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Churchill’s Children at Words by the Water


By Kirsty McHugh, OUP UK

Oxford University Press author John Welshman went to his first literary festival last week, and has kindly written a post about the experience for OUPblog. Below he talks about some of the most interesting questions the audience asked him, and reflects on the differences between academic historian and popular historians, inspired by some of the fellow writers he met there.

John Welshman is Senior Lecturer in the Department of History at Lancaster University. His book, Churchill’s Children: The Evacuee Experience in Wartime Britain, tells the moving real-life stories of British schoolchildren evacuated out of major cities during the Second World War.

Last Wednesday afternoon found me at the Words by the Water Literary Festival in Keswick.  It was a fascinating experience, not least because it was not only the first time that I had been to a literary festival as a speaker, but it was also the first time that I had been to one in any capacity.  My Chairman had been an evacuee, and at the start we established that there were at least half a dozen evacuees in the audience.  There was a lively question-and-answer session afterwards:

Churchills ChildrenDid parents have to send their children away?  No, evacuation was voluntary, and indeed registrations remained surprisingly low in the Autumn of 1939.  In fact fewer evacuees turned up at the railway stations than had been expected, and it was partly because of this that the operation was telescoped, leading to confusion in the Reception Areas, where the numbers of the parties arriving, and their composition, was different to what had been expected.  This also meant that the proportion of the child population sent away varied between the main cities.  In terms of the families who took evacuees in, on the other hand, this was compulsory, unless householders could justify their refusal in some way.  Again, there were striking variations between the Counties, in the late 1930s, in the amount of accommodation that had been ‘privately reserved’.

How important was social class?  A difficult question to answer in that working-class children went to middle-class homes, and middle-class children went to working-class homes.  Revisionist historians have argued that rather than evacuation bringing the social classes closer together, it drove them further apart.  My own view is that evacuation did reveal the poverty of people in the cities to people living in the countryside, and that this did feed into debates about postwar reconstruction.  The bulk of the people evacuated in the ‘official’ Government scheme, in contrast to those evacuated ‘privately’, were working-class children and their mothers.

What part does Churchill play in the book?  Neville Chamberlain was Prime Minister in September 1939, at the time of the first wave of the evacuation, and Churchill only became Prime Minister in May 1940.  Churchill did feature in House of Commons debates from the mid-1930s which reveal the anxiety about aerial bombing that itself was a key influence on planning for evacuation.  But the metaphor of ‘Churchill’s Children’ is more a device to convey the book’s attempt to focus on the wartime period as a whole, the way I follow the characters through into the postwar years, and the idea of a cohort of children who were influenced by the evacuation experience, and who, in turn helped to shape postwar Britain.

Perhaps the most interesting experience while I was at Keswick was sitting in on a discussion with three popular historians – Jane Robinson, Adrian Tinniswood, and Helen Rappaport – on the writing of popular history.  They eloquently conveyed the attractions of writing popular history – a chance to restore or reconstruct a historical period; to reveal something previously taken for granted; to empathise; and to give voice to the past.  They stressed the importance of being truthful to the subject, and all were keen to stress that a writer should not ‘make it up’ in the sense of reconstructing historical conversations.

The three clearly felt that they were different to academic historians who typically receive no upfront fee; sell mainly to libraries and institutions, have a typical print run of a few hundred copies; and where the emphasis is often on nitpicking the work of others.  Writing popular history, on the other hand, was more about an act that was fun; where the focus was more on writing ‘stories’; where the author could take a scholarly approach, but was freed up in other respects; and where the writer could take a more humanist approach, enabling the reader to see a part of him or herself in the characters.

Nevertheless I wondered how far this reflected a sense of envy that the academic historian does have a salary to fall back on, and is therefore less dependant on a world influenced by the end of the Net Book Agreement; heavy discounting on Amazon and in the High Street; falling sales; and where the majority of books published never make it into the bookshops.  Similarly it seems to me that there is a danger of caricaturing the academic historian.  If popular historians are constrained by the marketplace, academic histories are constrained by the Research Excellence Framework.  In fact, academic historians are equally interested in narrative; in the telling of stories; in the need to write well and interestingly; and in the craftsmanship involved in shaping material.  For both popular historians and academic historians, history remains a fragmented and imperfect science.

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