Thursday 15 September 2011

Shaving Through The Blitz

I believe, when I told you about my purchases in Hay-on-Wye, I advertised Shaving Through the Blitz (1943) by G.W. Stonier as being akin to 'Mr. Miniver', had that book ever existed. Which probably got quite a few of you interested.

Well, it isn't anything like that, really. About all is has in common is that is was evidently once columns in a paper. But it's still really good. Keep reading...

I was expecting whimsy and cosiness and a general determination to ignore the more brutal aspects of war in favour of bottling pears and entering flower shows - that sort of thing. And I was prepared to devour it in the same spirit. But Stonier's book - and his narrator Mr. Fanfarlo - is of a rather different temperament. It's quite lyrical, in a semi-experimental manner, moving through the sights, sounds, and feelings of wartime London, rather than narrating them in a straightforward manner. Fanfarlo is also proudly aesthetic, and is given to this sort of moral dilemma:
Suppose during an air raid I held Botticelli's Venus under one arm and an old woman unknown to me under the other, with the chance of saving one but not both, which should I choose? Immortal painting or crumbling flesh and blood? The first! As an artist, I claim that right.
I say moral dilemma, but he is not unduly given to morals. Shaving Through the Blitz was surprisingly 'progressive' - Fanfarlo lives with a woman called Lizzie, who would quite like him to propose, but doesn't intend to force the matter. He works, in a fairly dispassionate way, at the Ministry to 'provide slogans that shall be breezy and full of dare-and-do'. There were definite overtones of Evelyn Waugh's Put Out More Flags. Which is a hint that Stonier can be very funny at times, even while being aesthetic and high-falutin'. I particularly liked a little conversation about a young man writing for the Mass Observation project. A lady comments:
"That's bad. Can't you break him of it? My little nephew was a terrible mass-observer, too, before he got married."

That puts Nella Last et al in their place, doesn't it?

As always, it is deeply interesting to read about the war from those who experienced it. I feel like I have a fairly informed awareness of the (upper)middle-class housewife's view of war, from various contemporary novels, but Stonier provides a viewpoint I hadn't really encountered before. All the pieces slotting together is satisfying, to create a portrait of how wartime Britain would have felt. And this (lengthy) excerpt, below, made the book worth finding, all by itself. I think it a really moving, unusual angle upon the way the war changed, and how people at home changed their responses to it. I'm going to finish off this post with it, and encourage you to track down a copy of Shaving Through The Blitz if you can. Not the most whimsical of wartime books, but perhaps one of the more unusual.
How it has changed in the last eighteen months! Do you (who does not?) remember the carefree evenings when we all used to go for strolls in the new-found dark? It was a spree then, to walk to a theatre, or merely to walk, to stumble over sandbags and cross the road by others' lights. "Sandbags!" we would exclaim as we picked ourselves up and went on to discover lamp-posts. Friendliness displayed itself in many ways, in a noisy jostling, in such illumination as was allowed. Torches stared at one another, cigarettes flickered a dialogue on street corners. Along Tottenham Court Road gaiety had lost nothing with the lights down, and a bubbling trail of voices down each pavement drew whisperers out of side-streets and brought even the sedentary to their doors. A gross amiability, the adolescent pleasure of being heard but not seen, infected every one who was being nudged, shoved, swept along and held back by the stream. A match would flare nearby, thrillingly, in the darkness, to reveal a face lit from below: a girl's sucked-in cheeks over a cigarette, a beaming negro, perhaps, delighted with hours when others were as black and easily tickled as himself.

All that has disappeared - the lingering, the voices, the cigarette dream; and now with darkness falls the hush. Emptiness, but with every cranny filled. London has been given over to a monstrous drama, an act of darkness from which ordinary people, you and I as individuals, shut ourselves away. Earth and sky contract to form the arena; the city puts up its searchlights, a beetle laid on its back and helplessly wavering its legs, while the hornet drones overheard; night after night the assailant returns, the victim quivers with upturned belly. "A very bad night," says Mrs. Greenbaum, heaving over in the morning to probe her fatness with an indignant finger, "an awful bad time it was last night, sure." The rest of us, having shared the same delirium, with the same hornet boring down to a point in our bellies, nod stoically and blink at our silly nightlight.


  1. This sounds brilliant, Simon - and I see from abe that it's not impossible to get hold of which is good! I haven't read a diary from a man's point of view that depicts the war before so I may just treat myself to this. Thanks for posting about it! I especially enjoyed that last quote.

  2. This is one of my favourite books - I used to read the instalments in my father's collection of Penguin New Writing, where they first appeared. I'd been hunting for the book for years, without success, when about 15 years ago I discovered ABE Books, and blow me if there wasn't a copy in Los Angeles! So I bought it - a graphic illustration of the possibilities of internet bookselling... Stonier is an interesting writer - Memoirs of a Ghost, narrated by a blitz casualty, is worth hunting down too.

  3. Rachel - hope you enjoy it!

    Mike -how lovely, thanks so much for popping by. I just picked it off a shelf at random in a bookshop, since I love books from the period, and bought it because of the title. I looked up Stonier and saw he wrote Memoirs of a Ghost, which intrigued me - with your recommendation added to that, I shall have a more fervent hunt!


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