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Every book needs a golden thread to run through the narrative, even non-fiction. I write about the Second World War and what really interests me is the everyday, the ordinary within the bigger picture. Mine is the story of the Women’s Institute in wartime and when I came to write it I really struggled to find that thread. The WI is brilliant at keeping records, logging facts and recording things in minute detail. However, personal detail has no place in these records.
In desperation I asked an old friend and WI member where I could find such detail. She replied: "Oh, you won’t. You have to understand that the WI is a way of life, it is in our hearts."
Not long after this I received an email, out of the blue, from a woman in Shropshire who told me that she had diaries that her great-aunt had kept during the war. I raced up to Smethcott, near Shrewsbury, to meet Christine Downes and to learn about her great-aunt, Edith Jones, a tenant farmer’s wife and founder of her WI in 1931.
The first thrill was that Chris now lives in the same farmhouse that Edith had lived in from 1914 until 1947. But the greatest delight was the diaries themselves. Leather-bound volumes, just 3 ½ inches high, with eight entries per page – the seven days of the week and a final empty slot for "Notes".
There was room only for one or two sentences per day and Edith wrote observations that offered brief and beautiful vignettes of her family life, frozen in time in her neat hand-writing in blue ink. She described the first batch of eggs to hatch in the spring or the height of the snowdrifts above Picklescote or the number of rabbits snared by her nephew, Len, who lived with her and her husband Jack from the age of six. Then the war began to have an impact on her life when Len left home to fight. The entries continued as before but with brief mention of events happening on the world stage, a universe away from Smethcott.
My favourite two entries date from 1944 and 1945. On 20th July 1944 Edith wrote: "Hitler’s life threatened by bomb. Puppy is very lousy, so Margaret is sorry for him and gives him a sound bathing and dressing." The second dates from 30th April 1945 and reads simply: "Hitler confirmed dead. Jack sows marigolds."
When I read out those entries people laugh. Of course they do. The juxtaposition of momentous world events with the everyday is irresistible but there is something deeper here too. It has to do with the power of the human spirit and a determination to carry on, into the future, regardless of the madness of the present.
Edith’s diaries were exactly what I had been looking for: a portrait of ordinary life in extraordinary times. They gave me my golden thread.
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