Our Longest Days: A People's History of the Second World War by Sandra Koa Wing

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Our Longest Days: A People's History of the Second World War by Sandra Koa Wing

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Soldiers, housewives, land-girls, office workers, conscientious objectors, army training officers and hospital clerks were among those who contributed their thoughts to what is probably the first modern in-depth sociological research project (one which has since been revived and continues today). Our Longest Days covers the Second World War from declaration to VJ – and although interspersed with views on the world perspective, focusses largely on the everyday concerns of a cross section of 15 individuals. Definitely recommended for anyone interested in the social history of the period...or who just wonders whether their parents might have exaggerated.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: March 2008
Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1846680885

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In 1936 the King of England abdicated. Such a thing had never been heard of…that he should do so for love made it all the more a newspaper editor's wet-dream of a story. It was probably the biggest thing in court circles since the last apocalyptic royal romance back in the 1500s. Whether the editors envisaged a similar mini-series evolving isn't recorded. What they did 'envisage' however – and reported in depth and at length – was what the British public thought of the whole affair.

An amateur anthropologist at the time, one Tom Harrison, was exasperated. Taking the view that newspaper editors had no idea what the man in the street really thought, he decided he would make it his business to find out.

Joining forces with film documentary maker, Humphrey Jennings, and journalist Charles Madge he set up an organisation that came to be known as Mass Observation. It ran from 1937 until the 1950s. The archive was adopted by the University of Sussex in 1970 and in 1981 revived the process of actively seeking views. The project continues – although at present is only recruiting males aged 16-44 living anywhere but the south-east & south-west (see www.massobs.org.uk for further information).

The information from contributors was collected by way of free-form diaries and in responses to specific directives eliciting views on particular areas of interest to the project. [This continues to be MO's m.o.]

One of the richest treasure-chests in the archives is that relating to the Second World War. Then, as now, participants were self-selecting and so tended to be middle-class, reasonably well-educated, and left-leaning politically and intellectually. It cannot therefore purport to be any more representative a view of what the man on the Clapham omnibus thought, than did those original views printed in the papers in 1936. The editor of this collection makes that clear.

The difference, however, is that these are the genuine thoughts of real people. Their anonymity was protected and they were encouraged to be truly open in their thoughts.

Editor Sandra Koa Wing was the MO's first development officer at Sussex University, where she studied life history, and indicates that in making her selections from the plethora of material available she sought to produce as wide a cross section of ages, gender, personalities, backgrounds and writing styles. Some of the material has been previously published, some not.

The material is presented very simply. A chapter is dedicated to each year of the war – with entries starting in September 1939 with the declaration and ending at the beginning of September 1945 after VJ-day. Each chapter commences with a very concise summary of the progression of the war during that year. The individual entries are then offered up day by day. There is no attempt to provide an entry for every day. Some days have several entries from different correspondents. There may be a couple of weeks with no entry at all. At times a single correspondent will provide several entries over a period of consecutive (or near-consecutive) days.

In allowing the people to speak for themselves without commentary, Sandra Koa Wing has achieved her aim of allowing us a privileged insight into what a certain slice of the population were thinking at the time. In limiting her selections to a mere 15 respondents, she has allowed us to get a feel for the people behind the words…and a chance to watch how they grow (or shrink) and change during the course of the five years of conflict.

What readers will make of the book has to be affected by their age and I can only speak from my own perspective. My parents were children during the war – both of working-class backgrounds, one in Wales, one in the North-East of England – and I didn't come along until the early 1960s. For me, then the war is part-history, part-family-mythology. There is much in the detail of these entries that I recognise. In occasional attitudes too I can hear reflections of repeated conversations. The things that really struck me though were

  • how little 'the war' (in terms of the actual point, purpose & progress of it) impinged on many people's lives for the first few years
  • how very class conscious everyone seemed to be
  • and just how slowly the changes in gender attitudes we now take for granted, were to gain ground, on both sides of the divide.

'The war' appears to have been at a remove to many people. They suffered the hardships and restrictions, even the bombing, but still there comes across a kind of 'shutting out' of the wider reality and a narrowing of focus to what do I need to do to get through today. Only in 1944/45 (as one correspondent notes) does the word 'victory' increasingly get replaced by 'peace'.

Indeed some individuals had what can only be called a good war – they escaped losing any close friends or family, had their horizons broadened and emerged more confident and with greater personal aspirations. These were not profiteers – all were doing their bit – they just got lucky.

The war itself is an interesting thought. In Britain, you speak of the war and it is understood that you mean World War 2 – conflicts before and since don't register on the national consciousness the way this one did. Even the Great War needs its defining epithet.

The class question intrigues me. Having read more on the MO project since finishing the book, I do wonder whether the references are there by request of the directives. Or were people really so much more aware and concerned about class at the time. Whatever the answer to that question, what comes across very clearly is: what a surprise, these class boundaries are so much hogwash…people are people, good and bad and in-between.

It is a nonsense to talk of the style and language, or engrossment, of such a book since it varies from entry to entry. All of the entries are short – no more than a couple of paragraphs. The interest is all in the subject matter and the personal responses to the minutiae of life in a war zone (albeit at one remove). There is surprisingly little tragedy, doom and gloom…and just enough merriment…as if the project itself were partly a means of escape, or a way of finding a balanced perspective. Only in the final stages of the war do real philosophical judgements become the norm, rather than the exception - although throughout there is a, perhaps surprising, consideration given to the actual people on the receiving end.

Some of the writers endeared themselves to me, others did the opposite. Some were of literary accomplishment, others tried too hard, and yet others told it simply and are at times the more rewarding read for it.

I'm indebted to those who bothered to write at the time, and to the editor (who died last year), for letting me in on the past. I hope they lived to appreciate the importance of their meagre scribbles – and to appreciate that no matter their fears at the time, we haven't forgotten.

We may not have learnt, but we haven't forgotten – and while that holds true there is hope yet.

For anyone remotely interested in how it really was: definitely recommended.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

You might also enjoy The Good Old Days by Gilda O'Neill.

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