With reference to the advertisements in the Tube stations, “Be a Man” etc. (asking able-bodied men not to shelter there but to leave the space for women and children), D. [1] says the joke going around London is that it was a mistake to print those notices in English.

Priestley, [2] whose Sunday night broadcasts were by implication Socialist propaganda, has been shoved off the air, evidently at the instance of the Conservative party . . . . . . It looks rather as though the Margesson [3] crew are now about to stage a come-back.


[1] Unidentified.

[2] J.B. Priestley (1894-1984) was a prolific popular novelist, dramatist, and man of letters.  During 1940 and 1941 he gave a series of weekly radio talks urging the nation to determination and unity against Hitler, so as to make the country more democratic and egalitarian.

[3] David R. Margesson (1890-1965; Viscount, 1942), Conservative M.P. for Rugby, 1924-42; Government Chief Whip, 1931-40, was loyal to each prime minister he served.  Under Churchill he continued as Joint Government Whip, and after six months was Secretary of State for War. Peter Davison

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13 Responses to 21.10.40

  1. What does that joke mean? French?

  2. ozean says:

    I guess my English language or my joke interpretation skills are not good enough to get the joke. Could someone please explain it? Thanks!

  3. Michael says:

    I don’t get that joke? Someone explain please.

  4. Greg says:

    My knowledge of 1940 London is sparse, and my sense of humor, sadly, American. Doubly impaired. I assume this is a dig against foreigners. What would the better language have been?

  5. Pingback: Airminded · Post-blogging 1940

  6. Phil Barker says:

    Greg, I think there was some discontent at the time about male foreign refugees sheltering in the Tube stations, of course many of the refugees would have been Jewish, so the entry on 15.10.40 that “—– [Unidentified] declares that Jews greatly predominate among the people sheltering in the Tubes.” might be related. Wait for the 25th for more on this.

  7. Greg says:

    Thanks, I missed the connection to the earlier post. It’d be interesting to know from what countries they came. Unknown to me until now, some German and Austrian refugees were interned, although most quickly released.

  8. Barry Larking says:

    The English rarely express their “discontent” in jokes of this mild character. London had suddenly become the ‘Allied forces in exile’ capital and newsreels of that time show (deliberately) the large numbers of uniforms to be seen on the streets. Charlotte Street off Tottenham Court Road became known as a place where the French gathered for example. (per Malcolm Muggeridge, M.I.6’s contact man with the Free French.) People now forget how little direct experience ordinary Londoner’s had had of people from even nearby countries and could not distinguish much between them. This was the occasion for what to us seem ludicrous misconceptions and, worse, dark suspicions.

    The British struggled to differentiate between Jews and Germans; if these spoke German then they were Germans. German and Austrian (and at least one Hungarian, Arthur Koesler) male refugees over the age of 16, mostly Jews, were interned on the Isle of Man and on Aintree racecourse (famous for the Grand National steeplechase). Many were very distinguished people. They quickly made themselves comfortable as they might and organised lecture series and musc concerts. The Isle of Man especially was termed by one inmate as the best University in the British Isles at the time. The camps were closed by the end of 1941. Others were not so fortunate; a ship carrying many interned Italians to Canada was sunk by a U boat in the Irish Sea with great loss early in the war.

    On a lighter note, Peter Ustinov says somewhere that at this time he affected a uniform which consisted of a ankle length black coat set off with a Frenchman’s beret and smoked cigarettes in a long holder: He claimed Polish officers saluted him as he walked the streets.

  9. Barry Larking~~
    Thank you for your insight.
    While some foreign man [no habla inglés] hogs someone’s grandmother’s seat in a shelter, an Englishman stands on a street corner smoking a cigarette waiting to get blown to smithereens or the chance to go toe-to-toe with a Nazi. That’s the “joke.”

    Hercule Poirot [a WWI Belgian refugee] was always aggravated [but took it in stride] that the English could not distinguish him from a Frenchman; that it didn’t really matter, whatever, he was still a “foreigner.” While I felt Poirot’s pain, I always understood this to be the instinctive manifestation of an ancient British defense mechanism.

  10. Ben says:

    oh yeah. Wogs began at Calais in those days

  11. anonymous says:

    Then as now, it’s a foible of the British that they don’t like IMMIGRUNTZ. Now it’s desperate Somali refugees from Fundie ethnic cleansing and God knows what; then it was refugees from Europe as well as people from the Commonwealth / Empire.

  12. Mike Perry says:

    I’m not sure what the personal context of this is, but if Orwell is suggesting that immigrant or perhaps Jewish men are crowding into the Tubes because they are cowardly or lack chivalry, he’s being unfair on several counts.

    1. Native-born, London men were more likely to have duties, desired or undesired, that didn’t leave them free to spend the night wherever they wanted. They were watching for violations or the blackout or for fires.

    2. Immigrant men were far less like to have homes (or indeed any housing) in which to stay. Almost homeless already, going underground gave them a place to sleep.

    3. Neither legal nor illegal immigration allowed those who fled the Nazis to take much with them. Without money, they were forced to sleep where they could, meaning mass shelters. Don’t forget that many well-to-do English found both comfort and shelter by moving into the lower stories of multi-story, reenforced concrete hotels, which were almost as safe from bombs as the Tubes. Were they cowardly?

    4. Language barriers and fewer London friends also meant that their options for shelter during air raids were much fewer. That would also drive them into mass housing.

    In short, Orwell should have cut these immigrants a bit of slack and been a bit less quick to judge.

    –Michael W. Perry, editor of Chesterton on War and Peace: Battling the Ideas and Movements that Lead to Nazism and World War II.

  13. Pingback: George Orwell on the Jews Under the Blitz

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