Following last night’s Documentary “Blitz Spirit with Lucy Worsley” which I really recommend if you can watch it on catch-up (BBC 1), I thought I would repost one of my older reviews.One of the real life “characters” who featured in the programme was Frances Faviell, who became volunteer auxiliary nurse and had some memorable experiences. At the end they briefly showed the account of the Blitz which she wrote – “A Chelsea Concerto” as well as another four novels.
I was approached to review the book in 2016, as it had just been reprinted by Dean Street Press in their Furrowed Middlebrow series. I really found it an amazing book, so different from the other accounts of the Blitz in London that I have read.
Firstly, despite the fact that this book was written several years after the events described, this does not read like a novel. The Narrator records her own experiences in the order they happened, in all the confusion and muddle of a developing situation. This gives an immediacy to the text and an importance to such little things as the French design of a tin hat as well as the death of a friend that it usually found in a diary. That is not to say that the book is lacking characters; the obsessions of tragic Ruth and the solid dependable Mrs. Feetch are only two of the people who come to life in this book. The fear of destruction written about so movingly in the first part of the book is in contrast with the writer’s apparent optimism for much of the book’s progress, but it is never far away as every building becomes a target. Churches, hospitals and of course homes are destroyed, and the sense of helplessness as the water supply is cut off and help cannot get through is very vivid. One of the events shown in the television programme is brilliantly described in the book, a haunting experience.There are nightmare images that Favell witnessed and experiences that she endured which make this a grim read in places; this is not fiction in any sense, but distilled horror of war.
Having said this, this can be a funny and endearing book as Favell also recounts her experiences with the local characters, like old soldiers determined to help even though they are in their eighties, and a patient travelling in an ambulance who is greatly comforted by a detailed account of the scenery going past, only to discover that the speaker could not actually see out of the window. There are shards of hope and love even if life is brief and troubled. Favell’s voluntary work meant that she effectively looked after a group of Flemish refugees, who are described as real individuals, real people who argue and fight, but who also stand together in their suffering. “The Giant” is described as a real man, trapped by his temper as well as forces beyond his control. I was also struck by the reality of Catherine whose life story is tragic, yet she battles on with the support of Frances and others.
This book is an illustration of the fact that numbers of dead and injured mean little to the reader compared with the stories of real people, real lives and loves. Yes, much of this book is sad, but the survival of the human spirit makes the story of the blitz in London and in many other cities throughout this country feel very real. As someone who has read quite widely in the fact and fiction of this period, I really appreciated the opportunity to read this otherwise rare book,which really brings to life one woman’s life during one of the most challenging times in British history. The documentary was very powerful; it shows that history is “Inherently messy”, and we have to depend on first hand accounts to help us to sort it out,if we ever can. This is a stunning and remarkable book, which I recommend to everyone interested in this part of social history, especially in London.