Stephen Douds, The Belfast Blitz: The People’s Story (Blackstaff Press, 2011)
If you – like me, before These Days – know next to nothing about the Belfast Blitz, then this is the best place to start. Douds does a brilliant job of curating some of the most vivid voices chronicling the air raids in April-May 1941 that devastated the city – from official reports, newspaper articles and radio broadcasts to Mass Observation diaries and private correspondence of individuals. It’s an immersive collage and a great introduction to some of the most unforgettable voices of the times.
Brian Barton, The Belfast Blitz: The City in the War Years (Ulster Historical Foundation, 2015)
When Douds’ 150-page book has whetted your appetite, take a breath and turn to historian Brian Barton’s magnum opus – the painstaking work of decades, the book of a lifetime. It’s the most comprehensive account of the Belfast Blitz imaginable; dense and scholarly, giving historical, political and sociological context for its at times minute-by-minute account of the air raids. Barton is soon to publish a new book centred on the inimitable and indefatigable diarist and activist Moya Woodside, whom you’ll have met excerpted in Douds’ book, and who is long overdue her own biography.
Doreen Bates, Diary of a Wartime Affair (Viking, 2016)
Doreen Bates was a Tax Inspector posted to Belfast in the spring of 1941, where, having endured the first wave of the London Blitz, she survived Belfast’s, whilst trying to conceal her pregnancy by her married lover. Edited in an act of great love and generosity by her twin children, they should take their place as one of the essential diaries of the twentieth century. Brimming with soul, passion, candour and wit, they are an extraordinary read, giving a vivid insight into the life of a woman unvanquished by her time, someone who leaps from the page so strikingly that you feel your pulse beating in time with hers. I interviewed Doreen for the Linen Hall Library’s ExtraORDINARY Women season, and our conversation can be found on Youtube.
Brian Moore, The Emperor of Ice-Cream (André Deutsch, 1965; reissued Turnpike Books, 2021)
There are very few novels about the Belfast Blitz: it remains an inexplicably undertold chapter in the fiction of the city. This semi-autobiographical novel by the great Brian Moore, whose centenary was celebrated in 2021, was a touchstone when I was writing These Days, and I came to think of his protagonist, Gavin Burke, as a ghostly brother to my novel’s sisters. The novel, which takes its title from the poem by Wallace Stevens, is the coming-of-age of disaffected teenager Gavin, who leaves school – to the disgust of his Nationalist father, and amusement of his brother – to join the ARP. At first a comedy, the book reaches the pitch of tragedy as it charts the maelstrom of the first air raids, Gavin’s complicated feelings of exhilaration and joy that something is finally happening – and then almost unspeakable aftermath.
Mary Beckett, Give Them Stones (Beech Tree Books, 1987; out of print)
The only novel by this criminally-neglected and completely out-of-print Belfast writer spans sixty years of the city’s history – so by no means just the Blitz, but whereas The Emperor of Ice-Cream is an amalgamation of the first air raids, Give Them Stones locates the Blitz in the wider sweep of history. In its central chapters, when the first raid comes protagonist Martha Murtagh escapes her family’s two-up, two-down and a life in the mills for the safety of her unmarried aunts’ cottage in the countryside – longing for Belfast from afar.
Joan Lingard, The File on Fraulein Berg (Julia Macrae Books, 1980)
Lingard is better known for her much-loved Across the Barricades series featuring Kevin and Sadie, but in my mind this is her best young adult book. It’s set in the last year of the war, when the terrifying novelty of the air raids has faded and the survivors are ground down: weary of shortages and the blackout, and sick and tired of the sound of air raid warnings, as the narrator, Kate, says at the start of the novel. Into this world comes Fraulein Berg: the new German teacher for schoolfriends Kate, Harriet and Sally. Out of boredom, out of badness, they start to tell themselves that she is a German spy – start following her, to prove her guilt – and begin, tragically, believing their own story.
Elizabeth McCullough, A Square Peg: An Ulster Childhood (Marino Books, 1997)
Schoolgirls in the Blitz: on that theme, I completely adore this vivid, fresh and irreverent memoir by Elizabeth McCullough. She turned 13 in the midst of the air raids, and her memoir includes a volume of diaries from that year – when getting the tone right for my younger characters in These Days, it was a goldmine. Time accordioned in a giddy, vertiginous way when I read that Elizabeth not only grew up down the road from me, in Cherryvalley, and went to my school (Strathearn, where she rolled up her skirt and tried to make her tie look jaunty too) but attended classes with the same dance teacher, Miss Leila Corry, “considered ‘fast’ as she wore a thick coating of carmine lipstick and matching long nails”, and who “found her pupils an unimaginative, leaden-footed lot”. Poor Miss Corry! Half a century later, she was still teaching gangly, awkward girls who were just as embarrassed as Elizabeth to be miming the planting of bulbs in a parquet floor and other sylvan frolics, and singing “The Good Ship Lollipop” at recitals…
James Doherty, Post 381: The memoirs of a Belfast air raid warden (Friar’s Bush Press, 1989)
Another memoir, from a completely different perspective: the story of the Home Front in Belfast and the civil defence. It’s interesting to pair the recollections of ARP warden Doherty with Brian Moore’s novel. The Belfast Blitz is still just about within living memory – when researching, I spoke to people in their 80s who were children during the war, and to one woman in the year of her 103rd birthday who had been posted to Stormont as a member of the Woman’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). Memoirs like Doherty’s, and Darrin Wedlock’s self-published reminiscences of his mother’s, Sandra and the Flying Elephants of Belfast (Matador, 2016) are so valuable. If there’s anyone in your life who remembers the Blitz – get them talking, so the details that you couldn’t make up are preserved.
A double entry now, and with these two academic publications we’re at the other end of the spectrum from the homegrown memoir. Tanja Poppelreuter’s (ed.), Glamour and Gloom: 1930s Architecture in Belfast (Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, 2017) is a suave, stylish and impeccably produced look at the architecture of the 1930s – an invaluable window into what the city looked like before the Blitz destroyed so much of it. And from before to after: Guy Woodward’s Culture, Northern Ireland, & the Second World War (Oxford University Press, 2015) began as a doctoral thesis into the poetry, art and literature of the Second World War, and provides a fascinating look at how writers and artists responded to it, taking in the work of Louis MacNeice, Colin Middleton, John Hewitt , William Conor, Roy McFadden, Robert Greacen and many more.
And finally: Bernard MacLaverty, “A Love Picture: Belfast 1941”, from Blank Pages and Other Stories (Jonathan Cape, 2021). I defy anyone not to find themselves weeping uncontrollably three-quarters of the way through this story about a Belfast mother grieving the son she’s lost at sea. I’ll say no more about it: just read it.