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on 11 March 2008
Mass Observation in World War II recorded the thoughts and feelings of ordinary people. It's not a representative sample as the participants were self-selecting and tended to be from the educated middle class but with a variety of different age groups. There's a massive archive of entries for the Second World War and it's from this that the entries for ''Our Longest Days'' have been selected.

In all just fifteen people provide the selected entries so you get a real feeling for their personal stories - some you'll like but there are some you won't. The short introduction to each chapter shows how the war was progressing, so you can see how the personal entries fit into the wider story.

It could have been dry but the editor (now sadly dead at the age of 28) has used her skills wisely and allowed the individual stories and personalities to emerge. It's not about the big events but about how the war impinged on people's lives - or didn't impinge very much at the beginning. It's interesting too to see how attitudes (to class, to gender) have changed in the last sixty years.

It's a surprisingly enjoyable and enlightening book and not just for those who are interested in the war.
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on 15 March 2008
In the 1930s, an amateur anthropologist (Tom Harrison), a documentary film-maker (Humphrey Jennings) and a journalist (Charles Madge) joined forces to set up an organisation that came to be known as Mass Observation. Running from 1937 until the 1950s it collected the thoughts and aspirations of many ordinary people. The nature of the project was that the invidiuals who took part were self-selected, and so were mostly middle class and reasonably well-educated. Their submissions were in the way of freely written diaries and in responses to specific enquiries.

Our Longest Days picks from this vast archive just 15 people & shows us their reactions to daily life during the Second World War. Whilst this might seem limiting in some ways, the spread (by age, gender, occupation & location) is sufficient to give a broad view, while allowing us to really get to know individuals and watch their views develop and change.

The result is a fascinating insight to the war on "the home front" and the mundane things that mostly concerned people. The "war" itself seems to feature little in the minds of most contributors except insofar as it directly impinges on them and their family. This isn't one for those specifically interested in the war. It's a wonderful piece of social history written by those who lived it. International policy & military strategy take a back seat to themes of family, friendship, class, gender-equality and morality in a changing world. Definitely recommended.
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on 12 April 2008
Our Longest Days is a collection of excerpts from just a handful of the diarists who participated in the Mass Observation Project during the Second World War; a broad mix of housewives, conscientious objectors, students, voluntary service workers, land girls, those with army and air-force backgrounds, young and old; those who had seen the First World War, and those to whom the deprivations and horrors were altogether new. The collection covers the war from beginning to end, and each significant event of those six years is touched on by more than one diarist.

Nella Last's diary was published (and filmed) separately, and this is unsurprising when you read these excerpts next to the others... although regularly domestic in nature, her writing is intimate, honest and covers the gamut of private reactions and public observances throughout the war. That said, Nella's entries in Our Longest Days are sparse, and by no means the highlight... the wise observations of Edie Rutherford are particularly interesting, as is the reporting of Land Girl, Muriel Green whose enthusiasm for her new position provides and upbeat accompaniment to her matter-of-fact take on gender-discrimination and entries which could, if more self-conscious, have been labelled feminist. Meanwhile, the men's excerpts tend towards describing public reaction to the notable events (air raids, ships sunk by either side, political commentary) and maintain the sense, throughout the collection, of the war's progression both at home and overseas.

The horror of the war has been better described elsewhere, but the casual terror and necessary quick adjustment to changes of those in the UK, the opinions, both educated and instinctive of the people who were intimately involved and yet one step removed from the war is a thing of fascination - this is a vital addition to any war literature collection, but is also an important slice of the lives of ordinary people in a different time.
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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.
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on 26 June 2009
Having read the Simon Garfield trilogy of Mass Observation Second World War diaries and other wartime diaries - as well as Tom Harrisson's Living through the Blitz and Dorothy Sheridan's Wartime Women - I was looking forward to reading Our Longest Days. I was not disappointed, and found that this volume complemented the others. It covers the whole period from the declaration of war in September 1939 to its sixth anniversary shortly after VJ Day in 1945, whereas Simon Garfield's selections run from 1939 to 1948 over three volumes more intensely, focusing on fewer diarists.
The reader gains a good overview of the war from Sandra Koa Wing's clear narrative summaries of the landmark events of each year, supplemented by endnotes and occasional explanations in square brackets in the text. There are brief biographies of the fifteen diarists and the index is also excellent, comprehensively covering both historical places and events and the human detail of the individual lives described in the book. I enjoyed the variety of the diarists, some of whom also feature in Simon Garfield's books, my favourite being Herbert Brush, who writes about an area of South London that I know very well. But it was good to meet some new ones. Muriel Green gives a fresh account of what it is like to be young and to work as a land girl during the war. She is honest enough to admit that she and her family have suffered much less than many others, such as Kenneth Redmond, who finds it hard to come to terms with the loss of his brother Tom.
The photographs have been well chosen and add to one's enjoyment of the book.
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on 8 January 2009
This is an excellent collection of memories via Mass Observation of some ordinary lives in World War Two. Nella Last's extracts have been further developed into book and other forms, but many other contributors have fascinating wartime experiences .. Muriel Green's war as a Land Girl and constant target for mens' attention, a conscientious objector, and Kenneth Redmond's terrible sadness over the loss of his brother are examples. Because there are 15 contributors, it can be hard at times to remember who is who since their stories are interwoven, but a very stimulating read overall.
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on 14 February 2010
Though the compilation from the Mass Observation Archive is very succinct, Ms. Koa Wing left me wanting for more. (The only reason why this didn't get top marks). Simply, there was just not enough in this book, it felt that there should have been more diarists to give more flavour, and background. Anyone purchasing this book will be pleased with it as it is, but don't be surprised if you feel a bit let down after reading it. You will wish for more of it too.

One of the eye openers I've ever read about Britain during World War II, and enlightening with stories your Grandparents didn't want to tell you! Read the book, and you will see what I mean.

You will not regret purchasing it.
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on 21 July 2012
I really enjoyed this book - infact, I know it is one I will read again one day (when I get through the 100 or so I have in my book case!)
It is the Mass Observation diaries of several people, all put together to make a fascinating read about what life was like in Britain for people during the second world war. I particularly enjoyed entries from Herbert Brush and Muriel Green - personally I feel Miss Green should have her very own book of all her diaries like what has been done for Nella Last as Muriel wrote some really interesting entries and I enjoyed reading the outlook of a young girl who is not too far from my age.

I was very saddened to read of the death of the lady who compiled this book, it is written in a note at the front of the book, she was only 28 years old so just one year older than I am now, which is very sad.

I found that the selection of diarists was very good as we had a variety of opinions and classes in there which is very interesting to get the view from all angles, even if you do not agree with some opinions, it is still fascinating to read.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in history in general or anyone who has a particular the second world war as I do. I am a big fan of diary type books like this and I do hope that the Mass Observation will continue to print them as I cannot get enough of them!
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on 3 March 2010
I enjoyed this book a great deal. It managed to convoy very clearly just how much hard work it was fighting on the 'home front' with diary entries from people who had to get by on two hours sleep a night in the Blitz, or with bombed houses and no insurance papers (because they get bombed too). It isn't jingoistic, just realistic, and shows better than any war film how people just got on with the job. I was longing for more entries and pleased to see how broad a stretch of class, sex and ages were included in the extracts. A really good compliation.
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on 19 October 2013
I was a little disappointed with this book as it included testimony from MO diary entries that I had read before. eg in Nella Last's War and We are at War. However, I still enjoyed reading it and anyone who is coming to Second World War MO diaries for the first time would get a comprehensive view of the life of people living at home during that period.
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