The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | British Literature and Culture in Second World Wartime: For the Duration

British Literature and Culture in Second World Wartime: For the Duration. By Beryl Pong. Oxford University Press, 2020. 320 pp. £60 (cloth).

Reviewed by Peter Lowe, Queen’s University

In the early summer of 2020, as the realities of the Covid-19 pandemic became clear in the UK, there was considerable media debate about the language with which official discourse framed the struggle against the virus. Governmental talk of the pandemic as a battle to be fought and won thanks to the resolve and dedication of the British public intentionally echoed the rhetoric deployed in the Second World War, and was often criticised for conflating two very different realities. Writing in The Guardian on March 19, 2020, the historian Richard Overy pointed out that the “Blitz spirit,” rather like the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster that became popular during the 2008 financial crisis (even if it was never itself employed during the actual 1939-40 context in which it was commissioned), was “an instantly recognisable commodity” but “divorced from historic reality” and unsuited to the more specific challenges of lockdown. It soon became clear that the fight against the virus would not see a tangible victory delivered in a clear timeframe. That the celebrations of the seventy-fifth anniversaries of Victory in Europe Day and Victory over Japan Day were themselves curtailed by the social distancing required by the pandemic (surviving veterans being, by virtue of their age, amongst the most vulnerable to Covid) illustrated how problematic merging these two periods of national trial actually was.

Informed by seventy-five years or more of perspective, we can now frame the Second World War, at least, with clear beginning and end dates and identify key events that allow us to chart the shifting fortunes of the combatant nations and their populations. As the war recedes further and remaining participants die, the Second World War becomes – as the First World War has already – a matter of collective cultural memory rather than something directly experienced and recalled. In this context, it is fitting to consider how the Second World War is framed by a sense of the passing or prolongation of time. Drawing upon the work of a host of writers, artists, filmmakers, and other cultural figures, Beryl Pong’s fascinating study helps us to see the conflict as one that fundamentally altered many people’s conceptions of what time was, and what it could mean.

British Literature and Culture in Second World Wartime: For the Duration begins with Pong’s exploration of the “chronophobia” experienced by many in the 1930s when this already clinically diagnosed condition blended with widespread anxiety about the deteriorating international situation and the realization that what was now occurring was itself what had been dreaded in previous years. In the opening three chapters, grouped together as “Blitz Time Capsules,” she deftly charts the varied intellectual currents of the early 20th century, from Bergson’s studies of the nature of time (so influential in the writing of Woolf, Eliot, and others) to Freud’s exploration of memory and the drives that shape human outlooks and behaviors. In this context, Pong repositions a generation of modernist writers, from Woolf to H. D., still recovering from the effects of one world war, as unable to retreat into simple nostalgia for a past they felt to be corrupted, while simultaneously afraid of expecting much from a future that promised only heightened versions of present concerns.

With their nerves already frayed by the Munich Crisis of 1938, the members of the public who heard Neville Chamberlain’s famous radio broadcast on the morning of Sunday, September 3, 1939, had, in a sense, been expecting it for some time. Even if the subsequent Phoney War delayed the arrival of people’s worst fears by several months, the onset of the Blitz, and the psychological disturbance it brought with it, meant that the British public would have to navigate months and years of anxiety, boredom, terror, and resignation. In the second section of the book, subtitled, “War Time Zones,” Pong devotes three chapters to exploring how living in wartime also meant living in a different sense of time, with clocks standardized and a more rigid, militaristic understanding of how actions and events were synchronized and recorded. To live through the conflict was to realize, as Pong’s analysis of the writing of Patrick Hamilton, Elizabeth Bowen, and Graham Greene here shows, that even time itself was subject to new rules and requirements.

Much of this shift in the individual’s sense of wartime can, as Pong reminds us, be found in what was, in 1939, the almost unprecedented change in the nature of the conflict. Spared the destruction visited upon the towns of France and Belgium in the First World War, the British populace found (as the inhabitants of Guernica, Warsaw, and Rotterdam had done before them) that sustained aerial bombardment of civilian targets redefined the ways in which it was necessary to think and talk about war. The nightly routine of bombing not only revised the definition of combatant to enlist civilians in the nation’s forces but also defamiliarized peoples’ sense of time and space through the destruction of what had hitherto been considered familiar, stable, and domestic. As Lara Feigel explored in her 2013 study The Love Charm of Bombs (itself referenced by Pong and a useful companion read to her work), living and writing within the blacked-out world of “Blitz time” brought an almost surreal blend of opportunities and challenges. Throughout the volume, Pong’s chosen writers are shown coming to terms with a situation in which concepts of “time” and “space” are fragile.

Through her analysis of the “Blitz-writing” that such conditions produced, Pong explores the sense of dislocation in the individual consciousness. Stepping back from the propagandist line of “business as usual,” a staple of films like Humphrey Jennings’ “London Can Take It” (1940), much of the Blitz literature that Pong explores is the product of a world made strange and unfamiliar, whether through the temporal dislocation of the UK entering the “double summer time” zone for the duration of the war, or the physical displacement of town and cityscapes altered beyond recognition by the effects of saturation bombing. When the world around the writer can be turned into a ruin overnight, and when London, Coventry, Dresden, or Berlin become almost indistinguishable from Pompeii, the psychological challenges of living and writing in the moment are certainly acute, and more resistant to the strained positivity of official rhetoric. The book’s third and final section, three chapters devoted to “The Temporality of Ruins,” evokes, with examples ranging from the poetry of H. D. to Charles Crichton’s use of London’s ruins as the set for his 1947 film Hue and Cry, this radically altered awareness of place and time. Even after the conflict, traces of bombing raids lingered for years within towns and cities trying to find a semblance of normality amidst the rubble. Restored to a post-war present, it took time for the physical and mental landscape of Britain to wholly move on from its wartime past.

Through a diverse group of authors and sources, Pong explores how people became resigned to a war lasting until victory could be secured while tentatively imagining what might endure when that open-ended period of time and struggle would be concluded. Key questions arise from such a set of circumstances. Does the past offer any guidance for framing one’s present? Can the present be endured by considering it as something that will one day be past? What sense of history can give meaning to current experience? There were, of course, no clear answers, but a wealth of writing certainly emerges from those who set about exploring them.

The Second World War period continues to command a prominent place in Britain’s cultural landscape, explored through both its historical events and the culture forged in their midst. All too often, though, narratives surrounding the conflict are interwoven with an essential conservatism of outlook, which is too easily re-applied to situations wherein “keeping calm and carrying on” may not prove the universal solution to the UK’s problems. As Pong’s book so usefully reminds us, wartime, like other periods of individual and national trial, can be a period of intense doubt and reflection, out of which emerge not only the slogans of the governmental poster but also artistic works of complexity and significance. As the events of the Second World War slip away from living memory to become exclusively documents in the historical record, Pong makes a valuable case for looking again at the creative works prompted into being by those wartime years.


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