Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Mem reviews "Nella Last's War", "Birmingham at War" and "Moseley, Balsall Heath and Highgate"

Hello dears! My husband Wilfred – you probably know him better as Colonel Moseley - thought it best if I wrote this weblog. His piece about his Ten Ultimate Gripes seems to have upset more people than usual. This time, the disaffected are an unlikely grouping: they include teachers and social workers riding motor cycles, fans of local television and Alan Titchmarsh, wearers of hoodies and the entire Scottish nation. This implausible alliance wasn’t quite enough to make him feel a pariah, but a little uncomfortable in the queue at the supermarket; so he's lowering his profile which I think means the same as keeping his head down, so here I am.

At Moseley Towers it’s my husband who watches most of the television. As you may know, each afternoon in the week he is glued to Countdown. Only occasionally do I wrest control of the remote. Last year I managed this feat for a splendid one-off drama, Housewife, 49 by Victoria Wood. This was based on the wartime diaries of Nella Last from Barrow-in-Furness, written for Mass Observation. I admired its sense of period and performances of David Threlfall, Stephanie Cole and Ms Wood herself.

The program prompted me to read Nella Last’s War edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming (Profile Books ISBN-10: 84668 000 X). Like the drama, the diaries involve and move from the outset. Apart from recreating the events, atmosphere and attitudes of wartime, one is given an intimate insight into the viewpoint and emotions of a middle-aged wife and mother struggling in the Blitz to cope with her own nerves, a withdrawn and repressive husband and sons leaving home. Through all this, Mrs. Last was determined to cope and do her bit in volunteer services.

As well as following the war and Nella’s work at home and for the WVS, the reader can look between the lines and decipher her relationships with her gloomy husband and much-loved sons. One can’t help but wonder, for example, if Nella ever came near to understanding the truth of her son Cliff’s relationship with a navy flier, tragically to be lost in the war. Her integrity, fears, joys and sadness, insight, loyalty and sheer hard work are vividly portrayed in what might be regarded as an early form of blog. I found it compelling and thoroughly recommend it.

Nearer to home than Barrow in Furness, I also enjoyed Birmingham at War, a pictorial account by Alton Douglas (Brewin Books ISBN 0 947731 93 8). In his preface the author talks of thinking, when researching the book, of marching men and women, devastation, mugs of tea, comradeship, heroism and above all of wonderment that the human spirit could survive and triumph over anything (even some of those mugs of tea!).

Birmingham at War captures the spirit of the time from the preparations for war through to victory. All the paraphernalia of war is shown from gas masks and sandbagged buildings to barrage balloons and shelters, the evacuation of children, rationing and endless queues. There are many photographs of the city’s industry making aircraft, engines, vehicles and munitions. The continuous and real threat is literally brought home by German military target maps showing Saltley Railway Carriage & Wagon Works and the Austin at Longbridge together with extensive bomb damage, including Oxford Road in Moseley. Other aspects of life are featured from entertainment and sport to victory celebrations. Birmingham at War evokes perhaps the most important years in the last century.

Finally, I commend Moseley, Balsall Heath and Highgate, one of the Images of England series by Marion Baxter and Peter Drake (Tempus Publishing ISBN 0 7524 0680 9). The book presents previously unpublished photographs from the Birmingham Central Library collection, ranging from houses of the great and good, rich and poor to street scenes, churches, transport, art and leisure.

In bringing these pictures together, the history over two centuries of a relatively small but diverse and vibrant area is presented. The photographs of Moseley Village and St Mary’s Row in the late nineteenth century are fascinating and show scenes little changed from today - apart from heavier traffic!

The unique character of Moseley, described in Kelly’s Directory in 1896 as a pleasant suburb, is emphasised with over twenty five listed buildings, a private park created from the Moseley Hall Estate, the Chamberlains’ family home, Highbury and even the Moseley Bog. As well as images, the book contains insights into what made Moseley different from its neighbours. Apparently, the refusal to put workmen’s trains on the Birmingham to Gloucester line and the absence of third class tickets on the trams helped to maintain Moseley’s exclusivity. Its sporting, literary and musical heritage is touched on together with the proximity of Birmingham University which has given a decidedly student and cosmopolitan flavour to the streets and pubs of Moseley.

I found that the photographs and their interesting and quirky captions illuminated Moseley’s history. These images linked the past and present in a real and recognisable way and were an excellent introduction to the subject.

I hope you might enjoy some of these books as much as I did. Bye, dears!

* a version of this review appeared in Birmingham 13

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