Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Book Review: We Are At War

This is just a quick post before bed-time. I'm at Site for the week; for once, I don't have any colleagues staying in the hotel with me. This means I got a chance to read over dinner. The book I'm reading at the moment: We Are At War, a collection of five diaries from the Mass Observation Project collected and edited by Simon Garfield.

(If you've never heard of Mass Observation, it was/is a social history project started in 1937 which aimed to record everyday life in Britain for future generations. The majority of participants answered surveys; a few submitted diaries.)

The book opens in 1939, just prior to the start of the Second World War and covers a little over a year in the lives of its diarists:-

  • Pam Ashford - lives in Glasgow with her mother. Strong sense of fairness and common sense. Works in a shipping company and worries about her contacts in occupied Europe.
  • Christopher Tomlin - lives in Preston on the North-West coast of England. Runs his own business selling stationery. When the war commences he is the financial support for his parents. He worries about dwindling sales, the massive hikes in taxes pushing up prices, how to pay the bills.
  • Eileen Potter - works as a social worker in London. Responsible for evacuating children and mothers during the early stages of the war. Later, she is involved in planning for housing evacuees.
  • Tilly Rice - mother of three. Lives in Surrey near where I used to work. Has nightmares about being bombed.
  • Maggie Joy Blunt - writer. Very "chattering classes". Hospitable - seems to run an open house for her friends and family. Lives on the outskirts of London near Windsor. Comments on the political events of the day as well as everyday life and the war. Knitter.
The diary entries are woven to paint a canvas of the privations and fears they lived through. Their writing is compelling. I keep wanting to read their next entry and then the next and not wanting to stop. They speak openly and honestly about their lives, how they cope, the struggle to maintain normality. They chronicle the minutiae: Maggie Joy Blunt describes her embarrassment at living in her kitchen, laundry drying by the fire, knitting and the cat on her lap when a neighbour comes to call (characteristically, she brazens it out with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude).

I'm fascinated by World War 2 and life on the Home Front. This is one of those books that, on every page, leaves you wondering: how would I have coped? What would I have done in their circumstances? They are just ordinary people, like you and me, and yet they live bravely through some frightening and extra-ordinary times.

This book gets 10 out of 10.

- Pam

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