Saturday, 9 May 2009

Our Hidden Lives edited by Simon Garfield

Derived from Mass-Observation diaries, this book comprises entries from five writers in post-war Britain, and records their thoughts and reactions to the protracted end of the war, the Labour landslide, the beginnings of the welfare state, and to the austerity period. Having recently read Austerity Britain, I was prepared for negative views on Atlee's government, Utility furniture and continued rationing. However, the vigorous antisemitism expressed or recorded by the correspondents was surprising for a group of people who must all have seen the newsreels of the death camps. One correspondent's husband only regrets that the "Nuremburg thugs were not able to finish the job". This prejudice, and other illiberal tendencies, can make some of the authors hard to like. However, they remain fascinating. B Charles, a gay antiques dealer and superlative snob, gives glimpses of the lives of gay men in provincial cities; his opaque tone when discussing sexuality and attraction to others (the latest object of desire is always described as having "possibilities") is evocative of a strictly closeted life. We never learn his first name. Maggie Joy Blunt is a more attractive character and her diaries explore the opportunities and risks for a single woman trying to make a living as a writer. Best of all is pensioner Herbert Brush, labouring on his allotment, creosoting his fence, tolerating neighbourhood bores and composing really awful poetry to amuse the Mass-Observation readers.

I was interested in the number of Germans, mainly refugees or former prisoners of war, that several of the correspondents seemed to know and like; one correspondent seems to have many German neighbours and records their efforts to trace their relatives. She meets the mother of a German friend, miraculously retrieved from post-war Berlin and brought to Sheffield. These encounters seem to be without rancour, and POWs are received sympathetically. I have Don't Mention the War in my to-be-read pile, and hope that this will provide more insight into this facet of post-war life.

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