Blitz Spirit 1939-1945, Compiled by Becky Brown from the Mass-Observation Archive
Hodder & Stoughton
One line review: Perfect for a voyuristic WW2 fan who wants a historic perspective on the COVID pandemic
We take for granted how easy it is to record and share our experiences now, with phones and social media at a click of a button. I only have to type a few words into google to find pages and pages of people’s opinions but trying to find out what people thought pre the internet is a little harder, unless you’re willing to trawl through pages of newspapaper correspondence columns. That was until I heard about the Mass-Observation project (MO).
Started in 1937 with an aim to create an ‘anthropology of ourselves” a study of the everyday lives of ordinary British people and “to tell a truer, fuller version of events than was available in the newspapers or recorded in the history books”. It asked for diaries and answers to questionnaires on a range of subject and nearly 3000 people replied with at least one entry or directive from all ages, sexes and walks of life.
MO would have been the first time an ordinary person could have shared their thoughts and feelings about life in the war to people outside their friends and families and for me, it’s one of the most important pieces of recorded history we have on WW2. And it turns out I’m not the only one intrigued by it.
Becky Brown was deeply immersed in the MO archives in the beginning of the pandemic and as she lost herself reading through the 80 year old diary entries, she felt the familiar prickles of deja vu. All those words written at the height of war had striking similarities to the general tone of the public now and she set about compiling the best entries to highlight how little had changed when it comes to the British and a crisis.
As someone who loves social history, this book was always going to be a hit with me. What I love about it is how relatable I find all the diarists. I feel when we look back at the people in the past there is a Hollywood tint to our thoughts, with clipped tones, keeping calms and stiff upper lips but when reading this book, I realised they are actually just like us, just getting on with life in the best way they can under the circumstances.
It’s full of dry British wit as they moan about their neighbours, complain about having to carry a mask everywhere and the restrictions on travel, as well as the usual British conversations about the weather and grumbles about queuing.
And then there’s the irritation at the loss of control and the fact lives are on hold, the pain and grief that comes when a persons dies unnecessarily and long before their time and the ever present frustrations that the government isn’t doing it right. I really felt sometimes that I was reading my own thoughts down on paper and had to keep reminding myself this was written near 80 years before and not by a contemporary blogging about our current situation.
It’s split into half yearly(ish) sections with each diary entry short so you can pick the book up and down as you please which is great if you want something not too heavy. It also gets extra points for it’s introduction and the beautiful cover which cements it as a firm bookshelf favourite, not that I needed much persuasion with this one.
It’s a great book for not just history geeks like me but anyone wanting to get a little perspective on the COVID pandemic
Don’t forget to try and support an indie with your book purchase. Most book shops take email orders if you don’t fancy popping in or you can get a copy through hive.co.uk where they give your chosen book shop a percentage of every sale
I am a pink haired, list lover with a silver lining outlook on life and a passion for reviving history.