qatsi (qatsi) wrote,

A Tale of Two Cities

Book Review: London 1945 - Life in the Debris of War, by Maureen Waller
I spotted this one when it came out a couple of years ago, shortly after I had read Antony Beevor's Berlin 1945, and so it seemed an appropriate companion piece. Curiously, I noted Ms Waller also receives a reference for her other London volume (1700: Scenes from London Life) in the acknowledgements for Frances Hardinge's Fly By Night - no doubt this is a corollary of uitlander's Law - that there are only 200 people in the known world.

The focus here is much more on the state of civilian affairs rather than the military campaign; though London had been heavily damaged throughout the war, and continued to be pounded by V-bombs into 1945, it was emerging into victory rather than its remnants being flattened by the unstoppable Red Army. Where Beevor's narrative is essentially a linear chronology, Waller mostly takes a more thematic approach, with chapters on housing, food, clothing and crime. Some chapters, however, do follow a chronology: the period of the V-1 and V-2 bombs, VE-Day (and to a lesser extent, VJ-Day), the General Election, and demobilisation. My own preference would have been to collect these chapters together as a Part 1 of the book, with the thematic material in Part 2. Perhaps the point of the thematic chapters is that there was no great transition with the end of the war; in fact, many aspects of rationing became worse as food and material supplies were shared with the recently liberated countries (which was reluctantly accepted by the general public), and with the defeated Germany (which was fairly universally resented).

Whilst there is a certain amount of Blitz Spirit apparent in the book, the picture that emerges is as much one of conspiracy and resentment against authority, as people struggled to make ends meet - not so much financially as in basic material terms. The basic laws of the land had been suspended through the war, and Defence Regulations controlled the minutiae of everyday life. Although looting was a capital offence (though apparently no-one was actually put to death for it), it was commonplace at bomb sites. The British sense of humour is apparent in the chapter on propaganda - the Ministry of Information always struggled to decide how to present its line to the public without becoming a laughing stock.

Britain was exhausted by the end of the war; whilst military operations had been planned, the plans for peace and reconstruction were chaotic. In part, this was because the government had not expected the rapid defeat of Japan; in part, because it was sending out conflicting signals for home and business life (factories were expected to switch from war production to domestic or export production quickly, yet there was an enormous amount of red tape involved in that process); the sudden termination of the US Land-Lease programme also seems to have been unexpected. The Labour party promoted the Beveridge Report in its manifesto and committed itself to a welfare state, believing that Churchill could not lose the General Election. Churchill's daughter Sarah commented, however, that "the socialist policies that had been introduced in wartime [such as rationing and the mixing of classes in the forces and voluntary organisations] had proved to be a force for good, not harm", and the Conservatives massively miscalculated the national mood.

The book closes with a short epilogue on the post-war planning process for London. Sir Patrick Abercrombie's plans were based on assumptions that turned out to be utterly unrealistic. He envisaged mass migration away from London into the rest of the country, and consequently planned low-density housing. When this did not happen, 1950s and 60s high-density tower blocks were the result.

Aside from the ordering of the chapters, which is a matter of taste, my other main criticism of this book concerns the endnotes. These are copious, and keyed by the page in the main text, but they are not cited directly at all in the text, which makes them of limited use, although obviously the book can be read without them.
Tags: books
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