Sayre Van Young’s face and name are familiar to many Berkeley residents. For nearly four decades, she’s worked for the Berkeley Public Library, helping to answer the most common and esoteric questions posed at the reference desk.
Van Young is a research librarian and community historian and the organizer and godmother of the Berkeley History Room in the recently expanded Central Library. But her most exhaustive and intriguing reference accomplishment to date is quite possibly one centered half a world and half a century away from today’s Berkeley.
Earlier this year, Ulysses Press published her book, London’s War: A Traveler’s Guide to World War II. It’s a historical and geographical exploration of the sites, scenes, events and heritage of the central part of the great British metropolis during World War II.
In 1940, after “Peace in Our Time,” after the Phony War, the Blitzkrieg against France and the Low Countries, after Dunkirk, when Germany had occupied or negotiated control of most of Continental Europe but had been checked in the aerial Battle of Britain, London became an irresistible target for Hitler.
High explosives, including incendiary bombs that burned at 2,000 degrees, rained down on London and its environs for 57 days during the London Blitz in 1940. Heavy bombing continued for another six months and intermittently throughout the war, culminating in the first use of modern missile technology, the V-1 and V-2 “flying bombs.” 30,000 Londoners died in air attacks. More than a thousand London firemen were killed.
Londoners took refuge at night and during raids in subways, basements, and backyard shelters and went about their business despite food rationing, fears of gas attacks, nightly blackouts, and daily carnage in the streets. Van Young says she wanted to describe “how ordinary people survived a very unordinary time…the landscape of war…a war waged against ordinary citizens in their own homeland.”
She came to this subject through a childhood chance. Growing up in the American Midwest, outside Chicago, her first trip to London was at age 10. An English great aunt had left her mother a small bequest, but British law then prohibited taking money out of the country. So off the family went to London—then in its early postwar years—to spend the money there.
“It was absolutely magical,” she says. “The British people thought we as Americans were great.” There followed a long interlude without return trips. She went to college at the University of Chicago, transferred to UC Berkeley to finish a Library School degree, and settled here permanently.
Van Young started a career at the Berkeley Public Library in 1967, and found herself going back to London again and again. “I go as often as I can.” Last year, she made three trips and is just back from another. “It’s just a magical place for me…everyone needs a place where their passion is.”
As she visited, she began to think seriously about wartime London and look for not only the major remnants of the war such as vacant lots and visible ruins, but the little reminders like faded signs pointing the way to former bomb shelters. “As a reference librarian I just looked everywhere. The word ‘obsessive’ has been used by my friends.”
Walking purposefully, soberly dressed, and often carrying a clipboard for notes, Van Young found Londoners unfailingly helpful with her research but often mistaking her for some civil authority. “I can’t tell you how many people have come running up to me and said, “I’ll move the car! I’ll move the car!”
As the information piled up, it also spilled out. Back in Berkeley, she and a group of co-workers went to have a sociable beer after work six or seven years ago and she found herself explaining how Londoners drank during the war (they often brought their own mugs to the pub) and other items of wartime trivia. “You really ought to write a book,” one co-worker remarked.
So Van Young did, although from the beginning of research to the final product, it became a labor of nearly 10 years, numerous trips to London, and innumerable web searches, research calls, interviews, and sorting through historical publications.
The result is a guidebook like no other I’ve seen. The entries come in bite-sized pieces, carefully blending history and present-day observations. The text is well written, engaging, and packed with information, but not pedantic. The photographs are small—that typical bane of the guidebook format, which mandates both massive content and portable size—but well chosen and clear. Historic images are blended with contemporary views, many of them taken by Van Young herself.
The book is organized around 20 manageable walking tours of the central London area. Each chapter starts with a short survey of practical advice from local transportation tips, useful Internet resources, and “photo ops” to suggested “cultural preparations,” including works of history, period novels, diaries, movies and other resources that will help the reader understand a particular neighborhood, event, or era.
The writing is by turns thoughtful, informative, poignant and amusing. (“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten lost here and I urge you to do the same” she writes of one labyrinth of law court buildings.) “This was a book written in a conversational style.”
Her main focus is simply to explain what was there then, what’s there now, what happened, and how people reacted at the time. “I like to stand in the place where someone stood and see what they saw. It’s a true history, not a ‘good’ history.”
Boxed sidebars provide thoughtful and practical tips on everything from how to understand British coinage to where to find obscure but still public building entrances and handy restrooms, to “vertigo alerts” when a recommended exploration requires a climb to especially precipitous heights.
There are also interludes Van Young entitles “Footsteps of the Famous” in which she traces the lives of, and wartime sites associated with, notable Londoners and visitors, from Winston Churchill, sculptor Henry Moore, and author Virginia Woolf to Eleanor Roosevelt (who chatted with the Queen about bombs that had plunged into Buckingham Palace, and found a line painted in her bathtub there indicating that she could fill it to a certain depth with hot water, and no further).
Finally, there are numerous cogent entries clarifying history and terminology from the nature of the barrage balloon (sent aloft and anchored by a cable designed to deter or snare low-flying German planes) to how Londoners handled tea-shortages, made themselves accommodations in the subway, and cared for pets during a siege.
Van Young says the book was a labor of love that has not been unrequited. “I’ve been thrilled by the reception.” Readers have sent her lengthy e-mails with both questions and answers about aspects of London’s wartime history. She was particularly touched by one who wrote “I have to tell you this is the first guidebook that made me cry.”