Our Hidden Lives

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.


18 thoughts on “Our Hidden Lives

  1. Interesting post and fascinating quotes from the book.

    Love your picture of your writing space. It is just like I would have imagined if I had thought about what such a space would look like. I like this idea of posting a picture of one’s workspace. I think I will do so later, after there is daylight to take a picture. In the meantime, here is a picture out another window in my house. I like the blossoming trees outside your window much better than the snow outside mine; but in a few short weeks, the trees here will start to leaf out.

  2. What fascinating diaries they sound! And somehow it reminds me what a tender and generous reader you are, Bloglily, to bring such vitality to these paper lives. I also love your writing space – looks gorgeous!

  3. I loved this book. I began by reading rather a lot of WWII Mass Observation diaries (including the first collection of five people’s diaries (including Maggie Joy Blunt), We Are At War) while at University, and I always did wonder how it felt, after all that, to stand about in the rubble of London, queuing for food and soap, being told you’d won and yet somehow there was still rationing and hardship and endless unthinking unawareness that even the bombs had not shaken out of the dear old General Public.

  4. It sounds like a delightful book, with a fascinating view into lives we can now, as twenty-first century dwellers, only imagine. You say it inspires you to be a better diarist, and I imagine it would inspire me too – to be a better blogger. Another one for my list!

    I like the view into your life. Does that laptop move around or is that its favourite place to be? Mine moves around the house with me (a bit sad really) depending on what time of day it is.

  5. I haven’t read this, but have read Naomi Michison’s ‘War Time Diaries’ which I think were also part of the same project. Were you aware that this still goes on? Two friends of mine have been involved, although one has just given up because the commitment is very demanding and doesn’t square with being a busy primary teacher.

    Thanks for the picture. I love the big wooden table and chairs.

  6. my old computer table where the middle is sagging from supporting the monitor and long dead printer with surrounding dust bunnies and halfway used tissues is where i type this.

    i wish my blogging spot is as lovely as yours. may be i could be more inspired to blog better!

  7. Thanks for posting about this book–I read about Mass Observation in the London REview of Books and was very interested, but then forgot to follow up.
    I too wish I was a better diarist, or any kind at all. I kept a very interesting (to me) diary until I was around 19, but since then, if I journaled at all, it was when I was depressed, which no one (not even me) wants to read about.

  8. Hi Cam — That picture out your window is very nice — I like the shadow on the snow. Beautiful.

    Litlove, I’m going to try to be “tender and generous” next time my boys get into a big brawl over who gets the last brownie at dinner. Wish me luck!

    Lucky you, Reed, to have been able to read the earlier ones too. I would like to read more of these — as I said, their voices are in my head as I go about my day, but they’re hard to get in the US.

    Hello Ms. Charlotte — That laptop moves around. (It’s in bed witih me this morning, as a matter of fact.) But our dining room table is in the center of most activity I need to monitor.

    Dear Ann, I was unable to resist reading the epilogue of Our Hidden Lives, because I wanted to make sure everyone lived pretty much happily ever after and saw that people continue to log these accounts. I wish someone would make what’s been done available online. It’s good to know the past, and the more ways there are to make it accessible, the better.

    Sulz, That made me laugh. There are rooms in our house –and surfaces — that certainly answer to that very description!

    That’s a very interesting observation Lucette. The diaries I kept through college were essential a record of my not very interesting, fairly whiny, interior self. The only parts that have any value to me now are the bits where I actually described the weather,or walks I took. It never occurred to me to describe people other than myself (unless it was in reference to myself). But now I think I’d be better at it, having read enough really good diaries to know what I prefer to read, which is always a pretty good guide to what you should write.

  9. Pingback: Journal of a (Not so) Hidden Life « BlogLily

  10. Hi Bloglily,

    I have often had a similar reaction to such journals that capture not only the everyday, but the grammar of the everyday at that particular time and place… a hint of the spirit of the times.

    This is a little like those photographers who make images of the mundane all around them, and in a decade or three, we discover (and perhaps they do too), that it was not just mundane, but specific to our humanness.

    In Vancouver here, there was a recent show by a photographer who took photos of the streets and shops and buildings of Vancouver in the 1950s. There is a glimpse of a bygone era. What must have seemed like mere snapshots then, are gifted by time to us with a heightened sense of their meaning; a meaning that is actually present now for us if we only had the eyes to see.

    And I really like your mysterious impulse of documenting for us where you write!


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  12. hello Fencer, I think that idea of photographing the ordinary things in our lives is a wonderful one. It’s inspiring, in fact, and something I’d like to do more of.

    Sassymonkey, I just finished it today on the train and reading the epilogue made me want to weep — every one of the diarists became someone I felt very fond of. I’d recommend it highly.

    herschelian — Thank you for that terrific link! I’ll go check it out. And you’re right, some blogs, particularly the ones that chronicle everyday life for the writer, are indeed like the mass observation project. What’s interesting too, is to think about what made the editor of this compilation choose these five people — it wasn’t just that they represent different “types” but much more because of the way they wrote about their lives.

    Thank you Patry. I love looking at that tree and when the house is quiet, it’s quite nice sitting there. I should take a photograph of what it looks like when there are a million board games and a battle for world domination going on while I’m trying to write.

  13. Such a great review makes me go hunting for that book. And your writing place gives me inspiration for my appartment refurbishment finally, because I want nice writing/reading place as well.

  14. this is my favorite

    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)

    so glad to see you back!

  15. Pingback: Vēsture dienasgrāmatās « Ms Marii grāmatplaukts

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