Young people’s diaries from the 1940s

In our post on the donation of Anthony Ryle’s diary to the Imperial War Museum, I mentioned how rare it is to find substantial diaries by adolescents which cover the time and events which Anthony’s does. Sustained diaries from people in this age group are rare in public collections for any historical period. It is probably natural that only in later childhood does anyone become sufficiently interested in recording their personal experiences to go to the trouble of writing them down regularly. In the 1940s, it was still common for children to leave school at 14 or 15, the age at which they would take their School Certificate examinations (an equivalent of the modern GCSE), so many of them were in the process of leaving school for the world of work at this stage of their lives.

Apart from Anthony Ryle’s, two other extensive diaries of adolescents from the period are available in published editions. One is Colin Perry’s rather misleadingly titled Boy in the Blitz; a vivid and detailed narrative of an eighteen year old’s life in London during the German air assault between June and November 1940. He worked in a City office and cycled round south London and the near countryside to see the results of the bombing, while waiting to be called up into the forces. The other is Cynthia Kahn’s Wild Water Lilies, the diary of a Jewish girl growing up in small-town south Wales, which covers her last two years at school and the following years of training, work and self-discovery, from January 1940 to August 1945. Although the circumstances, scope and style of these three diarists differed considerably, there are a number of underlying similarities amongst their interests and perceptions which suggest they are all founded in a shared culture, not in the usual sense of commonly received forms of thought and feeling, but a more visceral impulse to question, observe and absorb novelties, assert independence, resist impositions—something specific to their youth, and the extreme circumstances in which they were growing up.

Anthony Ryle was unusual for his age-group in that he started his diary in 1940, at the age of twelve, and continued it at school until 1945 (the surviving manuscript runs to early 1944). It therefore represents a continuity of circumstances and relationships beyond the point at which other young people frequently underwent the big break from school to working life, with its attendant disruptions and re-orientations. Anthony also gives a critical account of the forms of civic and paramilitary engagement which government and civil society directed at young people in the higher levels of the school system. The interest he found, during his later school years, in the inter-schools conferences organised by the Council for Education in World Citizenship, discussing national and world affairs, came as a relief to him from the ideological constraints of even his fairly liberal school. Participation in the CEWC conferences encouraged him in the development and recording of his political views, as well as views on many of the aspects of social and educational policy under review by government at the time. His opinions were not fundamentally changed by these events, and developed in a fairly constant direction, but they allowed him to feel less isolated within his own age group, and perhaps rather less dependent on his parents for their left-leaning approval. The CEWC also offered an opportunity to make like-minded friends, especially female friends whose views he could share, as he did not with the girls he had met at school. His view of the war, however, did change. Initially  he was excited by what he saw of it around him, and by the news reports from elsewhere, which he regularly noted. Gradually, without any particular prompting beyond his own keen interest, his view became increasingly tragic with increasing awareness of the risk and suffering involved. In contrast, his often farcical accounts of school cadet-force exercises are a somewhat dissociated and comic vehicle for the sense of young male sporting fun which was vanishing from his awareness of the actual war.

Cynthia Kahn grew up in a community-conscious but not strict Jewish family of shop-keepers and small manufacturers, who were also well known amongst their small-town society as a whole. They lived above (or below) their shops. Cynthia and her sister lived much of the time with their grandmother, to avoid friction with their bullying stepfather and their mother who connived at his behaviour. Cynthia’s diary, as it followed the course of her life and thoughts, gradually became an account of the search for, and finding of, a much more emphatically Jewish identity, prompted partly by the events of the war and partly by the tensions of her family life. She, like Anthony, started her diary with a printed product and progressed to ordinary notebooks for the greater freedom of organisation these allowed. Curiously, also like Anthony, her first entry is about preparation for a departure—to stay with relatives at a farm near Swansea. She lists the reading matter she will take, including an Agatha Christie and George Eliot’s Silas Marner. She was a popular and academically able girl, but though she passed her school certificate exams well, she did not continue in education, due to her stepfather’s insistence that she must train for business.

Nevertheless, she continued to read and develop intellectual interests through her relationship with a boyfriend, Alex, who did continue at school. She was reading D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Erich Maria Remarque, Oscar Wilde, and much else. She was an enthusiast for poetry and classical music. (The latter she kept secret from her other friends.) Alex also was a diarist, and a prolific letter-writer, whom Cynthia sometimes quotes at length in her own diary. But she was also looking for something more, and eventually found it in the stricter Judaism and commitment to Zionism of a refugee family from Germany who settled nearby, and who prompted an upheaval in the life of the local synagogue. The fulcrum of her story is the choice she was finally driven to make between the easy-going but often chaotic outlook of her family and friends of early youth, and the vigorously committed outlook of the newcomers. In this choice, youth clubs, political organisation, study groups and agricultural work camps played a large part, as they did in the evolution of Anthony Ryle’s life, and Cynthia’s choices are equally bound up in romantic attachments.

Although Colin Perry’s diary is, on the face of it, very different from those of the younger Cynthia and Anthony, there are significant underlying similarities. Colin’s family circumstances were more like Cynthia’s than Anthony’s. His father was a sales rep for the Daily Herald, and the family lived in a recently built block of flats in Tooting, south London. In 1940 he was working for an American oil company in an office in central London, and travelling to work through the increasing bomb damage. From the roof of his home he watched the air raids at night—some very close. He was excited by the war and keen to enter the RAF as a pilot or gunner, but was turned down for lack of a school certificate. At the end of 1940 he was accepted into the Merchant Navy.

The published version of Colin’s diary covers only six months, but runs nonetheless to over 200 pages. It is the surviving fragment of a larger diary which he had begun earlier and continued for some time afterwards. The rest of the diary was destroyed, so how it started or changed as it progressed cannot be seen. Colin was four and five years older than Cynthia and Anthony respectively. He had left school at fourteen without a school certificate, but he was bright, capable, reliable and a keen self-educator. Like the other two diarists, he frequently mentions books he was reading. Amongst them, in late 1940, were Vera Brittan, H.G. Wells, T.E. Lawrence, as well as novelists better known then than now. Lawrence was a particular hero of Colin’s, and Seven Pillars of Wisdom was a relatively new book, only available commercially in 1937. He was also reading and thinking about Wells’s very recent book (published in 1940) The Fate of Homo Sapiens, which discusses world history and current affairs, and proposes reforms of the political and educational systems based on what Wells regarded as correctly scientific thinking. The topics and programme of this book cover very much the same fields as were addressed in the CEWC schools conferences attended by Anthony Ryle. Moreover, Colin was not a passive reader. Apart from the details of his life in his diary, he intended to synthesise his reading in another document which would be modelled on Wells’s novel The Research Magnificent, which purports to be the reconstruction of a disappointed idealist’s life from papers he left at death. In June Colin wrote, “I have now started on the task of getting T.E. Lawrence, the book on his life by Vivyan Richards, The Research Magnificent and The Fate of Homo Sapiens … into one tangible and fulfilling story. It’s some job, and will test my continuity and patience and most of all my intelligence. The prospect is so ambitious in its entirety that it will take me goodness knows how long.” He discussed the project with a friend a month later, and intended to discuss it further, but neither it nor the friend are mentioned again.

Young people conferring, 1943

Young people at a CEWC event, 1943

The minute and vivid detail of his diary conveys the excitement Colin clearly found in writing as a way to grasp his experience. He typed (a skill used at work) rather than writing free-hand, and assembled the loose sheets which he kept in a form he could carry around. He mentions taking it to discuss with a friend. He worked on it at home in the evenings, on days off, and during free time at work, which included disruptions to the office day caused by frequent air-raids. His records of night raids, or of days cycling round the neighbourhood examining the damage, and the rescue or defence activities, were written up as soon afterwards as he could manage. But he wrote his accounts of attacks on the City during working hours as they happened, if he could—he was at his desk, with a typewriter in front of him, and often avoided being herded down into the cellars to shelter with the other staff. On these occasions he got full value from the journalistic ‘as I write’ immediacy of his situation. “I’ve sneaked up another floor higher to our empty offices from where I write this” (27th September, 11.45 a.m.) Because the nights were disturbed by bombing, the pattern of work was re-arranged so that people had days off to catch up on their sleep, and these free days increased the opportunity for Colin to immerse himself in the events around him. He was aware that the feelings aroused by the raids were like those he got from reading accounts of the First World War, and this impression was strengthened by his father’s remark that London was now ”worse than France in the last war”. (Mr Perry had been in the Army from 1911.) He was aware that he was writing a war to some extent in the same vein as Lawrence or Brittan. The models of literary style he seems unconsciously to have absorbed from his reading (though sometimes exaggerated) offered him a voice in which he could sustain descriptions effectively over a considerable space, and both convey and enhance his sense of direct participation.

The other two young diarists did not attempt such immediacy of record as Colin did, but this does not mean their sense of immersion in what they recorded was any the less. (Anthony often mentions vivid visual experiences, such as effects of weather or landscape, but does not give detailed descriptions. On the other hand, he was a keen photographer, which may have satisfied his obviously strong visual sense). Anthony’s engagement in events is conveyed at first through his fascination with the news—something he was aware his schoolmates did not share. He noticed their lack of interest in the details of the war, even in the face of potential or actual personal loss. Perhaps this was a defensive reaction on their part, being less willing than Anthony was to face anxiety. He was surprised and puzzled by the absence of emotion in one of his best friends whose brother was at first reported missing, then confirmed dead, at sea. But Anthony was himself constantly diverted by the tasks and routines of school life, and his diary was a way to re-affirm what really was, or what he wanted to be, most important to him in the face of a daily life which hardly seemed to notice it.

Cynthia’s immersion was in her family and the local Jewish community, rather than the events of the war, but the war added an inescapable sense of threat, explicit when she reflects on Nazi anti-Semitism (or on Shakespeare, during a school reading of Merchant of Venice, in which she played Portia). It also brought disruptions which impinged particularly on the Jewish community. She tells of an elderly acquaintance who was interned when she went to the police to hand in an old revolver she had found. She had a German name and no passport. She had been a resident since before the previous war and never since been abroad, so she had never needed one.

The war introduced a new mobility and uncertainty into young people’s lives which Cynthia reflects in her diary. It also, of course, brought the newcomers who prompted the change in her outlook which the later part of the diary describes. The bulk of Cynthia’s story is of navigating a complicated web of influences and counter-influences in her personal relations, with occasional dénouements when she discovered startling things about the behaviour of people towards her, which had deeply affected and puzzled her. Her interest in the literature she met at school and through her friends, developed into a more active engagement with the literature of the Jewish tradition which she took up enthusiastically in the study group her refugee friends set up. She does not often discuss directly the ideas which emerged from these studies, beyond her changing sense of moral obligation. She does, however, comment regularly on the development of her relationships and feelings through these study sessions, and on how her increasingly serious religious observance, clashed with the views of other family members.

The three diarists’ stories are, at bottom, tales of growing up, and their plots are familiar enough in that respect. The universal themes of dealing with sex, friendship, family and the future are all there. The war added an extra sense of crisis to the usual problems of adolescence, and a new sense of possibility through the disruption of established patterns. They were constantly drawn to look outwards, and see themselves in a world-wide web of events. Whether this was a general effect may be doubtedl. Anthony Ryle certainly did not think the war was having that effect on many of the other young people around him, and Colin Perry makes similar remarks about some acquaintances of his. All three read a lot, and with a sense of exploratory purpose, not just for entertainment. This in itself distinguished them from many of those around them, and would have done so in any circumstances. Their reading left strong traces in their diaries, whether as a discussion of what they had read, or as an expression of both pleasure and the discovery of something new. And as they wrote, of course, they were making something new for themselves. They also used writing a good deal to communicate with their contemporaries. Relations with family, boyfriends and girlfriends (or people who might become either) are often pursued in letters, which sometimes appear in the diaries, quoted or reported, just as face to face conversations and arguments do. The diary provided a hub for all this reading and writing, a point from which the writers were constantly taking stock of the world and their places in it. By implication, if not in actual form, they offer a balance-sheet of things—experiences, knowledge—lost and found, as they matured.

For Cynthia Kahn the balance is between the strong new identity she found, and the conflicts of values and confused attractions of the past from which she was released. Her diary frequently records feelings of appreciation, affection, and forgiveness for those from whom she is being drawn away, which she does not express face to face; but at crucial points it insistently prepares her for the necessary break. Colin Perry, whose view of Britain’s place in the world was fairly conventional, had a strong ambition to take the opportunity for an active—even heroic—part in its history in the Air Force. This came to nothing, but the London Blitz, seen in the retrospect of the previous, much read-about, war, offered strong and strange impressions of events, and a structure of sorts, which let him create for himself a voice in which the vividness of his experience could live concretely for him, and now for us too. Anthony Ryle’s family life had already primed him with a sense of generalised crisis in the outside world through his parents’ anti-Fascist activism and connection with refugees from the civil war in Spain. The world war added a pressing awareness of the possibilities for loss through the dispersal of his family, the danger to his brother on active service at sea and his father working in blitzed London. Soon also his parents’ increasing ill-health became a worry, and as the youngest, most dependent, child, this developed into an obligation to care for and appease them. Yet the war also prompted official bodies to engage the interest of young people in the war effort and general politics, and here Anthony found the stimulus, the relationships and the structure to turn his anxieties and his rebelliousness into a creative and fulfilling channel. The reflections and trials of ideas in his diary can be seen contributing to this development. After the war, the changes in British society and institutions  allowed him to affirm the position he had arrived at during it in his subsequent life as a doctor.



2 comments on “Young people’s diaries from the 1940s

  1. Colin Perry was my father and amongst his many papers, writings and books, I have many long and vivid letters he wrote home to his parents and also to his brother in 1941 when he had joined up in the Merchant Navy . The themes in Boy in the Blitz continue. The letters are wonderful

  2. “Boy in the Blitz”, by Colin Perry, has been published in several editions since it first appeared in 1972. The most recent (paperback 2012) is from Amberley Press, which includes a personal inroduction from the author, and a poem he composed on seeing the Sinai Peninsula from his ship in the Red Sea in 1940. Cynthia Kahn’s “Wild Water Lilies” was published by Beack Publications in 2005, and may be available second hand. In the endpapers is a photograph of the original diary, which when compared to the printed text of the same entries, indicates some small modifications made to the text for publication.

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