Angus Calder: Historian who debunked second world war’s myths (Obit.)

Historians in the News

It was a damp basement in 1960s London, piled with closely written sheets of thin, crumbling wartime paper. Most people would have found it a forlorn place. Yet for the young Angus Calder, wandering round the room randomly picking out documents, it was an Aladdin’s cave of history. Here was a first-hand account of the London blitz. There were descriptions of what people really felt about rationing, about evacuees, about “Uncle Joe” Stalin.

That dank room contained the hundreds of reports written during the second world war by ordinary men and women for the Mass Observation research group. They had been lying neglected for years. Calder, who has died at 66, was to use them as the basis for his groundbreaking books The People’s War: Britain 1939-1945, published in 1969, and later, in 1991, The Myth of the Blitz. His work challenged the cherished view of a plucky Britain that came smiling through the blitz with people of all classes united by humour, tolerance and the volunteer spirit.

True, Calder found fortitude and courage at all levels of society. Yet as he showed in his vividly written and meticulously researched books, wartime Britain also saw industrial unrest, anti-Semitism, rising crime – the blackout was ideal for thieving – and a growing divide between rich and poor. “The forces of wealth, bureaucracy and privilege,” wrote Calder, who was a passionate socialist, “survived with little inconvenience.” He details, for example, the outrage of middle-class households when asked to take in vermin-infested evacuees from the slums. One rural council even turned away evacuees on the grounds that large houses could not be used because “the servant problem is acute and it would be unfair to billet children on them”.

As well as being a historian, Angus Calder was a poet, critic, essayist and teacher who made a big contribution to literature. Yet The People’s War, written when he was still in his 20s, was the first to give the views of ordinary people and the first to question established myths about the war. It influenced people from Sir David Hare, the playwright, to Gordon Brown, the prime minister, who knew Calder when both were historians and Labour party supporters in Edinburgh....

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