One of the best books I have
read this year is one that was never intended to become a book: "The
View from the Corner Shop" by Kathleen Hey is a collection of the
real-life diary entries of a woman in her 30s, written in the years 1941
Kathleen Hey worked with her
sister and brother-in-law at their grocery shop in Dewsbury (Yorkshire).
She did not keep a journal for her own amusement, but wrote as one of
hundreds of volunteers participating in the Mass Observation Project.
In case you are not familiar
with the MO project (I wasn't, and had to look it up on wikipedia): It
was a social research organisation founded in 1937 by an anthropologist,
a poet and a filmmaker, aimed at recording everyday life in Britain by
the means of diaries and questionnaires from around 500 untrained
volunteers. (Actually, I find the entire project interesting enough for
it to deserve its own blog post.)
Through Kathleen Hey's writing
- supplemented with plenty of useful historic background information by
the editors -, the reader gets to know her and her world rather well.
Kathleen goes through life with eyes and ears wide open, and a mind that
is capable of thinking beyond what is of her immediate concern. While
she does not fail to see the humour in some of the goings-on in her
family, at the shop or in town, she understands the seriousness of
political decisions and their impact on a large scale.
As the years - and the war
with all the restrictions it imposes on everyone's daily lives - go on,
she seems to be losing some of her humour, and a dull, grey tiredness
(not only in the physical sense) begins to dominate.
Even when the war ends (the
diary spans another year after the war), she can not seem to get her
former energy and enthusiasm back. I won't tell you too much here,
because I'd really like for you to read this book for yourself;
therefore, let me just say that I was deeply touched by the thoughts and
feelings Kathleen expresses.
Apart from that, I learned a
lot from this book. For instance, the rationing system (which, I
understand, was still in use in the UK for several years after the war)
What surprised me was how people behaved towards each
other. Up until reading this book, I was of the opinion that most people
in the UK see WWII and the years immediately after it as a time when
the nation stood together as a whole, when the slogan "Keep Calm and
Carry On" was not only on posters but also in people's hearts and minds,
when everybody gladly sacrified their small comforts for the benefit of
their fellow Britons and the war effort.
According to Kathleen Hey -
who was really there and wrote things down as they happened, not rose-tinted by nostalgia -, this was
definitely not the case, at least not in the dimensions I was always
made to believe.
On the contrary, there was a
lot of petty arguing and small-scale fighting going on between groups
and individuals with conflicting interests. For instance, young married
women were apparently "getting off lightly", no matter whether they had
children or not. Oranges were a constant bone of contention - who was
entitled to how many, and why? Evacuees from bombed cities were not at
all welcome, and when people were forced to take ithem in, the evacuees (fellow Britons all of them, not
foreigners!) were looked down upon as not being of the same class, not
clean enough, and too demanding.
The young ladies who joined
the workforce as part of the war effort (for instance to work in
ammunition factories) were so well paid and had it so "easy" with nice
quarters and good clothes given to them that others envied them.
Most people Kathleen spoke to
at the shop or knew in town tried to get out of any form of compulsory
tasks (such as fire guarding) if they could.
All this, as I said, came as a
surprise to me. When I read "A God in Ruins" (for instance), it all sounded very different. I
suppose human memory is what it is - not very accurate when looking back
at the past. Kathleen's writing, however, is not looking back; it is a
daily account of what was her present.
Do not be misled by the cover
picture - this is not a "cosy corner shop" novel, but an account that is
touching, thought-provoking and sobering at the same time. Five stars from me.