Mass Observation

Friday Diary: 12th May, Mass Observation & the diary of an Ordinary Woman by daintydora

This week I kept a day-diary on Tuesday 12th May for the Mass Observation's annual call-out to capture the everyday lives of people across the UK. Mass Observation Archive Poster

Why 12th May?

In 1937 Mass Observation called for people from all parts of the UK to record everything they did from when they woke up in the morning to when they went to sleep at night on 12th May. This was the day of George VI’s Coronation. The resulting diaries provide a wonderful glimpse into the everyday lives of people across Britain, and have become an invaluable resource for those researching countless aspects of the era. May 12th 2015 is likely to be quite an ordinary day, but for those researching, the ‘ordinary’ it can often provide extraordinary results.

I'm just getting ready to send my 12th May diary in to the archive, having written previously about my love of keeping a diary and my favourite female diarists.

What I love so much about Mass Observation is the idea of contributing to a public research project where my words will not only live on beyond my life, but also help to inform researchers of what life is like for 'an ordinary woman' in 2015. (Writing this makes me think of Anne Frank and her famous diary, though she did not have an ordinary life at all.)

I wrote a 12th May diary last year. It's interesting to read back over what I wrote then and remember that day so vividly.

It's also topical to republish this book review that I wrote about Margaret Forster's Diary of an Ordinary Woman. It is written in diary form with just the occasional authorial note, so immediately draws you into the visceral first-person narrative.

Starting off in 1913 when the protagonist - Millicent - begins her first diary at the age of 13, the strong character voice from the outset reveals Millicent to be selfish, stand-offish and pass-remarkable which causes friction in every relationship she has - with family, friends and lovers.

She comes across as reserved, prim, lacking in warmth and not hugely likeable, but with strong principles and a determination to achieve something important.

As well as this she wants - demands - a room of her own (while growing up) - shades of Virginia Woolf - space of her own (as an adult), and time to think, reflect and process her thoughts.

And write her diary.

The short entries of the diary-format kept the pace up for me, and I liked the fact that Millicent wasn't some people-pleaser character that can do no wrong. She is often misconstrued and misunderstood. This only served to make her more real to me.

Part of the appeal of the book was to experience the events of the early twentieth century through Millicent's eyes. Autobiography almost; social commentary.

Before long, war breaks out and the entries evoke the fear, uncertainty, rationing, hardships and day-to-day considerations of London at that time - Millicent must always carry her gas-mask with her for example; she has to spend the night in an underground station during an air raid.

I had read a similar diary a few years ago which also recalled war-time London - Love & War in London - A Woman's Diary 1939 - 1942 by Olivia Cockett. It was both compelling and sad all at once; not knowing what was going to happen next, but understanding the constraints of living in the midst of war; experiencing that heightened sense of futility, fear, frustration and unfaltering hope for peace and freedom and an end to the uncertainty of the situation, all the while reminding myself that what was on the page actually took place.

Back to Millicent. It was just before the midpoint of the book that I flicked to the end. Not to find out what happens at the end, or to read the final page. I would never do that. I just sometimes like to know how many pages there are in the book. How many I have left. Sometimes I want there to be more because I'm enjoying the story, other times, not so much. Either way it's like a reading reward.


The page I found was the Author's Note. I didn't think it would be any kind of spoiler - usually this part goes along the lines of "...blah blah lives alone with ten cats and a budgie in Nottinghamshire and this is her third book.", or "...blah blah has travelled widely, lecturing in creative writing at blah blah university and now has 2 children with blah blah and they all live in a grand old house in London."

I didn't see any harm in reading the few lines that presented themselves. Teeny, tiny lines. A short paragraph. Huge mistake.

***Spoiler, Spoiler***

It turns out that the diaries were complete fiction, not real at all, fabricated; not the actual story of a woman growing up in war-torn London, just a figment of the author's imagination (and research).

A gamut of emotions followed: anger, upset, disappointment...disgust. It almost stopped me reading on. I had believed in Millicent being real. All that was ruined and the whole thing felt like a sham. An empty shallow sham of a book. I hadn't read the back cover, just picked up the book at a tombola, put it on a shelf, then picked it out at random and started reading. There's a lesson learnt.

And I don't know if it was finding out it wasn't real, or just the second part of the book wasn't as strong, but I didn't enjoy it as much from then on in, and particularly not the dénouement.

What I did love however was the reference to Mass Observation.

The Mass Observation Archive was originally founded in 1937 as a social and anthropological exercise in gauging and capturing the thoughts, opinions and day-to-day doings of the population through diary writing. 'Millicent' hears about it, and decides she will contribute her own musings and experiences.

This chimed with me as I too am a mass observer. Major confession. I've been sending diaries and replies to 'Directives' for around three years now. Each response is archived forever and is used for research purposes.

When Millicent was writing about how wonderful it would be to contribute to Mass Observation, I was thinking, I really need to get my latest response sent in. I felt a kinship and a synchronicity which drew me into the book even further, so it felt doubly disappointing to find this was just another clever deceit of the author.

Would it have been better to find out at the end? Would I have guessed by then?

Answers on a postcard.

NB. The book review part of this post was originally published in 2013.


Julian Trevelyan: A Travelling Suitcase of the (Creative) Mind by daintydora

I have been a mass-observer now for a few years, and had heard a lot about Julian Trevelyan's work as an artist, and specifically his suitcase of ephemera - tickets, receipts, newspaper and other similar paper-based enchantments. (And I adore paper-based enchantments.) In 2013 I took a day-trip to London to see the fantasticMass Observation: This is Your Photoexhibition at the Photographer's Gallery in London, and so I was able to view this coveted suitcase in person.

Julian Trevelyan's suitcase.jpg
Isn't the doily so perfectly preserved?

Julian Trevelyan was an artist and poet who documented street-scenes of northern English towns - specifically Bolton - through detailed collages crafted from the contents of his suitcase. I love this idea, and I love the fact that he was clearly an archiver of the times; a social artist and diarist through the medium of paper and glue as well as pen and paper.

With packing bags for a few trips away of late (including a spa break for my birthday), and trying to maintain my creative practices while away, I thought back to Julian Trevelyan's suitcase and how wonderful it must have been to travel about and just 'set up shop' to craft and create, wherever and whenever.

There is such a beautiful freedom in that for me, and although I try to recreate that carefree sense of creativity on the go in my own life, I always end up loaded down with sketchbooks and scrapbooks and maybe my laptop and knitting needles poking me in the eye.

Julian Trevelyan Collage.jpg

I also keep memory boxes and envelopes with tickets and receipts and postcards; collections in the physical realm that represent and trigger memories of days out, holidays, trips to the cinema, encapsulating an era, a time in my life, pockets of thought that can instantly be recalled just through the visual stimulus of the paper trail left behind.

They are like springboards to other creative practices such as art journaling and writing down my family story which is omnipresent in my mind.

But I can't help but compare the jam-packed, jumbled suitcase contents to memories all stacked together, filed in non-chronological order inside the creative mind. The mind of any creative person with projects and plans intertwined and multi-layered, multi-faceted, overlapping.

I wonder what Julian Trevelyan would have made of the modern technological world as a platform for artists, and for documenting life and art as we do now pretty much everyday in one way or another through social media, blogging, video, etc? I'd love to know.

Julian Trevelyan Collage Close Up.jpg
I cruised around and settled on the outskirts of town near to some cotton mills and reservoirs. At the time I was making collages; I carried a large suitcase full of newspapers, copies of Picture Post, seed catalogues, old bills and other scraps, together with a pair of scissors, a pot of gum, and a bottle of Indian ink. I was applying the collage techniques I had learnt from the Surrealists to the thing seen, and now tore up pictures of the Coronation crowds to make the cobblestones of Bolton. It was awkward, sometimes, in a wind, when my little pieces would fly about, and I was shy of being watched at it; but it was a legitimate way, I think, of inviting the god of Chance to lend a hand in painting my picture.Julian TrevelyanFrom his book, Indigo Days, 1957

Mass Observation - 12th May Diary by daintydora

I love writing diaries. And reading them. I've been a Mass Observer for a few years now, and really enjoy contributing to a long-term social history project such as the Mass Observation Archive; a UK-wide life-writing project which is used for research, teaching and learning.

The 12th May 1937 was the first year that Mass Observation asked people living in the UK to record the details of their day, to coincide with George VI’s Coronation.

The subsequent 12th May diaries "provide a wonderful glimpse into the everyday lives of people across Britain, and have become an invaluable resource for those researching countless aspects of the era." Some people may live fantastical, amazing and glamorous lives, but the majority of us don't and it is the minutiae that is the most interesting; a fly-on-the-wall insight into the highs and lows experienced on a typical day, which would likely be in stark contrast to a special day such as a national holiday or Christmas Day. I thought I'd share an excerpt from my 12th May diary for this year, which I will be submitting to the Mass Observation archive, whilst also spreading the word and work of Mass Observation.

"I woke at 4am, but got up at 6am. I had vivid dreams of swimming through many pools, and had ideas buzzing inside my head. I typed some immediate thoughts down on my laptop and then replied to various emails, enjoying the feel of being awake so early. I got ready for work and was in a bit of a rush after my burst of morning productivity, so had to bolt down my muesli (a homemade mix of oats, bran, dried fruit; all sorts). After a short detour, I walked to the train station. The ground was wet from the previous nights' rain and I noticed that the blossom from the trees has mostly blown away. My train was busy but not so busy that I didn't get a seat. I phoned my Dad and caught up on some news. I arrived at work..."

Anyone at all can submit a diary for 12th May as you don't need to be an existing 'observer' or sign-up, or even submit it today. The only rules are:

"Write as much as you can about what you do, who you meet, what you talk about, what you eat and drink, what you buy or sell, what you are working on, the places you visit, the people you meet, the things you read, see and hear around you, how you are feeling and of course what you yourself think."

Go on. Write a diary for the 12th May 2014, and surprise yourself with all that you saw, felt, heard, did, wondered, dreamed...the lives that you touched with yours, the interactions you had, the conversations; and those that you inspired by just being you.


famous writers & diarists on keeping a diary by daintydora

A quote each from some of my favourite and well-known writers and diarists. Their thoughts toward keeping a diary and what to include in it mirror my own from my previous post on the topic. Joan Didion - "How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all?...The point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking. That would be a different impulse entirely, an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess."

Susan Sontag - "In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself. The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather - in many cases - offers an alternative to it..."

Sylvia Plath - “I want to write because I have the urge to excel in one medium of translation and expression of life. I can't be satisfied with the colossal job of merely living. Oh, no, I must order life in sonnets and sestinas and provide a verbal reflector for my 60-watt lighted head.” 

Anais Nin - “Ordinary life does not interest me. I seek only the high moments. I am in accord with the surrealists, searching for the marvelous.” 

Doris Lessing - "A story is how we construct our experiences."

Anne Frank - “I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”

Virginia Woolf - “What sort of diary should I like mine to be? I should like it to resemble some deep old desk or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself and refined itself and coalesced, as such deposits so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life, and yet steady, tranquil compounds with the aloofness of a work of art."


Diaries, Journals, Secrets, Memories & Mass Observation by daintydora

Diary, notepad, journal

Throughout my life I have kept a written account of my thoughts, experiences, plans, hopes and dreams. At the moment I am in a halfway house where I sometimes write by hand and sometimes type my diary, keeping an electronic chronicle of specific events or day to day experiences, depending on where I am and what is most convenient. This makes for a difficult personal archive, as there is no consistency or chronology of dates between entries.

And then I started to wonder what would become of my own diaries - I am also 'an ordinary woman' (see previous post, 'Diary of an Ordinary Woman') - extraordinary only to myself and immediate family (maybe!).

I'm not famous. And in all likelihood, never will be. I don't have children yet, and may never have them.

So who would be interested in what I have written about my life once I die? Would a lifetime chronicle of events end up lost, forgotten, thrown away, or handed into a charity shop? Recycled perhaps into tomorrow's toilet paper?

In many cases, not being famous makes a diary even more interesting. Though I have to admit that in my early twenties I was obsessed with Sylvia Plath and her journal,  and then moved on to Simone de Beauvoir, recently embarking on Doris Lessing's autobiography. An autobiography is really just an edited, organised diary isn't it?

But still: what to do? And that's when I decided that as a Mass Observer, I would like to leave my diaries to the Mass Observation Archive. What a perfect solution. It all fell into place while reading Margaret Forster's Diary of an Ordinary Woman. What a weight off my mind.

Maybe one day, I will be famous. Posthumously. Like Olivia Cockett, (also referred to in my previous post).

And then of course there is other accumulated memorabilia; ephemera; photographs. Memory boxes. Scrapbooks. Maybe the archive will be interested in that too. After all, what is it if not a personal archive of a life; a snapshot in time through the filter of my nature/nurture generation?