Mass Observation, anthropologist Tom Harrison's project to collect, in diary form, the thoughts and observations of ordinary people, was begun in the late Thirties (and revived in the 1980s at the University of Sussex, from where current projects are run, www.sussex.ac.uklibrarymassobs).
Here, Simon Garfield mines the Mass Observation archive for the diaries of five people: B. Charles, a gay antique dealer; Maggie Joy Blunt, a single woman fed up with her office job; Herbert Brush, a Pooteresque pensioner who never wins the allotment competition; George Taylor, a grumpy accountant; and Edie Rutherford, trying to reconcile her middle-class assumptions with her socialist conscience.
It's riveting stuff. There's lots of humour, especially from Herbert Brush, who attracts a storm of bees while digging potatoes. ("I guessed in a moment that the queen bee had evidently mistaken my Huck Finn hat for a suitable hive.") By contrast, there's endless whingeing about the government, to say nothing of anti-semitism. B. Charles, for example, writes, with the Belsen newsreels fresh in the nation's consciousness: "The Jews are a scourge to mankind. I should rejoice to know every Jew, man, woman and child, had been murdered!"
Today's diaries wouldn't read like that, would they? Actually, it's not being sure that's so disturbing.