How and why did you decide to start this project? How did you hear about the Mass Observation Unit? Does it still exist?
I’d love to claim full credit for the birth of Our Hidden Lives, but I’d feel guilty and get rude phonecalls. The book came about after one editor at Random House made contact with the Mass Observation archive at the University of Sussex and thought that there must be a good book to be made from all that wonderful material. The editor mentioned it to a colleague who knew of my interest in working with oral history and personal testimonies, and not long afterwards I found myself at the Falmer campus near Brighton with my jaw dropping open…
I first learnt about Mass Observation at school, but knew very little about it. I knew it was formed in the years before the Second World War, and that it contained accounts of ordinary people’s lives (people all over the country sent answers to questionnaires and copies of their diaries each month), but I had no idea about the range or detail of the material. It had all been carefully documented, but on my first visit it was hard to know where to start reading: there were tens of thousands of pages to sift through and many reels of microfiche. Inevitably I was drawn to the ones I could read easily, and those who wrote well. The initial and obvious thought was to do something connected with the war, but then I thought that it would be more interesting to start looking at the post-war material: there wasn’t so much of it, and the period was studied far less. Also, I knew relatively little about what happened between 1945-48, and I became fascinated as soon as I read the first entries. The most striking thing was how often the diarists wrote ‘but I thought we had won the war…’. The austerity dragged on and on, the weather got worse and worse, the new Labour Government raised taxes and imposed restrictions unimagined even in wartime, and people wrote about it day-to-day as an intrepid British adventure…
How did you choose which diarists to follow?
The original plan was to have nine or ten diarists in the book, but it soon became clear that this would have entailed editing them to shreds. Eventually I chose five, and tried to tell the history of the period through them.
Fortunately, one can also read the book just as five highly engaging character studies. By the time I had whittled down my choice to those who were legible, those who wrote throughout the period and those who wrote more than just ‘I got up, went to work, went to bed,’ I was left with about thirty diarists to choose from, and I then selected what I believed to be the most interesting and engaging five. It was also important to get a combination of men and women with different ages, outlooks and locations.
My first thought was to run from VE Day in May 1945 to the Festival of Britain in 1951, the event long considered the watershed of a new modern Britain. But the diaries begin to peter out at the end of the 1940s (though a few Mass Observers wrote until the 1960s), and I reasoned that the birth of the NHS in 1948 – the pinnacle of Attlee’s reforms – might be a better place to stop. Also, it meant that the book would be a manageable length, and readers wouldn’t get hernias.
Do you have a favourite diarist, or favourite entry?
I like all five diarists in the book for different reasons. B Charles is a terrible snob and vilely anti-Semitic, but his entries are compelling; Maggie Joy Blunt is an intense, astute and lyrical writer; Edie Rutherford’s displays of fortitude are inspiring; George Taylor’s buttoned-down world-view is curmudgeonly, proper and enquiring; and Herbert Brush is effortlessly and constantly amusing with his tireless creosoting, brave allotmenteering and furtive desire to eat sausage rolls in the National Gallery. Everyone who reads the book seems to find their own things they enjoy and abhor about all of them. The common link is that they are all being honest, and write without an eye on future publication. As such, their diaries are an invaluable, if incomplete guide to what life was really like at that time.
How do you think the diarists would react to the world today?
None of the diarists are around anymore, but if they were here today they’d probably be shocked at how cosseted and secure most of us are in our lives, and how far our standard of living has improved. They would be confused by the choices we have, and bemused by the technology. They would see how the NHS and social welfare reforms that were so novel in their diaries have became a cornerstone of our society. They probably would have been against the war in Iraq. Goodness knows what they would have made of email and mobile phones; I would have like to have seen Herbert Brush tackle both of them.
Do you keep a diary yourself?
I don’t keep a diary myself, mostly because I write for a living and in the evenings I prefer to do something else. Also, I suppose I think – mistakenly – that my daily emails are a sort of diary. In the past I think I’ve believed that ‘no one would be interested in my humdrum life,’ but in sixty years time a historian might find the humdrum details fascinating, just as we do now with the diaries in Our Hidden Lives. Incidentally, Mass Observation was born again in the early 1980s, and it is a thriving concern. For more, visit: www.massobs.org.uk.
Have you met any of the diarists or their family members?
The feedback from the book has predominantly been very positive, but I’ve only had direct communication from one relation of one diarist in the book. I’ve had some illuminating and enjoyable conversations with Maggie Joy Blunt’s niece, and I’m hopeful that this may lead to editing some more of her writings in the future.
Can you tell us a bit about what you are currently working on?
My next project, which Ebury/Random House publishes in September, is called We Are At War, and consists of five more Mass Observation diaries kept from a few days before the outbreak of the Second World War to the end of the Battle of Britain. If I say so myself, it’s gripping stuff. There will also be a BBC drama based on Our Hidden Lives broadcast in the autumn, though sadly no takers yet for my ultimate ambition – Herbert Brush: The Musical.
Full author listing
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