Annie Murray on the legacy of the Second World War
Annie Murray, author of Now The War Is Over, on the aftermath of the Second World War, Birmingham's contribution to the war effort and the challenges of writing historical fiction.
Annie Murray, author of War Babies and Now The War Is Over, on the aftermath of the Second World War, Birmingham's contribution to the war effort and the challenges of writing historical fiction.
The German comedian, Henning Wehn, talking recently on radio about his arrival in Britain, said, ‘I turned on the TV and there was a programme about Word War Two – I mean, what are the chances?!'
World War Two must have been written and broadcast about more than any other subject. The images have been worked hard and the more that time recedes behind us, the harder it is for them not to harden into clichés.
Articles about the end of the war in Europe – VE Day – are frequently accompanied by a picture like the one above, a street party - this one somewhere in Birmingham - or by a crowd of ecstatic revellers climbing on the statues of London.
And of course these things happened – people crazed with joy and relief at the end of it all, after the years of waiting, fearing. The heady promise of peace, of family restored and interrupted dreams resumed.
Birmingham, at the heart of industrial production, sits slightly to the side of some familiar – usually urban – stereotypes. So important was Birmingham to the war effort that its bombardment was seldom reported. At best it was recorded as being ‘somewhere in the Midlands.' So its place as one of the most bombed cities after London is sometimes forgotten.
Similarly, the number of civilians in reserved occupations was disproportionately high. My uncle, working for a firm in nearby Coventry, begged to be able to join up, making such a pest of himself that they let him and he became a Marine Commando. He came home from Burma a changed man - (this very phrase a stereotype).
No doubt those who remained were changed by their experiences. But they had less to explain. They had stayed in their neighbourhoods and often, jobs. They had lived through the Blitz, the Home Front. Many of the men returning found it difficult to talk about their time in the forces. Perhaps no one living nearby had shared them. Now civilian life had been restored, they were left with a knapsack full of incommunicable experiences.
Even if asked about their war much later, memory is capricious. Sediments of varying emotional colours are laid down over the original experiences. Painful things may be edited out. When you interview someone you cannot be completely sure what you are getting. Interviewees often harbour assumptions about what you want to hear, or perhaps their wife is about and there are things they don't want to say… The vastly numerous number of portrayals of the war since the events have also edited and shaped all our thinking.
Writing history means that we were not there ourselves. We were not that person. However many facts we accrue, the final leap is always imaginative – and specific, not general. How did it feel to that person – as opposed to that other person in the picture? The one standing in uniform at his front door? That child, seated at the table, still breathing in our minds?