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Good overview but there are better books on the topic
on 6 March 2009
The Mass Observation system asked for volunteer members of the public to respond to surveys and/or to keep regular diaries of what they saw, heard and thought in the course of their normal day. The system started in the late 1930s and seems to have petered out in the 1950s, with the archive maintained at Sussex University. This book is based on the diaries kept by a selection of respondents during the Second World War.
The book is arranged in chronological order, and includes the writings of 15 different people, a few of whom write throughout the period, others of whom start off but stop writing and others of whom join in later on. Inevitably some characters will interest you more than others but in general the material is fascinating. All the writers are civilians so the description is of rationing (especially of food), the war situation, how working life has changed, and so on. It's perhaps surprising the war (in the sense of bombing or the death or capture of loved ones) doesn't impinge of more of the writers directly, although one of the writers is struggling with the loss of an adored brother.
Some readers will already know about Mass Observation through the trilogy edited by Simon Garfield. If so, Maggie Joy Blunt, Edie Rutherford, Herbert Brush and Christopher Tomlin are included, and you may know of Nella Last through the separate books on her diaries as well as Victoria Wood's TV portrayal. However, they appear only as bit-part players and this raises the issue of whether using 15 writers was the right decision. Being used to Garfield's books I was used to really feeling I had got to know the diarists but in this book each person might get around 20 pages, spread over up to 6 years and the sense of personal identity is lacking. There are several interesting writers not covered in Garfield's books such as Muriel Green and Doris Melling, but there is too little here to really understand them.
While I enjoyed this book and found it an easy and enjoyable read, I was frustrated by it as well. I'd suggest you consider reading Simon Garfield's trilogy of books instead.