Magazine article History Today

Angus Calder: An Appreciation: When the People's War Was Published in 1969 on the Thirtieth Anniversary of the Outbreak of the Second World War, It Set a Gold Standard for Home Front Studies That Has Never Been Equalled. It Has Remained in Print Ever since, Read for Nearly Forty Years by Those Who Remembered and Those Who Never Knew

Magazine article History Today

Angus Calder: An Appreciation: When the People's War Was Published in 1969 on the Thirtieth Anniversary of the Outbreak of the Second World War, It Set a Gold Standard for Home Front Studies That Has Never Been Equalled. It Has Remained in Print Ever since, Read for Nearly Forty Years by Those Who Remembered and Those Who Never Knew

Article excerpt

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A young man's book, since its author, Angus Calder, who died of lung cancer aged sixty-six on June 5th, 2008, was 'not even a twinkle in anyone's eye at the time of our finest hour', as the playwright Dennis Potter pointed out in his review of the book for The Times. He was only twenty-seven when it was published. A work of extensive and authoritative scholarship, The People's War was written with the brio of youth and some of its anger--'the old gang [of wartime politicians] had become the old gangsters' (Potter's words) and the effect of the war had not been to 'sweep society onto a new course, but to hasten its progress along the old grooves', Calder concluded.

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Angus Calder was the son of the Daily Herald journalist, Peter (later Lord) Ritchie Calder, who had continually campaigned for a better deal for Churchill's 'unknown warriors' from a wartime government that in his view had 'let the people down'. To his son this seemed a progressive betrayal after 1945 of the sacrifices, the promises and the possibilities of a 'people's war'. His book elaborated this theme by giving due weight not just to the early wartime period of evacuation, rationing, blackout and blitz, but also to the long years of endurance when Britain was obliged to become, in Calder's words, 'an India rubber island' and sustained demands were made of its civilian population.

The People's War was published at an apposite moment: just a year after les evenements of 1968 in Paris had held out the prospect to Europe of a realignment of political, social and cultural forces; and at a time when the surge of 'history from below', exemplified by the History Workshop movement and the growing interest in oral history, was privileging previously voiceless witnesses who challenged the traditional historical narrative. Calder's own exposition of the gap between the governors and the governed, the 'Establishment' and the 'people', was the essence of the history that he wrote. And it was during the writing of The People's War in 1965 that Calder made the discovery that would provide vivid and often poignant substance to his contentions.

In October 1965, at the suggestion of a fellow historian, Paul Addison, Angus Calder went to the Kensington headquarters of Mass-Observation, the organization that had been set up in 1937 to pursue 'an anthropology of our own people', since the abdication crisis the previous year had convinced M-O's founders that no one really knew what the man or woman in the street thought about national events--and a lot of other matters too. There he found 'three rooms in the basement literally stuffed to the ceiling ... with a unique collection of firsthand evidence of the social history of Britain in the 1930s and 1940s'. At his urging, the collection was acquired for the University of Sussex. There in 1975 Asa Briggs (now Lord Briggs), who had supervised Calder's DPhil thesis and was by then Vice Chancellor of the University, formally opened the M-O archive to the public. Calder mined this collection of surveys, reports and diaries for The People's War, edited a representative anthology of Mass-Observation material, Speak for Yourself, with M-O's archivist, Dorothy Sheridan, and was commissioned to write a history of M-O which, sadly, exists only in note form.

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The theme that ran through The People's War (and underpins so much wartime material in the M-O archive) is that of civilian morale. …

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