Reviewed by Hayley Anderton
I thought I’d learnt to check how long a book is before I agreed or offered to review it, but I’m in this case I had not. I will admit to being daunted when it landed on my doorstep, and harbouring a guilty suspicion that it would join too many other books that just seem too big to get round to right now. If Harriet hadn’t seen me mention it and asked if I’d write about it for Shiny it would probably be on that pile of unread books now, but she did, which gave me a push, and I’m glad that she did.
I have to admit to total ignorance about Home Intelligence and their work during the Second World War in monitoring morale and rumors around the country. They came under the general umbrella of the Ministry of Information and from the introduction it seems there’s much more of a story to be told about them. What we need to know is that from May to September 1940 they issued reports daily, and after that, weekly. Their job was basically to spy on the public, albeit without mentioning names, to build a picture of public opinion and feeling.
As Addison and Crang point out in their introduction, it’s not a perfect resource. There are problems with the methodology, which will play to particular biases, but there’s nothing else like it, and I really can’t over emphasise this enough – it’s genuinely fascinating to read.
This is the second set of Home Intelligence reports that Addison and Crang have edited. The first volume was published about a decade ago and is available cheaply second hand; Listening to Britain covers the first days of the war, taking in Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, and the beginning of the Blitz. The Spirit of the Blitz reprints some of the same material and takes us up to June 1941.
The idea of the Blitz has a persistent grip on the British imagination. It’s been endlessly evoked over the last few years, but perhaps never more than through the current Covid crisis. Bombs and viruses have little in common, but then folk memory of the Blitz doesn’t necessarily relate closely to the reality, and one thing that is clear from reading this book is that the way people behave in the face of a unifying threat doesn’t change.
Rumours, conspiracy theories, fluctuating morale and faith in the government, speculation, anger, people willing to follow rules, and people fighting against perceived curtailments of freedom. You’ll find all of them in here and they undoubtedly have an extra resonance given the year we’re having. Complaints about how grey and dull life was because of the blackout certainly seem familiar. Personally, I was particularly interested in reports on the pressures women conscripted into work were finding. War or not, the expectations and pressures on them were almost unbelievable, and then, as now, so many of the answers to improve things are obvious, but not implemented.
This is a book that’ll be relevant for anyone who has an interest in World War Two, British History, Social History, the fiction of the period, or even in debunking some of those Blitz spirit myths. For me the main draw is that I read quite a bit of fiction from the 1940s so this book has either given me a much better understanding of the context, or expanded on issues such as the reception that evacuees got and tensions between them and their hosts. It’s a particular bonus that reports for Home Intelligence came in from across the country; there’s a lot more than just London here, and the difference between the capital and the provinces is one of the most interesting aspects of the reports.
I also need to come back to how enjoyable it is to read. These reports were not always popular with the Ministry of Information or the Home Office, as public opinion could be read as criticism of policy. The tone is matter of fact, but the observations are often surprisingly amusing, it really is a book to settle down with and just enjoy, as well as a unique insight into a part of our relatively recent history. The description of it reading like a diary for the nation is absolutely accurate, complete with all the grumbles and petty complaints that suggests – which is what makes it all so compelling.
Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader
Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang, The Spirit of the Blitz (Oxford University Press, 2020) 978-0198848509, 489pp., hardback.