Reality television has demonstrated that it is no longer necessary to possess a distinguishing talent in order to enjoy celebrity status. Critics might argue that Simon Garfield has worked similar wonders for the diarist’s art. Where once we were treated to the inner demons of generals and statesmen, Garfield touts the daily musings of ordinary folk doing nothing much.
For We Are at War, he has unearthed the diaries of five individuals who originally submitted their entries to the Mass Observation organisation in the first 14 months of the second world war. That clash of empires and ideologies has often been described as the ‘People’s War’. Yet, intriguingly, none of the diarists selected by Garfield is actually engaged in the conflict. One of them flogs stationery in Preston. Another is a clerical worker in Glasgow. There is even a resting freelance journalist. So, not exactly key workers.
Far removed from the front line, they discover that the war is happening primarily in the newspapers, on the radio and in fifth-hand gossip. For them, its direct effect is one of inconvenience. For the reader, the effect is like retelling the Iraq war from the diary of a Salford commuter: ‘Terrible scenes of shock and awe on the six o’clock news last night. I thought Huw Edwards looked severe. And tired. How long now until £1 a litre at the pumps? Went into the garage with a torch to see if the bike was roadworthy. As I suspected, the tire tread totally worn!!’
To be fair, we can’t all be Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke. And yet, in its own deeply unheroic way, We Are at War has period charm. The diarists, all essentially decent types, try to keep their baser feelings under wraps. The world is going to hell in a hand-cart, but they are not going to miss the evening class on Beowulf. The Nazis may take our liberty, but they will never derail our routine. This, one imagines, is how Mr Pooter would have gone to war.
Indeed, here is the authentic voice of the little woman (and one man) trying to make sense of a desperate situation not of her making and beyond her comprehension. All around, equally clueless people are chipping in their ha’penny worth of opinion about how the war is progressing. The predictions range the gamut of possibilities. There is some defeatist talk, but the overriding sin is wishful thinking. Those struggling to believe that the German people can be all bad imagine that the war will end when they throw off the Nazi gangsters who have inexplicably taken over their country. Others conclude that the only way Britain will win is if her namby-pamby leaders adopt the dictatorial smack of firm government. All agree that the war has in some way discredited the existing socio-politico-economic structure and that the future is with big government. Opinion is divided over whether poor Mr Chamberlain did his best or was the idiot who got us into this mess. Only the Glaswegian Miss Bowsie — a creation of comic genius but for the fact that she is real — never contradicts herself. A self-righteous pacifist who reserves her loathing primarily for Westminster’s politicians, she remains convinced that the war would have been averted if only Scotland had been given home rule and a seat in the League of Nations from where she could have ‘seen that things were done properly’.
As a historical record, We Are at War succeeds only in demonstrating the extent to which the diarists and their friends had precious little idea what was going on. However, it may be of interest that when Chamberlain resigns as prime minister they all assume (mostly with relief) that Churchill will replace him. The possibility of Lord Halifax is not even discussed. Yet, as we know from the diaries of political insiders, Churchill’s ascendancy over the foreign secretary was by no means a certainty. It is also noteworthy how many references there are to listening to English-language broadcasts from foreign radio stations. The BBC was assumed to pump out propaganda. If these diaries are anything to go by, Lord Haw-Haw had a large audience, even if most were drawn by curiosity or scorn. This is particularly evident during the period of the ‘phoney war’ when people, finding the conflict insufficiently exciting, were looking for a cheap thrill. Listening to foreign broadcasts seemingly drops off when the war takes a turn for the worse, gets closer to home, and loses its entertainment value.
What would the five diarists have felt if they had known that 65 years later their thoughts and fears would see the light of day in what promises to be a bestselling book? Poignantly, one of them wanted to be a writer. Almost certainly, they would wish to erase some of their more off-target opinions and reactions. Yet it is part of the pleasure of We Are at War, as with its even better post-war companion, Our Hidden Lives, that we enter their world as they really lived it, with all the incomprehension and inconsequentiality.