Dear diary

Mass Observation was an amazing organization. Set up in 1937, Mass Observation aimed to establish "an anthropology of ourselves", using diaries, questionnaires and directive responses (a sort of pared-down survey), MO examined the lives of hundreds of people in all walks of live throughout the UK. It was purely coincidental, but MO came into being just as millions of lives were about to be changed by the outbreak of World War II.

The MO respondents in common with the modern blogger were very different. Some were more guarded in their responses giving few personal details (although all repondents details were "disguised" in the Mass Observation database and files), while others were very open about their lives and experiences. Some kept extensive diaries over a long period, others over a shorter time frame, and sometimes just brief notes. The responses to the work of MO give a snapshot of life in Britain at a particular time and place.

Olivia Cockett's diaries, published as Love and war in London, follow the life of a young civil servant living in Deptford, and working for the police near New Scotland Yard, at the outbreak of war and up until 1943. Olivia was probably quite unusual for her time, she, in common with many single women, still lived at home with her close-knit family, but she was also engaged in an affair with a married man. Thought to be quite shocking in its time, being open about this affair would almost certainly have cost Olivia and her lover their jobs. So the affair was kept generally secret, although Olivia was amazingly open in her diary.

Life became more complicated with the advent of war and the blitz. Already struggling with transportation problems due to the disruption caused by air raids, simple things liking meeting up with friends and lovers became increasingly difficult. Living in Deptford, too, would soon put Olivia's family under great strain, as the area became a target for German bombers.

This is a great read if you want to know what it was like to live as an ordinary Londoner in extraordinary circumstances. It's not the most moving wartime diary you'll ever read, but for a snapshot of a life lived under wartime stress, and yet trying to keep up a semblance of normality it's a fascinating read.

Mass Observation is still doing its stuff today, and its archive both of wartime and of more modern experiences are housed at the University of Sussex library. For more information see Mass Observation.


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