Review of the reads – January 2024
Yusef Sayed’s review of the reads.
From the Battle of Britain to the Korean War By Stephen Wade
Published by Pen & Sword Books Ltd, price £22
Author and social historian Stephen Wade explains in the introduction to his latest book that the story of Beryl Baxter – a dressmaker from Grimsby who joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and the Women’s Voluntary Service – came to him ‘insisting that it must be written’.
Hearing that a personal archive that had belonged to Beryl’s sister Ruby was earmarked for the tip, Wade didn’t know quite what to expect when he agreed to take it into his possession.
Wade soon became enamoured with the woman behind the letters, photographs and ephemera. Beryl, who died in 2005, joined in the war effort as part of the WAAF in 1940. Her desire for travel and improvement saw her moving on to the WVS, her work mostly involving organising social events, provisions and offering emotional support for servicemen and women in Korea, Iraq and other regions during the 1950s – a period of continued political instability. She learned languages, travelled on board the Windrush, photographed Hitler’s bunker and took in theatre shows in Japan.
Wade personalises the story in several ways. He not only thoughtfully selects the material from the archives, to help bring Beryl’s character, vulnerabilities and language to life for the readers who never knew her; he also foregrounds his own responses to her experiences. He sees the parallels too between Beryl’s life and his mother’s. The author’s literary references, to Tennyson and Shakespeare among others, and his final reflections on the history he was taught as a young man – compared with Beryl’s travel and immersion in events; her unique window onto the ‘forgotten war’ in Korea, and the ‘forgotten force’ of the WVS especially – also mirrors Beryl’s unceasing desire to learn.
Wade does an admirable job of framing just part of the life story of this resilient, independent and much-admired woman from Grimsby, against the backdrop of a fragile world she herself chronicled with detail and sensitivity.
Hard Times – Happy Days By Adrian Gray
Published by Bookworm of Retford, price £12
Based on interviews beginning in the 1990s, as well as written recollections and more recent comments gathered from internet groups, Hard Times – Happy Days is a detailed and light-hearted compendium of memories of life from the 1940s onwards.
The book captures a myriad of details and feelings that will resonate with many older readers – and offers a sense of how things were, in Lincolnshire specifically (its schools, farms and social venues), to the local historians, researchers and younger readers who never experienced it first-hand; those who were never given ‘raspberry vinegar’ for a cough, or served with their Yorkshire pudding.
The text is organised into chapters focusing on a specific area of social life, from food and entertainment to education, holidays, crime and community events. Personal reminiscences are compared, the title of the book referring to the oft-repeated sentiment that even where material conditions were severely lacking (irons were plugged into light sockets and the front room ‘kept for best’) a sense of social cohesion and familial comfort were felt, at least in retrospect.
There is a language of daily life gone by, both names for common items and jobs (‘Dolly tub’ and ‘poncher’) and evocative products and brands no longer available (‘Rentaset’, ‘Sobell’). And there are peculiar insights into Lincolnshire delicacies and pastimes, alongside the more generic descriptions of times past. We learn of the ‘traditional Lincolnshire Whitsuntide dish’ of rook pie and the best place to get samphire, as well as extinct games like ‘Wisket-a-wasket’. Even back then ‘everything seemed to be old’, according to one interviewee.
The overlapping accounts and shared details – such as the use of folk medicines, or the experiences of having tonsils and adenoids removed – helps sharpen the picture, and can deepen connections to the previous generations, their passing fashions and hardships. Such testimony, as well as the personalities conveyed through the voices of Gray’s interviewees, would also offer a good basis for those wishing to depict the county in future writing.