World War Two Blitz's diaries offer an insight into Covid era Britain

Tuesday, 13th October 2020, 5:32 pm
Updated Tuesday, 13th October 2020, 5:32 pm

Panic buying, aversion to wearing masks and troubles with towing the line have all become common themes in 2020.

But these are not new concepts to British people as our ancestors tackled strikingly similar issues during their darkest hour.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

A new book of people’s World Two diaries reveals that some of our forebears had almost identical concerns about the restrictions they faced around 80 years ago.

‘Blitz Spirit: Voices of Britain Living Through Crisis 1939-1945’ draws together entries from the Mass Observation Archive of more than 500 ordinary people.

The parallels between lockdown Britain and life on the Home Front were felt at the outset by the book’s compiler Becky Brown.

The literary agent, who started drawing the diary extracts together at the start of the pandemic, said: “The first thing that lit the spark was that I was reading about stockpiling and panic buying after the outbreak of hostilities in September 1939. Literally, at exactly the same time in 2020 we were getting all these photos of toilet rolls, pasta and eggs being cleared out from shelves. It was like ‘Wow’ people are preparing for something significant in exactly the same way.”

Becky Brown, who has compiled Blitz Spirit from the Mass Observation Archive

She was also struck by how the wartime diarists were critical and censorious about the stockpilers just like in the present day. Becky added: “That was exactly what I was seeing on Twitter too. It was just not the acts but how people’s response to the acts was exactly the same.”

But some things didn’t strike a chord immediately. In April when Becky was researching people’s attitudes to legal requirements on carrying gas masks during the war, there wasn’t yet a modern day law about wearing face masks.

But as time wore on the grumbles about lugging your gas mask around and it being your passport to getting into places, like the cinema, took on a greater resonance.

Becky thinks the strongest parallel we can draw between then and now is the comparison of the blackout with social distancing.

People were told that turning out the lights would protect them from being hit by a bomb.

But Becky said they were at far greater risk of being killed in a car accident as 3,000 died on Britain’s darkened roads in the first few months of the war.

She added: “You have this dialogue going on with the people whether internally, or with friends and family and in the news about is it worth taking this preventative measure that is actually losing lives? You only need to swap the nouns and it is exactly the same conversation.”

The similarities between the eras came even closer to home when Becky discovered one of the wartime diarists had actually lived over the road from her home in Glasgow.

Becky found herself retracing the women’s steps 80 years later, seeing where new tenements had been built after bombing raids described by the chronicler.

The 29-year-old said: “It was like living through it with her. It really humanised the experience. Not only was that person living through so many parallels to the one I’m in now, but she was doing it in my neighbourhood, on my street, which was amazing.”

The hand-written and typed diaries, which Becky’s husband Tom Hockenhull transcribed, are part of a million-page plus collection at the University of Sussex.

But the Mass Observation movement is still very much alive today and people have been asked to submit ‘Covid diaries’.

So what lessons can the diarists of the past teach us about our current predicament? Was the Blitz spirit a myth or does it still exist today?

Becky thinks one of the conclusions we should draw is about the importance of talking to and watching people.

She said: “When I started putting this book together there was a lot of talk about the Blitz spirit and ‘Why aren’t we the nation that we used to be?’. It was in that stockpiling moment, ‘Why can’t people calm down and make sure the elderly, disabled and key workers can get their groceries?’.

“But reading the diaries it wasn’t the case then either, we have simplified it.  It’s not that the Blitz spirit didn’t exist.

"Of course, a whole nation of people don’t think and do exactly the same things at the same time. It means we haven’t got worse.

"We are exactly the diverse people as we were then. I just found that so reassuring because I think there is a narrative of deterioration and decline. I just don’t think that is the case.”

Becky believes the diaries are a parable of how people survived a crisis and got through the dark moments when all seemed lost.

She added: “I find it a very reassuring reminder of the capacity of humanity in general to be both good and bad and how we don’t need to freak out about it.”

Blitz Spirit is out now from Hodder & Stoughton.

The front cover of Blitz Spirit

MAIN IMAGE CREDIT: A mix of then and now, reminding us of when a bomb fell on the Strand in London during the Blitz. Composite photo by Jim Dyson/Getty Images.