J W M Johnson

A Nation Writes

Our Hidden Lives: The Everyday Diaries of a Forgotten Britain 1945-1948


After spending some time studying cannibals in the South Pacific, the anthropologist Tom Harrisson came home in 1936 and decided that it would be just as interesting to subject the ordinary people of this country to similar scientific scrutiny. This led to the creation of Mass- Observation, very much a typical product of the period. The aim was to achieve an ‘anthropology of ourselves’ organising a close study of everyday people leading regular lives. Part of the chosen technique was to test volunteers around the country to keep private diaries of their daily doings, with the promise that their identities would protected. These documents (dutifully posted off to Mass- Observation headquarters) – pare now included in a massive archive held by the University of Sussex. They run to about a million pages. By the time the Second World War ended in 1945, the diarists, originally numbered in hundreds, had dwindled to only a few; but evidently they were all possessed of a certain talent, since it is from their diaries that this most engaging book has now been compiled.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • In 'Silenced Voices' reports the ongoing story of the human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has been… ,
    • The mystery of Jack the Ripper's identity has long been agonised over. But what do we know about his victims?… ,
    • A piece of Literary Review history from way back in 1983: John Haffenden talks to the great Iris Murdoch. ,
    • Britain’s only travelling lit fest, the Garden Museum Literary Festival is heading to Houghton Hall, Norfolk, for a… ,
    • 'The 19th-century German sage is not my idea of a pleasant travel companion' goes hiking with Friedr… ,
    • If you want ideas about what to read next, sign up to our free email newsletter, and get book reviews, archive mate… ,
    • 'The heroic male nude could not, I think, be used today to signify civic pride and glory', as Michelangelo’s 'David… ,