So many of my generation say, about the Second World War – “I wouldn’t have missed it!” This is my war – and some of the reasons why I, too, say “I wouldn’t have missed it!” In the City of Manchester.’ (1)
This dramatic and intriguing opening to Mary Turner’s memoir is typical of her witty and honest writing style, and plays a big part in making her such an interesting and likeable character to explore. A typed memoir, it was submitted unpublished to the Brunel University Library in 1987.
Despite its obvious flair, this opening suggests that Mary wrote her memoir with the aim of informing a younger generation, for who the war is a long-gone landmark in history. It is interesting to note however, that the stark honesty and sexual references in the memoir suggests that it may not necessarily have been written for her own descendants, the only possible contradiction to this assumption being a single reference to ‘one’s children and grandchildren’ in the text. (2)
At the start of her memoir, Mary quickly establishes the fact that she will focus solely on own experiences, instead of speaking for her contemporaries. She states that ‘a bit of background information is vital. I was born in 1921…’ (1) By setting the scene for her narrative and divulging information about her early life, it suggests that Mary isn’t self-conscious about her experiences, but also that she is deliberately writing in a style that benefits an audience.
However, although it’s clear that she writes with an audience in mind, Mary does so in a conversational and chatty tone, covering a wide range of topics in her memoir, all of which she explains with personal anecdotes. For example, when discussing her domestic, working-class living arrangements in the war, Mary cheerfully describes how her husband Ken; ‘went away six weeks after we were married. At the time I was living with the in-laws plus old Uncle Phillip. Ken and I shared a three-quarter bed in the same room, with a screen in between. He [Uncle Phillip] used to listen – he told me so years later… ah the romances of war time!’ (3)
Mary also discusses her experience of bombing, and the practicalities of getting to work the day after an air raid ‘‘being expected at work on time even though I had to carry my pushbike the last mile over the broken glass and fire hoses – “you should always home in time to walk the whole distance, Miss Edwards!”’ (6)
It appears to me that although Mary faced many difficulties in her life – including nineteen miscarriages- she purposely wrote her memoir in a way that glosses over these hardships, instead determined to produce a stubbornly funny and interesting piece of writing.
However this intent also has the effect of making Mary appear very blunt, and at times, incredibly, almost amusingly, hard-hearted. In a rare mention of her husband’s work in the navy, she describes a particular incident in which he nearly drowned at sea when his ship was sunk by German U-boats in 1942:
‘It was years before he was able to tell me that he’d been torpedoed in the Med., I think it was on board the Strathallan, [he] had nearly been drowned and also nearly been knocked unconscious by a raft thrown overboard, had got ashore near Algiers and lost his glasses and most of his possessions in the process… His glasses were not replaced – he didn’t need them anyway… a case of over-mothering I think.’ (3)
It’s very hard to say whether this practical mind set was a result of the war time experience, or if it is simply a reflection of Mary’s personality. In either case, it results in an interesting and fascinating anecdote, being one which challenges our modern romantic and Hollywood-influenced preconceptions of the war, choosing instead to detail the reality of life as married couple over half a century ago.
[I] Turner, Mary. ‘Untitled’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, 2:777