Did you watch the ‘Blitz Spirit’ show on the BBC earlier this week? It is not the sort of thing I would have watched normally but admit I was intrigued due to having recently read ‘A Chelsea Concerto’. For those in the dark, ‘A Chelsea Concerto’ is a memoir of the London Blitz by artist and author Frances Faviell, and it was used as one of the ‘voices’ in Lucy Worsley’s BBC show. Now I understand that some people have difficulty with Lucy Worsley but in these times it seems like everyone has difficulties with someone and with numerous platforms from which to express themselves it all gets rather tedious (yes, this sentence is heavy in irony). Heaven help future historians attempting to make any sense of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, picking through the innumerable source streams in attempts to piece together some sort of objective truth. Perhaps by then all notions of objective truth will be laughably archaic in themselves, and digital decay will mean that the problem will be a dearth of evidence rather than a glut, but who knows what the future holds? Perhaps they, like us looking back at The Blitz, will discover a fragment of unused propaganda and mutate it into a contemporary myth. Stranger things have happened.
So full disclosure: I like Lucy Worsley. She does the difficult job of condensing complex historical webs into something accessible and entertaining very successfully. Not being a History scholar I’m not best positioned to make a judgement on this, but I suspect this question of Information As Entertainment is something that all Historians struggle with, both in terms of trusting sources and making their own work. Does Worsley herself battle with the demons that say when to twist objective facts into subjective ones? I expect she must. Certainly she does this in ‘Blitz Spirit’ with the suggestion that Faviell and her husband Richard are already married when the Blitz begins. In ‘Chelsea Concerto’ it is clear this is not the case, and indeed the marriage (Faviell’s second) takes place in the midst of the bombing. It’s a tiny detail, and one I completely understand Worlsey making in order to make the script tighter, but still, it does make one wonder about what other details may have been flexed in order to fit the preferred narrative. The suspicion is that there may be many, but that’s part of the deal. The action of editing is an integral part of how we tell and record stories after all, which in turn is how we shape and understand History. Indeed, that’s a big part of what Worsley tells us in the show. She makes this explicit in exploding the modern myth about the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster, and in unpacking the untruths within the famous photograph of the milkman in the rubble, but it’s also implicit in the texts she accesses in order to move her narrative along. ‘A Chelsea Concerto’ itself is a memoir written after the fact. Published in 1959 it was Faviell’s final book before her early death from cancer and one can only assume she used a modicum of artistic license in its creation. It’s not a work of fiction of course, but it is well structured and finely nuanced. It will have been revised and tweaked in various drafts, pulled apart and pieced together again. That’s how most good writers work, after all.
Faviell’s attention to detail is one of her strengths, and her artists’ eye picks out the visual beauty in the often brutal environment. I particularly like her description of the barrage balloons in the phoney war “going up slowly and awkwardly like drunken fish”. She makes reference to other contemporary artists in the book too, notably Elliot Hodgkin who survived the war and and former Bright Young Thing Rex Whistler who did not. Elsewhere she suggests that the war torn skies are as something from Blake, or, in a description of the sky over The City during the infamous December 29th 1940 raid as being “awful – although beautiful, a brilliant blood-red – the kind of sky in which Turner would have delighted.” Worsley picks up this line too, although sadly neglects the Turner reference, before going on to analyse the famous photograph of St Pauls. She shows how the image is edited to omit the broken buildings in the foreground, another example of how what we choose to leave out says as much, if not more, that what we choose to include.
Now I’ve never been much of a one for drawing parallels between The Blitz and the COVID pandemic. It has always seemed to me that the difference in context is just too immense, so that any similarities are at best coincidental and ultimately demeaning to those involved in both eras. I suspect Worsley feels much the same, although with the timing of ‘Blitz Spirit’ in celebrating the 80th anniversary falling as it does, the programme cannot help but suggest that experiences of communal support and togetherness (as well as division, anger and frustration) may be similar. Faviell perceptively notes that “when a thing has to be endured continuously it becomes an accepted everyday fact, whereas when there are gaps it reappears with redoubled horror.” Or, at least in the case of the pandemic, repeated surge waves of infection lead to redoubled frustration and anger with Government, perhaps.
Another thing that Worsley makes clear in ‘Blitz Spirit’ which I suspect may not go down too well with traditionalists wedded to the modern myth of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ is the notion that The Blitz Spirit was one dimensional in its unyielding positivity. Worsley is hardly being revisionist in suggesting that the reality was much more complex and nuanced, but I dare say there will be those who will revile her for daring to suggest that there may have been cracks in the armour of Public Spirit. Even Faviell, who throughout the majority of ‘A Chelsea Concerto’ is fundamentally positive and full of what has become the stereotype of Blitz Spirit, occasionally descends into bouts of despair and doubt. It’s only natural.
Looking back from 80 years in the future, one of the things that feels most poignant is how Faviell reports on the attitudes of many Londoners to anyone not falling into some blinkered classification of ‘English’. She suggests that “many of the people [had] complained at having foreigners in the shelter” whilst “the host of foreigners, many of whom had lived all their lives in Britain, now found themselves regarded as ‘aliens’, and treated with wary guardedness by those who had known them all their lives.”
Faviell, herself well travelled and educated, proved herself of tremendous value to a community of Flemish refugees, and her tales of these characters are amongst the most entertaining and touching in the book. Yet as she points out, “language is no barrier to friendship, nor is knowledge of other countries necessary in helping foreigners.” Everything changes. Everything stays the same.
‘A Chelsea Concerto’ is certainly a tremendous page-turner, by turns exceptionally harrowing and touchingly perceptive and poetic. Reading it now, some 80 years on from the events Faviell recounts, we may sometimes be tempted to slip into the comfortable pleasure of Knowing How It Ends even before we reach the final chapters, but even here there are deep caverns to navigate, each one eloquently picked out in powerfully spare prose.
One of the must brutal aspects of the work that Faviell volunteered for must surely have been the assemblage of assorted body parts and flesh into something resembling a complete body for burial. Typically, Faviell refuses to shy away from describing the process in a way that manages to convey the necessary emotional detachment and a sensitivity that is palpable. Intriguingly, she also tells us that “this task dispelled for me the idea that human life is valuable – it could be blown to pieces by blast – just as dust was blown by wind.” That’s an enormously powerful admission to make, perhaps particularly for a nurse (volunteer or not). It’s also perhaps a particularly late 20th Century response, anticipating the growing existential crisis building through the 1950s into the ’60s and beyond.
It is clear, however, that even if for Faviell the value of human life had been exposed as an illusion, there remains still a deeply experienced emotional response. “The feeling uppermost in my mind after every big raid was anger” she says. “Anger at the lengths to which humans could go to inflict injury on one another.” Everything changes. Everything stays the same.