Sunday Salon: WE ARE AT WAR by Simon Garfield and other books from the Mass Observation Project
Anyone heard of the Mass Observation Project? I came across it as a result of a rather good TV film based on the wartime diaries of Nella Last (published as Nella Last's War)
She had taken part in a project to find out the true thoughts of the British people about subjects of national interest in 1937. It was a reaction to the government and media spin of the time, I guess. The volunteers wrote diaries and from time to time were posed questions or asked to write about specific events. When war came two years later a great network was already established making note of what they saw, felt and heard.
In We Are At War Simon Garfield has picked out the diaries of five ordinary people and followed their extracts through the first year or so of the war. There is Tilly Rice, a pregnant middle class housewife who evacuates to Cornwall with her two children, but pines to be back in London; Eileen Potter, a middle-aged civil servant in London, whose main job when the war breaks out is to accompany children to their places of refuge; Maggie Joy Blunt a young unemployed writer who has a lot of interesting friends with outspoken views; Christopher Tomlin, a twenty-eight year old writing-paper salesman who describes his worries at being the sole breadwinner of his family and the distress of having a brother on the front; and there is Pam Ashford, who is maybe my favourite (though they are all very good) because she cheerfully describes all the gossip in her Glasgow shipping office, some if very funny.
I am on the start of April 1940 and until now there have been more deaths through car crashes due to the blackout than through people on active service, and people have learnt to live with rationing, inflated prices and lowered wages. There have been ships and U-boats sunk, but so far most of the air-raid warnings have turned out to be drills. But now Germany has marched into not only the Scandinavian countries but France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands too. By reading these diaries I feel the sense of mounting disquiet, and of course I know that things are about to get much worse. I think because the details are so intimate I am getting a good sense of how it must have been, in a small way I am living through the war too.
Since this book stops in October 1940 I have bought its successor, Private Battles which goes to the end of the war, and if I don't want to stop there (and I don't think I shall), there is also Our Hidden Lives which deals with the first few years after the war.
I am pleased to see from the back of Private Battles that I shall continue to follow the lives of Pam Ashford and Maggie Joy Mount, but not, alas, Christopher Tomlin, Till Rice or Eileen Potter. I think I shall miss them.