“I sometimes pant a little in my efforts to keep up – and as for ‘next week’, ‘next year’ – they are in God’s pocket as Gran used to say.”
– Nella Last, in the diary she kept for Mass Observation, 14 July, 1943
LONDON, ONTARIO – I’ve always had a special place in my heart for stories and accounts of how the British people coped during the German bombing raids of World War II. What attracts me to such narratives is the wild and yet oddly reassuring disparity that exists – not just between the diabolical inhumanity of what was being hurled their way and the no-nonsense manner in which these would-be victims resisted their annihilation and got on with their lives as best they could – but between the accounts that are given of that time by those who governed and by those who were governed.
Over the past decade and a bit I’ve been particularly fond of a sequence of three books compiled by English writer and editor, Simon Garfield. Entitled We Are at War (2005), Private Battles (2006) and Our Hidden Lives (2004), all the material for these books is culled from a sampling of the private journals that were kept by hundreds of British citizens at the behest of Mass Observation and cover the years from 1939 to 1948.
Mass Observation was started up in 1936 by anthropologists Tom Harrisson, Humphrey Jennings and Charles Madge (Harrisson had just returned from the South Pacific where he’d been studying the lives of cannibals) and at first employed writers, photographers and filmmakers to go out and document the everyday lives and opinions and attitudes of mid-century Britons in a far more populist and unfiltered way than was customary in the daily press. Until the early 1950’s, Mass Observation had a fruitful working relationship with Picture Post, a remarkably gritty weekly that was sort of like a street-level LIFE magazine for Brits. (Most of the pictures that appear with this essay were originally published in Picture Post.) In 1970 the entire Mass Observation archive was moved to the University of Sussex and opened up as a public resource for historical research.
By 1939, Harrisson, the real mastermind behind Mass Observation, wanted to gather his anthropological data in a way that was less mediated than sending out surveys for people to answer or getting professional writers and photographers to record their impressions of what they saw. Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, Harrisson hit upon the idea of getting as many Britons as possible to keep diaries and submit however many pages they compiled each month. Anonymity was assured, there was no payment offered and correspondents were requested to keep political discussion to a minimum and to concentrate “on the details of your everyday life, your own reactions and those of your family and others you meet.”
In the introduction to another collection of wartime diary excerpts (Mass Observation: Britain in the Second World War edited by Sandra Koa Wing, Folio Society, 2007), historian Philip Ziegler described Harrisson as a “turbulent amateur anthropologist,” and traced the germination of the Mass Observation idea to Harrisson’s incensed outrage “at the arrogance of the London newspapers, which regularly pronounced that the British public thought this or that about the abdication crisis. They had no idea what the British public thought about anything, he concluded – nor, for that matter, did anyone else but he would find out. From that somewhat presumptuous ambition grew Mass Observation: a ramshackle, triumphantly unscientific organisation 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 or, some would claim, has been since.”
There’s an echo of this same sort of plebeian impertinence – rejecting the fare set before us by officialdom and the media - behind the rise of The Oldie magazine in 1991. Its founding editor, Richard Ingrams (late of Private Eye) recalled a mostly liquid pub lunch with a bunch of his journalistic pals on a day when all the newsstands were flogging papers headlined with the news of the death of the front-man for Queen. When the 11th or 12th of his colleagues turned up, doffing his hat, pulling up a chair and then asking the group, “So who’s this Freddie Mercury chap who’s just bought the farm?” Ingrams hatched the idea of starting up his fortnightly (now a monthly) for a slightly more seasoned demographic that did not take their cultural cues from the predominant taste-makers of the day.
About 500 people initially responded to Mass Observation’s newspaper notices calling for citizens to submit free-form monthly diaries. Garfield writes: “They wrote from industrial centres, country towns and remote villages, completing their diaries after their work as secretaries, accountants, shop workers, scientists, school teachers, civil servants, housewives and electricity board inspectors. In all, about one million pages found their way to the Mass Observation headquarters . . . (and their) small staff were swiftly overwhelmed by the flood of words they had released.”
Feeling that the years 1939 – 45 had already been thoroughly picked over by earlier writers, historians and filmmakers, the first book Garfield compiled from the Mass Observation archives, was the last in the sequence, Our Hidden Lives, covering the post-war austerity period. That book was so resoundingly successful (and was itself made into a BBC film) that Garfield returned to the archives just to see if maybe there was something juicier in those earlier journals than he had supposed. Was there ever.
To provide a continuity of narrative to these books, Garfield selected four or five writers per volume to carry the story forward, inter-cutting from one to another as the weeks and months and years rolled by. In this way we follow Britain’s progress through a calamitous time while also coming to know and care about this handful of citizens who allow us a fascinating glimpse into their daily lives. What is stunning to contemporary readers of a more pampered time, is the extent to which wartime Brits were left to their own devices to cope any way they could with the disaster unfolding around them; and the unfailingly decent and self-reliant way in which they did so.
Only one diarist is featured in all three of Garfield’s collections; a woman we come to know very well indeed. Born in 1911, Maggie Joy Blunt - not her real name - was a struggling freelance writer whose career never added up to much. Blunt had studied at university to become an architect like her father but couldn’t stick the demands of that job and instead made use of her training in her occasional work as an architectural journalist. Thus she could never afford to leave her resented but necessary day job as a publicity assistant at a metals company, High Duty Alloys. It’s a common enough trade-off for writers who aren’t lucky enough or driven enough to find literary work that will keep a roof over their head. They need to acquire some kind of day job that isn’t all that demanding of brain cells so that they’ll be able to commit their best energy to the work they undertake in their downtime. And few such bread-and-butter day jobs pay anything much.
Blunt never married but maintained a wide circle of friends and an even wider circle of cats. At its all-time peak, her household menagerie in a ramshackle cottage near Slough accommodated 13 feline borders. To help make ends meet, Blunt also took in an occasional allergy-free human border. But whatever she gained in a few extra bob from renters was depleted by the loss in freelance income when her duties as a host/landlord messed with her ability to concentrate on her writing. Though she was an enthusiastic gardener and a prodigious smoker, the English climate unfortunately didn't allow Blunt to grow and cure her own tobacco and again and again in these pages we watch her scramble as wartime shortages and an occasional bombed-out shop or warehouse wreak havoc with her steady supply of Du Mauriers. Ordinarily an engaging and lyrical writer, when the situation calls for it, Blunt can summon sharp reportorial powers. Sample this little nugget from the early days of the Blitz when the Luftwaffe fly over as she's visiting with friends in central London:
“Jules and I were hanging out the window of SM’s top floor flat in Marleybone High Street from 1 to 3 o’clock in the morning. Plane followed plane over our heads and we got to know almost to the second when they would release their bombs . . . The awful noise of rent air; the scream of metal as it hit the waiting city; the explosion blast and shiver of the wounded earth; rooftops pallid in the light of a full moon, echoes of gunfire rolling along the still streets, shrapnel sweeping past our window like hailstones.”
Far more typical of her entries is this almost desultory passage from February of 1940 in which the war recedes from her thoughts for a while and she takes us on a tour of her winter-ravaged garden and monitors the love life of one of her cats:
“The weather since I last wrote my diary has repeated itself in a series of frosts, thick snowfalls, thaw and fogs, until last week when every fraction of snow disappeared in the breath of an hour, the thermometer rose, the sun shone, birds burst into a torrent of song and one went round the garden with greedy eyes and filled one’s lungs with the scent of moist earth and last-year’s decaying leaves. Snowdrops have been in flower for weeks. They came into bud beneath the burden of snow and blossomed bravely above it. Green shoots of Madonna lily bulbs have burst through the soil. Violets are still waiting to bloom. Broad beans are showing their heads perkily. But the cabbages suffered. Out of the 30 I planted I can see only three or four. Two orange trees, grown from pips of an orange I ate in a garden long ago, were housed in an unheated shed and have died with a striped aloe. The winter has taken a toll of all delicate things.
“Dinah’s love affairs are reaching a conclusion. Ginger Tom, by a really awe inspiring determination, is established as the accepted suitor. I had great difficulty keeping him out of the cottage if Dinah was in it. The moon grew full. Dinah stayed out night after night while my sleep and probably my neighbour’s was disturbed by Ginger Tom’s piercing love songs and Dinah’s replies in tones of terror and excitement.”
And then that larger, darker backdrop to daily life re-intrudes: “But I forget. We are at war. Kassim is out of work again. An architect of my acquaintance, who has had no other employment since war began save that of waiting in a London Auxiliary Fire station, is planning to join a contingent for Finland. His wife is in the Censor’s office, translating Hungarian. My friend Paul has testily given up reading or listening to war news, distrusting all information given to the public. Some friends of his discount 95 per cent of all they read and hear. The boys in the village are leaving one by one. ‘Soon,’ said the butcher, ‘there’ll only be us old ones left.’”
Another one of my favourite writers is Tilly Rice. A little older than Blunt and a wife and mother, Rice is a dab hand at finding ways to cook decent meals when shortages and rations present definite challenges. She also maintains a wonderfully tuned set of eyes and ears for catching and recording comic incidents. Here she writes about being issued a gas mask – a device she dreads having to strap on – by one of her local wardens, a certain Mr. B; a man she has difficulty taking seriously “because during an early morning alarm in late September he came rushing out to go on duty and, when part of the way down the road, he suddenly said to his companion warden, ‘I must go back – I’ve come out without my teeth.’ ‘Good Lord, man,’ said the other, ‘What does that matter? Do you think you’re going to bite ‘em?’”
Rice has another story about two dithery and well-off spinster sisters who’ve had one of the neighbourhood’s spiffier shelters erected in their back garden. Not the sharpest knives in the drawer and observant as posts, they have to be monitored by their neighbours as they’ve been known to not hear the warning siren and then head out to their shelter when the all-clear sounds and then stay expectantly huddled out there for hours wondering what all the fuss is about on such a quiet night.
In addition to the quality of so much of the writing, not the least of this trilogy’s wondrous charms is to consider the selfless public-spiritedness that motivated these writers and lament that there doesn’t seem to be any equivalent body of work being generated today; at least not that we know about. Participation in diary-keeping started to fall off with the end of the war and in October of 1946, Harrisson sent out a ‘buck up’ letter to his remaining observers, assuring them that the particulars of their lives and the world around them still needed to be notated and that their work would “be of great historical and sociological value in the future.”
Maggie Joy Blunt took a day and the better part of a night to revisit her own copies of her journals and appraise their worth. She ultimately took Harrisson’s encouragement to heart; expressing her determination to carry on in words that will resonate with anyone who’s ever plugged away at their writing for more than a few weeks and noticed the significance that even the simplest ruminations take on once they start to accumulate a distinctive shape and tone:
“It makes me feel one is, perhaps, doing something worthwhile, though it seems trivial and unimportant at the time. Yet just reading through one’s own diaries one is fascinated and amazed even though they cover only a very small field of action.” Over the course of these diaries, Blunt burns a formidable amount of midnight oil; more than she ever intended or wanted to. Whether she gets snared by the absorption of her own writing or looks up from reading her own stuff or somebody else’s to realize with a jolt just what time it's getting to be, it’s oddly touching how often Blunt scolds herself for failing in her mission to keep more sensible hours.
Maggie Joy Blunt eventually dropped out of the Mass Observation word factory as the summer of 1950 drew to a close. With a little more time to give over to research in the British Museum Reading Room, she was able to complete the only book that was published in her lifetime; Lovely Peggy, a biography of the 18th century Irish actress Margaret ‘Peggy’ Wolfington. And that too was published under a pen name, Janet Camden Lucey, by the firm of Hurst & Blackett in 1952.
She lived until 1986, dying at the age of 76 of (small surprise here) lung cancer, with her occupation listed on her death certificate as ‘Book Shop Proprietress’. The little shop she ran for her last few decades situated near her cottage in Slough, specialized in books about cats and did a lot of overseas business through mail order. Never one to complain, at least not in her diaries, she was nonetheless disappointed by how little mark she’d ever been able to make as a writer. As her constant use of pen names shows, she didn't write for personal glory but nonetheless wanted her literary endeavours to stand for something more than just muddling through. How sweet it would be if there was some way to let her know that nearly 20 years after her death, her bibliography expanded by 300 per cent and her readership swelled even more.
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THE AQUINAS LECTURE
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