In my previous post I mentioned how Trevor Shearston’s Game was set in familiar territory, with many of the book’s events taking place near to my current home.
May Smith’s These Wonderful Rumours is also set on well-known ground, however this time it took me back to my childhood. The book is the war time diary of a teacher from the English Midlands. She lived and taught in the area where I grew up until my family migrated to Australia in 1971. Therefore many of the places are familiar to me, and I know a little about some of the war time events that are the background of the book.
My favourite parts were those that evoked a sense of what it was like to hear air-raid sirens, and German planes flying overhead, and the sound of bombing and anti-aircraft fire coming from nearby cities. My parents were children at the time, living in the same town, and would have heard the same sounds.
My dad has told me stories of seeing searchlights illuminating the skies, seeking out enemy aircraft’ and how he and his sister were made to sleep under the stairs, where it was assumed there would be a degree of safety should the worst happen. May Smith’s account tells of spending nights at her grandparent’s house nearby, where there was a cellar for shelter – and how things became so familiar that the sirens were later ignored, and she’d stay in bed rather than make the trek downstairs, listening to bombing in nearby Derby, about 12 miles away.
The title’s significance is a reference to the stories and gossip that filled in the gaps of official news, some of which had an element of truth, but mostly had no substance.
While the time covered by the diary spans the period of World War Two, the heart of her book is everyday life, which despite some inconveniences caused by the war, continues with as much normality as possible. She tells of frequent shopping trips for clothes; of her evenings of tennis, and of the men who continued vie for her affection despite her attempt to keep them at a distance.
The diary makes it clear she had a difficult time as a teacher, a job she seems to have disliked immensely. One incident in her class affected me quite a lot when I read it. She revealed how she tore up one boy’s cigarette cards* after he (presumably) had been causing trouble. I could feel his dismay. I could imagine myself experiencing something similar and how I’d feel afterwards; and despite her contrition, I didn’t get the impression she understood how devastated a young boy of that age would be, owning very little of value, and having something important to him destroyed by an adult in authority.
* Collectable cards given away inside packets of cigarettes featuring photos related to a variety of popular topics. During my childhood similar card were enclosed in packets of tea. Also, for a time, empty cigarette packets could be exchanged for larger collectable cards. I remember getting packets from my grandad and uncles to exchange for cards featuring football players.