Blitz Spirit: Voices of Britain Living Through Crisis, 1939-1945 by Becky Brown  

In this fascinating book, the anthologist, editor and literary agent Becky Brown presents various extracts from the diaries submitted as part of the British Mass-Observation study during the Second World War. Founded in 1937, Mass-Observation was an anthropological study, documenting the everyday lives of ordinary British people from all walks of life. The initiative aimed ‘to tell a truer, fuller version’ of life in Britain than was available in the newspapers or recorded in history books. As part of the project, a volunteer group of 500 people across the UK – from factory workers to shop assistants, from writers to teachers, from housewives to office clerks – submitted their personal diaries on a monthly basis from August 1939 onwards. It’s a remarkable resource, full of striking insights into the diarists’ day-to-day lives during this extraordinary time.

The diary extracts are presented chronologically, offering readers the opportunity to follow the war as it unfolds from the end of August 1939 to August 1945. Each chapter covers a period of six months and is prefaced by a brief summary of the key developments – both historical and emotional, using the diary entries as a ‘temperature gauge’ or touchstone resource.

Interestingly, the book does much to debunk the nostalgic, rose-tinted view of the British public during the war, a nation all pulling together in one united effort. As the diary entries clearly demonstrate, people experienced a wide variety of human emotions, from the novelty and excitement of facing something new, to the fear and anxiety fuelled by uncertainty and potential loss, to instances of selfishness and bickering, particularly as restrictions kicked in. Moreover, Brown has clearly taken a lot of care to select a wide variety of extracts, offering us entries that range from the mundane and virtuous (e.g. digging up the garden to grow vegetables, as in the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign) to the dramatic and terrifying (e.g. scrambling to hide in a cupboard during an unexpected bombing raid).

While many of the entries are sobering and poignant, there are some lighter moments too, especially in the early stages before the actual conflict begins.

To Rectory afternoon for bandaging practice. The Rector’s wife amuses me rather. She speaks as if the village were going to be strewn with casualties in the near future. (p. 22, Oct. 1939)

Another diarist notes the popularity of war-like flourishes in women’s fashions, with long military-style coats and jackets featuring brass buttons and shoulder straps appearing in the local town. Others, however, are more unsettled by the sense of uncertainty, their emotions changing from one week to the next as the situation in Europe worsens…

The war was, for a few days, terrible and exciting. Then it was only fitfully so. Now, after being merely a bore for a while, it grows more fearsome. It becomes personal and menacing. (p. 37, Jan 1940)

One of the most striking things about these diaries is just how much they resonate with the way many of us were feeling (and behaving) during the first year of the recent pandemic. Pre-emptive stockpiling in the early stages of the war drives a degree of panic buying, just as we saw with flour, dried pasta and loo rolls at the start of COVID. By December 1939, shop assistants are already bearing the brunt of customers’ anger at shortages in the shops, frequently resulting in outbursts as they try to deal with the situation.

Women have so insulted shop assistants that the rule – that assistance may not be rude to customers or ‘answer back’ – has been relaxed, by the manager of a big store here. The girls are often in tears, & the men greatly upset, by selfish customers who blame assistants when they can’t get what butter or sugar they think they want. (p. 30, Dec. 1939)

Some diarists quote examples of neighbours or acquaintances who flout the rules, obtaining food or petrol illegally on the black market or indulging in unnecessary travel when they should be keeping journeys to a minimum. Others report shopkeepers (or those in positions of authority) profiting from the shortages, hiking up prices to benefit from the increased demand. If anything, class divisions exacerbate the situation, undermining the sense of everyone being equal or ‘in it together’.

Interestingly, anti-maskers are not simply a 21st-century phenomenon, as this 1941 entry from a Belfast-based diarist neatly demonstrates!

All the propaganda recently about gas & gas masks doesn’t seem to have had much effect. I was down-town for an hour this morning, & during that time saw one woman carrying a mask; & she was obviously English. Schoolchildren carry them when going to school, (because compulsory) but not at other times. (p. 100, Apr. 1941)

Naturally, there are also touching acts of kindness, examples of friends and neighbours looking out for one another, sharing essentials and provisions or ‘doing their bit’ for the war effort – e.g. taking in evacuees, knitting garments for soldiers or driving ambulances during the Blitz.

Frustration with the government’s handling of the situation is detectable in several of the dairies – people want to hear the truth, not some jingoistic propaganda being peddled by the media. They also want to be treated as grown-ups – trusted partners in the war effort, not subordinates who must simply do as they’re told with no explanations. 

Even at quite an early stage in the war, people are becoming desensitised to the constant stream of bad news, as one tragedy follows another with little pause for thought about the impact of lives lost. In some respects, this chimes with the current situation in the UK where our negligent government seems to regard the loss of 1,000+ lives per week to COVID as an ‘acceptable’ cost of the pandemic.

This war feels more and more like a continuation of the last one. I think we felt more grief then at the loss of life. The modern world does not seem to care about lives being lost (3000 lost on the roads in two months). (p. 24, Nov. 1939)

It’s astonishing too how one takes the most astounding piece of news in one’s stride now, as it were, as much that would in normal times have supplied us with a year’s sensations, we swallow in a week without great comment. I suppose our minds have reached saturation point. All we hear and read now has little further effect. (p. 78, Oct. 1940)

As the war rumbles on, the later years usher in increasingly high levels of fatigue, scepticism, flagging morale and uncertainty about the future, even when the prospect of victory seems to be in sight. While the war has thrown up new opportunities for some – particularly women who have been able to work in new areas – others are less positive about their prospects. Meanwhile, some appear to expect an immediate return to ‘normal’ life, possibly with certain advances, while in reality any changes are likely to be gradual. As one diarist reflects:

It will not be something definite and spectacular like Lights Up, Bananas for all, unlimited fully fashioned real silk stockings at 2/6d a pair and everyone with a job they like and able to afford their own plot and bungalow. (p. 272, Oct. 1944)

The detrimental impact of the war on children is uppermost in some diarists’ minds, with the loss of normal childhood experiences being a particular concern – another issue that will resonate with many of us as we emerge from COVID restrictions.

What a reflection on our present mode of life it is that children have hardly known what it is to be able to spend their few pennies on ices and sweets. They can only remember queues and crowds, sirens and shelters, and have never eaten a toffee-apple! These children have lost five years of their life, and we must try to make it up to them. (p. 264, Aug. 1944)

In summary, then, Blitz Spirit is a fascinating insight into the day-to-day lives of ordinary people living through extraordinary times. There is real stoicism and resilience here, alongside the less desirable aspects of human behaviour, much of which will resonate with our recent experiences of the pandemic. I found it a thoroughly illuminating read, an excellent addition to the accounts of Home Front life during WW2.

Blitz Spirit is published by Hodder & Stoughton; personal copy.

31 thoughts on “Blitz Spirit: Voices of Britain Living Through Crisis, 1939-1945 by Becky Brown  

  1. Tredynas Days

    I thought early in this post of the parallels with the current pandemic- then you made that very point! The ‘jingoistic propaganda’ is still being used by our boosterish boaster PM. My mother, then a young woman, worked in a rural home for urban evacuee children, and often spoke of those terrible but strangely exciting times.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, so many resonances with the current pandemic here, perhaps unsurprisingly so given the nature of human behaviour. I think it really hit home when I read the passages about people becoming desensitised to the ongoing loss of life, how one tragedy after another was assimilated with little comment. I find it galling that Johnson and Javid seem unconcerned with the fact that 1000+ people a week are dying from COVID, while other countries have taken a more responsible approach. Anyway, enough of today’s politics…your mother’s experiences sound fascinating – some great stories there, no doubt!

      Reply
  2. MarinaSofia

    An amazing project and I love the way you point out the parallels to the present day. I suppose it will forever be the case that some people rise up and respond well in an emergency, while others do the opposite, but a prolonged state of emergency shows none of us at our best.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’re right about the impact of a crisis and the way it separates those who think of others/the bigger picture from those who are primarily concerned with themselves. The book was published in October 2020, so Becky Brown almost certainly had an eye on parallels with the COVID pandemic while she was compiling the book. What’s interesting though is the way she lets the diarists do pretty much all of the talking, just adding a page or two of introduction to each chapter to put the extracts into context.

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    What a thoughtful review, Jacqui. For a start, I totally get the value of a project like this in debunking those propaganda myths of us all being in this together, with which we’re still plagued – the class divide existed then as now, and humans will be humans with all their flaws. The book is obviously shockingly relevant to our modern situation and our reactions to the pandemic. As you mention, one of the most sobering and horrifying aspects, then and now, is how we treat massive numbers of avoidable deaths as acceptable. War is and always will be a bad thing. As for our politicians, I wouldn’t want to taint your lovely blog with the language I would use to describe them…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Yes, it’s been fascinating to read these diary extracts, particularly in light of recent lockdowns and pandemic restrictions. I think as Marina said earlier, there will always be some people who pull out all the stops to support others in times of crisis while others simply look after themselves. The casual acceptance of lives lost during the war was particularly striking, chiming as it does with the current government’s stance on the ongoing death toll from COVID. Just because the daily case numbers are ‘in line with expectations’ doesn’t make the situation any more acceptable, especially when this results in >1,000 deaths per week…

      Reply
  4. mallikabooks15

    Glad you brought out the parallels with the pandemic here; I also couldn’t help thinking how the pandemic/lockdown situation has been on for just about two years while during the war people would have had to live with fears and frustrations for six whole years, and its coming to an end didn’t mean any immediate ‘normalisation’ of things either (not saying that it makes it any better or worse but just how much more they had to endure, especially being without the modes of communication and such that we have now).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I agree! It must have been much harder back then, especially given the prolonged uncertainty about the final outcome of the war. At least with COVID, we’ve been able to benefit from the availability of a vaccine with the first year of the pandemic. I know it’s not the complete solution (and I wish the UK strategy wasn’t totally reliant on it), but at least it offers a significant degree of protection against severe disease. And, as you say, victory didn’t usher in the complete return to ‘normal life’ that some people were expecting. Rationing continued for 3-5 following the end of war, so it wasn’t ‘bananas for all’ as that diarist correctly predicted!

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    This sounds excellent, such poignant testimonies of what is to me an endlessly fascinating period in British history. The parallels you draw between those times and the early weeks of the pandemic are striking. People don’t change much in their behaviours do they. I think I would find this fascinating.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No, they don’t! While our lives are quite different from those of our counterparts in the 1940s, the emotions and human behaviours remain broadly the same. I think you’d find this fascinating too, Ali. It’s just your kind of thing.

      Reply
  6. Liz Dexter

    I love MassObs books – and I’m a Mass Observer myself again, having revitalised my membership after reading of another MO book recently! I have thought when reading WW2 books in general of the parallels with our current times, and you bring that out nicely here.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, how fascinating! I didn’t realise that it’s still happening, although I’m wondering if the pandemic has given this kind of initiative a new lease of life? How have you found it as a contributor? I’d be interested to hear.

      Reply
      1. Liz Dexter

        Well I hadn’t done it for a few years, but the way it works now is that you get sent three or four questions which researchers have asked and you write essays in Word and email it back in – so I had some about Brexit and how I felt, that sort of thing, and there’s a day that you do write a diary of your day (I think a special MO date each year) and all sorts of different themes. It’s interesting to do but I dropped off it and they stopped sending them, then I discovered you can restart it!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          How fascinating! Now that you’ve mentioned the diary day, I think I heard about that on the Today programme last year, probably at some point during the first COVID lockdown as I recall it coinciding with that time. Thanks for coming back to me about this, Liz. I’m sure there’s a website for MO, so I’ll take a closer look.

          Reply
  7. Julé Cunningham

    You’ve given a wonderful taste of the different types of entries. How interesting that shop assistants were getting the brunt of people’s anger then too! It’s both discouraging and comforting to know that the idiots have always been with us. The book sounds like an absolutely essential read for anyone interested in that period of England’s history.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know! I can just imagine it happening too, especially given the tensions between the social classes at the time. People do love to vent when they can’t get what they want, and retail workers often get the brunt of it…

      Reply
  8. Lisa Hill

    Hi Jacqui, I’d like to read this since my parents lived through the Blitz.
    Re the pandemic: there have been efforts here to get people to diarise the pandemic. Inevitably what they get is a self-selected group of people with the habit of doing it consistently, and who — even before they get started — sign up because they feel that they have something important to say, which must be remembered when reading the results. They are people who want to be ‘heard’.
    Because I write, I came under quite a bit of pressure from friends to contribute, but I didn’t want to…mainly because I didn’t feel that my experience amounted to anything at all. That’s not self-deprecation, it’s because I read all the whinging in the press and wondered if I was in the same city.
    But also, I know from my own desultory efforts to keep a diary that (1) the interest in doing it soon lapses and (2) it becomes a place to vent, to get the fleeting moments of angst off one’s chest that one wouldn’t say out loud. If you read my travel diaries, the private ones that I draw on to write the posts for my travel blog, you would think that I’d had a terrible time when it wasn’t so. I read them now in the light of my memories of the trip and wonder what was the matter with me!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d find it really interesting, Lisa, especially given your parents’ experiences! You’ve raised a very valid point about the sample groups for diary studies as they can be skewed towards those who are motivated to get involved, possibly because the respondents want to vent or make a particular point. As far as I can tell, the 500 Mass Observation diarists were volunteers. While the group included individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds, I don’t know how representative the sample was in terms of age, sex, geographical location and social class – there might be some more information about the sample on the Mass Observation website, so I’ll take a look a little later. That said, I suspect sampling criteria (and any adjustments for potential bias) would be much tighter these days, although the WW2 diary excerpts do seem to give a wide variety of ‘voices’ (which is reassuring to see).
      It’s interesting to hear about your experiences of keeping a diary, especially while travelling. Thanks for sharing those!

      Reply
  9. gertloveday

    What a brilliant idea to collect these reports from another time of crisis.I often think the last two years has been like a war and it’s not over yet. And as you say good to get a more honest take on people’s reactions rathen than the Britons all pulling together story. Great review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks! Yes, it’s a fascinating selection of diary excepts that Becky Brown has collated here. Much more diverse than the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ style attitude that we often associate with the war. There’s something astonishing on almost every page!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Neither did I! Although now that Liz has mentioned the annual diary day, I do recall hearing something about it on the Today programme, probably at some point during the first lockdown as it seemed very timely given the pandemic. Returning to Blitz Spirit, I do find these Home Front stories endlessly fascinating, and there’s such a wide variety of them here. The sort of book that’s easy to dip in and out of, especially when time is tight.

      Reply
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  11. MarketGardenReader/IntegratedExpat

    Somewhere near the beginning of the pandemic, I signed up for a project that was building up a picture of experiences around the world. They are still sending an email a day for me to fill in my comments and memories. I’m sure I only filled it in once or twice. I’m sure I have some fascinating things I could have shared, had I felt that way inclined, but there certainly would have been some ranting in there.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s encouraging to hear that this type of study is still happening, I wonder if we might see something similar to Blitz Spirit on people’s experiences of the pandemic? It could be valuable in terms of planning for future emergencies etc…

      Reply
      1. MarketGardenReader/IntegratedExpat

        I expect people will tell their grandchildren it was a time of pulling together and camaraderie. As opposed to remembering not being able to get a supermarket delivery, PPE shortages and rioting about being pressure to wear masks or have a vaccine. Everything is rosy in retrospect, apart from the one-upmanship bragging about living in a paper bag…

        Reply

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