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We Are at War. The Diaries of Five Ordinary…

We Are at War. The Diaries of Five Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times (2005)

by Simon Garfield

Other authors: Mass-Observation

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We Are at War is the second of Garfield's editing of diaries from the Mass Observation Project written by ordinary people in Britain, this time late summer of 1939 through October of 1940. Only one diarist, Maggie Joy Blunt, my favorite, is around for this second book. I liked the editor's comment in his Epilogue: "Hindsight can mess with history to a fatal degree, and we are lucky to have such passionately argued and reliably frank correctives as these."
I was less fascinated with these personalities than with those in the earlier book (Our Hidden Lives), but this one was still compelling. I learned that these people didn't see Churchill as the great savior of their country, that they mostly stayed in their houses when the bombs started falling at night, that even the least prosperous of them still had money for cigarettes and movies.
Besides Maggie Joy, a single woman, freelance writer living alone in Slough, these people were faithful diarists: Pam Ashford, a young, unmarried woman working in a coal exporting business in Glasgow and my second favorite; Eileen Potter, also unmarried, living in London and working to evacuate children to the country; Tilly Rice, a young mother with three children who moves out of harm's way when war is declared and then back to London when not much happens; Christopher Tomlin, a young, single man living at home as sole support of his elderly parents. Potter irritated me because of her choice to keep her diary in the present tense..."We boil a kettle and help Mrs X to mix food for her baby, and generally try to keep the children amused and tolerably quiet until the vicar is ready to take them away." That does not lend immediacy for me - just irritation. Tomlin just irritates me. He and his family are hugely opinionated with a dash of (maybe) new convert piety thrown in on the side as well as occasional frankness about his piles.
Once again, though, it is completely engrossing to participate in day to day lives while having the knowledge of how things came out in the end. I'm looking forward to the third book with more Maggie Joy and Pam! ( )
9 vote LizzieD | May 28, 2013 |
Another selection of diary extracts from the Mass Observation project chosen by Simon Garfield, this time covering the summer of 1939, when war was declared through to October 1940 when the German planes were bombing Britain's cities. Again, Garfield has chosen a good selection of diarists including my favourite diarist, Maggie Joy Blunt, from Our Hidden Lives.

I've never studied or read about WWII in depth so I was surprised to learn how prepared Britain seemed for this war, the evacuation of children and families from London was begun two days before war was officially declared; how, throughout the rest of 1939, people felt ready for anything and expected great change in their lives, but felt that nothing had really affected them except the great uncertainty they were living in; how convinced everyone was that Hitler would invade Britain in the summer of 1940 and how many of the diarists still hung on to hope despite how badly the war seemed to be going for the Allies during this time.

I don't think anything could really help me feel or understand completely what it was like to live through that dark and uncertain time at the beginning of WWII but reading these diaries certainly gave me some idea of what people felt at that time. A more emotional read than Our Hidden Lives and one that has made me want to read and understand more about WWII.

Two quotes:

Tilly Rice, Wednesday 15th May 1940:

Sometimes I feel that we are coming onto the very evening of civilisation, and that the noise and roar of battle are the last crashing chords of the finale. But my deeper conviction is that we shall come out in the end.... if we can hold them now. If. I don't feel nervous that the grim drama is going to come down and include me, although sometimes I suffer some apprehensions on behalf of my children. I can so easily conjure up the hateful possibilities of myself and the children homeless, of the feeling of utter desolation that must come upon people in those circumstances, the loss of security and stability and above all the terrible feeling of being unprotected. But that, let us hope, is only the playing of my imagination.

Maggie Joy Blunt, Monday 9th September 1940:

Life goes on. That is what amazes and thrills me. In spite of this increasing terror and destruction over London and the constant rumours of invasion, we get our food, our papers and letters. Buses and trains run fairly well to time. Work in factories and offices and shops continues. I have a great feeling that this is the death and birth of ages... the old order passing... and life in fire from the sky descending. ( )
2 vote souloftherose | Jan 17, 2013 |
This is the second book in the Mass Observation diaries series, but the first, chronologically. I liked We Are at War better than Our Hidden Lives, partly because it was more exciting -- there was, after all, a war on -- and partly because I found the diarists more likeable. Although these books are long and a bit of a plod to get through, anyone interested in the history of everyday life in Britain in the 1940s will find them an invaluable resource. ( )
  meggyweg | Nov 26, 2011 |
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'It is splendid,' Christopher Tomlin wrote in his diary on 14 July 1940, 'to know so many buggering Nazis are down.'
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0091903874, Paperback)

We Are At War continues Simon Garfield's successful formula of interweaving five ordinary lives from the Mass-Observation archive begun with Our Hidden Lives. Of all the accounts written about the Second World War, none are more compelling than the personal diaries composed by those who lived through it. Beginning in the weeks before the war, and ending a year later with the Battle of Britain, the book will tell the story of the "phoney war" on the home front.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:43 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

'We Are At War' continues Garfield's successful formula of interweaving five ordinary lives from the Mass-Observation archive begun with 'Our Hidden Lives'. Beginning in the weeks before the war, and ending a year later with the Battle of Britain, the book tells the story of the war on the home front. Originally published: 2005.… (more)

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