By Stuart Hylton
Publisher: The History Press Ltd
Publication Date: 2012
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Newspapers have long been rejected as historical sources by generations of historians regarding them as neither complete or objective texts. It is true that many historians have consulted newspapers over the years but traditionally for political documentation; few have actually recognized the wider significance of the role of the press in both reflecting and shaping society.
To my mind, justifying their use in any shape or form can be a prickly and troublesome undertaking. However, surely no one can argue that history is not only concerned with what actually happened in any given time or place, but also with what people thought was happening; their ideas and opinions of their present condition were often revealed to them through the means of mass communication, which may have conditioned their subsequent actions.
In this way, the perception of events as filtered through the press may have changed the historical outcome. According to this concept, it does not matter if the news is false or distorted, as long as readers believed it and acted on that belief. To the historian trying to understand contemporary opinion, then the newspaper becomes a primary rather than a secondary source.
Viewed in this light, Stuart Hylton's new book is a prime example of how newspapers can take on a reality of their own, and act as or represent great catalysts of social change.
Reporting the Blitz is an amalgamation of hundreds of fascinating newspaper articles, advertisements, announcements and appeals, each accompanied by text which sets it in a wider historical context. Whilst keeping each one interesting, Hylton also demonstrates a keen eye for picking out relatable personal details. One such that I enjoyed was the 'Mock Marzipan' recipe put forward for use on Christmas cake's by the Berkshire Chronicle in December 1941. Christmas cake, if people could make it at all, was said to be likely to have marzipan and icing the thickness of a razor blade, and no more than two sultanas. Picturing this made the one I plan to eat this Christmas look positively gluttonous.
There is little in the way of any narrative flow, each chapter offering a self-contained snap shot of a particular aspect of people's lives. It feels like that kind of book where you're meant to dip in and out. I found reading chapters that appealed to me first did not mar my enjoyment of the whole and I was able to appreciate just how many varied topics are covered. I had no idea the Home Guard were actually issued with pikes by the government (250,000 to be precise) and that Father Christmas advocated National Savings gift tokens and the 'Patriotic Choice' of Christmas Present - good to know which side he was on.
Hylton certainly gives us an enjoyable and accessible glimpse into the life of ordinary people during extraordinary times, and while a pleasurable read, such works offer only small glimpses into such a complex historical period. Hylton's work, however, will go far in redressing something of a long-standing imbalance and will no doubt stimulate discussion on the issue of using newspapers as historically representative sources.