“These Wonderful Rumours” refers to the ephemeral scuttlebutt of wartime: stories of parachuting nuns, invasions on bicycles, humble fishmongers as fifth columnists and so on. May Smith’s diaries 1939-1945 regards these with amused scepticism, but their author does find much to worry about with rationing, evacuees, air raids, and friends and relatives in the army. Smith worked as a primary school teacher in the English Midlands during the war, lived with her parents, and managed to lead an active social life despite the war and extra duties, which involved fending off the attentions of at least two suitors, lectures on English Literature and Modern History, and a great deal of shopping and tennis.
Her diaries, modelled on E.M. Delafield’s The Provincial Lady (also published by Virago and an absolute delight) are engaging, often droll and occasionally irritating. Smith’s romantic life is particularly amusing; her entries on Poor Old Dougie or Freddie who is variously Dear and Faithless are a precursor to Bridget Jones in her attempts to figure out her emotions and decipher the codes of courtship:
“Wednesday, December 20th 1939: Received my post at dinnertime – cards and a large carrier bag containing the Promised Bird from Doug – though it was addressed to Mother. Very thrilled – a proper ‘Dougie’ touch. He doesn’t say it with flowers, oh no! Dougie has to shower birds. Howbeit, it looks very succulent, and I like poultry.”
There is a lot about hats and coats and dresses, and the details of life during the Blitz and observations on politics and the progress of the War are interesting and insightful. While the pace slightly drags towards the end of the volume, well, so did the war, highlighting how constant anxiety and sometime panic can become routine.
“Wednesday, July 10th 1940: Torrents of rain fell all day long. Rumbles of thunder also sounded – very ominously – this afternoon, whereat I received a frenzied note from Miss H, asking Was it Thunder or Bombs?’ Replied in consolatory vein, and shortly afterwards lightning appeared, confirming my diagnosis.”
The diaries serve as a view into how ordinary people outside London (often the focus of Blitz narratives) perceived the war, and how important community spirit and snatching as many good times as possible were. I enjoyed them very much; they make a good read with a cup of tea and a cosy window seat.