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Love and War in London

Interview with Robert W. Malcolmson

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Who was Olivia Cockett?

She was a twenty-six-year-old English-woman living in London in 1939, when she started to keep a wartime diary. She worked as a clerk in New Scotland Yard (the Metropolitan Police), commuted to her office by train, read several books a week, and was involved in an intense love affair with a married man. She was passionate, feisty, introspective, and observant, and she had a keen love of language.

Why is her diary worth reading?

Her diary is well-written, vibrant, and evocative. By the standards of the times, it is unusually candid and forthright, especially with regard to sexual feelings. Olivia Cocketts journals bring together the private and the public, for she both discloses her intimate feelings and records what she sees and hears as she goes about her daily life in wartime London. Hers is a diary that embraces both the personal and the public. It permits us to understand how one intelligent and imaginative woman struggled to make sense of her own life as her private world and the great city where she lived were swept up in the turmoil of a catastrophic war.

Have you as editor added to her diary in any way?

Most of Olivia Cocketts diary was written for Mass-Observation, a remarkable British research organization, established in 1937, that aspired to create a sort of social anthropology of everyday life in modern Britain. Diary-keeping was one way of documenting this science of ourselves an acknowledgment of the legitimacy if each individuals perspective on the process of history. This book prints Olivia Cocketts M-O diary virtually in full. I have also added selections from some of her surviving personal papers, which her family has kindly allowed me to use; and, on occasion, I have quoted from the writings of other wartime writers when their observations help to enlarge the scope of Olivias diary and aid the reader in appreciating what she has to say. My main purpose has been to allow her voice to be heard a voice that is strong, clear, and full of life.

Olivia Cockett had an influential position in the post-war British civil service, enjoyed a degree of professional prominence, and was honoured with an OBE upon her retirement. In her active retirement she was energetic in pursuing a wide range of interests and commitments. An Epilogue to the diary offers an appreciation of the last thirty years of her life.