By the end of 1940 Britain had reached its darkest hour. France had fallen. German planes were pummelling London nightly. Smoke was rising above the city of London and the threat of German invasion hung in the air. On December 19th Virginia Woolf sat down to consider how the war had changed her life. “It wd be interesting”, she wrote, in her scrappy diary shorthand, with its punctuation nipped and words truncated, “if I could take today, Thursday, & say exactly how the war changes it.”
It is a tantalising start to a diary entry. By 1940 Woolf was a celebrated writer whose books, “Mrs Dalloway” and “To the Lighthouse”, had changed English literature. What tack, then, would “Woolf on War” take? What truths would she reveal? What did war mean for Woolf on that particular Thursday?
The answer was shopping. War, for Woolf, meant that everyday life had become a bit of a bother. “Our ration of margarine is so small that I cant think of any pudding save milk pudding,” Woolf wrote. “The shops don’t fill till midday. Things are bought fast. In the afternoon they are often gone...”
It wasn’t just the shopping. All housework was harder now. War meant that the maid’s hours had been reduced and changed, so Woolf also had to do the dusting and her husband Leonard did the tidying. There were, she observed, no new clothes; they had less variety in their food. And beyond that? Beyond that, nothing much. Her hand now shook a bit. There were raids. Putting up the blackout blinds was half an hour’s drudgery. And otherwise? “Otherwise we draw breath as usual.”
When the histories of covid-19 come out they will be written with military dash and drama. These accounts will speak of rising body counts and of “casualties”. Just like the current crop of world leaders, writers and historians will use military metaphors: talk of “fighting” the disease, “doing battle” with the invisible virus and being on the “front line”; doctors will describe the situation as “worse than a war zone”. They will nod to convoys of coffins in Italian streets, body bags in makeshift morgues and the building of hospitals with names – Nightingales – that evoke caring amid carnage on the battlefield.
Those accounts will be right, of course. But they will also be wrong. Because for most people, in most places, this pandemic mirrors not the drama and death of the front line but the tedium and turgidity of the Home Front. It is a place of small but relentless domestic difficulties, of shopping made harder by awkward opening hours and sudden shortages – eggs and flour in the war; yeast and loo roll now. Then, as today, for many people the most ferocious battles were not with the enemy but with the endless small tasks of daily life: the laundry, the washing-up and the occasionally overwhelming enemy of one’s own spirits.
In Britain, where the second world war is less national history than national hobby, the Home Front seems fondly familiar. Seventy-five years since the war ended we remain in its shadow. We put up its plucky propaganda posters as decoration and drink from mugs that tell us to “Keep Calm and Carry On”. We decorate our parties with quaint, wartime bunting and invoke the “Blitz spirit” as shorthand for our ability to withstand all assaults. On this fictional Home Front women with nipped-in waists wear tweed and brave smiles. We make do and we pull together.
This rose-tinted image has infused our politics too. In Britain, the campaign to leave the European Union was a national exercise in nostalgia: a sort of am-dram, village-hall version of history, with Boris Johnson gamely taking the part of Churchill (their waistlines matched) and the “oppressive” European Union standing in for Nazi-occupied Europe – a simplified, almost childlike version of the past in which it was apparently clear who was right and who was wrong. Behind it all was a hazy, golden vision of a land of tea and cake over which the people somehow had “control”.
For most people, in most places, the pandemic mirrors not the drama and death of the front line but the tedium and turgidity of the Home Front
Britain is not alone in indulging its romantic visions of yesteryear. Politicians the world over have invoked nostalgic nationalism as a political tool, harking back to days of imagined glory and vowing to restore or reinvigorate them. Russia has started putting up statues of Stalin, Turks are invoking the triumphs of the Ottoman Empire and Donald Trump has promised to “make America great again”.
Such boo-hiss history allows the tiresomely ambiguous present to be recast as a moment from the past, a moment whose edges have been worn smooth by long handling. Yet as the last few months have reminded us, this vision of history is bunk.
Wartime domesticity is as beloved by film-makers and novelists as it is by politicians. Yet lockdown should confirm the falsity of their cosy vision. As we queue for food, bored, busy and two metres apart, we can see that food shortages and empty shelves are not so jolly. That chivvying the children and explaining the grave world comes at a cost. There is certainly nothing cheerful about hearing the daily death toll on the radio, or about profound uncertainty about humanity’s future. Living in times we know are historic is not, after all, something to be wished for.
Like seeing a colourised photo of an old soldier, a dash of modernity helps us to see the past with greater clarity. The Home Front – which hitherto has existed in a pleasing sepia – has been brought into full shocking colour by lockdown. The past, we suddenly realise, was not another country after all. The past was just the present, yesterday.
The past, to its credit, was always very clear about this: few at the time claimed that the Home Front was fun. Diana Athill, a writer and editor, looked back on the war and remembered not larks and living to the full but “greyness, joylessness, sadness swerving in and out of despair, being forced endlessly to endure: all that had become what Life was.”
Many people look back on the war as a time of pulling together. Yet to read accounts from the Home Front is also to find a painful fragmentation, often, as now, dependent on personal fortune: rich from poor; town from country; plump farmers from the thin ration-fed – and, of course, every nation from the other. A virulent xenophobia hung in the bombed-out air of 1940s Britain. Anti-Italian, anti-Dutch, anti-Jewish feelings seethed. Belgian refugees were looked on with suspicion as “a disagreeable people causing a shortage of butter”. Not so glorious after all.
If the present can help us see the past, the past can help us see the present too. Accounts of the Home Front often carry a sense that one’s own suffering is made small by the greater pain of others. Both then and now, people feel the need to stifle their feelings. Woolf wrote that Thursday list out of an experimental honesty – but even she nearly dismissed it: “These are inconveniences rather than hardships,” she wrote, almost apologetically. “We dont go hungry or cold.”
Then, as now, the alive check their privilege before complaining in the face of death. When men were dying in Normandy it felt almost unpatriotic to write about one’s struggles with milk pudding. Today, as health workers face death, and others risk their lives working in shops, care homes and schools, it seems selfish to moan about being stuck in the safety of our own homes. So people didn’t. We censor ourselves, embarrassed that our feelings, our own toilet-paper shortages, don’t quite match the magnitude of the moment.
The wartime British government actually saw these small struggles, and the nation’s morale, as central to the war effort. After all, though 3m people would be recruited into the British army, there were well over 4om more out of it. Reasoning that the national spirit was as important in fighting the enemy as any weapon, the Ministry of Information set out to measure it.
Throughout the war, observers were sent across the country to eavesdrop and interview people for a “Daily Morale Report”. In pubs and on buses, in restaurants and on the streets, these bureaucratic spies listened carefully, scribbled discreetly and then, every day at midday, phoned in their results to London. Meteorologists of morale, they offered their observations under different headings (“London”; “Scotland”; “Rumours”; “Disbelief in News”) to show which way the winds of public opinion were blowing, and how people were bearing up with the unendingness of it all.
The results are illuminating – and not quite as our nostalgic reminiscence would have it. Churchill’s famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech from June 4th 1940 is assumed to have stiffened the sinews of the anxious British, yet this speech in the House of Commons was broadcast only after the war (though newspapers carried reports of it). Instead, Mass Observation reported on June 7th that the “general view of present broadcasts is that Duff Cooper” – a now largely forgotten British politician – “stands out above the others”. Many millions of Britons heard neither: they were listening instead to Lord Haw-Haw, a Nazi propagandist.
If the collective memory of sure and strident leaders appears to be a chimera, so too does much that was supposed to be cosy and comforting about the Home Front. Now that we, too, are thrown back on our own resources, the “make do and mend” spirit seems less appealing. Today, we too find ourselves at home doing handicrafts, baking sourdough and cooking endless dinners. As we walk through towns that hector us from every billboard to “Stay Home, Stay Safe”, the propaganda posters of yesteryear – “Dig for Victory”, “Careless talk costs lives” – suddenly feel not so much reassuring as rickety. Like the repeated pleas of a teacher trying to quieten a class, they hint not at control, but its absence.
Now that we are thrown back on our own resources, the “make do and mend” spirit of wartime seems less appealing
In fact these posters weren’t popular even in wartime. The famous “Keep Calm and Carry On” slogan so beloved by modern Britons was a notable disaster. The Ministry of Information had 2.45m copies printed but never distributed them. “The population might well resent having this poster crammed down their throats at every turn,” one official said; another thought the slogan “too commonplace to be inspiring”. But an important reason that it was never deployed is that it wasn’t needed: reports on the morale of civilians pointed to boredom rather than panic.
And oh, how we can relate to that. The war is often yearned for as a “simpler time”. As we live through our own “simpler time”, however, we now know that simple means narrower horizons, no meals out, no child care, no friends for dinner, no school, no workplace, no train trips, no holidays. It means no shopping, no parties, no chance conversations at the water-cooler or the school gate. If this new life is simple, so too was Sisyphus’s labour. That does not make it fun. “Simple” means an awful lot of washing up.
In war, as now, we yearned for better times. The second world war spawned a literary genre that Laura Freeman, a critic, has called “hungry novels”, with a “marked stomach sensibility, an obsessive detail of food”. Think of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited”, a novel of Oxford, champagne and summer picnics with friends in the blue shade of elms. Reading Brideshead now evokes a powerful nostalgia less for the cooking than the closeness. Imagine lolling on a blanket, mere millimetres from a friend, rather than a socially chaste metre or so apart. Consider dipping your hand into a bowl of strawberries with such carelessness, your fingers where another’s fingers had been, liberated from the covid calculus as to whether the red juice might kill the virus or preserve it.
If the second world war spawned the hungry novel, it seems likely that the self-isolation of covid-19 may spawn the lonely one, a spate of books in which face masks are all returned to the operating theatre and characters greet each other not with elbow bumps but eager embraces, shout at football matches, sing in church or swig from the same wine bottle with louche abandon, the now-unthinkable act of putting your lips where someone else’s have been so recently.
In lockdown, as in war, we long for the “end”. And here the story darkens. We all talk of “afterwards”, of a time when things will get back to normal, or a semblance of the past. (Surely it will be over by Christmas, won’t it?) But the period that followed war was not “peace” with its halcyon connotations, but the far drearier “post-war”. The government had mortgaged the country to get through the crisis. Then the debts were called in. As Sylvia Townsend Warner, a writer, put it in 1946, “no one feels well or happy just now. No one in wartime can quite escape the illusion that when the war ends things will snap back to where they were and that one will be the same age one was when it began.”
So, now, we look to an unknown future, our dreams on hold. Even if a vaccine is developed, lockdown has already stolen much that it will not return. There are financial losses, divisions within society widened, health conditions undiagnosed or untreated. There are many smaller individual losses too. Grandparents who missed the chance to hold newborn grandchildren. University students who will never get back that final summer of cool examination halls and drunken parties. The opportunities that never came to pass. And those whose perilous personal or financial situations took a nosedive, never quite to turn upwards again.
But perhaps we will gain one thing. For maybe, just maybe, we will reconsider our fond nostalgia for days gone by. As the children shout that they’re bored again, as we glove-up for another weekend cleaning session, as mundane day drifts into unmemorable, mundane day with nothing to talk about, does the promise of restoring our simpler past now start to seem like a threat? The door of war, Warner wrote, is “marked in plain lettering. No Way Back”. The door of the pandemic could be marked with the same sign. There is no going back. The past can never be returned to us. Not then, not now.•
ILLUSTRATIONS ALBANE SIMON