Our Hidden Lives: The Everyday Diaries of a Forgotten Britain 1945-1948 is a wonderful, and wholly unexpected delight. It is what it sounds like — excerpts from diaries kept by five remarkably ordinary, and remarkably interesting people, right after the war. The journals were kept for something called “Mass-Observation” — a scholarly project in which British citizens from all walks of life were asked to keep journals of daily life after the war.
I am always enthralled by things that deliver lives I don’t know anything about. That’s why I love to read blogs. It’s why I’ve posted a picture of the precise place where I’m sitting as I write this post. For some reason, I wanted all of you to know where I often sit when I write.
But back to those hidden lives.
Here’s Edie Rutherford, a South African woman in her forties, who seems to have begun the war a Tory and ended it a socialist: “One short at work yesterday. What a mess we’re in when one is away, now we are already short-staffed. In my next incarnation, if I have a say, I’m going to be male. They leave dead on time always; draw the big salaries; sit down to meals prepared for them and put up their feet while some female clears it away . . . talk about equality of the sexes. Women are for the most part far superior to men.” (Friday, June 8, 1945.)
And here’s George Taylor, accountant, and self-improvement enthusiast: “Nine from Sheffield, nineteen from Rotherham and twelve from Worksop took part in the joint WEA rambler to Roche Abbey. At Maltby we had the most shocking tea we have had for a long time. The caterer had been informed of our visit, and of the numbers to be expected. We arrived on the minute, but found nothing ready. Scarcely had one cup of tea each been served, when we were informed that the milk had run out. For this we were charged 6d. each.” (Friday June 15, 1945)
Herbert Brush, enthusiastic gardener, not very good poet, retired engineer, on vacation in Cornwall: “Today we went to a beach and stayed there all afternoon. The sands here are really composed of small grains of granite and are painful to walk on with bare feet for a man of my weight. A mother left her small son in my charge while she went to get her tea, and for the first time in my life I looked after a small boy to see that he did not drown himself in the sea, of which he seemed to be very fond. I was not sorry when his mother returned.” (Monday, July 23, 1945)
and Maggie Joy Blunt, a woman in her thirties, well educated, not married, and longing for something to do that’s not publicity for a firm that makes some product so boring she can’t bring herself to discuss it: “June and I had birthdays in October so we decided to celebrate together and throw a joint party in her Hampstead flat. . . . We had more than enough to eat and drink. Plenty of sandwiches, fillings as follows: liver sausage, watercress, delicatessen savoury, scrambled egg and tomato, cheese and onion. Someone sent a jar of prawns and June had bought a jar of pickled sardines and these I arranged on plain cream cracker biscuits and small scones split open, decorated with watercress. There was more than enough to drink too….” (November 6, 1945)
I keep hearing these people in my mind, their preoccupation with food, and politics, what they’re watching at the cinema, and hearing at concerts, the way the women darn everything and they all make do, not without a lot of grumbling, but grumbling that’s almost always amusing. It makes me want to keep a better journal of these times I’m living in, a journal that delivers a similarly evocative picture of what’s it’s like to live where and as I do in the twenty first century. I think the fact that these diarists knew their identities would be kept confidential and they didn’t know the people to whom they were sending the journals makes them astonishingly intimate and honest. And the fact that they were for others to read might have made the diarists stretch a little for the telling detail, the best anecdote, the most honest assessment of themselves and their world. It is this confluence of factors that makes these diaries more than the sum of their parts, a moving record of a world that no longer exists, in the words of people who are no longer with us, but who will nevertheless stay with us for a long time.