Britain is an ancient island nation with never a shortage, seemingly, of university-trained historians and/or military experts intent on chronicling its vivid history – ranging from the triumphant to what a bloke in a pub might call the “bloody awful.” However, it can’t be that common to have set a hand-picked group of ordinary citizens the task of recording, diary-like, their homefront experiences - in this case, of World War II as they were living it, day to day and year by year from 1939 to 1945.
In a September 21, ’09,
New York Times article about contemporary Britain, writer Alan Cowell described its population as “imperial folk with a reach far beyond their island shores, suffused with a backs-to-the-wall fighting spirit, conjuring victory against the odds.” Reading these
vox populi accounts from a band of diverse diarists organized for a project called “Mass Observation,” it becomes clear that such “fighting spirit” surely suffused and helped sustain the beleaguered nation’s home-front population.
The cover photo is instructive in underlining the collection’s never-literally-stated theme: the mostly matter-of-fact endurance of Brit civilians as their world tumbles down around them. It shows a woman wearing what appears to be a drab work-place smock, her hair tied up in a bandanna. She seems to be calmly taking a cigarette and coffee break while seated on a pile of bombing rubble. Touchingly, she is drinking her “cuppa” from what looks like a traditional porcelain cup, perhaps rescued from the sad heap of some Brit’s household items like that which surrounds her.
So who were they whose weathering-the-war accounts focused on such fellow citizens as that woman and whose writings make such compelling reading more than 60 years after peace was proclaimed? They were recruits of what the book’s Foreword describes as a “triumphantly unscientific organization which, in spite of its weaknesses, gave the world a fuller picture of what the British were really thinking and feeling than had been available at any time before.“
Though not, as admitted in the Introduction, “a true cross-section of British society,” the diarists represented different regions and diverse personal circumstances. Most, though, were said to be “middle-class, well-read and articulate...with a natural capacity for observing and for recording what they observed.” Yet there was a range in age (from 18 to 70), employment, education, and (in the case of the younger diarists) future ambitions. Their entries reveal them as thoughtful, faithful to their task as citizen scribes even as they hold down jobs (some war-related) and record nightmarish bombing raids, which segue later to even-more-terrifying attacks by Germany’s new V1 and V2 rockets. As the diarists collected their impressions, homefront deaths and severe injuries grew to 140,000.
Potential readers should not assume that the “Mass Observation” ranks (about 15 here included) and those whom they folded into their notations were saintly, forbearing and stiff-upper-lip stereotypical. As this quote from the Foreword notes, they reveal themselves in their writings as very human:
There is endless grumbling – by the diarists themselves and in the overheard comments which they record. There is criticism of the nation’s leaders – much of it justified. There is boredom and frustration. Two examples:
“I am sick of the war,” Maggie Joy Blunt, writer for an architectural journal, vented in March 1944. “Sick of everything, the waiting and the sound of bombers, of my work and my clothes and the general dullness of my complicated and unfruitful existence.”
Less than two weeks later, she wrote,
“People are seething. Nearly everyone I have spoken to about it was disappointed in Churchill’s speech... Many want to know why he spoke at all - they resented his cracks at his critics when no one could answer him back, and felt he was trying to win the country’s sympathy for a possible coming election.”
War-imposed stresses on domestic life included ever-tightening food rationing, the potential trauma of existing digs suddenly becoming smoking ruins, and pervasive fear for their own survival and that of family members away fighting for England’s very
continuance. Among the most tireless and prolific of the writers was Nella Last: middle-aged, long married, mother of two sons in uniform. Her accounts suggest a person whipsawed by fatigue, resentment growing from what appears to be a marriage gone stale, and growing fear for her sons in uniform. Some sample entries from Fall, 1942:
“I talk myself into a decent frame of mind, as my fingers fly over my endless sewing, and then I look up and see my husband’s vacant expression when I pass a remark about something that is being broadcast. He has not been listening... He told a friend that his main thought and chief delight was his food... He added piously that he was always thankful I was such a marvelous cook and manager! Sometimes I could YELL.”
This engrossing collection’s value is, in my mind, greatly increased by its puncturing of certain sentimental stereotypes about the period and people it evokes. It is not that the British did not perform admirably to save their island nation despite the most intense and cruel efforts of its foes. It is that they did so despite the failings and fallibilities which hamper all human beings in all that we attempt. Hail Britannia!
“Another letter from Jack in this afternoon’s post and none from Cliff, My mind wanders to him whatever I’m doing – is he in this ‘push’, what is he doing, is he well? It’s such a cruel war, few escape bodily or mentally, we are all in it.”