The Sunday Salon – Looking Back at Wartime Britain

This week I’ve been reading more of Our Longest Days: a People’s History of the Second World War by the Writers of Mass Observation. It’s composed of diary entries from a number of people of their personal observations, thoughts, and hopes. The one criticism I have of it is that I’m finding it difficult to remember the details of each person. Their first entry is annotated in the margin with their name, age, occupation and location. After that there is just the name, so I have to flick to the end of the book where there are brief biographies for each person. But I am gradually getting used to each person. This morning I was reading about April 1941 with the declaration of war on Yugoslavia and Greece. In Eastern Europe, Hungary, Rumania and Bulgaria were effectively Nazi puppet states. Maggie Blunt, a writer living alone with her beloved cats in a cottage in Slough, wrote on 21 April 1941,

‘Are we really going to lose this war? The Nazis sweep from triumph to triumph making no mistakes while we make all the mistakes. ‘ God alone knows what we shall be called upon to endure these next few years but as others wiser than I have said, it is not what one endures but how one endures it that counts. There were bad raids again on London last week. Planes overhead again tonight. The horror of the sound has become dulled by familiarity and resignation.’

It seems strange to say I’m enjoying reading this, but I am. It is an amazing insight into how ordinary people felt about the war. I remember hearing the stories my mother told about her wartime experiences and thinking how terrible it must have been, yet at the same time how much fun they managed to have despite the circumstances.

I also picked up at the library a week or so ago London War Notes 1939 – 1945 by Mollie Panter-Downes (I read about this first on Danielle’s blog). I’ve just started to read this in conjunction with Our Longest Days. Together these books throw so much light on those years. Mollie Panter-Downes covered the war from England for the New Yorker. The letters are witty, humorous and full of poignancy. I can’t decide whether to read until I’ve caught up with Our Longest Days, or to just stick to one book and then read the other one.

I’ve also got Wartime Britain 1939 – 1945 by Juliet Gardiner (recommended by Litlove). I’ve only dipped into this so far and looked at the photographs. It’s a long, detailed book with many endnotes and an extensive bibliography. In the foreword it states that is about the pervasiveness of the war and how it affected people’s lives. So that’s up next too.

One last book for today is The Ration Book Diet by Mike Brown, Carol Harris and C J Jackson. This uses the wartime diet as a model and includes sixty recipes, some taken straight from cookery books of the time, with only minor adjustments, but most are new dishes created using the ingredients that were available during the war. From the introduction:

When VE-Day finally came in May 1945, Britain was a very different place from the country it had been in 1939. Six years of war had taken their toll on the fabric of the nation. In many cases the effects were far-reaching in terms of Britain’s social, economic and demographic characteristics. But if there was one good thing to have come out of the war then it was food rationing: the war left us healthier as a nation than we had ever been before or have been since.

This is a lovely book and I’ll be writing more about it at a later date.

It’s a glorious day here, hot and sunny, with no breeze. I’m not sure I really like this weather; it makes me feel drained and languid. I shan’t be reading much more today as the family are coming over this afternoon and the garden calls. We’ll be getting the paddling pool out for the children, although my son and husband will be firmly indoors from 3.00pm onwards watching their team Manchester United play the last game of the Premier League against Wigan. The championship hangs on this match. See my son’s post here for a more informed view.

17 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon – Looking Back at Wartime Britain

  1. What a fascinating theme! I also am fascinated by the daily lives of ordinary people in history — Our Longest Days sounds like a great, if intense, read.


  2. I’ve just seen Our Longest Days reviewed elsewhere too. It sounds like something I’d thoroughly enjoy. I love the way you are supplementing this reading experience with related books on wartime experience. (I would be tempted to read them all at once instead of one at a time—just for the layered effect). A lovely post, thanks! TJ


  3. The novelist, Naomi Mitchison was one of the people asked to keep these journals and she wrote her own account of it. I think it’s called ‘Among you Taking Notes’. I read it some years ago so I don’t know if it’s still in print, but it’s definitely worth looking out for.


  4. I dislike when authors introduce too many characters too quickly. My memory isn’t good enough to keep them all separate. Some people like it and flip back and forth to keep track. To me that’s a drawback.


  5. May I also recommend Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices? It’s set in the BBC during the Blitz and it is a fascinating account of life at that time (and accurate too – it’s written from Fitzgerald’s own experience). It’s also wonderfully written.


  6. Book sounds interesting. I’ve been watching the free DVD of Walter Thompson, Winston Churchill’s bodyguard. Also spent some time in the garden, reading. No doubt your family are happy with the final score this afternoon.


  7. These books sound lovely. I love epistolary books. How I wish I had the time to read all the books that I would like. I’m looking forward to the last few episodes of Foyle’s War. We’ll have them in the summer.


  8. Tag you’re it! Share 6 random things about yourself, instructions here. Hope you’re having a good time with Les Misérables! 🙂


  9. Funnily enough I have Molly Panter-Downes ‘Peacetime’ stories on my library pile. I wasn’t able to find the Wartime volume but was interested to read anything at all by this much recommended author.


  10. Wow, great post. My dad lived thru WWII in Scotland, and has interesting stories about being a child then, which have inspired me to read about the period. So thanks for this list, it’s quite helpful!


  11. It sounds like a good book, I read Our Hidden Lives by Simon Garfield (using the same mass observation sources) and thoroughly enjoyed it, I think that I would enjoy this one too!I love reading diaries, you get such a personal and simple view, all that minutiae that gives such an insight into what it was like!


  12. Thanks everyone for your comments and the references to other books. Plenty to keep me going for a while yet. More books on the war period that I have on my tbr list are Great Escape Stories and Resistance by Owen Sheers and on the military front I have Band of Brothers, and The Second World War by John Ray.


  13. All of the books you’ve described sound so interesting. I heard of Our Longest Days on librarything, I think. I recently came across a copy of London 1945 by Maureen Waller that I picked up – have you heard of that one? I love the photo in the header, by the way.


  14. Thanks, Tara. My copy of Our Longest Days is from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers. I hadn’t heard of London 1945 – another book to look out for!!


  15. Just wrote a long comment which got swallowed up… so shall summarise by saying thanks for these, and how much I’m looking forward to reading Our Longest Days at some point – sounds fascinating!


  16. I’m going to have to write down those other titles! I’m reading Mollie Panter-Downes’s first novel, so I’ll wait on the New Yorker pieces, but it’s on my list. You’ll have to post on what you think of them!


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