How Party Granny’s WWII stories inspired a bestselling novel
Jennifer Ryan’s grandmother not only brought the second World War in England to life. Her spirit and stories gave her a plot
Jennifer Ryan: I wanted to imbue The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir with that message; that life is for living to the full
The second World War transformed women’s lives in England. Suddenly they were making their own decisions, doing important jobs and coming together to stand strong against the bombs, the deaths and the threat of invasion. My grandmother’s captivating stories – both the harrowing and the hilarious – form the basis of my new novel, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, depicting the indomitable spirit and bravery of the women in home-front Kent.
I had two grandmothers growing up: one we called Shakespeare Granny as she made it her mission to discuss every last tragedy with us, and the other was Party Granny, always up for a laugh and a Pink Gin. Whenever the occasion arose, she would don her high heels and find a floral frock to wear, and it was this delightful and warm lady who shared her exciting and often scandalous stories about the war.
She brought it to life: church on Sunday rife with gossip, hardly a man in sight; the blackouts making it impossible to see your way around at night, bumping into people, literally! Every night the air raid shelters were packed, everyone huddled together making jokes and singing. The shops were continually short of food, which was heavily rationed, and the shopkeepers would ask in a whisper if you wanted a little something from their black-market stash. Women were busy doing two jobs, changing tyres, cleaning windows, fixing rooves and even wearing trousers – incredibly modern for the era. But most of all, my grandmother remembered the get-togethers, the sewing parties, the dancing and the singing.
The war was the best time of our lives . . . We weren’t going to let those Nazis think they were getting us down!
“The war was the best time of our lives,” she’d chortle. Even with all the hard work, the food rations, the men off fighting and the bombs coming down, there was more freedom for young women, and a real sense of purpose. Instead of being housewives, women had to work important war jobs, put up evacuees and war workers, and knit with every spare minute they had. Everyone came together to help out and jolly along the good with the bad. As Party Granny said, “We weren’t going to let those Nazis think they were getting us down!”
The war meant sexual freedoms too: why save yourself for marriage when you might be bombed next week? Unwanted pregnancies were not uncommon, and affairs too. One of Party Granny’s work colleagues was caught out when she passed “the clap” onto her Army husband when he was home on leave. A single friend became pregnant and couldn’t work out who the father was, so she just picked the one who had the best moustache and married him.
Many of Party Granny’s war stories involved her beautiful friend, Letty, who was notorious for boyfriend trouble. She was always going out in her finery and falling down a ditch in the blackout, or having to help someone with a burst tyre, and would arrive at a party covered with dirt, hair all over the place. Once she was smitten with a munitions engineer who claimed to be an MI5 spy in disguise, upping his romantic status hugely. But then he was called up to join the Army, which he wouldn’t have been if he’d been a proper spy, and Letty gave him a thorough dressing-down in the middle of his leaving party. In The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, beautiful and chaotic Venetia is based on Letty.
Local church choir
Party Granny and her friends belonged to the local church choir, which became women-only once the men had left for war. “We didn’t mind,” Party Granny told me. “It was nice to be on our own where we could have a good laugh.”
The choir, according to Party Granny’s stories, was notoriously out-of-tune. They didn’t take themselves too seriously, though, giving it all that they had without worrying what anyone said. She’d howl with laughter recounting one Christmas when they’d all had colds and blocked up noses, and instead of singing “Ding Dong Merrily on High” it came out as “Dig Dog Merrily on High”.
Another time, a choir member was injured in a bombing raid and the choir visited her in hospital. After a few songs, they decided to ham up their bad singing to make her laugh. They were so successful that the nurses took them around every ward to cheer up the whole hospital.
“That’s what the war was like,” she would say. “We were all in it together, trying to perk everyone up as best as we could.”
There were bad times in the war too. A young choir member was killed during a bombing raid. “It was the worst funeral of my life,” my grandmother remembered. “We simply couldn’t believe such a flamboyant, pretty girl had just gone. We left her place empty in the choir stalls. It was devastating.”
The biggest surprise for me was the way everyone kept going through the horrors. Hitler was pressurising the British to surrender. The Battle of Britain and the Blitz saw bombs come down every day with the inevitable deaths, injuries and devastation. Homelessness became epidemic. Then there was the omnipresent threat of invasion; the Nazis could march in at any moment and reap their revenge. By the summer of 1940 – the era depicted in The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir – the fear of invasion was palpable, particularly in Kent, only a short boat-ride from Nazi-occupied France.
Laughing was the best way to get through it. We were grateful to anyone who could give us a good laugh
At the beginning of the war, the government realised that the determination and courage of the Home Front was crucial in keeping the country strong through the Nazi pressure to surrender. A propaganda machine was set up to motivate people to stay on task and keep cheerful, including the iconic poster, “Keep Calm and Carry On!” A lot of emphasis was put on smiling and keeping spirits up, which is why there were so many choir competitions and other events.
Bright lipstick became not only common, but a patriotic badge of honour, and keeping humour up with jokes and funny stories was de rigueur. My grandmother’s stories were almost always funny. “Laughing was the best way to get through it,” she said. “We were grateful to anyone who could give us a good laugh.”
Probably as a result of the war, Party Granny’s take on life remained frivolous and hedonistic. “You have to live for the day,” she’d tell us. “Celebrate every moment. Life is a very special gift. You have to cherish it.” I wanted to imbue The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir with that message; that life is for living to the full. As my Party Granny used to say, “You only live once, and you never know when it’s going to end. So let’s enjoy it while our world keeps turning.”
Jennifer Ryan shares her time between Washington, DC and Enniskerry in Ireland. The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is published by HarperCollins