Where new writing finds its voice

Our Hidden Lives

Felicity Cloake

Ed. Simon Garfield
Ebury Press, 2004

The subtitle of this pleasingly substantial hardback is ‘The Everyday Diaries of a Forgotten Britain 1945–1948’, which neatly points up the essence of its charm – it’s the sense of an unremarkable, even dull era largely overlooked by history and literature alike that makes the material within so utterly fascinating. Our Hidden Lives is a collection of diary entries written for the Mass Observation Project, set up in the late 1930s to record the daily lives of ‘ordinary people’ – and which very soon found itself the custodian of thousands of first-hand accounts of the greatest war the world had ever seen. In part born out of the abdication crisis of 1936, and the vehement (and to the left-wing intelligentsia, shocking) wave of public support for the monarchy that it prompted, the project aimed to gauge the real temperature of the British public: to create ‘an anthropology of ourselves’ as one of the founders, recently returned from a research trip to the South Pacific to study cannibals, put it in a letter to the New Statesman

Volunteers from across the country sent in specially written diaries detailing the minutiae of their day-to-day existence. According to Garfield in his introduction to his chosen selection of five diarists, ‘In all, about one million pages found their way to the Mass Observation headquarters … Some arrived on scraps of tissue, some on scented notepaper, some neatly written, many almost illegible.’ The original project wound down in the 1950s and some twenty years later the archive of material was transferred to the University of Sussex, where it
remains to this day. 

Although collections, perhaps unsurprisingly, tend to dwell on wartime material, with two on the nine months of the Blitz alone, there are also more quietly fascinating selections on offer. Garfield’s book takes up Britain’s story at the moment of victory – the first chapter is aptly titled ‘Our Troubles Are Only Just Beginning’. There’s none of the awful thrill of bombardment here, or the grand emotions of great tragedy, but an all-pervading sense of an exhausted, depressed country, worn out by half a decade of war. Perhaps the most telling quote comes from Maggie Joy Blunt, a single woman in her thirties who, midway through her diaries, is finally able to throw in her wartime work at a metal factory and try her luck as a freelance writer. In January 1946 she records: ‘Felt too tired to live. At lunch sat with elbows on table and head leaning on hands, WS remarked, “You look as though you’d collapse if your arms were removed.” We all felt like that.’ Then there’s Edie Rutherford, a Sheffield housewife and nascent Socialist longing for the sunshine of her native South Africa, outraged at the bread ration and the pomp of the royal visit to her homeland, George Taylor, an earnest accountant keen on Esperanto and despairing of the thin attendance at his Worker’s Educational Association courses, and B Charles, a waspish antiques dealer from Edinburgh forever welcoming in young men with ‘possibilities’ and fulminating on everything from the dangers of woodworm to the emergence of a ‘queuing mentality’ amongst the British public. Last but not least, dear old Herbert Brush, a pensioner from south-east London, still digging up bits of the bomb that fell near his allotment, forever creosoting his fence (‘A good many people stopped to talk for a few moments. One old lady who was very deaf told me that the lips of young women ought to be creosoted’) and enthusiastically scribbling terrible poetry.

Nothing ‘newsworthy’ happens to these five, but the beauty of the collection is in the mundanities of their experience. Five hundred pages in, and I was devastated to realise that I would hear no more from them, would never discover whether Maggic Joy Blunt ever published her eighteenth-century biography (sadly Garfield has done his research, and notes in the postscript that there is no mention of it in the British Library Catalogue) or whether Herbert Brush ever found anyone to eat the garlic he so diligently cultivated in his allotment. It is the similarities, and not just the disparities, with our own everyday lives which makes this collection quite so compelling – as well as, for a writer, the reminder it brings that one can create something of lasting value from an act as simple and easy as keeping a diary. The project was revived by the custodians of the archive in 1981, and continues today – although I was disappointed to find that they are currently only recruiting northern men aged 16–44.