Wartime Diaries

A lot of my reading in the last few weeks has been based around some of the published diaries from the Mass Observation Project.

Mass Observation was started in 1937 by a group of people who realised that politicians didn’t really know what the ordinary people were thinking and how their daily lives were shaped. So they recruited a team of observers and a panel of volunteer writers to study the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain. When the Second World War started, they asked people to write diaries and send them in weekly, and in this way we have an amazing archive of experiences from the war. Several of these diaries have been published.

I read Nella Last’s War (which was televised a year or two ago as Housewife, 49) a while ago. Recently, the sequel, Nella Last’s Peace, was published so I rushed out and bought it. I identified with her, I suppose because I have three sons and am nearly 49 myself, and I could just imagine what I’d feel if they all got called up and I didn’t know what their fate would be. Her writing is strangely relevant to today – I suppose because human nature is the same.

I enjoyed reading Nella’s diaries so much that I decided to get several other Mass Observation publications from the local library.

Wartime Women is an anthology of a number of women’s diaries in wartime, interspersed with Mass Observation surveys and reports (which I didn’t find so interesting!).

Among You Taking Notes is the diary of Naomi Mitchison, an author in her own right, whose husband became a labour MP in the 1945 election.

Our Longest Days is a collection of excerpts from the wartime diaries of about 20 different people, and is arranged chronologically to take you through the war seeing it through different people’s eyes for, eg. the same day.

I love reading these diaries because they are so immediate and they take me into people’s lives, what they were actually thinking and feeling during the Second World War, the struggle just to find a varied diet, often on little sleep due to the disruption of the air raids. They are not people’s memories, they are what they wrote at the time… Just how ORDINARY life was, especially for women, the daily grind, having to find meals on rationing, the relentless fatigue when air raids were on, of being up half the night and having to clean up afterwards. But also how people still travelled, though not so much and usually by train… And what stands out for me is, despite the changed circumstances of the intervening years, people are essentially the same, their hopes and fears and dreams.

I’m just sorry I didn’t pay any attention to my Nan when she used to speak of it … but when you’re a teenager you think it’s all old hat…

Coincidentally, I’m also reading a blog started by my friend Pat, who is serializing her Dad’s diary of his time in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Java. It is called A Precious Memory and it is fascinating…

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12 Comments:

  1. Loved your post with so many good references that I would be interested in . As you say, when we were young we did not have the ability to sit and listen to our parents/grandparents. If we had, we might be a little wiser!

    Many thanks for mentioning by blog. It is a pleasure to recount my father’s memories. The posts are part of the first chapter in what may become a book in due course!

  2. These books sound very interesting.. I just finished reading “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society ” which is a novel, but nonetheless a marvelous book, focusing on the German occupation of the Island of Guernsey.

  3. Interesting, Liz. When I was first married, I used to contribute to the MAss Observation project which was still running then (early 1980s) We were asked to write about all kinds of mundane topics and I found it a fascinating project. Sad that it folded.

    I’ll investigate those links – thanks for posting them.

  4. Oooops, just followed your first link and find that the project goes on – don’t know how I got the impression that it finished.

    Maybe I’ll get involved again?!

  5. Liz, thanks for your comment. I don’t know about anyone else but the sigh of relief I breathed last night could probably be heard in England.

  6. I found your blog fascinating and have been jotting down my own (fading) wartime memories. My father died 20 years ago and Mum is now 100 and her memory is going. If I don’t write down what I can remember there will be no-one left to fill in the gaps. I was shielded from most of the dreadful things which went on and wasn’t allowed to read a newspaper. I was 9 when the war ended and very fortunate that my Dad came home unscathed, unlike so many. I loved the dramatisation of Nella’s diary and will look out for the other books in our library.

  7. Oooo… you just gave me a great list of books to look for!

    Here on the West Coast of the US… we can get our hands on Diaries of Pioneers – traveling accross the country in covered wagons.

    One of my favorite books on WWll, I first picked up in Devonshire, UK. It’s about Clapton Sands and the whole “secret” rehersal for d-day… very interesting!!!

    I love diary style books of real historical events! Thanks for sharing!

  8. Those “ordinary stories” are the interesting ones – what people were doing, day by day. Do you know “Few eggs and no oranges:the diaries of Vere Hodgson 1940-45″ – the title page says it’s:
    A diary
    showing how
    Unimportant People
    in London and Birmingham
    lived through the war years
    1940-45
    written
    in the Notting Hill area of London
    by
    Vere Hodgson

  9. Hello Liz,
    I really like your blog and I enjoyed very much your Wartime Diaries review, made me interested in those books. Anyway I like this type of literature. Thank you very much for sharing. Now you have a fan of your blog….

  10. Pingback: Pages tagged "mass-observation"

  11. Did heather tell you she is also a textile artist. I am lucky to own an early piece of hers and count her among my very dear group of UK friends

  12. I recommend “Our Longest Days” because to really get a grasp of the general mentality of the war and what people went through, you need to hear it from many other people talking about the war, and this book with its excerpts of 20 people definitely captures this.

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