Monday, 11 December 2017

Putting on the Blitz - Catherine Butler

Carrie's War, first edition jacket

I recently had the pleasure of teaching Nina Bawden's 1973 novel, Carrie's War, the story of a girl who is evacuated to a south-Welsh village during the Second World War (as Bawden was herself). Carrie’s time in Wales is reasonably eventful: she is billeted with the strict Mr Evans and his kindly but downtrodden sister, and often visits the house of their relative, the wealthy Mrs Gotobed, with whom Mr Evans has a feud. There, Carrie learns of a family legend concerning a cursed skull, which becomes a plot point later in the story.

I won’t stray further into spoiler territory, but instead let me tell you what isn’t in the book. There are no air-raids, no mention of Hitler or Churchill, no news from the front, no prisoners-of-war. The blackout and rationing are both in force, but barely feature. A couple of soldiers appear as minor characters, off-duty, with no talk of combat past or future.

Why then is it called Carrie’s War, you may wonder? Is the war a metaphor for some almighty struggle of another kind that Carrie faces? Perhaps – but I prefer to think that it’s simply Bawden’s way of saying, “Many people spent the war in this undramatic way, and their experience was as real as any other.” The jacket of the first edition of Carrie’s War (above) reflects the quiet nature of the story, and shows Carrie and her younger brother Nick on the platform of the station in Wales where they have just been decanted for the duration.

I was surprised, however, on looking at my own more recent copy, to find quite a different scene.

At one point in Carrie’s War Carrie sees a house on fire from a train window – the result of a domestic accident. The cover of my edition appears to show this conflagration, and a girl - Carrie, presumably – looking back at it. But she's not looking from a train window. She's running from the scene, hurried away by an adult couple for whom the reader will search the book in vain. And, hang on – what’s that in the sky? A bat-signal? No, for some reason this rural, air-raid-free part of Wales is being raked by searchlights! Could it be that they're trying to make it look like an air raid? To make it look, in fact, like the Blitz?

Of course. I forgot. The only thing that happened in Britain during the Second World War was the Blitz. When children “do” the war in school, the Blitz looms large; so everything, even rural Welsh valleys, must be Blitzed up. From 1939-45, houses never burned down for any other reason than aerial bombardment.

Naturally I began to look at some of the book's other jackets, and discovered that the same thing had happened before. Here, for example, is a jacket showing Carrie and Nick, with evacuee-style address labels, next to the Hogwarts Express a steam train:

So far, so un-Blitzy; but steam isn’t very exciting, and other editions show that same beret-wearing Carrie moved to another inferno, this time with added bombers to emphasise the Blitziness.

On a third jacket she has fled (still clutching her suitcase) to the safety of a deserted hillside. Alas, the Luftwaffe has apparently decided that she is a prime military target, and is even now streaming across the sky in pursuit!

The good news for Carrie is that Goering’s planes then apparently lost interest, and went off to strafe Mr Tom instead.

There are of course other covers of Carrie’s War. Several portray her looking meditatively at the skull, à la Hamlet; but my favourites are probably the ones in which she is staring from the canonical train window at the blazing house. In the story she is horrified at the sight, but somehow the book jackets manage to give her the look of a telekinetic arsonist reflecting with malicious satisfaction on a job well done.

Carrie’s War was published in 1973. A mere year later, Stephen King got his big break with Carrie.

It was probably a coincidence, but I’m just saying.


Leslie Wilson said...

Amusing and insightful!

Susan Price said...

Yes, really enjoyed this - thanks, Catherine.

Stroppy Author said...

Well, the Luftwaffe repeatedly bombed Cardiff and south Wales was certainly a target, so the planes are not too unlikely (and I know several now-elderly people who were chased across rural fields by German planes, presumably as some kind of sport, since they were small children at the time). But the fire - yes. Clearly the war is more exciting if it has a bit of bombing!

Catherine Butler said...

Oh, I don't say that the bombers never visited the valleys, and of course Cardiff as a major port was bombed heavily; but, going by the novel rather than the jackets, Carrie's valley remained unmolested. (I imagine the people you know were chased by fighter planes rather than bombers.)

Abbeybufo said...

Our local schools in Hampshire seem to concentrate on evacuation rather than bombing; my partner goes once a year - along with several other people who lived through the war - to tell the Year 6 pupils about their experiences (and have a 'Victory tea' of orange juice and 'spam' sandwiches!). He says the only question he is asked is 'Were you evacuated?' as if it's the only thing they know about. Though letters of thanks always mention the enjoyment of his tale of Eastbourne gasworks bursting into flame from a stray bomb - which conveniently happened while he and his classmates were in the playground at Willingdon!

Mystica said...

Another aspect of looking at the wars.

Leslie Wilson said...

I used to teach a memoir writing class, and what struck me was how traumatic evacuation was for many members of that generation. Some people had enjoyed it, but those were usually children who were evacuated with their mothers. In some cases, actual abuse had happened, from children being used as servants to worse.

Catherine Butler said...

Nina Bawden's account of her own evacuation is quite interesting from that point of view.

My mother was too old to be an evacuee in the classic sense, but she arrived in London from Wales to study at UCL, only to be promptly evacuated with the rest of the college to Aberystwyth. (They did let them return eventually, though, just in time for the doodlebugs and V2s.)

Leslie Wilson said...

Interesting piece by her. It'd be interesting to hear about evacuation experiences from Germany, where many children were evacuated to institutions in 'safe' places. The institutions were then used to propagandise the children, of course. I use the inverted commas around 'safe' because some children were evacuated to Silesia, and then had to be evacuated back to escape the oncoming Soviet army. I've heard of children being frightened by German war planes in East Anglia. How lethal the intent was,I don't know. The Russian wooden 'Mosquito' planes attacked people in the streets in Graz, Austria, towards the end of the war, my mother told me, and that was definitely gunning them down. Come to think of it, we were walking in the Yorkshire Dales when the children were little and an RAF fighter plane came right down over our heads, which was pretty scary and disgusting. I wonder if there's something that flying such a machine does to the psyche. A friend who flew in the RAF at the beginning of his career described it as 'licensed vandalism.' If you add to that mentality the fact that you view the children in the fields as enemies, you get something pretty nasty.

Catherine Butler said...

I'd be amazed if there weren't a psychological effect, when you consider what a change comes over many people simply by getting behind the wheel of car. When people look tiny, perhaps you'd feel fewer qualms about crushing them (and no doubt you can get the same effect when you're seeing them on a screen 3,000 miles away, and controlling a drone).

Vittorio Mussolini writing about being a pilot during the Abyssinian war:

"I still remember the effect I produced on a small group of Galla tribesmen massed around a man in black clothes. I dropped an aerial torpedo right in the middle, and the group opened up like a rose. It was most entertaining."

Now, perhaps the son of a Fascist dictator isn't a typical pilot, but I bet he's not unique either.