What a good motto for a journalist, I thought then, and I quickly adopted the phrase as my own. That was a fair number of years ago, but I have kept the motto ever since.
I had never read the book, however — until this year when my sister, Stacy, gave me a copy as a gift.
Naomi Mitchison was a Scottish poet and writer who was also an active socialist and an early feminist. She died in 1999 at the age of 101.
“Among You Taking Notes” covers her experiences from 1939 to 1945, when Great Britain was fully engaged in the war. Ms. Mitchison spent those years nowhere near the war’s front lines. Although she did suffer through a few air raids, she spent most of the war period trying to maintain the family estate in a rural Scottish fishing village. Her book is less about the kind of war heroics that big box office movies often glorify than about the day to day privations and sometimes even small inconveniences and irritations suffered and endured by those on the homefront. Granted, the home front could be a dangerous place. Air raids by bombers and later unmanned drones could be a real threat. Certainly, worries for those you knew who were fighting were also a constant presence. But Ms. Mitchison also details the difficulties of wartime rationing and the struggles to get news of the war, especially news you could trust to be accurate.
When most of us think of the war today, the Nazi atrocities and the concentration camps come quickly to the forefront. But only two entries in Ms. Mitchison’s diary relate to those, and those entries come very late in the book. We hear more about how both the French and British harbored mistrust of the Americans in their midst as the war progressed. Yet, she worries deeply about the impact of the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt late in the war; Roosevelt’s death thousand of miles away comes through her pages with the same kind of immediacy as her description of the death of a lamb she is trying to deliver during a breeched birth. Later, she writes with profound ambivalence about the dropping of the first atomic bombs.
But beyond the big moments and occasional glimmers of awareness of history, the driving force that permeates the diary is a desire for normalcy. Despite the full-scale warfare engulfing Europe, people still worry about the education of their children, about their futures and their careers, whether they are fishermen or farmers or physicians. Ms. Mitchison continues to work on books, to organize local dances, to celebrate Christmas and Halloween, even while laboring in her estate’s fields. She opens her doors to children from the cities, trying to escape potential bombing raids, and to soldiers on leave. She also continues to agitate for her left-wing political ideas.
Ms. Mitchison’s status as a woman is a recurring theme throughout the book, and young women who take their freedom for granted would be well advised to read her work and the work of others to gain a better appreciation of how much progress has resulted from the efforts of dedicated feminists over the decades.
Ms. Mitchison is cheered at book’s end – not long after the war’s end – by Labour’s victory in the British elections. Yet, she also says in the diary’s last entry that she expects “we are in for a civilisation based on communism …. It may be unpleasant and its immediate values are not those I care for.”
That statement was not prescient, as events unfolded, but the paragraph begins with words that were: “I know we are going to have hell trying to work the peace, trying to give people a worth-while-ness in their peace time lives comparable with the worth-while-ness of working together during the war. We shall probably fail.”
Have we failed? I would not go quite that far, although our civilization’s record has been spotty. Certainly we have been engaged in many different kinds of battles since that journal entry, and sometimes people en masse rise to the occasion. But our success at giving “people a worth-while-ness” has not been a constant of modern life.
A final note: Until I read the frontispiece of Ms. Mitchison’s book, I did not realize that “Among You Taking Notes” was not an original phrase.
Ms. Mitchison borrowed it from Robert Burns, just as I years later borrowed it from her. In 1793, Burns wrote in “On the late Captain Grose’s Peregrinations Thro’ Scotland:”
“A cheild’s amang ye takin’ notes
And faith he’ll prent it”
Imagine that. I heard the title and thought of journalists’ taking notes. Ms. Mitchison used it to refer to herself, a poet. But Burns refers to children being among us taking notes. Children might, after all, be the keenest observers of our behavior.
Are they watching us build a society where everyone — women, men and, yes, children — can have a sense of “worth-while-ness?” What notes are they taking today?