Testing the Human Spirit: War, Plague

In a time of national, nay international travail, usual customs are stretched to accommodate the unusual, sometimes to the breaking point.

Wartime provides a classic instance, and journalism does not lack for investigative study, both for regional and especially world conflicts.

The blackouts, curfews, and shortages of war provide some analogy to the current pandemic, but a key difference is the enforced civil isolation required in the latter.

It makes reporting a challenge, since the usual places of resort – bars, restaurants, shops, hotels, are in many cases not operating or on a much-reduced basis. On the other hand, social media offers inventive ways to report on current living which includes virtual social gatherings, assisted by quickly emerging apps.

Still, the wartime reports offer interesting analogies and comparisons. I haven’t found an archival news resource that matches Trove in Australia in this regard. Especially for WW II, its correspondents provided a remarkable range of reports on daily life, not just in the Australian States, but other Allied countries, and occasionally Axis ones.

The coverage included France during the Phoney War, Britain, including its pub life as I’ve chronicled earlier, Calcutta in India, Eire (Republic of Ireland), and America among other places.

Perhaps being so far from the normal seats of Western influence yet intimately connected to them, the Antipodeans felt they had to remain in close touch. Of course, too, most Australians had not-so-distant roots in Europe, primarily the United Kingdom and Ireland but also the Continent and even America.*

A report on life in Imperial Japan during WW II is instructive, contributed by a formerly interned U.S. diplomat released after 18 months. There are surprises. Despite their spartan life the population did some social drinking, albeit this was “frowned on”. And despite an iron discipline imposed on existence, a black market functioned.

I’ll link to two stories that illustrate the norm but also exceptions in America. Each reports in part on socializing and the liquor supply. This 1943 report, by American correspondent A.D. Rothman, followed a tour of U.S. cities, and probably typified the genre.

In general, conditions were grim: beer and liquor short, hotels overwhelmed, civil housing tight, restaurant menus pared down to the barely eatable, and taxes climbing.

Yet, contrast this report from January 1944 on the Miami area in Florida, entitled ironically “Wartime Living”. Even the writer seemed surprised by the relative normality of life, with fashionable clubs in full-tilt and mass sporting events such as the Orange Bowl, or betting at the tracks. Accommodations were sufficient (hotels, apartments) if not cheap. Some service personnel benefited, on furlough or posted to the area, but most enjoying the sun and fun were civilian, some war workers of course.

I’ve written earlier of contemporary wine, beer, and food tastings of the Wine and Food Society in New York, and there is a certain parallel. Some segments of society managed, whatever one thinks of the propriety, to enjoy a stylish life, at least at moments, while things were still rough on the war front.

I think the off-piste tended to predominate at the (geographical) fringes of the country. San Francisco offered examples, not just in entertainment and amenities but in arts and politics. The Bay Area had an active, mid-war poetry movement that helped spark the San Francisco Renaissance. A tiny yet vocal pacifist movement existed as well, still recalled by historians.

A sub-genre in Australian reportage was wartime humour, of which this account is illustrative. (No Pommes Fritz for me, said the French père de famille presenting potatoes to Madame for the evening meal).

These words from the story are worth pondering in our grim days – likely to get grimmer – of coronavirus.

There is nothing drearier in the dreary atmosphere of war time than cold-blooded attempts to cheer us up. Deliberate fun-making seems out of place, and only emphasises the tragic note. But out of every war, as out of every tremendous human experience, there emerges a real humour, produced not by plan, but by the strange, gallant reaction of the human spirit against the forces of darkness.

Will this delineation of the human spirit prove prophetic for the crisis in 2020? We will see.

N.B. Our next post is a continuation of these themes.


*Despite this recent colonial past, in many ways Australia showed a marked independence early on. A 1947 press account, outside our strict range here, is worth mentioning parenthetically. For a few years after the war Australia had a manpower shortage. British workmen were sent to Canberra to help build the expanding capital, lodged in special billets.

Many reported difficulties forming ties with local women, especially civil service workers. It seems typists and other female personnel viewed themselves as above the station of the guests, or so the latter had it.



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