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Keep Smiling Through: British Humour and the Second World War: Conference Report

Written by Ellis Spicer.

In the current political climate of upheaval and uncertainty, it was certainly agreed by all that some light relief was in order. Therefore, on the 12th and 13th September, scholars covering a truly international spectrum gathered at the University of Kent for a symposium on British humour and the Second World War – entitled ‘Keep Smiling Through’. Organised by Dr Juliette Pattinson of the University of Kent and Dr Linsey Robb of Northumbria University, the two days promised engaging with the many ways war could, in fact, be quite amusing.

The first day of the symposium began with an engaging panel on ‘Humour and the Military Experience’. Frances Houghton began the panel with an intriguing paper on humour in the Royal Navy, highlighting how humour was used to psychologically manage critical moments and the use of humour through cartoons in order to provide information. Examples given included Jack Broome cartoons on convoy procedure and best practice, reducing the most tedious of manuals to simple but somewhat bawdy images. Emma Newlands from Strathclyde continued with the echoing theme of humour as a tool to manage critical moments and as a stress release in her paper on responses to venereal disease controls by British soldiers. However, she also added a new layer of humour as subversion and resistance which included tales of medical examinations by female officers and soldiers asking Military Police officers to mark ‘out of bounds’ (brothel) areas on maps. Birkbeck’s Christine Slobogin wrapped up the panel with humorous drawings by artist Dickie Owen. Interspersed with serious and moving images of the facial reconstruction process were light-hearted images of day-to-day life within the hospital, reflecting a continuity between traditional ideas of contrasting the sacred and profane.

Following lunch and networking, the second panel drew together the seemingly contrasting themes of ‘Hunger and Humour’, with Richard Guille from the University of Kent beginning with an argument that humour broke up a monotonous existence for Channel Islanders under German occupation. He argued that humour in the case of recalling Occupation food shortages served a dual function. Humour linked some narratives with aspects of British war memory such as stoicism and rationing and also offered others a coping device to deal with emotionally difficult memories of severe hunger. Corinna Peniston-Bird from Lancaster University continued with the ‘humour in deprivation’ and engaged with personal testimonies, cartoons and film to explore how significant fruit was but also its ‘comic potential’.

The topic of the third panel represented a diversion from spoken humour or humour in interpersonal relationships and focused on how humour was recorded and circulated. Coventry’s Chris Smith echoed this in his paper on Mass Observation and Home Front jokes, which included some 200 pages of jokes and analysis alongside interviews with professional humourists. He remarked on the ‘ordinary’ nature of these jokes from members of the public, with only a minority coming from seeming ‘professionals’. Ariane Mak from PSL Research University, Paris, further enhanced this idea of how humour circulates in her analysis of humour centred around the ‘Bevin Boys’ and the ‘wit from the pit’. The circulation of these jokes moved by word of mouth but also within the mining press and via other means. Her analysis deemed that this humour not only spread light on workplace relationships between miners and Bevin boys but also reflected how masculinity was constructed in the mining pits and a general emphasis on class relations in wartime Britain.

The final activity of the first day before the drinks reception and conference dinner was a demonstration of the ‘War, State and Society’ digital resource ( by Joseph Pettican, containing over 6,000 documents from 11 government departments. The user-friendliness of the collection was emphasised, with searches possible via keywords, document type and also themes and sub-themes. The interactive features and tools were also highlighted, with subject-specific essays using some of the material published by the Editorial Board within the same space. The group also were shown around Kent’s Special Collections and Archives exhibition on humour by staff, which is still on display in the Templeman Library until the 25th October.

Day Two of the symposium brought everyone together to listen to papers on ‘Humour in Wartime Culture’. Kristopher Lovell from Coventry University opened with an examination of the Daily Mirror’s Jane, a ‘sartorially challenged socialite’, but crucially, more than a sex object who is frequently depicted naked. In a similar vein to Frances Houghton’s discussion on the first day about humour as information, Jane also provided many reminders and lessons. These included following the black-out, rationing, gas masks and being on the look-out for fifth columnists. Sheffield’s James Whitworth followed with a discussion of the pocket cartoon and its role in Daily Express humour, focusing on the work of Osbert Lancaster. Lancaster’s work represented the humour in very dark situations, emphasising both the military and civilian struggle against a common enemy through a humour-based paradigm. David Gardener from Northumbria University echoed the idea of shifting paradigms through humour during wartime through the lens of how the Lux Soap Brand was marketed. Whilst in the 1930s, the brand focused on quality, in wartime to respond to increasing purchase taxes focused on making products last longer through characterisation and humorous retorts about ‘daily dippers’.

Andrew Horrall from Library and Archives Canada and Carleton University kickstarted the next panel about home front humour with his paper on British humour and the cementing of a Canadian alliance. His argument reflected how Canadians’ viewed Britain as ‘unbeatable’ and owing to their ‘facing the Nazis with a smile’, they deserved Canada’s help. Guy Woodward from Durham University changed the emphasis on the perception of the home front abroad to the activities of the Political Warfare Executive and their use of humour and black propaganda. Emphasis by Woodward was made on balancing a fine line between ridicule and humour, but also highlighted the importance of repeating messaged within humour, with humorous qualities being prioritised in the personnel selection process. The University of Kent’s Pip Gregory closed the panel by building a bridge between the First and Second World Wars through the images of an incompetent enemy versus a strong British soldier. This continuity of images reflects the ‘cartoonists’ armoury’, the short-handed references to make transmitting subliminal messages straightforward. Notably, many of the images that originated in the First World War and echoed into the second are also visible in cartoons throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.

The final panel of the day and the symposium, in general, emphasised ‘Humour in Post-War Representations’. Phyllis Lassner from Northwestern University highlighted the use of mockery and humour in the 1993 BBC film Genghis Cohn, where a Dachau victim haunts and possesses a Nazi officer. She also questioned the difficulty of Holocaust humour due to offensive potential. Brighton’s Kasia Tomasiewicz followed by exploring the Imperial War Museum’s 1974 ‘The Real Dad’s Army exhibition and how it is necessary to look beyond larger frameworks to structures of feeling. She also noted how the exhibition reinforced rather than challenged national identity myths of Britain in wartime. And in the final panel of the day, Gavin Schaffer from the University of Birmingham highlighted the cathartic qualities of ‘Allo ‘Allo and the hints it reveals about Britain’s relationship with Europe in the postwar period, a theme that was felt to be highly resonant to current events.

The overall messages of the symposium revolved around how context-bound humour is – whilst many of the jokes and recollections across the two days provoked a little laugh or a smile, we may not have found it as funny as its intended audience. A key lesson is that there are humorous and more light-hearted sides to the most traumatic of topics, and war is no exception. But a key question that was provoked was – is anything off-limits when it comes to humour? A general consensus in the room was that nothing was, but additionally, there had been a recent precedent through people losing their jobs for telling tactless jokes. Overall, the two days were a great opportunity for panellists and attendees to explore different approaches to humour and reflect upon humorous angles to their own work.

Ellis Spicer is a third-year CHASE PhD candidate in the School of History at the University of Kent. Her thesis, supervised by Juliette Pattinson and Ulf Schmidt, examines Holocaust survivor associations and communities in postwar Britain. 

Image Credit: PD by Queensland State Archives/Flickr.

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