The Mass Observation Project was a somewhat lovely scheme instituted by the British government in the late 1930s. Basically they wanted to find out how normal people lived, to know their views and opinions. The purpose was to capture the life of the average man and woman: people who weren’t newsworthy and just made their way through generally unnoticed. Those in power came up with two ways of doing this. The first was to send researchers out onto the streets to ask questions about current events and the ways of the world. But it’s the second which concerns us here: average people were asked to write diaries which could be mailed into the department, so they could be read by researchers and then put in storage for future historians.
OUR HIDDEN LIVES brings together five of those diaries. Covering the period just before the end of the war onwards, Simon Garfield weaves together these disparate and separate lives expertly to give us a taste of five different, yet not totally differing, worlds within Atlee’s Britain. So we have a poetry writing pensioner in South London; an education focussed accountant in Sheffield; a South African housewife, also in Sheffield; a would-be author in the Home Counties; and a gay antiques dealer in Edinburgh. (The last might be the most interesting of all. Homosexuality was still illegal in Britain, and although he doesn’t state them directly, he makes little effort to disguise his sexual preferences. To write it all down and then mail it to officialdom must have required some courage). It’s genuinely fascinating to read first-hand accounts of everyday life in post-war Britain, with its rationing, power shortages and long queues to buy tripe. (All of the diarists wonder at some point whether it was Britain who actually won The War. And I suppose having to buy and then eat tripe is the kind of thing that would make you doubt you’re one of life’s victors.) In some ways this book is like looking at a slightly different Britain, in others it’s like peering in at a completely alien world.
There’s a great deal of pleasure in these pages, and amazingly – given its subject – the text is rarely dull. Yes, these people are sometimes writing about creosoting fences or going shopping and other mundane pursuits, but this smallness becomes its own perfect kind of gripping. What normal people were up to when momentous events were happening elsewhere. They’re so vivid and alive that it’s a real shame then when the book ends and these people just disappear back into the past.
My debut novel, THE WANNABES – which has been out of print for a little while – is now available for free. A supernatural thriller of beautiful actresses and deadly ambition in London town, it’s well worth your time. You can get your copy here!.