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Pearl Harbor: A Poem of Reflection

Joan was a poet as well as a diarist.  Two days after Pearl Harbor was bombed, Joan wrote this poem at age 18. She loved Homer and the Iliad, and frequently saw the political events around her in terms of the history of the past, particularly the destruction of Troy.

The USS West Virginia burns and sinks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. (Handout, Reuters).

The USS West Virginia burns and sinks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. (Handout, Reuters). From the Chicago Tribune.

Dec 9 – 1941[1]

Now it is come we are as calm as we have never been

We drink our coffee with still hands

And with grave eyes ask what is trump

Or whose lead now and carefully repair our rouge.

And read the Tribune and Thomas Aquinas

With equal imperturbability.

Once we were shifted by the sound of words

By great black headlines, by the screaming boy.


Now we are calm as we were calm in Troy

We are as silly as we ever were

But now our silliness is bravery

We are so shallow that the dying of a world

Cannot break through our consciousness

Or are so deep that it cannot.


That which we never quite believed has happened

And we touch inanely hands that never reach

And lie down to die with dignity.      


We are as calm as we were calm in Troy.


[1] Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941; the United States officially declares war on Japan December 8 and on Germany and Italy on December 11.

Same old, same old: the struggle for representation

Same old, same old: the struggle for representation


Congratulations to Alison Twells on being shortlisted for the Tony Lothian Prize for her unpublished biography of her great-aunt, Norah, who lived through WWII and wrote about it!

Originally posted on Socks for the Boys!:

I spent a couple of days in London at the end of last week. Socks for the Boys! was shortlisted for the Tony Lothian Prize for an unpublished first-time biography and I was invited to the Biographers’ Club Prize Dinner at the Liberal Club in Whitehall Place (very posh, as my great aunts would say, the ‘o’ pronounced as in ‘post’).  I was really delighted to be shortlisted; to see Norah take her place amongst the royals and assorted aristocrats, the Bloomsbury-ites and Romantics of previous shortlists, was very very satisfying.  One of the judges, Lara Feigel, praised the ‘wonderful immediacy’ of Norah’s diary entries and read the ‘Lovely among the boys’ sequence from September 1938.  (You can see the full shortlist – and indeed the winner, Polly Clark, who is doing creative things at the interface of history, memoir and biography – here).

I also used the opportunity of this trip…

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Veteran’s Day: The 100th Anniversary of the Start of WWI

The diary of my mother, Joan, from when she was a teenager in the lead up to World War II and after it began, taught me many things.  Among them, how present in her mind World War I loomed.  Not even born when World War I raged, she grew up in a world dominated by the horrors of that conflict.  It enters her diary at numerous points.

Joan even dreams about the war.  Here she is at age 15:

Friday, December 31, 1937

I had the awfullest dream last night. I dreamt a war was begun and people were running about with brightened looks in their eyes. I was a boy and I knew I would have to be a soldier. I was afraid to go to war. I kept seeing trenches and mud and horror and pain and things—and killing people—and I was terribly scared inside. But I knew I would have to join the army anyhow because otherwise people would call me coward. I went to enlist and that’s all I remember. I figured I might have three months in a training group before I would have to fight. It was a terrible dream and I was so scared. That’s all I remember. . .

Poster for the movie Wings from 1927.

Poster for the movie Wings from 1927.

At this point, the image of war in people’s minds included trench warfare, as shown in movies like The Big Parade or Wings.

Poster for the film The Big Parade (1925)

Poster for the film The Big Parade (1925)

Two years after the start of WWII in Europe and not a month away from Pearl Harbor, Joan has become more cynical.  Here is an entry written when she still 18 years old.

Thursday, November 13, 1941

. . . Day before yesterday was Armistice Day, if you can call it that—1941 A. D.. . . If we live, we’ll look back on these days and know, perhaps, either that they were not as important as we thought they were—or that they were much more important. God, in the heavens, look down on the world! . . . Today they finally finished repealing the Neutrality Bill.[1] Arm our ships and send them into belligerent ports—drums beating louder now—we had a peace meeting at school day before yesterday—what the hell, what is Armistice? Time goes on.

[1] One of the bills of the 1930s that came from noninterventionist desires. With its repeal, the involvement of the United States in World War II was only a matter of days.

War becomes real to Joan after Pearl Harbor.  Here she is, age 18.

Wednesday, December 10, 1941

The Japanese paratroops have captured Luzon in the Philippines and sunk two British ships, the Repulse and another near Singapore. Hitler speaks to Reichstag tomorrow. We just heard the first casualty lists over the radio. . . . Lots of boys from Michigan and Illinois. Oh my God! . .

Here is a short film about the invasion of the Philippines by Japan.

Here is a trailer of The Big Parade.

Here are scenes from Wings.

Norah’s 1941 photograph

Norah’s 1941 photograph


Norah, an English girl experiencing WWII on the home front in England, gets photos taken of herself. As I’ve discovered in Joan’s diary, photos are key for sharing my mom’s story and visualizing the past.

Originally posted on Socks for the Boys!:


20th September 1941: Photos from Winter’s arrived. Sent Danny one.

 Norah’s visit to W.W. Winter, a professional photographer on Midland Road, Derby, was her second attempt to acquire a decent photograph of herself in the late summer and autumn of 1941. She had visited a different studio in August but was unhappy with the result (‘just horrid’). So she took herself off to Winter’s, the oldest and most established studio photographer in town.

W.W.Winter in Derby Photo: ITV News Central

W.W.Winter in Derby
Photo: ITV News Central

Winter’s photograph – the one I have used for the banner for this blog, the one that will hopefully be the main image on the front cover of my book – lies in front of me on my desk. Norah half sits, half leans against a high bench. She is wearing a dark dress, belted to the waist, with a pleated skirt, short sleeves, a…

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Kernels of Truth: historians and the imagination

I love the blog Socks for the Boys! Here Alison ponders what role the imagination plays in the diary format and our interpretation of reading others’ diaries.  A lovely post!

Kernels of Truth: historians and the imagination.

New York World’s Fair at the Start of WWII: Tarzan and Hedy Lamarr

Elsewhere I have written about Joan’s visit to the NY World’s Fair that first week of the war in September 1939.

Poster advertising the Fair

Poster advertising the Fair

Her poem, New York World’s Fair 1939, commemorates that visit and ponders the peace at home.

We shall remember this peace -

This caught moment of half-night beauty

Music – and a night bird blinded by the spotlight

That same light which has just flashed

Following it as it moves….

You can read the rest of the poem here.

The New York Times today writes about how the war disturbed the World’s Fair, including what food to serve.  As the Times in 1939 reported:

“Foremost was an alarm from chefs of several outstanding foreign restaurants that some delicacies heretofore transported from Europe might have a little trouble getting by the submarines….The Polish restaurant said its famous hams would last through October. The British Buttery, however, faces a shortage in its Cheshire, Cheddar and Stilton cheese….[T]he Finnish Restaurant is worried about its smoked reindeer meat supply.”

There were many spectacular performances at the Fair. Johnny Weissmuller of Tarzan fame appeared, according to Brooks Atkinson in the Times.


Atkinson wrote how you can enjoy “Aquadonis Weissmuller, baring his wide breast to the breezes….and you can also have the pleasure of seeing a fat man splash, although not in civil attire, which is the basic philosophy of fat comedians in a swimming tank.”



Here you can see the trailer to the original 1932 movie Tarzan the Ape man.

There was also a Hedy Lamarr film, “Lady of the Tropics,” that opened.

The Fair appealed to the viewer’s sense of adventure, the exotic, and remote.  But those lands would become all too familiar to those who had to fight in the war…..


September 1, 1939: 75th Anniversary of the Start of World War II

September 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland, conventionally has been called the day World War II began.  Of course, the roots of the war lie much deeper and further back, as Joan’s diary illustrates.

In honor of the 75th anniversary of the start of the war, today’s post looks at an unusual topic, but one which Joan uses to ground a poem commemorating the start of World War II.

Catalpa Trees and Out of Fashion Vegetation

I had never even heard of a catalpa tree before I read my mother’s diaries from the period before and during World War II. Today this species is making headlines.  A recent article, “You’re Planting That Old Thing?”, extols old vegetative species, while pointing out their deficiencies and drawbacks.

First, for those who, like me, are new to the glories of catalpa trees, here’s a photo.

Catalpa Tree.

Catalpa Tree.

And do view this slideshow of “old-fashioned” plants.

There is even a (“non-existent”) Catalpa Tree Appreciation Society.

The author of the Times article, Michael Tortorello, writes that “Almost no one appreciates the catalpa tree, and few gardeners have planted one since the financial crisis. The one in the 1930s.”  Exactly when my mother was writing about catalpas.  Two of the 19th-century catalpa enthusiasts came from the midwest:  Ohio and Illinois where Joan grew up.

Catalpa came out of fashion — even though it was beautiful and the wood was vital for railroad ties — because it could be messy with its seedpods.

Catalpa in bloom

Catalpa in bloom

Perhaps what we need now is an analysis of the catalpa in literature and war. For Joan, it was a symbolic tree, linked irrevocably with the start of World War II.

In Memory – August 31, 1939 [Age 16]


I remember standing in the crooked shadow of the Catalpa tree

The August-September night it started.

White moon on the grass and moon mist over the fields.

Even then. It was so still.

The crickets sang farewell to summer.

And the smell of a golden reaping

Was rich in the air.

Even then. While we were so still

Somewhere the guns were beginning to boom

And another crop was being harvested.



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