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Winter Reading: The View from the Corner Shop

February 6, 2019

If she was alive today, Kathleen Hey would laugh about the panic-stricken predictions of life after a no-deal Brexit. During the Second World War, she was a shop assistant in a small town near Dewsbury, Yorkshire. Between 1941 and 1946, she kept a diary for the British Mass Observation project. Thousands more did likewise. The View from the Corner Shop – the Diary of a Yorkshire Shop Assistant in Wartime was published in 2016. Perhaps now is not a bad time to be reading it.

Kathleen was 33, unmarried, and lived in rented accommodation above the shop. When rationing was introduced, the job of serving local customers with the groceries they needed was complicated by having to comply with the byzantine and constantly-changing system of stamps, points and coupons that the Ministry of Food imposed in order to ensure that everybody had their fair share of essentials.

If you were a fan of Dad’s Army, you would have seen Corporal Jones, the platoon’s grocer, slipping a packet of sausages a favoured customer’s way with a nod and a wink. Kathleen would have disapproved. According to her diary, she did her utmost to ensure that her regular customers got what they were entitled to and no more. But irregular supply from wholesalers and frequent tweaking of the rules by the local Food Office cause her and her colleagues to tear their hair out in frustration.

She also acted as a lighting rod for all the moans and groans of her customers, who were worried about the progress of the war, outraged that white flour was being replaced with wholemeal (so much for the Hovis nostalgia) and craved the oranges that were reserved for kids under five.

I’ve always been a fan of local history, especially the perspectives of unsung participants – or bystanders – during great national events. So what does Kathleen Hey teach me about her life, that of her customers in Heckmondwike and attitudes on the home front towards war?

What comes across strongly in her diary is that ordinary people were not universally inspired by Winston Churchill’s oratory in the dark days of 1941 and 1942. Nor were they convinced that the government was doing all it could to pursue the war against Hitler. There was a strong sense after the German invasion of the USSR that the Russians were bearing the brunt of the conflict and we were not pulling our weight. That perception only changed after victory over Rommel at Alamein.

Then there was the strain of casual anti-semitism throughout Kathleen’s community, a sentiment implicit in the way that she identifies Jews as “the other”. The Jewish shopkeeper, for example, always seemed to have stuff that others didn’t:

We went to Leeds as he (her brother-in-law) wanted some things from Abe (a Jew he deals with) that he cannot get elsewhere – tinned meat, and fruit and matches, and salmon. But the shop was not open. We spent some time outside and I was amused at the fashions. The Jews all dress well, (or should we say flashily) and no matter how shapeless they are (and they are all shapeless after 20 or so) like the latest fashion. I notice they have a particular taste for high heels, not following the prevailing fashion for flat heels and rubber soles.

To someone like me used to the modern meaning, it’s also strange to find her using the term “refugees” to describe not foreigners seeking shelter in the country (though there were plenty of these) but people bombed out of their homes. Nearby Hull suffered considerably, yet the locals in Dewsbury took in displaced families reluctantly. Some outright refused. She and her friends noted that those living in the big houses tended to be least likely to volunteer.

Kathleen, who probably didn’t progress beyond secondary education, was an avid reader. How many shop assistants today could boast of reading the modern equivalent of books by Robert Graves, Virginia Woolf, Alexander Pushkin, Herman Melville, Beatrice Webb, Andre Maurois, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Jane Austen? Perhaps more than you’d think if you take into account the number of recent graduates who mark time by working at JJB Sports or Tesco. But her counterparts today are likely to be spending far more of their leisure watching Netflix and YouTube, and glued to their smartphones. Though she did manage to go to the theatre, cinema and music concerts occasionally, reading, radio and, surprise surprise, conversation, seemed to be her main recreational activities. No foreign holidays, no TV, and for Kathleen barely more than a few days holiday a year, which she would spend at home or on an occasional trip to Blackpool.

Another striking aspect of the diary is her compassion for casualties of war. She’s acutely aware of the suffering of the Russians in their fight for survival against the invaders. And when the RAF, in the famous Dambusters raid, destroys key dams that provide power to the armaments industry in the Ruhr Valley, her first thought is not to celebrate the damage the raid caused to Germany’s fighting capability, but sorrow for all the “innocent Germans” drowned in the flooding.

The mass recruitment of young women for war-related work put great strains on local communities, sometimes for unexpected reasons. Hundreds of women were induced to work in armament factories by high wages and decent living conditions. The miners, whose work was equally critical, resented the fact that these women were often paid better than they were. Bus drivers resented the long hours that they spent, unpaid, waiting to be given routes to drive. Older women who were registering for war work resented being interviewed by officious women much younger than themselves.

One of the abiding themes of the diary was unfairness – a sense that some areas bore the brunt of the suffering and others didn’t. There also a strong sense of class resentment – that the wealthy were doing quite well out of the war and the poor not so. Small wonder that the Labour Party won the first post-war general election so decisively. Nationalisation of the mines and the creation of the National Health Service would have had few detractors in Yorkshire.

The entry of America into the war was widely welcomed, but Kathleen herself had a low opinion of the Americans themselves, whom she mainly encountered through Hollywood movies. She considered them brash, uncultured and loud.

Does Kathleen Hey’s diary give us any pointers as to how we might cope with the consequences of a no-deal Brexit? I don’t think so. Much as some politicians and journalists might hark back to the Dunkirk spirit, we citizens in this age of plenty would be horrified if we were suddenly pitched into her world. Food shortages, industrial unrest, the uprooting of populations, inadequate medical treatment for the poor and a sense of weariness that the ordeal seemed never-ending.

Yes, times were hard back then, beyond most of our imaginations. The difference between then and now was that Germany and Japan were existential threats, whereas the Brexit crisis is arguably self-inflicted. Any measures the government will need to take to protect supplies of food and medicines will be deeply resented in a way that they weren’t during the Second World War. There isn’t, and there won’t be, “a war on”. Although Kathleen’s community were quick to blame the incompetence of politicians and officials, very few would have argued that the war was unnecessary.

Kathleen Hey comes over as someone well-read, curious and as informed as she could be about the conduct of the war and the issues of the day. She had a strong sense of duty and a wry wit. She was what some people today would describe as a brick, others as a rock. Did she feel the need to put her best foot forward in the knowledge that her words would be read by others? We’ll never know. There was a hint in her diary that she kept another journal, perhaps with more personal thoughts and feelings. If so, it has disappeared, probably never to be found.

She died in 1984, aged 78. We know nothing of her life after the war, except that she appears to have had no children or other living relatives apart from a cousin who provided the information for the death certificate. She was 33 when the war began. Would she have said in later years that the war had taken her future away? Perhaps. There were many people like Kathleen Hey who came through the war weary and diminished. Most are dead now. But I for one am grateful for the testimony of someone who without the Mass Observation project would have vanished into obscurity, remembered only by a few loved ones.

As we approach an uncertain time, it’s surely useful to look back at the lives, not only of soldiers, generals and politicians who influenced our future seven decades ago, but of ordinary people like Kathleen who also “did their bit”. The diary of this strong woman is a fascinating read.

Now is not a bad time to be celebrating their uncomplaining resilience. We have much to learn from them.

From → Books, History, Social, UK

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