Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 17, 2022

Blitz Spirit, compiled by Becky Brown from the Mass-Observation Archive

There is an uncomfortable familiarity about some of the grumbling in this book compiled by anthologist Becky Brown from diaries kept during the Blitz…

I met a woman today who declares that she takes no notice of any appeals — but burns all paper and destroys salvage.  In her view the Government have no right to interfere with the even tenure of her life. (p.133)

I despise people like this, I really do.  While the rest of us get on with it whether we like it or not, people like this do nothing to help, carp about the situation, and — whether it’s winning a war against fascism or controlling a pandemic — leave it to everybody else to co-operate while they sit back and wait for normality to be restored.  A normality they could not enjoy if not for the rest of us.  Many of us who’ve cooperated with government restrictions during the pandemic, have no patience whatsoever with people bleating about their ‘rights’ when they so despicably refused to share in the responsibility for preventing the spread of a killer disease.

So, reading this, I had to keep reminding myself of what I’d said in my comment on JacquiWine’s blog where I’d read her review of Blitz Spirit: these people are a self-selected minority and they are not representative.

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 whingeing 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!

As Jacqui said in her response, the self-selection process can distort our perceptions of public opinion: “Sample groups for diary studies […] can be skewed towards those who are motivated to get involved, possibly because the respondents want to vent or make a particular point.” 

I tried to keep this in mind as I read the more self-indulgent entries, but I admit that I could not read the book objectively!


My interest in Blitz Spirit was derived from my parents having lived through the Blitz and served in the armed forces.  And while both of them had their share of postwar cynicism about how the wartime burden was unevenly shared, neither of them would have contemplated not ‘doing their bit’.

I thought of my mother when I read an entry from a civil servant in Lancashire:

Only thing of note was that I had an egg for breakfast — the egg — my ration for about a month. (p. 131)

Whenever my mother talked about the rationing, she always mentioned the one and only egg and how they had to be ‘saved up’ if you wanted to cook a recipe with more than one.

My father’s rationing story was always about a banana flavoured cake made by his Aunty Gladys (who had eggs from her chickens): he was astonished because he hadn’t seen a banana in years.  It turned out to have been made with banana essence.  So this entry from a teacher in Hertfordshire rang true:

One of my boys brought home a banana, wrapped in his handkerchief.  A sailor had come home with a bunch, & had given one to all the children in the street.  I took it round to all the staff, & said, ‘Prepare for a shock!’ and was rewarded with gasps of amazement and almost disbelief.  The Head held it up, & showed the whole school, like a curio. (p.215)

The selfishness of the commentary about the evacuees angered me though I wasn’t surprised.  Fourteen when the war began, my father and his younger brother were evacuees during the Phoney War; they were exploited as domestic help by the wealthy people who offloaded them onto the cook and the gardener to use as they pleased.  This entry is from a surveyor’s pupil in Wiltshire:

Our neighbour has told us today that she will not keep her evacuee boys after she starts lighting fires & when it becomes too cold for them to stay out of the dining room.  So much for her!

Three years later my father was an air raid warden and fire watcher, until he joined the RAF aged 19, got compassionate leave to care for his dying father because there was no room in the hospitals for civilians, and then joined the Essex Regiment.  He was destined for the war in the Pacific when the nuclear bomb was dropped…

It certainly does ‘take all sorts’ to make a world…

There was quite a bit of commentary about the shock of the V1 & V2 rockets that came late in the war — my mother was more fatalistic about these than my father, but then, he’d been bombed out of his house in the Blitz — but I was surprised by how few of the entries mention deaths in the chapter during the Blitz.  Was this the compiler’s selection, intent on puncturing the notion of ‘all in it together’ as mere propaganda, or was it the self-selection bias again?  People complaining about the blackout; irritated by media reports more intent on keeping up morale than reporting the facts; complacency; slacking; constant demands from welfare charities; the size of the war debt and so on.  But there was this one, from an architectural journalist from Berkshire:

Artist friend Ruth was killed on Friday week ago.  June wrote and told me.  This has brought the war into sharper perspective. Ruth was visiting friends two doors from her own house in Adelaide Road.  A direct hit.  Her own house untouched.  June has taken G. to a school in Cornwall and when she returns will, I hope, spend a few days with me here.  (p.76)

And this one, from a factory manager in Staffordshire:

Many are irritated by the complacency of the BBC and the stereotyped announcements of ‘slight damage’ and ‘a few casualties.’  Rumours of heavy damage in various parts of the country are rife, and people vouch for the truth of ‘what I heard from a man who was there when it actually happened.’ What the BBC dismisses as ‘slight damage’ may mean the whole world to those who have lost their homes & relations. ‘The few casualties’ mean intense grief and lifelong sorrow to those who have seen their parents or children murdered by Nazi airmen. (p.72)

(You can see in Jacqui’s review that her reading of Blitz Spirit through the lens of the pandemic in Britain — where the government has behaved scandalously and has been complacent about the appalling number of deaths — has a resonance that is entirely different to how we feel here in Victoria where the government has withstood trenchant criticism to protect lives.)

There are some amusing entries.  A teacher from Kent shared a placard she’d seen at a Manchester fish shop:

WE HAVE PLENTY
OF PAPER
PLEASE BRING
YOUR
OWN
FISH.

And this one, from a retired teacher in Buckinghamshire:

There’s a little café in Wycombe where there is one teaspoon, chained to the counter — so many spoons have been stolen they will risk no more.  The pens in the Post office are also chained.  I feel so ashamed, & hope the Americans won’t notice.  (p.196)

The Americans, who made a very belated entry to the war against fascism, were IMO in no position to sneer!

There were some looking to the future, despite it all.  This is from a retired policeman, from Merseyside:

I have read a good acct about the Beveridge report and I consider it is hard for us middle class who have never suffered from unemployment to realise what a nightmare the absence of security is to many decent working men.  I sincerely hope they will secure it in the post-war world.  (p.197)

I think he would have been most dismayed to see the way secure employment is a rarity these days.

I’ll finish with this one because it warmed my heart.  The diarist was an office worker and volunteer mobile canteen driver from London, and we can guess what their ‘plight’ was:

This morning Mother received a letter from a complete stranger enclosing a cheque for two guineas, in which she said that she had heard of our plight from my father’s sister (Aunt Win) and as she was in a very similar position herself two years ago, she hoped my Mother would not be offended with the gift, but would get herself something which she needed.  This really touched us, and made me feel that there certainly is a lot of good in the world. (p.198)

I like to think so too.

Compiler: Becky Brown, from the Mass-Observation Archive
Title: Blitz Spirit, Voices of Britain Living through Crisis, 1939-1945
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton, 2020
ISBN: 9781529347050, hbk., 311 pages
Source: Kingston Library


Responses

  1. From the Mass observation archive, clearly a collection designed to elicit the spectrum of views and perspectives, perhaps provocatively, to demonstrate how little humanity has changed.

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    • Well, yes, but you could also say that it represents the opinionated.
      (Just as our blogs might represent the same!)

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      • Indeed, the more opinionated, the more likely to attract the same.

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        • Yes!
          But I think they were wise, in Britain, to keep the lid on this spectrum of human behaviour, because, unleashed, as it has been in the Australian media in respect of the pandemic, it has been destructive of cooperation and a sense of community and it has encouraged an opportunistic Opposition party. Sometimes, though I’m not in favour of censorship except in extreme situations such as war, it is better to have an aspirational sense of ‘being all in it together’ than for there to be widespread reporting of the selfish and the mean who are in it for themselves.
          I like Foyle’s War, where he saves his greatest contempt for the black marketeers…

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  2. It does take all sorts, indeed, and alas I don’t know that human nature really changes much. Interested in the discussion about the skewing of opinions – definitely something like this could depend on the extracts chosen and who by…

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    • Well, I guess a book that simply shared excerpts that confirmed the historical picture that Britons were united wouldn’t make much of a book…

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  3. Very interesting review; I’ll have to go back and check JacquiWine’s, which I missed. U.S. civilians, of course, didn’t experience anything comparable to the Blitz, although there was strict rationing and enforced military service.
    Interesting (and funny) comment about sneering at the tea spoon! I assure you that I’d have done nothing but admire the ingenuity had I been around at the time! I totally agree with you that European/Commonwealth countries were involved sooner in overt war efforts than the U.S. (while my history of the period is weak, I vaguely recall lots of vital material support flowing across the Atlantic prior to overt involvement). I don’t, however, think that my dad (who barely survived a German POW camp & who was permanently disabled from war wounds), my uncles (one was decorated for heroism at the Battle of the Bulge and the other saw combat duty at sea) or my aunts (Rosie the Riverter types who worked in shipyards to replace men drafted into combat) would have regarded their sacrifices as less painful than those that occurred prior to 1940. Their experiences BTW were quite typical for the time.
    Totally agree with you about attitudes/behavior during the pandemic.

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    • It is such an interesting comment… reading between the lines, I think we’re seeing a belief that Britons ought to be ‘on their best behaviour’ for the American troops stationed there. That they ought to make a good impression on their visitors.
      Did this writer feel the same about the thousands of Commonwealth troops from e.g. Australia, India, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, etc etc, who had been there since the beginning of the war? Or the thousands who fled Europe to join the fight, like the Poles, for example, who joined the Air Force in large numbers. Where would this idea have come from?
      Your family has a proud military record, and I wouldn’t hesitate to say that their sacrifices are praiseworthy. But I still find American isolationism hard to understand, when all of Europe had fallen and Britain was likely to. Fortunately Churchill and Roosevelt had a very good relationship which eventually bore fruit. Have you read my review of Atlantic Meeting by HV Morton? (See https://anzlitlovers.com/2021/08/04/atlantic-meeting-by-h-v-morton/), It’s a remarkable story, by a witness to their f2f meeting during the war.

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      • I appreciate your reply and, like you, have no idea why the tea spoon lady would have felt a special need to impress American troops or where her idea came from (who knows — perhaps her granny came from Virginia or something). I doubt that it was universally shared by the English civilian population, as I’ve read that American troops in the U.K. were not always popular (the common fate, alas, of many troops regardless of who they are or where they’re stationed).
        My own reply was a response to the impression, perhaps mistaken on my part, that the U.S. contribution was somehow “less” because it came after other countries had entered the war. I cited my family history only in response to the personal history discussed in your review & primarily to support my point that it didn’t much matter when war sacrifices/contributions occurred. As a sidenote, many experts think the Soviet Union bore the real brunt of the struggle against fascism; the Soviets themselves believed that the western allies were far too slow to invade the continent & that it was they who were bearing the costs of the delay (regardless of whether you agree, Soviet casualities were frightening and much larger than any other country’s).
        Isolationism has been a very powerful force in U.S. history (please realize I’m merely noting its existence, not defending it). I’m hardly an expert (when I was a serious student, I specialized in European, not U.S. history) but its roots are both cultural & geographic. Unlike the Commonwealth countries, the U.S. maintained no special political or cultural ties to the U.K.; in fact, it had parted early and violently from European rule. I think there was a general feeling even in the 19th century that the country had more important things to do than to become involved in European quarrels (there was a continent to be exploited, after all — being ironic here, in case it doesn’t show). After WWI, the isolationist strain dominated to such an extent that the U.S. refused to join the League of Nations. It took time for Roosevelt to build public suport for a second, much more massive involvement with Europe (I might note here than even the British population, geographically much closer to the threat, wanted to avoid war if possible; weren’t there substantial appeasement efforts in the 1930s?). In the meantime, long before war was declared lots of war material was crossing the Atlantic to support the struggle against Hitler.
        The geographic factor is obvious — when there’s a big ocean between you and the bad guy, it’s easy for the average citizen to think he’s safe and that conflicts in Europe are not his problem. Not pretty, but as many of your commenters have noted, the archival material relied upon by the author of this book is full of nasty examples of human nature. Another geographic factor is that many Americans believed that their country’s interests were more directly implicated in the Pacific, rather than Europe (big debate topic in one of my classes — why didn’t the U.S. make Japan, rather than Germany, its primary focus at the beginning of the war?).
        I haven’t read your review of the Morton book; I’m sure it’s up to your usual excellent standards. In fact, I seldom read history at all any more as my once all-consuming passion for the field has long since bitten the dust. I’m afraid these days I infinitely prefer to find my truths in fiction.

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        • I agree entirely about the USSR… the post war Cold War politics meant that their contribution and their dreadful losses were swept under the carpet, and so was the fact that it took *all* of the allies to defeat Germany. I really was shocked when I went to Russia and heard about the Siege of Leningrad for example. We were told to be very respectful at their War Memorial because, they said, everyone in that city had lost someone in the siege under the most dreadful of circumstances.
          Re attitudes to America on the home front: here in Australia American troops were *very* popular with young women, and LOL as you can imagine, therefore not so popular with young men. It wasn’t just jealousy over girls who enjoyed gifts of stockings and chocolate and other treats from the GIs, it was also because they were better paid, better fed, and better equipped than the locals were. But overall, people were very grateful and the alliance has held firm ever since with bipartisan support.

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  4. Yes, it can be hard to remember there is good in the world sometimes, but I also believe it. I keep reminding myself that those who shout the loudest do not necessarily represent the majority, they just want to convince us that they do.

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    • And sometimes, of course, their intentions really are the best, i.e. to draw attention to something that needs attention. But it can get out of hand. All through our lockdowns the media hosted a lot of anxiety about the mental health effects, often implying that everyone felt the same when that was not so. (There was a lot of difference between our young inner-city apartment dwellers experienced the isolation of lockdown and how we in the suburbs managed it.)
      Now, here in Victoria, we see the return to school accompanied by claims of long term damage to children. Now, I don’t doubt that kids have been affected, but it is a nonsense to suggest that they have suffered long term damage because the pandemic has been with us for only two years, not long enough to know that kids will carry any damage into adulthood and beyond.

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  5. I love how your compared some of the experiences recounted in these MO dairy extracts with your parents’ recollections of the war. Absolutely fascinating to read! (Your banana essence story is delightful.)

    And you’re right to highlight some of the more generous, heartwarming entries, too. There’s a tendency for these to get lost/subsumed by the more dramatic anecdotes (or examples of people breaking the rules)…

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    • I wonder what my parents would have made of this book? It would be very interesting to get the reactions of those few still alive who lived through WW2…
      Thanks again for alerting me to the book!

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  6. I remember thinking how good this sounded when Jacqui reviewed it. I’m glad to be reminded of it. It certainly seems to illustrate how little people ever really change.

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  7. I really enjoyed hearing the stories from your own family Lisa.

    It’s good to be reminded that conspiracy theories have existed at all times in history. The www simply makes it easier now for them to find each other. Curious that many of them are also the ones most deteremined to return to ‘normal’ life and to live like we used to. Resistance to change/wanting things to stay the same seems to be one of the factors driving their fear.

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    • Yes, and your comment reminds me of a book I read a long ago, by Margaret Visser.
      *pause, while I search GR for the name of the book, *frown* why can I remember the author’s name and not the name of the book?
      The book was called The Rituals of Dinner, and the take-home message I took from it was about how from time immemorial there have been people willing to explore, be adventurous and try new things (in this case food). While others were content to stay in the village and stick with what they knew, including no change to their diet.
      I wonder if we are hardwired for that interest in/rejection of change, or if it comes from experience?

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      • Have just realised that I missed seeing this comment Lisa. After 12 mnths on WP, I have just discovered the little bell icon at the top of the WP menu that shows me all the comments and replies!! How did I not know it was there?
        I’ve been trying to reply to comments on my phone at lunch time, but it hasn’t worked very well. I can type much faster with a proper keypad!

        I’m not sure what this says about me and change! I do know that I am not particularly technologically curious though. So I wonder if it’s a case of being will to accept change in some areas of our lives but not others?

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        • Speaking for myself, I’ve been open to some forms of technological change and then found myself resisting them. I get sick of change for change’s sake, like the endless new phones and not being able to use old peripherals on a new computer or with a new operating system. I get tired of having to invest my time in learning how to use new things, whether it’s a TV or an oven, and I end up just choosing not to bother. I just don’t know how to work some of the things in our house, or only half-knowing, and I do not care. I’ll learn it when I have to, and not before!

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          • Mr Books has just upgraded/changed our TV system (again) and he gets disappointed because I just don’t care enough. I want to turn on the TV, scroll through a few options, select and play. But with all the boxes and streaming services we now have I can never find what I want, so except for the news I don’t bother anymore. Turns out, I don’t miss watching stuff at all.

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            • I hear you. I can find the ABC (which is mostly a disappointment) and SBS (which makes it hard to find films by language but has a good search system). And I can play DVDs of foreign films, shortly to be extinct if the catalogue at Readings is anything to go by, but fortunately I have a good supply!
              But like you, I’ve mostly learned to do without it altogether.

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              • Most of the time, if I have a spare couple of hours, I’d rather read a book or blog, so it hasn’t been hard giving up TV at all.

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  8. I love reading social history about the wars and it has struck me all the way through the pandemic how many parallels there are (I read a fair few war novels, too). I am actually a Mass Observer myself, MO is still going, though we answer a set of questions every six months and it’s just struck me mine must be coming through soon (I rejoined a while ago but haven’t had one yet).

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    • Hello Liz, I noticed that you were an MO from a comment on Jacqui’s blog — what an interesting discussion this book has created!!
      I’m curious about the questions you are asked. The ones here, which I saw when I dutifully answered the first three and then refused point blank to do any more, because my answers were exactly the same each time, were all skewed towards a focus on distress. If life was progressing pretty much as normal, or it was different but ok, there was no question there to draw that out.
      I guess researchers have to resolve that dilemma… does the project let the respondents write pretty much whatever they like, or does it albeit with open-ended Qs, steer towards themes the researchers are interested in…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve been asked what I think of the monarchy, we do a “day diary” on a particular day in most years, thoughts on the election, stuff like that.

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        • Ah, It would be fun to be a fly on the wall when they were choosing the questions!

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