The People’s War: London’s Heroes, My Family and After

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Myth really can be more important than reality. Above, St Paul’s survives as the city burned.

It’s hard for me to post this without getting personal, getting back into my family history. Me nan was the eldest of fifteen, all of them Londoners, all of them and their spouses living, or away fighting from, the East End and North East London. In the most terrible sense, this war was the people’s war. 43,000 people were killed, let alone the homeless and injured, in the Blitz from September 1940 to May 1941.

The Blitz hit cities all across Britain and Northern Ireland. But London most of all (London was bombed for 71 consecutive nights, one million Londoners were made homeless, roughly half of those killed were Londoners); the East End took the brunt. These are my people. I’ll write about their less attractive features another time. But for now: they are cantankerous, stubborn, and bloody tough. They had to be: life for the East End’s dockers, seamstresses, petty traders (my lot) and labourers was one of precarious livings, bad housing and bloody immigrants (my family, once more). They also know how to have a good time.

In September 1940, these people were on the front line. Hitler and company chose a hard nut to crack. Yes, this is propaganda, to persuade a reluctant America, but still….

The past thirty years or so have shown the cracks in the facade of East End unity. There was a very real spike in crime rates, in juvenile delinquency and terrible, terrible horror. There was bitter discontent: why do we have to take this?

The king and queen did come, though; the toffs ran tea stalls and soup kitchens; the East Enders even got behind Churchill. But, most of all, the East End held out. They did sing in tube stations, they did make tea by the bucket load, they held together: actually, they really did love a good sing-song. Yes, some of it was myth, but some was truth, and the myth mattered then, and later.

There is a half decent argument for saying that the greatest television documentary series ever made was The World at War. First broadcast over 26 episodes in 1973-74, perhaps it greatest legacy was its interviews. If you can find it, watch. The East Enders there, they are my grandparent’s generation. They are looking back at some thirty years before, telling half-mythologiser stories. But true, still true.

“You can take anything.” That bloke, and the one in the glasses : I feel like I know them. Whenever I watch this, I get a genuine lump in the throat. I want to hug them.

For these men and women, though, it was the people’s war. The royal family were revered, Churchill supported for a while. But it wasn’t their war. It was the people’s war, and it had to be the people’s peace.

They’re all dead now, my nan’s clan. My granddad was wounded as a ARP warden, the story goes his health never recovered and he died when my mum was still a girl. Some of the legion of family stories are myth; some may be: both kinds tell a truth. They won the war, they were bloody well not letting that victory go, or leave it to ‘them’, even if them included the revered Mr Churchill.

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