Sunday Salon – Our Longest Days

This week I’ve concentrated on reading Our Longest Days: A People’s History of the Second World War by the writers of Mass Observation, edited by Sandra Koa Wing. I’ve been completely immersed in the war years through this fascinating and personal book.

Mass Observation is a social research organisation, founded in 1937, with the aim of creating an “anthropology of ourselves” – a study of the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain. The information was gathered in various ways, including a team of paid observers and a national volunteer panel of writers. People were interviewed on a number of topics and filled in monthly ‘directives’ on themes such as jokes, eating habits, money and marriage. In August 1939, with war approaching, the organisation asked its panel to keep diaries to record their daily lives and selections from fifteen of these diaries are included in Our Longest Days. They make fascinating reading.

From Sandra Koa Wing’s introduction:

It is worth noting, however, that the diarists did not represent a true cross-section of British society during the war. Although they came from a variety of backgrounds, and from different regions, most of them were middle-class, well-read and articulate. They tended to be people with a natural capacity for observing – and for recording what they observed. Moreover, on the whole their political leanings tended towards left of centre; several were pacifists or conscientious objectors.

Because they are personal accounts there is that sense of being actually there during the air raids, hearing Churchill’s speeches, reading the newspaper reports, experiencing the grief at the number of casualties and deaths and the terrible devastation of the war, the food and clothes rationing and the excitement of D-Day. There is also the hopelessness of the defeats during the first years of the war, the weariness as it went on and on, the yearning for peace and then the excitement, the anticipation and the anti-climax of VE Day and VJ Day.

The main events of each year are summarised before the diary entries for that year, which I found very useful as a quick guide to set the diaries in the context of world events. I began to feel as though I knew the people who wrote the diaries, so the brief biographies are the end were also interesting as there were brief details about what happened to them after the war. There are also a number of photographs, an excellent index and a selection of further reading of Mass Observation publications and other histories of Britain in the Second World War together with a list of related websites.

I think one of my favourites is Muriel Green, who was 19 when the war began. She became a land girl and moved around the country. On her 21st birthday she was working as an under-gardener at Huntley Manor in Gloucester. She wrote:

I shan’t forget my 21st birthday. Apart from getting two greetings telegrams and achieving the first bath for nearly a month it has been the last word in flat. Totally depressing in fact. Life wasn’t all depressing for Muriel and she is one person who kept mainly optimistic and in October 1944 she reflected: It seemed strange to think that the war had been on over five years and how little different it was for us in spite of the ravages of war and what some had gone through. Of course it will never be the same again, but there are many families with far greater losses than our petty grumbles.

Muriel’s family was among the lucky ones. Not so Kenneth Redmond, whose brother Tom was killed in action. His entry on 11 November 1944 reads:

This day only means Remembrance of Tom – War and its horrors, Peace and the best of life that it can bring – all these things will mean to me Tom. I get very morbid when I think of it.

Herbert Brush was 70 in 1939. He was living in south London, a keen gardener, art lover, reader and writer of verse. He wrote diary entries from September 1940 to March 1951 and I particularly liked the personal details he included. He couldn’t buy any razor blades in June 1942 and at the same time he was wondering how accurate the reports of the numbers of casualties reported by the Germans and Russians were, thinking of how pleasant it was ‘to read about so many Nazis being slaughtered and noting the number of different pronunciations of ‘Nazi’.

Churchill says ‘Nazzi’, others say ‘Nartzi’, or’Nertzi’ or ‘Nassie’. I like Churchill’s best as he puts a snarl into the word.

My dad must have liked Churchill’s best too as that is how he said it.

Margaret Forster is quoted on the front cover: ‘I relished all these diaries’. Me too. An excellent book.

10 thoughts on “Sunday Salon – Our Longest Days

  1. November 11th was always a difficult day in our house as well. My Dad came back from the War but so many of the people with whom he served and with whom he was incarcerated in Korea didn’t make it. But, it was also my birthday and I was the child who should never have been born. Dad was told that because of his experiences he would never be able to have children. We proved them wrong. If I believed in fate I would believe I was meant to be born on Remembrance Day.


  2. I would very much like to read this book. Long time I read any book on the world wars. One book I could never get beyond a few pages was The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It was too horrfic for me. However, I started it some 15-16 years back. I suppose I can read it now.I like table talk’s comments too.


  3. If you enjoyed this you many well like Living Through the Blitz by Tom Harrison. This draws on the mass observation diaries by the then Director of the archives at Sussex University in the late 1970’s. He was killed in a road accident soon after it was published. It looks like a new edition was printed in 1990 so you may be able to track it down.You may also be interested in this link New Yorker


  4. Table Talk, what a memorable day for your family! Gautami, do try this book. It’s not at all horrific. There is so much I could have written about it, but the best thing is to read it.John, that sounds an interesting book as well and thanks for the link.


  5. This book looks really good. I haven’t read any books on the world wars in years. Among my favorites, though, are The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman. I think this book you mentioned would be great in rounding out the picture with primary source material.


  6. Sounds like I should add this one to my list of reads. It would be a good addition to the other books I’ve read re WWII. Thanks for the review.


  7. This does sound fascinating with the diary entries making it more personal. I’m adding it to my wishlist.


  8. Well this clinches it. I thought I was sold on this book in your previous comments, but now I can see it simply must be pushed to the top of the pile. The whole ‘anthropology of ourselves’ idea is fascinating and obviously turned out to be a very successful project. I have always found ‘diary’ reading fascinating, from Pepys and Johnson to Virginia Woolf. But this one, a compiled diary of 15 different voices, sounds especially intriguing. Thanks for a great look into this important book!


  9. Oh, I think this was mentioned in Margaret Forster’s novel, Diary of an Ordinary Woman. I need to get my hands on a copy–thanks for sharing excerpts!


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