Blitz Spirit 1939 – 1945 Compiled by Becky Brown
This book is a valuable non fictional account of the Second World War taken from a unique point of the view – it is written by those involved on a day to day basis. It is a book which is not written by professional writers – though the compiler Becky Brown has done a thoroughly professional job in identifying and editing the extracts presented. The extracts come from a unique source, the diaries written and submitted to an organisation called the Mass Observation Archive. This was founded in 1937 by three people keen to discover what people really thought of their daily lives and the big events of the day. Volunteers would submit monthly diaries of their thoughts, observations, and opinions anonymously, and the aim “was to create an anthology of ourselves” by compiling these documents together with the outcomes of Directives or surveys on great issues of the day. There were some five hundred diarists who were chosen to cover a great range of people from different backgrounds across the UK. Some apparently wrote diligently in clearly typed documents, others produced far more scrappy affairs, perhaps written in haste. These documents represented in the moment comments; rather than considered productions written after the events and carefully edited. They are therefore valuable insights into life in Britain in some of the most crucial days of War and the build up to it, a unique record of the truth behind the headlines and memoirs that appeared afterwards written with the benefit of hindsight.
It is to consider this so called “Blitz Spirit” with the onset of the Covid 19 pandemic in mind that this book seemed especially important. Politicians and others called for the blitz spirit to operate in society during Lockdowns and other Regulations. Brown points out in her excellent Introduction that in the extracts that she has chosen “we hear a vibrant, discordant humanity and see the ordinary lives that must necessarily continue behind an extraordinary event”. One solitary “blitz spirit” of harmony, good humour and cooperation simply did not exist. The contributions here show that people were frightened, angry, confused and scared that the chances of defeat seemed overwhelming. In selecting these extracts Brown has chosen a range of views and placed them in strict chronological order, not by theme, gender or optimism. Indeed, the entries are anonymous, titled only with gender, profession, and location.
The entries show the development from the days of August 1939 when there was a Crisis, which in some respects had been going on for some time, through to a Declaration which brought an “Awful feeling of hopelessness” to one diarist, “this terrible calamity” to another and expressions of concern about evacuees to others. As the book proceeds there is a good mix of those commenting on raids and the local reactions to them, the rationing of everyday foods, queuing and the Black Market, amusing comments made and anger at the silence on reporting of realities. People write in confidence of gossip and reports of negative events and behaviour – no military secrets are revealed but there is real thought, real reactions, the contrasting between truth and speculation. An example is that a writer reveals how they were told an entire street of houses in Derby was flattened the previous night, when in fact they knew no bombs had fallen in the area at all. People are shown as being angry that some life styles seem to continue unaffected, while they restrict their own consumption of goods and resources, and work hard in voluntary roles. The contributions from both women and men do not show a split in opinion on gender lines, the occupation of the diarist does not always define the nature of the comment.
This book is made up of brief comments on a huge variety of topics from different perspectives. The Compiler comments that they are “riddled with fear of defeat” rather than any grin and bear it philosophy, the “Blitz Spirit” beloved of many commentators. It is by its nature bitty, but I would argue that those who seek more coherent comments and flowing narratives can seek out other books written at the time, or complied more recently of contemporaneous diaries. Brown has supplied a Further Reading list including a selection of Anthologies and a Selection of standalone diaries. I am obviously in the target audience for this book as I recognise several of them that I have read, including the diaries of Nella Last, seen in Victoria Woods’ “Housewife 49”. Altogether this book will be of interest to those who enjoy fiction set in the period, fans of wartime histories, and most of all those who are fascinated by the voices, often forgotten, of those who experienced this crisis, recorded without the benefit of hindsight.
5 thoughts on “Blitz Spirit 1939 – 1945 – Compiled by Becky Brown from the Mass Observation Archive – Voices of Britain during Crisis”
Great review. I have this book on my TBR. I loved the Diary of Nella Last. I do not read books about WWII which are written today. There are so many excellent novels, diaries and short stories written at that time. Wasn’t it amazing that England launched that writing exercise at the beginning of the war?
I agree – although I do read fiction set in the War I do enjoy the novels written at the time. In fact I am thinking of writing a list for Northernreader of books written in the period. Thanks!
Will definitely give this a go, being a huge fan of Nella Last!
You can play spot the contributor with this book!
Interesting! I’ve read some of the diaries edited by Simon Garfield too.