Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Spirit of the Blitz - Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang

The effect the Blitz continues to have on the British, and perhaps specifically the English, imagination is one of the minor but consistent irritations of modern life. I think that was the reason that months ago I put my hand up when Oxford University Press were offering this for review. I forgot to check how many pages it had, so must admit my heart sank a bit when it landed with me. It's a big book which I assumed would be quite dry.

It's still a big book, it's followed me to Shetland and back, and I've been reading through it for months, but it's not dry and it's a tremendously useful thing for anybody with even a passing interest in 20th century history, British history, war era popular fiction, a desire to annoy people who bang on about the Blitz spirit, or social history. I tick all those boxes.

What this book is, is as far as I can tell a more or less unabridged collection of reports from the Home Intelligence department covering September 1940 - June 1941. For the first pat of this period the reports were daily, and then they become weekly. Addison and Crang had produced an earlier volume (published by Vintage and called 'Listening to Britain') which covers the early days of the war including Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. I'm seriously tempted to buy a copy. 

Covid and various stages of lock down have encouraged all sorts of lazy blitz analogies, the one thing I've learnt for sure from 'The Spirit of the Blitz' is that human nature doesn't really change. Home Intelligence was a secret(ish) department that came under the umbrella of the Ministry of Information, it was their job to monitor the morale, mood, and behaviour of the public. Ways of doing this included gathering reports from all sorts of sources, including getting the managers of W.H. Smith's shops in railways to share what they over heard. 

My main interest in this book is the light that it sheds on a good portion of the fiction that I read. It's a really interesting companion to Angela Thirkell's war time out put, gave me interesting context for E C R Lorac's 'Checkmate to Murder' (I started both at about the same time) and will give added depth to a hundred more. Here I can find conformation of the reports good and bad about evacuee children, how people responded to rumour, details about a rise in anti-Semitic feeling, the causes of absenteeism in women which makes me think of Inez Holden's Blitz Writing, and so on, and on. It's a world of carefully documented observations about how people were thinking, and very easy to lose yourself in for hours at a time.

The introduction is really useful, and again, nowhere near as dry as these things sometimes are. It explains what Home Intelligence was and how it worked, and some of the internal problems they faced from within the Ministry of Information and the Home office. HI was reporting on people's reactions, which included negative reactions to policy and low morale which clearly ruffled feathers. Addison and Crang also point out some of the problems with the intelligence gathering here, but as they also say; there's no other resource like it. 


  1. Since I am currently rereading Angela Thirkell's wartime output and I have an ongoing fascination with WWII history, I think I need this.

  2. it is an amazing book to dip in and out of. I was reading a really interesting bit about absenteeism amongst women factory workers - expected to work 68 hours a week, 7 days a week, and still do all the domestic work around the house, even if their husbands were out of work. Even then there's a realization that shorter hours and days off will lead to better productivity. I hadn't realised that so many people trekked out of cities, sometimes sleeping rough, every night to avoid the blitz either, or the problems this caused. I also hadn't really understood how limited the period of the blitz actually was - June 1941 isn't the end of air raids, but it is the end of the blitz. Another really good thing is that this brings in reports from across the country, so not just London. It's fascinating, and amazingly for official reports they're really enjoyable to read.

    1. Your reply absolutely talked me into this. I am off to look for it online. Thanks for enabling the book purchases!