Sunday, January 11, 2009

Ordinary people

Naomi Mitchison, a prolific Scottish writer and activist, died ten years ago today aged 101. She wrote almost as many books as she lived years, including one based on the diaries she kept for the social research organisation, Mass Observation, during the war. This gives a wonderful picture of Mitchison’s upper-class world, though one very much coloured by her liberal concerns.

Naomi Haldane was born in 1897 in Edinburgh, to a wealthy family, and educated at Dragon School and St Anne’s College, Oxford. During the war, she married Dick Mitchison, and after it, they both became Fabian Labour campaigners. He was elected to Parliament, later being elevated to the House of Lords. Until the 1930s, the Mitchisons lived in Hammersmith, London, entertaining, among others, a wide circle of literary friends. They had seven children, though one died at birth and another of meningitis when still young.

In the late 1930s, the family moved to Carradale in Argyll, where she lived for the rest of her life. Soon after, at the request of the social research organisation, Mass Observation, Naomi began to keep a diary. She travelled often and widely, both before and after the war, and, in the 1960s, was adopted as an honourary adviser by the Bakgatha tribe in Botswana. She was a lively activist, always campaigning on political and social issues, particularly family planning. She was also interested in gardening and archaeology, and was very much committed to her local area.

Naomi’s main occupation, though, was always writing. Her first novel, The Conquered, was published in 1923, and other novels, such as The Corn King and The Blood of the Martyrs, followed in the 1930s. All in all, she wrote nearly 100 books, including biographies, essays, fiction, poetry and some well-respected and entertaining memoirs. Excerpts from her early diaries are contained in the biography The Nine Lives of Naomi Mitchison, but there’s also a full book of the diary entries made for Mass Observation - Among You Taking Notes... The Wartime Diary of Naomi Mitchison, 1939-1945 - edited by Dorothy Sheridan and first published by Victor Gollancz in 1985 (but more recently by Phoenix Press).

Mitchison died 10 years ago today, on 11 January 1999, aged 101. The Guardian website has an obituary, and also an appreciation of her by Neal Ascherson who wrote: ‘She was wise, having lived through much personal turmoil, and brave: somebody who lived out her feminism in days when love and freedom could carry grim penalties. . . If intelligent people shouted long and loud enough at governments, she believed, truth would prevail. She often did prevail. For the rest of us not raised in an age of reason, it is harder.’ Further information can be found at Wikipedia, and at The Diary Junction.

Mass Observation, which was founded in 1937, recruited a team of observers and a large panel of volunteer writers so as to study the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain. This work continued through the war and until the early 1950s, but was taken up again in the 1980s. It still continues today in the care of the University of Sussex. Some of the diary entries from the original project have been published in anthologies, but at least two diarists have had their war diaries published separately. One of these is Naomi Mitchison (another is Nella Last). Here is the very first entry from Mitchison’s book, Among You Taking Notes, which gives an impression of her liberal tendencies, and also of her privileged life.

1 September 1939
‘Woke from nightmare to realise that at least it hadn’t happened yet: so until after breakfast. Got the news at 10:30. Two of the boys had been out all night herring fishing so were asleep still; the others came in and listened. At the end Dick said ‘That’s torn it’. Thought I had better at once return the cups and saucers borrowed from the [Women’s Rural Institute] and the school urn, and see what news there was of children to be evacuated. Felt a bit sick. Went into the garden, and saw Willie, very white; he had been listening to Hitler ‘working them up’ - Willie himself conducts a choir. Talked a little to him and James Downie, all felt it had got to come now. We talked of the ordinary people in Germany and tried to hope this would mean the end of privilege everywhere. So to the stables; Lachie was filling up the car, so I waited talking to Eddie and Taggie, both of them curiously without enmity towards Germany; we discussed ploughing up the fields for potatoes, and they argued as to whether they would bear two crops in succession and I said I hoped they wouldn’t have to. Taggie talked about his young brother who is a C. O. said ‘They’ll shoot him before he goes’ and then ‘It’s no free country where they can do that’. I said I thought it important that there should be some real pacifists in any community, and they agreed; I said I would do what I could for the boy. Both agree that the ordinary people in Germany don’t want this. Lachie brought the car back; I said ‘Bad news’, and he soberly said ‘Aye’.’

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