy at 1:27 PM on September 25, 2012

For more TV (I know you asked about books but I can't add to what has been mentioned already) check out episodes of Dad's Army. This was a long running series from the 60s and 70s about the Home Guard, this was a volunteer army, intended to be the nation's last line of defence, made up of those ineligible to join the Armed Forces due to age or infirmity. A very gentle comedy but with lots of period touches (rationing, black marketeering) and the interaction between the two principal characters has lots of insight about the English class system.

A pilot episode of an American version (called The Rear Guard) was even made, this was genuinely awful if this clip is anything to go by.
posted by epo at 1:29 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

And further to Ruthless Bunny's suggestion, there is a book of the 1940s House.
posted by paduasoy at 1:46 PM on September 25, 2012

Further to epo's comment on Dad's Army. The writers were actually in the Home Guard during the war because they were too young to serve in the army. Some of the incidents are directly based on their experiences (although, played for laughs).

For more on the mass observation series you might want to watch 'Housewife, 49' which is a dramatisation of one woman's diary. She lived in Barrow in the north west of England.

'Carrie's War' is a children's story about evacuees.

'Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain 1942' which was written and issued by the US war department is good for its between the lines comparison of British and American societies.

Overall, I've found inter-war information more difficult to find that stuff about the war, or even post-war.
posted by plonkee at 2:31 PM on September 25, 2012

I know you said you had a preference for outside of London examples, but I am going to mention a book I was recently given, and only started reading on the plane this weekend, because it a story that appears to be little known and nonfiction. Citizens of London by a woman named Lynne Olson. Not about everyday life, for sure, but about a few Americans (Edward R. Murrow, Averell Harriman, and John Gilbert Winant) who lived and worked in London during the war, and how they helped England by informing the American public, and influencing the isolationist American government.
posted by terrapin at 3:59 PM on September 25, 2012

A childrens book called "the Machine Gunners" felt to me to be totally realistic representation of life in northern England during the war from a child's point of view.
posted by muckybob at 1:00 AM on September 26, 2012

Nthing Hope & Glory. Also The Last of The Blonde Bombshells, which has scenes during the war and a fantastic cast.
posted by monopas at 2:05 AM on September 26, 2012

Response by poster: So many replies here that I won't be able to choose a "best" answer. Thank you all, I'm making my list now!
posted by bellastarr at 5:00 AM on September 26, 2012

If you can read children's books, check out Richmal Crompton's William stories written during the war years - William and Air Raid Precautions, William and the Evacuees, William Does His Bit, William Carries On.
posted by Catch at 1:04 AM on September 30, 2012

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