Mary Turner (B. 1921): War and Memory

‘Wars are appalling…one can see that side of the argument. At the same time, even de-glamorized, one is left with a picture of human beings which were more acceptable than those who, to-day, make up what we choose to call society.’ (6)

Taken from the powerful conclusion to Mary Turner’s [i] fascinating memoir, this bold and clear statement reflects just how much the  Second World War affected her opinions and personality; seeping into her mindset as it seeped into every aspect of her daily life, changing it in unprecedented ways.

On the surface, Mary’s memoir seems to portray her war-time experiences as thrilling and liberating, ‘I still remember the war as a time I wouldn’t have missed.’ (6) However after digging deeper you can see that underneath the bravado and cheeriness, there are hints to the darker sides of war-time that aren’t usually discussed; the loneliness in an empty bed when you spend three years apart from your husband, or the bleakness of a Christmas spent in the Blitz.

a modern couple give their take on a war-time Christmas
a modern couple give their take on a war-time Christmas

For Mary, the start of the war was marked by entrance into the workplace, and the daughter of a policing family, there were few career choices that would be deemed acceptable by her relatives. Despite her strong will power and determination, ‘auntie had decided I would be moved into the bobbies… sod that, I wanted to be a farmer’, she found work as a shorthand typist in the Traffic and War Department. However, she was soon to find out that this was one of the important places to be working ‘I started in the bobbies a week before the war broke out. Ker-crash.‘ (1)

Despite the risk that the war brought, it is clear from Mary’s memoir that the danger brought with it a heightened sense of fun, which she clearly took advantage of in her outings with friends; ‘Manchester was exciting. Bombing started about a year after the war broke out and by this time I had a push bike… we did about 250 miles a week believe it or not’ (2)

Of course, it wasn’t the exercise alone that provided the fun; a puncture in your tyre wasn’t a problem when ‘there was always some solider who’d mend it for us.’ (6)

The phrase ‘Make Do and Mend’, is one that most people automatically associate with the Second World War, and in the spirit of Lillie and Arthur Horth’s ‘101 Things to Do in Wartime’ published in 1940, many took enthusiastically to DYI in all areas of their lives, with the results often ensuing in hilarity. Mary for example, remembers how she had a war-time fashion disaster when, ‘I once made myself a dress – a long one- out of some curtain material, went a dance at the Co-Op hall and found that their deco matched exactly. But we all found it funny, not demeaning.’ (4)

make-do-and-mend

However, these memorable and upbeat moments of the war are sharply contrasted with times in which Mary struggled to cope with the pressure of war. From being forced to live under close observation from her over bearing mother-in-law ‘they kept more than an eye on me’ (3), to the anxiety of living with a husband she’d barely seen for the duration of the war ‘I was there when he came home from the war. I was worried about things would be between us.’ (4)

The most detailed of these struggles is depicted in one of the most moving passages of Mary’s memoir, about the Christmas Eve of the  Blitz. With her family evacuated, and ‘I had no desire what-so-ever to be with my in-laws’ (5), Mary was faced with a Christmas alone. Instead of going out and finding company ‘I’d have picked somebody up in sheer loneliness and been unfaithful and I didn’t think that was right’,  she decided to drank a bottle of whisky given to her by her employers; ‘it blotted out Christmas, which suited me.’ (5)

Mary’s memoir gives us a straight-talking window into her life in war-time Britain that is unhindered by romanticism or censorship. She fondly remembers the ways in which ‘there was a great deal of helpfulness between women’ (5), with the same clarity in which she scathingly criticizes the uniform of the women in ‘the Forces‘;… Diabolical. Those shoes, those stockings and those knickers.’ (5) In my opinion, it’s this very honesty and detail and makes Mary Turner’s memoir an insightful, and fascinating piece of history.

[i] Turner, Mary. ‘Untitled’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library,  2:777

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