Yesterday morning I set off for two hours’ research in my local municipal library on my latest project. As I arrived I came upon a scene that could have been potentially disruptive to my cherished plan – on one side of the room one of the regular female members of staff was conducting a ‘show and tell’ session with a group of schoolchildren aged (I should estimate) between eight and ten and their mistress.
As I set up at my microfiche machine and laid out my tools – the little box of newly-sharpened pencils, the notebook, the bunch of paperwork that provided structure to my ‘mining’ and of course the trusty magnifying glass – I could not help but listen in to the talk.
It was not without interest. It seemed that the intention, aided by examples of documents detailing information about both World Wars including extracts from local newspaper reports, personal diaries and letters both to and from adult and youngsters, was to impress upon the visitors how different – and yet simultaneously also perhaps how contemporary – the ‘home front’ experience of wartime actually was.
Here was a photograph of the war memorial that was not far from their school – what was a war memorial, why were their names engraved upon it?
Extracts of letters were read – one from a fighter pilot parent to his daughter on the occasion of her impending third birthday, another from an evacuated seven year old girl to her mother.
Why was the former writing to a three-year old who couldn’t even read? (Perhaps both because he was on duty and not going to be able to attend her birthday celebrations, but also possibly because, at that moment, he was aware that, at any moment, he might not come back from a mission and, if so, he wanted his daughter to have something tangible from him to keep forever that would show even at that time he loved her very much and was thinking of her).
I was impressed by the enthusiasm of the librarian and the way she conducted her talk, encouraging interest by constantly asking her audience members questions and leading them to answers and information.
Eventually they were dismissed and there was a lull. I got on with my work.
Suddenly the talk resumed, or seemed to. But more ‘ear-wigging’ revealed it wasn’t a resumption at all – it was the same talk being repeated to different set of kids from the same school.
In all, there were four such sessions, one after the other.
This was probably part of an ‘outreach’ programme operated by the local library for the benefit of schools in the area.
By the time the fourth session took place, I was almost word-perfect-familiar with the script.
Various suggestions came up, none of them 100% correct. Yes, it was a kind of a gun, but this was a special kind of gun. With all these air raids taking place, and bombs being dropped all over London, this was an anti-aircraft gun, designed to try and shoot down the German bombers who were blowing up buildings and killing people every night.
And do any of you notice anything special about the photograph?
(Most pupils did not, albeit that one girl in one group was ‘spot on’).
The people working the gun were women.
Why do you think that was? (No, or wrong answers). Because there were no men around – they were all off fighting in the war.
The wavy-grey-haired librarian warmed to her theme.
With the men away fighting the war, it meant that women – whom before that were only allowed to be housewives, cooks and mothers – were needed to do many of the tasks that before the war had been done by men.
It showed men that women could do lots more things than they had thought – and it showed women that as well. After the war, this meant that women stopped thinking that being housewives, mothers and cooks was all they could do. They could do lots more, in fact anything at all they wanted.
The librarian summed up her point. This showed that sometimes even good things could come out of a war.
(“Not necessarily …” was the thought that mischievously came to my mind, though I carefully kept that one to myself).