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We Are At War by Simon Garfield

This is one of a trilogy of books using material from the Mass-Observation archives. To quote Wikipedia:

Mass-Observation was a United Kingdom social research organisation founded in 1937. Their work ended in the mid 1950s … Mass-Observation aimed to record everyday life in Britain through a panel of around 500 untrained volunteer observers who either maintained diaries or replied to open-ended questionnaires.

We Are At War is an account of the period from August 1939 to about the start of the Blitz, compiled from the diaries of five M-O participants. It’s a simple idea and it works brilliantly. The diaries combine the texture of everyday life—people write about the weather or what’s on the radio—with the backdrop of great events happening in Europe.

barrage balloon

[photo from the Museum of London picture library]

People’s moods—not just the diarists, but their workmates and family—are one of the most interesting things: swings between optimism and pessimism about the war, including, in the early stages, whether it was even going to happen; the stress of expecting air raids for months before they actually start happening; endless gossip about German spies supposedly having been arrested after committing some faux pas to reveal their identity; a distrust of official news and an uneasy fascination with listening to Lord Haw-Haw.

One thing that’s noticeable is a gradual hardening of attitudes towards the Germans; initially people try to maintain some kind of distinction between the Nazis and the German people, and express some kind of regret at news of German casualties, but they get increasingly ruthless as time goes on and British casualties rise.

I could quote almost any chunk of this book; but this will do, from February 1940 in Glasgow:

Recently Miss Crawford saw a notice in a fish shop: ‘Fish cheap today.’ On looking closer she found the stock consisted of a few pieces of sole at 3s 4d. Since the war broke out I have stopped looking at the fish shops for I know the prices would be too high. It transpires that practically everyone has ceased to eat fish, but the price is not the sole cause. Miss Carswell said she could not bear to eat fish because she remembered what perils the fisherman had been through to get it. Then she continued that she could not bear to eat fish in case they had been feeding on all the dead bodies. Her mother had offered her tinned salmon. ‘for that had been canned before the war began’.

(As usual, this review has also been posted to my recently read books section.)

5 replies on “We Are At War by Simon Garfield”

This reminds me of the book
Dear Poppa
, which features letters written by three American siblings under the age of 10 to their father serving in Europe. It has the same fluctuating anxiety, especially in the youngest boy, who grows from age 4 to age 7 in the book — old enough to remember Poppa, old enough to be curious and try to make sense of things, not old enough to understand what it’s all about — and the same entrancing dailiness — victory gardens, the children’s plays and birthday parties. There’s also interesting ambivalence about the enemy in the children’s letters: vivid crayon drawings of bombs dropping on the Japanese, but also plaintive queries about what becomes of the German and Japanese children when bombs fall.

I thought it was the most charming history of the American view of the war I’d ever read. But that could just be because that youngest boy is my father.

I’m just on to the next volume now. One of the diarists can’t get seed for her canary, but has fortunately discovered it’ll eat carrot.

Shady: that does sound interesting; it’s an interesting comparison. I might pick up a copy later, I think.

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