Wednesday, May 23, 2007

"The noise - the massiveness - the horror!"

David Kynaston has a lovely little piece at the Guardian on why he turned to women's diaries for his history of postwar Britain (oh, these quotations make me miss my grandmother so sharply, she was exactly one of these such women!):

My first historian hero, AJP Taylor, barely mentioned a woman. Nor did my next, EP Thompson, do much better in his seminal history-from-below, The Making of the English Working Class. At Oxford in the 1970s, the only woman I can remember featuring in my Modern History course was Elizabeth I. My own subsequent life as a historian was studying that virtually all-male bastion, the City of London. Moreover, although there has been a broad shift towards inclusivity in the past 30 years, the extent to which the old agendas retain their dominance is still striking. Even Peter Hennessy's recent, widely praised survey of Britain in the 1950s, Having It So Good, mentions barely two dozen women - compared with 45 men under the letter "B" alone.

So began the search for legible, quotable diaries. Eventually I found more than 30, of which about three-quarters are by women, quite often unmarried. A dozen or so of these female diarists feature in my account of the first six years after the war - years of heavily masculine resonance, with politicians such as Attlee and Cripps, Bevin and Bevan, industries such as steel and coal-mining, the docks and the railways, and pastimes like football and rugby league, speedway and the pub, not to mention the female retreat (voluntary or not) from working in offices and factories. A corrective was badly needed, and these diarists, for all their almost uniform tendency to be middle-class, help to supply it.

They include Marian Raynham, a Surbiton housewife who, on a typical July day, "made macaroni cheese & did peas & had & cleared lunch, then rest, then made 5lbs raspberry jam, got tea & did some housework, listened to radio & darned"; Mary King, a retired teacher in Birmingham who saw the Queen (later the Queen Mother) during a royal visit and observed that "considering the rationing of the people, she certainly looked well fed"; Grace Golden, a commercial artist, who, standing in a bus queue in Piccadilly, spotted "a number of charming 'new look' women - the full long skirts quite delightful"; Erica Ford, a thoroughly sensible, church-going young woman from Ealing, so mesmerised by the play Gaslight on television that "of course knitting remained undone"; and Phyllis Willmott, not fully into her stride until the 1950s but still writing her diary in 2007, who visited the Ford plant at Dagenham and concluded her description of the assembly line with the Kurtz-like sentence, "The noise - The massiveness - The horror!"

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful!

    My own granny (born outside of Glasgow in 1906) recollected the fad for knitting things for soldiers--apparently everyone was knitting on trains all the time when she was girl.

    (But that was WWI--she emigrated between the wars.)