Mrs Miles’s Diary: The Wartime Journal of a Housewife on the Home Front (book #153)

ed SV Partington (2013).

miles 2
Image is of Constance Miles.

Constance Miles was a journalist and novelist who kept a diary from 1939 to 1943, and sent the typescript of it to the Imperial War Museum. It was over 400,000 words; the IWM has cut it down, I guess to about a quarter (apparently a lot of the length was extracts from newspaper articles) and published it.

Miles’s father was William Robertson Nicoll, a journalist and writer who founded the periodicals British Weekly and The Bookman. One of her friends was Barbara Euphan Todd, novelist and children’s writer who wrote the Worzel Gummidge books. Miles herself wrote, with her brother Maurice Nicoll, a novel Lord Richard in the Pantry (1911), which became a play and then a film (it’s on the BFI’s list of 75 lost and most wanted films). The book is credited to Martin Lutrell Swayne, Maurice’s pseudonym, in the BL and the Bodleian, so I’m going on the authority of Partington’s introduction in saying that Miles co-wrote it.

She is credited alone, however, for what I guess is a sequel, Lady Richard in the larder: an extravaganza (1932), and something called Coffee, Please: the story of a lover’s dream (1933). Furrowed Middlebrow has a post talking about these and also her work as Marjory Royce, which Partington doesn’t mention. There also seem to be some manuscripts of hers in the BL: “Anthology of Letters, taken from printed biography including a few private letters” (1950), “The Springfield Diary between the Wars” (1951) and “Brief Lives. Consisting of pen portraits of people well known to the writer, etc” (1954). I would like to get in there and have a nose, and also to her half-sister and father’s archives at Aberdeen … Most of her books are too expensive but I have ordered Dinah Leaves School (written as Royce) and will endeavour to report back. I do have resolutions / ambitions / plans to update this blog more frequently (and have a pile of books waiting to be “done”) but then I’ve planned that before and then I get under the weather and things go to pot.

Anyway – here are some bits from the diary I liked. Rather a focus on cats as you will see. Miles’s own cat was soft grey Muff, who had to subsist on “chicken’s ‘eads fourpence a pound” at times in the war.

Barbara [Euphan Todd] says Miss J, ruler of the Children’s Hour on the BBC, returns her engaging story of a mouse air warden who dealt with bats (and spoke in rhyme all the time), saying that she hopes that children don’t know anything about raids. ‘I suppose their gas masks are to keep fairies in!’ cries the irritated author. (01/12/1939)

Interesting to see that the focus on food being thrown away is not new. “Before the war about a million tons of foodstuffs were thrown into dustbins every year, Sir Ronald reminds us [Ronald Storrs in The Second Quarter, an account of the progress of the war]!” (10/08/1940).

As a war-time companion Barbara has a small black kitten. It likes cheese straws and cabbages and it spends most of its time purring as mine does. It fitted itself into a blue glass vase the other morning and went whirling round and round. It was in an ecstasy. I should like to meet it even more than Goebbels. (24/01/1940) … I hear that one of the survivors of the torpedoed Transylvania came on shore with a cat in his arms, purring contentedly. Good! (15/08/1940) … Went to call on a Paddington evacuee cat in the village, a sweet whitish kitten. The two dressmakers accompaning it are humbly grateful for their one room, where they can just squeeze in (29/10/1940).

Southampton, that pleasant town, has had two dreadful air raids. When you know all the main streets, it makes your heart turn over. (02/12/1940) May wrote that Southampton is a sad sight. Many forsaken cats sitting on the rubble, and piles of stones and bricks. (10/12/1940) At Southampton I again gazed sorrowfully at the once hospitable little hotel opposite the bus stop. It is an ugly ruin. (06/06/1942)

Miles and her husband riffing on the subject of a War Fare Cookery Week. Her husband invents a dance battle between General Slackness, with team members Stomach-ache, Nightmare, Hiccoughs and Collywobbles, and General Efficiency, with members Delight, Health, Taking Trouble and Comfortableness. “I thought of the Nourishing Soup Dance, to be performed by Mesdames Potato, Mutton-broth and Lentil.” (22/12/1940)

She mentions in passing a discussion in the House of Lords about juvenile offending increasing during the war. “From January to August 1940 they increased by 41 per cent among children under fourteen and by 22 per cent among those between fourteen and seventeen. There are many waiting to be taken into special schools.” (20/02/1942). This does seem to have been the case. Kate Bradley, “Juvenile delinquency and the evolution of the British juvenile courts, c.1900-1950”, says that

Corporal punishment on boys aged under 14 increased in the course of the Second World War. In 1938 and 1939 there were 48 and 58 cases of whippings respectively in England and Wales; this rose to a high of 531 in 1941, gradually dropping to 165 by the end of 1943 before returning to pre-war levels in 1944 when 37 cases were handled in this way. This rise has been attributed to the need to deal with increasing juvenile crime during the war in combination with retired magistrates being reinstated to cope with the dual pressures of an increasing caseload and younger magistrates serving on war duty.

There’s also an interesting article from 1944, “Juvenile Delinquency in Britain during the War”. Some lovely and dubious stats about the % of juvenile delinquents whose parents are not providing a normal home life, and speculation that the increase in delinquency is caused by the blackout, disruption of home life –

Children not only lost their homes, but ruined buildings gave endless opportunities for adventure and play which sometimes became rather wild. Toys, candies and innumerable other things attractive to children were buried under rubble and remained there, sometimes for days, until the area could be cleared.

– wartime restlessness, disruption of school life, an increase in young people working and in the amount they earned, and lack of space in approved schools, remand homes and Borstals. One of the solutions proposed is more use of foster care rather than approved schools – experience of evacuation apparently having indicated that this could work.

This is a rather sad passage:

I discover an advertisement in today’s Times about a job I think I am able to fill. If only I could! They want gentlewomen for portresses at University College, London; no manual work, but answering enquiries, phones, etc.
Robin throws water on it firmly. ‘You would always be ill,’ etc. I can do nothing, of course, as my duty lies at home. A nuisance. (24/02/1942)

Miles does mention that she has been asked to be the area Billeting Officer, but it’s not clear if she did take this on. I think probably not, or there would be more about it.

In June 1942 she and her half-sister (Mildred Robertson Nicoll – also a writer) went to see the ruins of Paternoster Row near St Paul’s, the printers’ and booksellers’ area, “a pious pilgrimage … [to] where the British Weekly was started”. “The desolation at the back of the great cathedral is truly frightful. Yes, it frightened me, as I stood looking across the great space full of ruins. … What kind and gentle people have been killed, what tidy office arrangements have been blasted, what valuable papers destroyed!” (25/06/1942).

In the introduction, Partington quotes Miles saying “I want it to be clear … that I got through the war as I did simply because I had this secret life of reading”.

There’s a good review of the diary at I Prefer Reading.

Oh, and I must say that the cover picture is annoying. It’s a young woman hanging out washing – too young to be a good representation of Miles, who in any case would be better represented reading or writing.

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One Response to “Mrs Miles’s Diary: The Wartime Journal of a Housewife on the Home Front (book #153)”

  1. Family Post Bag (book #154) | Books and Pictures Says:

    […] recording reading and pictures « Mrs Miles’s Diary: The Wartime Journal of a Housewife on the Home Front (book #153) […]

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