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…