Shelter, by Sarah Franklin

The forest itself warned them of loss.

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This’ll be a shorter review than usual, I think; I’m on holiday, and want to make the most of the time by reading things I have no obligation to consider deeply. Some spoilers ahead.

World War II seems to be endlessly fertile ground for any number of the creative industries. In the UK, especially, I suspect that this springs from a deeply seated national trauma and/or the fact that our oldest living generation came of age during or just after the war, and therefore feel their identities were shaped by it, and therefore are more likely to commission and pay for creative work that deals with it in some way. I have mostly ceased to read WWII books simply on principle (not always a good idea; I nearly missed Kate Atkinson’s A God In Ruins due to this, although I’ve also managed to avoid All the Light We Cannot See, which is proof that on the whole it works). Very occasionally, however, a WWII book deals with the conflict from a fresh angle. These books are valuable in an inherent sense: even if they’re not undying masterpieces, at least they give the reader a relatively original route into the history.

Sarah Franklin’s first novel Shelter is such a book. It is set in the Forest of Dean, where members of the Women’s Timber Corps were sent to assist the woodsmen who had lived there for generations, cutting down trees for the war effort. Franklin’s female protagonist, Connie, is a former Land Girl whose pregnancy got her booted off the farm where she was previously billeted. Her entire family killed in a bomb strike in Coventry, she has nowhere to return to, and she’s confident enough in her own strength and tenacity to sign up for the WTC. When she arrives in Gloucestershire, she meets gruff but kindly foreman Frank, and his wife Joyce, and is eventually assigned to partner Seppe, an Italian prisoner of war from the camp just up the hill. Seppe is a woodcarver and furniture maker; he is our second protagonist, a shy boy growing up under a belligerent Fascist father, unable to stand up for his battered mother or himself. Initially a hopeless forester, he improves under Connie’s instruction, and they’re soon Frank’s best team.

Shelter is one of those books whose strengths are to be found on the macro level. In terms of plot, Franklin is brave to write a female character to whom pregnancy and childbirth are not joyous, natural events, and who views her baby son with discomfort and dread. Seppe is much better with baby Joe than Connie manages to be; despite Joyce’s repeated assertions that everyone finds motherhood hard and she’ll improve, Franklin leaves enough room for us to doubt that wisdom, to think that Connie might be right when she says that she simply isn’t cut out to be a mother. For an author to leave open that possibility—even to acknowledge that not every woman is naturally maternal—is impressive, particularly in historical fiction. Seppe, meanwhile, is a (deliberately) sensitive, even feminised man; he serves as a soothing counterpoint to the toxic masculinity of his fellow prisoner Fredo, of his true-believer father, and of the thousands of young male characters we have already met who valorise conflict, violence, and ambition. Seppe has none of these qualities: he is quiet, shy, a maker and creator, very good with children, deeply domestic. When he and Connie begin a sexual relationship, he falls in love with her, seeing in her an opportunity for the secure and happy home life that he has never had. Connie does not take him nearly as seriously; his proposal of marriage, the thought of living in Gloucestershire in a hut for the rest of her life, terrifies and suffocates her.

On the micro level—that is, on the level of the sentence—Shelter is less innovative. People “swallow hard” (or its briefer equivalent, “gulp”), a lot, generally in response to strong emotion. (I am reasonably confident that I have never used this reflex to pull myself together, nor have I ever witnessed someone do it; it’s one of those things that apparently only happens in fiction.) Characters spell out their thought processes to each other with surprising and unnecessary thoroughness. Forest of Dean dialect permeates not only the locals’ speech, but also their writing, although their letters remain impressively free of spelling errors. (It’s entirely possible that dialect does translate to written language, in which case I’m being a tool, but it doesn’t read naturally; it’s mostly restricted to verb insertions, so that instead of saying “Joyce is at home”, a character will say “Joyce do be at home”, which just sounds a little Thomas Hardy.)

It’s hard to be too pedantic, though, because there’s a sweetness and a joy about Shelter that is very hard to resist. The immediate acceptance of Connie, then her pregnancy, then her baby, as well as Seppe, into the forest community is heart-warming and also rings true. Franklin’s themes dovetail nicely—Connie, whose home and family have disappeared under a pile of rubble; Seppe, who has never felt he had a home or a family at all; the delicate balance between responsible land management (the Forest representing home in a very particularised, local sense) and the demands of the government (representing home in a more general, national, patriotic sense); that is all smartly integrated, if a bit self-evident. Shelter is about people seeking, and finding, a place to belong. In its depiction of the upheavals of a war which both destroyed domestic establishments and enabled the creation of new ones, it is a unique addition to the glut of WWII books. Just move quickly past the bits where people gulp.

Many thanks to Emily Burns at Bonnier Zaffre for the review copy. Shelter was published in the UK on 27 July 2017.

October Superlatives

October has both flown by and been relatively unproductive on the blogging front. Oh well. I’ll use “adjusting to a new job/schedule” as my excuse; now when I come home from work, I’m physically tired as well as mentally so. (By the way, don’t let anyone ever tell you that working in hospitality is only hard on your body. Being nice to strangers, who often dislike you for no apparent reason and whose requests will frequently make your job harder, for seven hours, is hard on your intellect and emotional centers, too.) Anyway, I read eleven books this month. I reviewed…one of them. (Leave me alone.)

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This cover! Swoon.

most aptly praised: Eka Kurniawan’s novel Beauty Is a Wound was compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I can totally see why. Set in twentieth-century Indonesia, it explores the family life of infamous prostitute Dewi Ayu while also providing a sharp portrait of the military and political upheavals of Indonesian history. There’s quite a lot of sexual violence, I’m afraid, but it doesn’t appear to be gratuitous, and the plot is spell-binding.

best find: This is going to be a shorter Superlatives post than normal because I’m grouping five of October’s books under this heading. Tana French’s work has been at the corners of my consciousness for years: I knew that she was an extremely well-respected literary crime novelist, and that I wanted to read her work, but I hadn’t really gotten round to it. Alerted to a sale of her books for 99p each, I bought them all and gobbled them. In each one, she focuses on a different lead detective in Dublin’s Murder Squad (usually someone who’s been a minor character in an earlier book). The first two, Into the Woods and The Likeness, are probably my favourites; their characterisation is fresh and intoxicating, and the complexity of the crimes always compels you. I also loved The Secret Place, set in an elite Irish girl’s school, which anatomises female friendship among teenagers in a way that’s totally without condescension and never uses “cattiness” as a lazy stereotype. Broken Harbour, the fifth novel, is also excellent, though less of a standout. Book three, however—Faithful Place—can probably be skipped; the writing is still great, but the plot is distinctly meh.

warm bath book: Garlic and Sapphires, Ruth Reichl’s memoir of the disguises she adopted to visit New York restaurants as the former Times restaurant critic. Her prose is solid, instead of outstanding, but I loved the reviews that she includes (she’s not afraid to tear into established places, nor to champion smaller, less fashionable ones), and I loved her descriptions of how she found her personality changing whenever she put on different wigs and clothes.

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tequila shot book: Jacob Tomsky’s memoir of the hotel industry, Heads in Beds, goes down fast, burns a bit after you’ve swallowed it, and then you’re moving on. He writes well for someone working in this genre (service memoirs are more and more A Thing these days, and most of the writing is fine but not inspired; people generally read these books for the crazy stories.) Apart from the crazy stories, Tomsky’s explanation of how to get good service in hotels is worth the price of admission on its own. (Here’s a clue: a lot of it is in your hands, and can best be summarised by a co-worker’s favourite expression: “don’t be a c*nt.”)

I might also put in this category Waiter Rant, the service memoir that launched a thousand ships. Released in 2008, the anonymous Waiter’s narrative of hospitality in a fine dining restaurant in New York lifted the veil in the same way Kitchen Confidential did: the illegals in the kitchen, the waiters snorting coke in the broom closet, the management scamming tips off their staff. It, too, is good for its crazy stories, though its prose is less impressive than Tomsky’s.

most lovely: In a sad and tender way, I really enjoyed Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. Her heroine, Zhuang (or Z.), embarks on a relationship with an older Englishman, and as her English improves, she also becomes more and more capable of describing the profound differences between the way the two of them see the world. For its window into an unusual relationship as it blossoms and then disintegrates, I’m not sure this book can be beaten.

most thought-provoking: A World Gone Mad, the diaries of Pippi Longstocking author Astrid Lindgren between 1939 and 1945. For Sweden, the war was much, much more bearable than it was for any other country, since they maintained official neutrality throughout. I loved the purity of Lindgren’s outrage when she hears about atrocities from Germans and Russians alike; I was moved by her constant gratitude for her own family’s safety; and I found the retelling of the war from a perspective new to me incredibly refreshing.

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up next: I’m currently reading The Malay Archipelago, an account of scientific travels in South-east Asia by Alfred Russel Wallace (the man who developed a theory of evolution by natural selection at the same time as Darwin—perhaps earlier—but who gave Darwin credit for it throughout his life). It’s thoroughly enjoyable, though rather long. Afterwards, I’ll be reviewing Fiona Melrose’s debut novel Midwinter, and participating in the blog tour for Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle—stay tuned!

A World Gone Mad: the wartime diaries of Astrid Lindgren

But still—are we doing as much as we should? Posterity will no doubt be the judge of that.

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It is forgivable, I think, to be slightly fatigued by WWII. Especially in the UK, it represents a time and an atmosphere so deeply romanticised as to be almost fictional. The “Blitz Spirit” is invoked by people who want to take the country back to a status quo that never existed as uniformly as they’d like to think; grainy black-and-white photos of wartorn and occupied nations don’t manage to convey very much in the way of individual characters being formed under horrific circumstances. What I liked about the wartime diaries of Astrid Lindgren, author of the Swedish children’s classic about anarchic redhead Pippi Longstocking, is that this collection gives us a perspective on the war that Anglo-American education often ignores: that of the Nordic countries, sandwiched between aggressive Germany and bloodthirsty Russia, and in particular that of Sweden, which maintained official neutrality throughout the conflict.

That neutrality is a moral stance, although it pretends not to be one. Lindgren is constantly reminding herself of how lucky they have it: there’s very little food rationing, and their Christmases and birthdays often include veritable feasts. In 1940, she writes,

It’s become completely clear to me that, as things stand, there’s no country in Europe left so untouched by the impact of the war as here. …To my mind, our rations are so generous that anyone who bought all that we are entitled to would end up in dire financial straits.

Lindgren is more aware than most, one suspects, but even she isn’t free from complacency. The next year, directly after paragraphs describing the “intolerable food situation” in France and Finland, and the public executions in German-occupied Norway, she describes their new flat:

We now have a lovely big living room, the children each have their own room and then there’s our bedroom. …I really don’t want it to get bombed.

It’s a trifle difficult to summon up any sympathy at this point.

A semi-permanent strain in writing about the war, particularly modern-day writing about the war, is the question of how much people knew about the Holocaust and German/Russian atrocities at any given time. Despite the evident presence of Nazi apologism in the UK during the 1940s, it’s obvious that Lindgren is pretty well aware of what’s going on. This is probably at least in part to do with her work at the official government censor’s office: she has access to letters that demonstrate, first-hand, just how bad the situation is in the rest of Europe. Her growing awareness is painful; here’s a snippet from 1941:

A profoundly sad Jewish letter, a document of its time, crossed my desk today. A Jew who had recently arrived here in Sweden sent a fellow Jew in Finland an account of the transporting of Jews from Vienna to Poland. …Some sort of instruction arrives by post and the individual concerned has to leave home. …Conditions on the days leading up to transportation, during the journey and on arrival in Poland were such that the letter-writer didn’t want to describe them. …It is apparently Hitler’s intention to make Poland into one big ghetto where the poor Jews are to perish.

One big ghetto, or one big concentration camp. And here is a section from early 1943:

I wonder what the German people really think and feel, faced with the ‘blessings’ of National Socialism. A deadly war killing the flower of youth; the hatred and loathing of virtually all other nations; horrific assaults on defenceless people; torture both mental and physical of the populations of occupied countries; the informer system; the demolition of family life; ‘euthanasia’ for the incurably ill and mentally deficient; the reduction of love to a matter of basic procreation; and—unless all the signs are deceptive—total breakdown of the German people in the not-too-distant future. It’s simply impossible for many Germans not to have realized how royally duped they’ve been by their Führer.

The euthanasia bit is particularly striking; I wasn’t aware that many people outside of the Nazi regime knew about that at the time, particularly not as it related to the murder of differently-abled people and homosexuals. It’s a clear-eyed and condemnatory paragraph, making it even more horrifying to think about the widespread defense of eugenics in Allied countries.

It all seems so terribly relevant to 2016 in many ways. Here’s Lindgren celebrating a Churchill speech:

So different from a Hitler speech! You’d think everyone would realize that only a man with some kind of mental defect could stand up and make speeches like Hitler.

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ANYWAY.

And this, too, rings true, especially when she writes about the tens of thousands of Finnish, Danish and Norwegian refugees pouring into Sweden, and the anti-Semitism that sometimes greets them:

Recently I’ve been reading in Grimberg’s history of the world about ancient Rome and all the bloodbaths and atrocities, proscriptions and wars of conquest. Reading the papers and coming across the same geographical  names, one simply despairs at how little humanity has learnt in the intervening centuries.

So this is, after all, a useful and interesting addition to the panoply of World War literature published in the West. I only have two complaints about the editing of this particular edition. The first is that Lindgren’s diaries included a lot of press cuttings, newspaper articles, cartoons and the like. In this volume, these are not reproduced; instead, we get italicised précises of their contents. For instance: “Press cuttings. One undated and unidentified: ‘The Allied message to the people of Italy’. Roosevelt and Churchill appeal to them to surrender. …Dagens Nyheter, same day: After the bombing of Rome, petrol is free and loaded vehicles stream out of the city.” It’s not clear why these aren’t simply translated from Swedish like the rest of the book; maybe Pushkin thought that would make the whole thing too long, but at 218 pages it wouldn’t be damaged by a little more bulk, and might help to give the reader a better sense of the timelines of the war on various fronts. The other option would have been to reproduce the articles as facsimiles, though I suppose even in black and white this might have been considered prohibitively expensive.

The other issue, which is more confusing for the general reader, is the lack of footnotes. Lindgren writes about her family without explaining background, which is natural in a personal diary, but when personal diaries are published, explanatory notes are usually included. There are at least two instances where this would have been helpful: at one point she mentions her son’s 17th birthday, then writes of her 13th wedding anniversary a few pages later. This seemed unusually liberal, even for Sweden, in the 1940s, so I had to check out Wikipedia (where I discovered that Lindgren was rather a minx: Lars was fathered by her employer when she was nineteen. She refused to marry the man, and instead married another employer, Sture Lindgren, who was eleven years her senior, in 1931.) A brief footnote would have taken five minutes to write and saved the confusion. Likewise, in 1944 she drops several cryptic hints about having “lost everything”; her marriage seems to be going through a rough patch. The two likeliest explanations, to me, are a miscarriage, or Sture’s infidelity, but again, no note, and this time Wikipedia is no help: they never divorced, and no mention is made of relationship troubles. It’s possible that Pushkin thought Lindgren’s marriage woes simply weren’t relevant to the war, which is what the diaries are mostly about—but they were clearly important enough for her to mention in the diaries in the first place, so I think a reader is owed a little bit of explanation.

Those two niggles aside, this is a wonderful and, in places, heart-rending account of World War II, from a perspective not usually prioritised in historical retellings. Neutrality gives Lindgren an unusual objectivity, while Sweden’s geographical position means her account retains a sense of real urgency and investment in the war’s outcome. (Also, it’s delightful to catch her little asides about the invention of Pippi Longstocking!) Definitely one to look out for, especially as this year of global madness winds down.

Many thanks to Mollie Stewart at Pushkin Press for the review copy. A World Gone Mad was published in the UK on 27 October.

Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson

Like a pipe organ, a Digital Computer is not so much a machine as a meta-machine that can be made into any number of different machines…

As an eight-year-old, I suffered the indignity of having my parents rung up by my math teacher. This was not the last time my parents were rung up to discuss my behaviour—there was the time when I wrote rude notes about a teacher in my notebook, and the time when I hit a boy in the hallway and was recommended for child psychotherapy; I was a bit of a trial as a kid—but it was, in retrospect, the most depressing. My peccadillo, it turned out, was to have written, in darkly pressed graphite capitals, I HATE MATH in the top margin of every page of my math workbook. Every single one.

Things didn’t get any better after that. At nine, I memorized multiplication tables, but, oddly, didn’t learn long division. At ten, I went to middle school and was immediately placed into the bottom set for maths. At twelve, I was taught for a year by the redoubtable Amy Brudin, in whose classes I tried to read novels under the table. At fourteen, I went into freshman geometry, where I set the pace for the rest of my high school maths career by sitting silently near the back of the classroom, copying the answers out of the back of the textbook and being hit by intermittent waves of despair. At seventeen, I got into Oxford and told my AP Statistics teacher, as politely as I could, that her class was going to be the bottom of my priority list until I sat my AP English exam. She nodded, appeared to understand, and gave me full marks for the end-of-year project, which I’m fairly certain I didn’t even turn in.

This is all a very roundabout way of saying that if you had told me, fifteen or ten or five or even two years ago, that I would one day spend a good portion of my morning commute engrossed by a multi-page breakdown of modular arithmetic, and come out of the experience possessed of significant understanding, I would have laughed in your face. But this is exactly what happened in the course of reading Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, a book so erudite, so fascinating and so unexpectedly funny that I really think Stephenson could write about nearly anything and achieve much the same results.

There are three main plot strands, set in two different time periods. Beginning in the Second World War, we’re introduced to Bobby Shaftoe, a US Marine stationed in the Pacific whose raw intelligence is channeled into being an exceptional soldier and tactician, and Lawrence Waterhouse, whose mathematical genius is apparent from a very young age. Waterhouse spends a year of his university career at Princeton, where he meets Alan Turing, with whom he is friends for the rest of his life (one of the great joys of the book is the dialogue that Stephenson gives these two). He finishes university and joins the US Navy, and is in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese bomb it and the war, for the Americans, begins. Sixty years into the future, Waterhouse’s grandson Randy gets involved in a company that wants to establish a data haven in a small Southeast Asian country, and needs the help of Shaftoe’s descendants to do it. Throw a pile of Nazi war gold into the mix, and we’re deep in techno-thriller territory.

Stephenson’s virtues as a novelist are essentially twofold. The first of these is his ability to explain mathematical and computing concepts thoroughly, comprehensibly, and without being patronizing. This is an unspeakably difficult combination, but if you want the very definition of “writing for the intelligent layperson”, that’s what he does. The narrative voice at these points is patient, methodical, reasoned, and conversational. Here, for instance, is the beginning of a three-page exposition on a technique known as Van Eck phreaking:

The way that the computer talks to you is not by controlling the screen directly but rather by manipulating the bits contained in the buffer, secure in the knowledge that other subsystems inside the machine handle the drudge work of pipelining that information onto the actual, physical screen. Sixty to eighty times a second, the video system says shit! time to refresh the screen again, and goes to the beginning of the screen buffer—which is just a particular hunk of memory, remember—and it reads the first few bytes, which dictate what color the pixel in the upper left-hand corner is supposed to be. This information is sent on down the line to whatever is actually refreshing the screen, whether it’s a scanning electron beam or some laptop-style system for directly controlling the pixels. Then the next few bytes are read, typically for the pixel just to the right of that first one, and so on all the way to the right edge of the screen.

It’s impossible to read this and not be nodding your head, going, “Uh huh, okay, that all makes sense,” and then before you know it the man has gotten onto square waves and you’re like “Gosh, this makes sense too!” Ordinarily I am deeply anti-info-dumping in novels,  but I loved it in Cryptonomicon; the book sounds like this because a lot of its characters do, too, or at least you get the impression that they would, if you asked them to sit down and explain these things.

Stephenson’s other major novelistic gift, which you may have gathered a bit of from the above passage, is that he is very funny. It’s a dry, witty sort of humour, but it’s constant, and it makes the act of reading the book a continual pleasure. It’s about serious things and clever people, and part of the delight of that is recognizing how much of cleverness is the ability to play, to pretend, to be un-serious. The narration also maintains a lightly knowing touch on the way that nerds relate to each other: their emotional peculiarities and their ability to focus intensely. Here, for instance, Turing and Waterhouse in the early days of their friendship:

One day a couple of weeks later, as the two of them sat by a running stream in the woods above the Delaware Gap, Alan made some kind of an outlandish proposal to Lawrence involving penises. It required a great deal of methodical explanation, which Alan delivered with lots of blushing and stuttering. He was ever so polite, and several times emphasized that he was acutely aware that not everyone in the world was interested in this sort of thing.

Lawrence decided that he was probably one of those people.

Alan seemed vastly impressed that Lawrence had paused to think about it at all and apologized for putting him out. They went directly back to a discussion of computing machines, and their friendship continued unchanged.

Or, for another fine example of nerdy objectivism made humorous simply by being observed:

Later, he was to decide that Andrew’s life had been fractally weird. That is, you could take any small piece of it and examine it in detail and it, in and of itself, would turn out to be just as complicated and weird as the whole thing in its entirety.

“Fractally weird”! Who doesn’t know someone who is fractally weird, eh? What a brilliant idea, and what a way of expressing it.

It’s not all fun and games, however. Bobby Shaftoe’s plotline, in particular, becomes more and more fraught with violence and horror; he’s a Marine in the South Pacific just as the war with Germany ends and the war with Japan steps up. General MacArthur makes an appearance, and is sketched with more nuance than you might think; he’s clearly a lunatic, but a lunatic whose own internal logic is coherent. The sack of Manila, on the other hand, is unrelentingly horrible, and reading descriptions of it was sickening. Stephenson is to be commended for his clear-eyedness; just because he’s writing a novel that, in some sections, qualifies as picaresque, doesn’t mean he’s flippant about the horror or the trauma of war.

At over nine hundred pages, there are inevitable lapses in control; particularly near the end, it was difficult to keep all of the connections across the decades clear in my head, and some of the coincidences involved in connecting characters do seem a bit…well…strained, if you think about them too hard. But you don’t, because the book is galloping ahead at full speed the entire time, throwing off quips and asides, and you’re too busy having fun gathering those. After Cryptonomicon, Stephenson wrote three books which are collectively known as the Baroque Cycle and which feature Shaftoes and Waterhouses of yore, in the feverish atmosphere of political and technological acceleration which characterized eighteenth-century Europe. This happens to be my literary period of choice, so I am definitely going to find and read them; I’d read Stephenson’s shopping list, if I knew that it would give me another fix of that warm, ironic, sharply observant, utterly humane voice.

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It’s become almost a comedy trope in itself to say that the elderly are obsessed with the war. Consider your family Christmases: count up how many times your grandparents (or parents, I suppose, depending on your age) mention it. Quite apart from the fact that there seems to be a more general cultural obsession about the whole thing. No year is complete without at least one large-scale film about the heartwarming and life-affirming reactions of Ordinary People to the depredations of Mr. Hitler. Not necessarily English people (viz. The Book Thief), but definitely Ordinary People nonetheless. And if we can get through a year in publishing without yet another goddamn Churchill biography, I will sing and dance.

However, it does seem to me that there may be some method in all of this military madness. Wars have a way of burrowing into the national psyche. Whether you’re fascinated by every detail of Operation Overlord (and believe me, some people are) or want to throw things at the television every time another episode of Dad’s Army comes on, you have to admit that the war affected people in big ways. If they’re still talking about it seventy years after the fact, it’s probably worth knowing something about.

Which is why I’ve been reading history. Admittedly, David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain: 1945-1951 (Bloomsbury, £12.99) isn’t actually about the war; it’s about what happened after the war. But the post-war British political and cultural scene was (and still is, I suppose) one of the war’s most lasting effects. When my grandparents talk about their childhood, this is what they mean; the war itself ended before my grandmother turned ten, but she can acutely recall the fact that the rationing of sweets continued for ten years.

Consider that: ten years. Ten years of limited sweets, meat, eggs, flour, milk, nylon tights, paper, petrol, shoes, nearly every other form of clothing. One of the strengths of Kynaston’s work is that he uses diaries from the general public and from Mass Observation archives as well as government documents to build a picture of post-war Britain. This allows a window onto the feelings and reactions of people to government decisions and everyday events that is not possible in most other kinds of history writing; the overwhelming impression a reader receives of Britain in the late 1940s is of incredible hunger. “Oh, for a little extra butter!” one woman wails, after stoically enduring eight years of tedious and tasteless meals under rationing.

Kynaston is careful to point out that it is difficult to prove malnutrition; everyone was more or less receiving the amount of food they needed to live. (Oh, hurrah.) But imagine living in a country where everyone is hungry, and no meal is particularly satisfactory. Imagine the strain on tempers, on marriages, on households. At the moment I am both unemployed and trying to keep my savings in the bank, and trying to live on no more than £20 a week; although I am nowhere near malnourished, I am also almost constantly hungry. It does things to your mind, I discover, and also on your ability to deal with stress and the unexpected. In one of the book’s most telling anecdotes, two low-level government officials, John Belcher and George Gibson, were dismissed ignominiously from their posts in 1949 for granting favors in return for the “pathetically minor” rewards of a couple of decent meals, a bottle or two of whiskey and some cigarettes.

Another great virtue of using diaries as sources is that readers get to know the diarists fairly intimately; they become characters in the narrative of the whole nation. There is bitter but clear-eyed North London schoolteacher Gladys Langford; fussy bureaucrat Henry St. John; stolid and wistful Northern housewife Nella Last; harried but overall cheerful housewife and mother Judy Haines; and about half a dozen others. Together, they enable a contemporary reader to understand infinitely more about daily life in the 1940s than a more formal, top-down academic history could ever do. Though Kynaston doesn’t skimp on the politics and economics either–there is a respectable number of chapters devoted to analyzing Labour’s electoral success, and its subsequent crippling weaknesses–I found myself hurrying through them at a faster clip. They’re not uninteresting, but it was always illuminating to read a diarist’s take on current affairs.

Perhaps this is one reason why the elderly like war histories so much: it allows them to see their experiences analytically, to place their own lives alongside others and compare or contrast them. They can plug into a bigger picture–what they lived through can now be explained, historically and socioeconomically–and achieve a sense of perspective on events the significance of which might not have seemed obvious to them at the time. If, in fifty years, there is a spate of popular history books on 9/11 and the decades following it, I shall almost certainly be reading one or two of them, for the relative objectivity that they might provide.

Also everyone will find our fashions adorable in that many years’ time. Look at this kid’s little dungarees!