Private Battles – a serious read

I mentioned this book in a post a little while ago. Private Battles by Simon Garfield is a serious book, but a very enjoyable one nonetheless. Compiled from four diaries maintained throughout the Second World War on the Home Front, this is the true, day to day experiences of four very different people. It is the result of the work of Mass Observation, which has been collecting  the diaries of people throughout Britain. Other books from the same source, and featuring some of the same diarists, are Our Hidden Lives and We Are At War.  While I appreciate that they are not everyone’s cup of tea, the format of keeping to a small number of diarists means that a picture emerges of each individual.  I enjoy these books precisely because they are individuals, and amid all the international changes and pressures we can read about their crisis, and their obsessions. In this book I was fascinated by Ernest Van Someren’s family and work life, relating the problems of a man whose small concerns are played out against a massive background of possible invasion and the gradual winning of the war. Even when a suspected murder happens to a member of his family in the USA, he still maintains a running commentary about his chickens and the behaviour of his young son.

It reminds me of my much prized complete collection of Persephone books (Hands off, daughter) which includes several books from the Second World War period. Unsurprisingly, one of the earliest books I bought in this series is one of my favourites, Few Eggs and no Oranges – the diaries of Vere Hodgson 1940-45. A big chunky diary of a single charity worker during the London blitz, it combines the concerns of a woman which transcend their particular context with the particular shortages and crisis unique to the period. Two more Persephone books are due out in the next few weeks, so I am putting in my birthday/Christmas demands, sorry requests, now. Ninety books from such a small publishing house is a great achievement, and such a lovely shop in Bloomsbury. Nicola Beauman and her staff helped keep me sane when number one son was in Great Ormond Street across the road, so if you live in, or visit London, make the time for a visit, and you won’t be disappointed. If you cannot get there in person, their website  is well worth reading in its own right, as well as tempting you to spend much money…


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