Since the beginning of lockdown, I’ve sought refuge in sagas set during the Second World War. There is something deeply comforting about reading stories in which people are trying to live their lives against the backdrop of an intense global crisis, not least because it’s given me a much-needed sense of perspective. It’s so easy to become caught up in the myriad horrors of the contemporary moment, one sometimes forgets that the darkest days of the Second World War would have been just as depressing and desperate as the period we’re living through right now.
Of the many books on the subject I read, Blitz Spirit: Voices of Britain Living Through Crisis, 1939–1945—a brilliant new compendium of extracts from wartime diaries compiled from the Mass Observation Archive by the anthologist, editor, and literary agent Becky Brown—has stuck with me. Mass Observation (MO) was set up in 1937 by the anthropologist and polymath Tom Harrison, painter and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings, and poet and journalist Charles Madge. It’s aim, Brown explains, was “to tell a truer, fuller version of events than was available in the newspapers or recorded in the history books,” or, as the founders themselves put it, to collate an “anthropology of ourselves.” Central to the project was the five-hundred-strong National Panel of Diarists, volunteers from all walks of life living across the UK, who kept a daily personal journal that they then submitted each month. So many of the films and books from or about this period are, Brown explains, “bathed in the golden glow of ‘Blitz Spirit’,” yet this is nowhere near the full story. “This alleged wartime phenomenon has little space for twenty-first-century human frailties such as succumbing to unnecessary trips to the shops, or hugging your grandmother,” she continues, invoking the deprivations of the current pandemic. “We are used to hearing about ‘Blitz Spirit’ as psychological bunting that festooned the national mind, a one-size-fits-all utility suit that the nation donned for The Duration, allowing every person to dig their way to victory with a song and a smile.” Instead, she argues, what makes the MO Archive “so valuable and so poignant,” is that these are accounts written in real time and by real people, thus “riddled with fear and defeat.” Take, for example, this entry written by a widowed housewife and voluntary worker from London on September 1, 1941:
Life at present offers for my taste a damn sight too little active pleasure to set against the unaccustomed displeasure of work—what with friends scattered & busy, & the lack of petrol, & the shortage & monotony of food & drink, & now the beastly long blackouts creeping in again. Everything seems reduced to a vast, drab boringness.
Change a few minor details—swap rationing for quarantine and isolation, for example—and this could have been written only yesterday.