They don’t exactly make a gripping read (my waking thoughts on Tuesday, 12th May):
- Rubbish out.
- Washing on.
- What shall we eat today?
- Should I shop? With a face mask? I check my phone for the news. Face masks are not yet mandatory, but are “advisable in some enclosed spaces.” I want to shop local (#supportlocal) but the supermarket may be quicker/cheaper.
(I decide to leave those last decisions until tomorrow, and crack on with the top two tasks. )
I write this and another 926 words in response to an appeal by the Mass Observation Project for contributions to mark the 10th Anniversary of its 12th May Diary Project. The aim is to capture a variety of snapshots of everyday life across the UK on one single day. This year is a noteworthy one, and the Diary Project, like all the other Mass Observation materials, will be invaluable to historians, scientists, commentators, educators and learners alike.
Three men had the idea for the programme of studies back in 1937. Tom Harrison, Humphrey Jennings and Charles Madge comprised a polymathic trio with their eclectic backgrounds in documentary film-making, ornithology, anthropology, painting, poetry and journalism. No wonder they conceived a project designed to be an “anthropology … of ourselves“.
Rich in details that were unsanitised, ordinary lives were observed and diarised from 1937 until the 1950s, when the project petered out. It was revitalised in the 1980s through (amongst other regular writings) a series of Directives issued to volunteers on topics ranging from the 1982 Royal Wedding and the Great Storm of 1987 to homelessness, housework, morality and religion.
All manner of matters are contained within the archives. The lively and prolific insights of Nella Last, writing primarily of her domestic life as wife and mother, are some of the best known. In 1939 she notes: “Funny how my menfolk hate women in pants. I do myself, but if necessary for work, would wear them.”
And in 1941 she has a word with her son, who has had the nerve to suggest she should cook for the Army if she ever needs to earn a living: “I said ‘What do you mean – work for my living. I guess a married woman who brings up a family and makes a home, is working jolly hard for her living. And don’t you ever forget it. And don’t get the lordly male attitude that thinking wives are pets – and kept pets at that.‘”
A few years later, Nella admits to darker thoughts: “I know that I’m not the sweet woman I used to be but rather a frayed battered thing, with nerves kept in control by effort that at times became too much and nervous breakdowns were the result.” (1945).
Contrast Nella’s unhappy marriage to the beauty of these wartime love letters:
Moving on to the 1980s, when a Winter 1982 Directive asks volunteers about food, we are reminded of how politics inform choices when a man (code name R470) writes: “We avoid South African produce as far as possible. Also EEC imports which have swamped our traditional home produces, e. g. French apples.“
A woman writer (D156) confesses to a rift in the kitchen: “My husband protests that I won’t cook hearts like his mother used to.”
Yet another discloses, without any explanation, that “Marmalade upsets us.“
Our (12th May) lockdown lunchtime soup, mopped up with bread, doesn’t evoke any memorable emotions, but the fact that bread flour is like gold dust these days may pique a baker’s interest 50 years hence. A tech nerd of the future might scratch his head at the mention of a Zoom catch up. Or let’s suppose a cocktail-loving epidemiologist is intrigued into sampling a quarantini with a friend (at a distance).
What is refreshing and revealing about the Mass Observation Project is that it makes generalisations of everyday life impossible. Experiences are personal and subjective. As Muriel Green writes in 1942, the war “has altered our life which can never be the same. To see the desolate emptiness of the seaside upsets me.”
And it is the attitudes of ordinary individuals that stand out. At the outbreak of war, on 2 September 1939, Mr J Austin reports of an elderly lady who arrives at Ealing Town Hall in her nurse’s uniform and says: “I may not be young, but I’m still active.” (1939: A People’s History by Frederick Taylor).
So, would you consider making an offering to the Mass Observation Project? For even the most commonplace pursuits in this extraordinary year may stoke someone’s curiosity in 2070. (I am glad that the minutiae of my uneventful 12th May will remain anonymous, although it would be nice to think that a future gardening enthusiast might follow my father’s tried and tested spud-growing advice – after googling – or whatever is the way then – what on earth a “spud” is).
A last word from Nella:
“Sunday 8 October 1939: Next to being a mother, I’d have loved to write books – that is if I had the brains and the time.“
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