Wartime Laughs and Horrors


Yesterday I swung from the hospital, where I was getting my usual dose of radioactivity for another scan, through a rainstorm to the cult paperback pulp fair, which has moved homes from Bloomsbury to Great Portland Street.

Except that hardly anyone was there, the tables were empty, the punters absent. No dealers or buyers, thanks to the pingdemic. A bundle of strange, lurid books caught my eye;  slightly larger than paperbacks but with a slender page count, virtually pamphlets, printed that way because of the wartime paper shortage.

I bought one (price: 1/6d) called ‘Laughs of Mystery & Crime’, by one S Evelyn Thomas, who was clearly the publisher too. Well, we have her to thank for these because this one is actually very funny. A fortune teller studies her crystal ball and tells the rather desperate lady sitting opposite her; ‘I can see a tall stranger crossing your path – My God, he can certainly run!’

The articles are full of burglars in masks and stripped jerseys, cheery coppers on the street, chaps chucking bricks through jewellery shop windows and escaped prisoners with arrows all over their clothes. Simpler times, simpler pleasures. I’m always amazed when I discover a book in a new format, like those slender ones printed vertically and designed to fit into a soldier’s pocket.

One of the more unusual books to come my way arrives from my old friend Michele Slung in Woodstock, NY. ‘London Transport: At War 1939-1945’ by Charles Graves has some extraordinary photographs that were censored during wartime in order to keep up morale. Even now, the truly gruesome photographs appear to remain under low and key.

Buses were blown into craters and dangerous buildings collapsed on trolley wires. Trams were particularly susceptible to attack. The war for London was fought above and below ground. Stations were sometimes hit; bomb blasts threw 35-ton carriages into the air as if they were toys. On the first night of the Blitz, a bomb through a coach on top of another. Rescue work often continued by the light of blazing gas mains.

Protecting the transport system from attack was a huge undertaking, and despite the endless bombardments proved successful thanks to quick, decisive action and good co-ordination (are you listening, Boris Johnson?). Flood barriers were built in the tube system, and I still remember great sinister doors like bank vaults that guarded the corridors – are there any still about? If so, they’d be needed at the moment, as apocalyptic rains have hit London in what must be our worst-ever summer.

The ‘Make Do And Mend’ craze swept through the transport system, from replacing bus drivers’ hooters to reducing the thickness of bus tickets (.012 to .008 inches, if you must know). An unexpectedly delightful read.

Next up for me, the wonderful short stories of Satyajit Ray, a final assault on ‘The Once and Future King’, and the next part of ‘Our Mutual Friend’. I need to stop buying books for a moment. But books will get you through bad times better than good times will get you through no books.


28 comments on “Wartime Laughs and Horrors”

  1. Rachel Green says:

    Was that a Freak Brothers reference?

  2. Stu-I-Am says:

    A certain synchronicity with ‘My Mutual Friend’ and B&M, both in complexity (riddle-like) and the fact it was Dickens’ last completed novel. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait for 19 monthly installments for ‘London Bridge.’

  3. Jo W says:

    That last sentence,Chris, it needs copying and putting into a large frame.
    On the book front,I’m still waiting for London Bridge. But, on a happier note,I have at last tracked down an affordable second-hand hardback copy of Red Gloves, volumes one and two! Bigger happier note, it arrived today,just two days after I had ordered it. Royal Mail delivery! Take note Amazon,pull out your collective fingers!

  4. Brooke says:

    Satyajit Ray…the Apu Trilogy was an inspiration for me, a black girl coming up from the southern USA to university in the mid-sixties. His stories were antidotes to the reading lists of TOAFK, Dickens, et. al.

  5. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    My London Bridge hasn’t arrived either, so I’ve ordered the London Transport book.

  6. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    …which, of course meant that London Bridge was delivered – well, I say delivered, more like abandoned outside.

  7. Stu-I-Am says:

    Sorry — that should ‘Our Mutual Friend,’ not ‘My Mutual Friend,’ which Dickens did not write (and no one else as far as I know…) And come to think of it, there is a Dickensian quality to B&M — with far fewer comically repulsive characters, of course.

  8. Helen+Martin says:

    Still awaiting my copy. The package that was announced was his after all.
    Perhaps I should do an alternate piece using Chris’ sentence. I’ll think about that.

  9. Stu-I-Am says:

    The publishing industries both in Britain and the US played important roles in boosting morale at home and among the troops during WWII — even with restrictions and despite a particularly severe paper and labour shortage in Britain.
    Interestingly, in both, the established book trade was concerned that cheap paper editions, which were usually printed on magazine presses, would further depress the market for more expensive (and profitable) hardcovers during and especially after, the war.

    And while the preferred reading material, as might be expected, was escapist or light fare, many had access for the first time to inexpensive serious works; good literature was put on a democratic basis as never before. And when the ‘swords were beaten into plowshares,’ publishers in Britain and the US enjoyed new generations of readers who rewarded them for their war efforts.

    A telling example was American author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby,’ which was first published in 1925 and never achieved popular success. in 1944 it sold 120 copies and in 1945, just prior to it being selected to be sent to US troops, it sold just 33, before going out of print. The 155,000 copies of ‘The Great Gatsby’ that shipped out to the troops dwarfed all its previous print runs combined. Thanks to that exposure, it would, of course, go on to become one of the great publishing successes of the 20th century.

  10. Roger says:

    “People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.”

  11. J. Folgard says:

    That cover for ‘Laughs of Mystery & Crime’ is lovely, isn’t it?

  12. Peter+T says:

    There were still some ‘war time economy’ editions of Shakespeare’s plays in use at my grammar school in the 1960s. Though flimsy, they’d stood up well. We didn’t see a new edition until ‘O’ level year. I suppose they hoped crisp, new paper might motivate a final effort in literary appreciation.

  13. Helen+Martin says:

    Text books. When we were choosing a new arithmetic text for grade 4 (9 yr. olds) more than ten years ago we discovered that whichever one we chose would cost CA$100 each. This meant that no other texts could be replaced and even so we wouldn’t have enough copies for the entire student group. (We couldn’t save by reducing paper towels or lowering the heat because our budget was fixed.) It’s no wonder schools keep text books too long. Have you any idea how out of date our science texts were? It’s no wonder teachers build their own text free courses whenever they can.

  14. Chris says:

    Re the London Underground flood gates, they were on TV earlier this week.

    See the channel ‘Yesterday’, ‘Secrets of the London Underground’, Monday Evening at 8:00. Yes some of the flood gates are still in place, but not operational – they had pictures of them at various stations.

    They were maintained post war, but as the power of nuclear weapons increased, were increasingly irrelevant – not clear from the program when they went out of use.

  15. admin says:

    Ray’s wonderful books reached me as a kid, but I didn’t meet anyone else who’d read them…
    And yes, that was a Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers reference because Gilbert Shelton is married to my foreign rights agent and he deserves a plug, although I still love Wonder Wart Hog too.

  16. Brooke says:

    Ray’s stories fascinate me…you arrive at your holiday destination only to be warned there’s a tiger on the loose–from the circus.

  17. Stu-I-Am says:

    I have this weird obsession about buying books and looking at them with a smile, even if I won’t read them soon. At least they are mine now.
    — Anais Nin

    My idea of rich is that you can buy every book you ever want without looking at the price and you’re never around assholes. That’s the two things to really fight for in life.
    — John Waters

  18. Helen+Martin says:

    Not sure about that second quote, Stu. I agree wholeheartedly with the first half but accepting the second half can often introduce you some otherwise fascinating characters and it’s also good for character development.

  19. I’m not understanding why the UK edition of LONDON BRIDGE is published and out while the US edition won’t be available until December. Is it just the usual publishing foolishness or is there a sensible reason, I wonder.

    Yes, I’m in the US, yes it’s pre-ordered.

  20. Ed DesCamp says:

    @ Helen: I see Martin got HIS anniversary present; hope yours arrives soon. Nothing like a book from Editor Fowler to celebrate the day!

  21. admin says:

    Richard, it’s just that PRH’s US publishing schedules don’t match ours. We’re always the same over here – June/July or December launches, same cover artist, same editor, same proofreaders – it runs very nicely.

  22. Paul+C says:

    With B&M riding off into the sunset (with an iris fadeout) I’ll have to find another multi-volume series to wallow in.

    I’ve read the Flashman books twice (terrific) and might go back to John D MacDonald’s Travis McGee series which seems to be long out of print in the UK – very sad, they are generally excellent esp The Green Ripper which is the best one I think. Another fine forgotten writer worthy of revival……….

  23. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Paul+C First — don’t count out the ‘Trickster’ aka Christopher Fowler. Next to B&M my favourite is the Bernie Gunther series by Philip Kerr (14) if you don’t happen to know it. It features a non-Nazi Nazi-era detective (although he also jumps forward and backward in time in the series which adds interest– at least it did for me). It’s in the ‘hard-boiled’ style of Marlowe and Chandler as is John Baker’s Sam Turner series (6), another one I recommend — if you don’t know it.

    Others on my list include (all set in the UK): the post-WWI Inspector Ian Rutledge series (Charles Todd); the irrepressible adolescent sleuth (and expert in all things chemical), Flavia de Luce series by Canadian author, Alan Bradley; South African author Rennie Airth’s John Madden series (active and retired Inspector) and the Denise Mina reporter Paddy Meehan series set in Glasgow and her Det./DI Alex Morrow series as well. Just a very few suggestions which you may very well already know or have read.

  24. Paul+C says:

    Cheers, Stu – I have read the Philip Kerr / Gunther series which I agree is marvellous (esp March Violets) but must confess my ignorance of the others which I’ll investigate pronto !

    If I can return the favour, try the Dortmunder series by Donald E Westlake (comedy crime capers). Pure reading pleasure

  25. Lauren+C says:

    Thanks for that riff on Anne Herbert’s “Libraries will get you through times of no money …” You are right of course. And buying books is a comfort because it’s predicated on the assumption that one will have time to read them. I will throw out a quote from Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land:

    “It didn’t matter where you were, if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home.”

  26. Thank you, Christopher. They say patience is a virtue.

  27. Diane+Englot says:

    London Transport at War looks fascinating. Just found some copies on eBay, so one of them will soon be mine!

  28. Pat says:

    Your final sentence reminds me of a song by Ginger Wildheart: “Music will get you through times of no love, better than love will get you through times of no music” (Something to Believe In, from the album Valor del Corazon)

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