Delving into Mass Observation: What the 12th May Day Diaries can tell us about health

Kirsty Pattrick

The joy of the day diary is being catapulted into someone’s life for that brief moment. With a fascination of people, their lives and behaviours, this always feeds my sheer nosiness.

Delving into the 12th May day diaries is a treat. They come from people of all ages across the UK and leave me hanging, wanting more. All we know of these writers is their age and gender, some give further biographical information but for the purpose of this collection, that is our only request. I read of the mundane to the life changing and the utterly personal, feeling touched and richer from the experience.

Issues of health and wellbeing arise in so much of Mass Observations collections. These diaries capture the minutiae; the small, the repetitive, the routine. Yet, what I see in a number of them are how daily events and actions are intertwined, led by, or are the result of peoples health and wellbeing.

‘Today was a typical day as far as the last three months is concerned but not for my ‘normal’ life. I was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time in December 2016. This time it has spread to my neck. The Oncologist arranged for me to get a three-week course of Radiotherapy. Since then I have suffered greatly with fatigue and can quite easily sleep for 16-18 hours a day.’ Female, 49

In The Keep Reading Room I’m moved as I read of grief, loss and healing. Lost in the writing, unaware of the public space I sit within. The value of friendships, of family and loved ones shared. The reflectiveness from those who wrote last year and the changes their lives have seen. For some life can turn on its head far too fast.

At the Macmillan Centre ‘we all benefit from the companionship – and the delicious cakes and refreshments.’ Female, 74

The 12th May 2017 was a Friday and a wet day for many. Getting into the garden, was seen not only as a hobby for some but a form of therapy for others; for health, for healing and for the serendipitous fun of seeing what food growing skills they can master. Something I definitely identified with, reflecting on my sweetcorn harvest and cauliflower failure.

‘Life became unbearable due to his alcohol abuse and entanglement with someone else. My garden is my slave and I, its slave – a willing one’ F,70

I saw similarities in routines; our use of media, commutes to school, work, exercise classes and duties of care, as well as food shopping, diet and financial worries. Yet within this, ran a thread of how our daily lives impact our health and how our health has an impact on our daily life; from those in bed with colds and coughs, to injuries and then those managing illness, for some life-limiting and  life-threatening.

My friend ‘has dementia and over the past 4/5 years it has resulted in a personality change, sad. She forgets what she has ordered by the time it arrives, and actually thought she had already had lunch. He is very patient and calm, and lets some of her wilder statements pass.’ Female, 87

I read of Cancer, the NHS, carers and the managing of medication along with the exploration of alternative therapies; the hope, the fears and the lifelines given.

‘My husband gave up work 16 years ago because of M.E. so he holds everything together at home and keeps the ship sailing while I go to work.’ Female,55

Conversations with family, friends, groups or the local shop owner showed in scale of from everyday actions; providing pleasure and happiness to others where it led to feelings of a burden, a frustration or an upset. For some, these events provided a beacon of support and the boost of mood.

‘My friend wanted to introduce me to another friend whose child is self-harming and has recently made a suicide attempt. My older child did the same 5 years ago, so we chatted about that and what had helped in my child’s situation. It was all quite ranty and sweary and much more fun that its sounds as we were all pretty honest about some quite difficult subjects and it felt quite cathartic.’ Female, 45

‘I sit on a table with three ladies who always make me laugh. I needed that today because my overall mood today was down. I woke up missing my children and my mum and I know I will go to bed feeling the same.’ Female, 55 Sutton Park Prison

‘I wake up at 6. I was feeling pretty low last night – stressed, poor and stretched in multiple directions – and it still weighs on me this morning. I try not to let it show. I sit on the sofa with my two year old and dutifully read through the first Where’s Wally book (my own childhood copy, it must be about a quarter of a century old)’. Male, 31

The diaries provide multiple windows of observation on the lives of individuals, families, communities and groups on the same date across Britain. They can give a lens into how people’s health and wellbeing, their feelings and emotions can guide their day and their actions and the resulting impact of this. Ways of managing, overcoming and avoiding health issues explored and explained; from medication and meditation to exercise and regular companionship.

The parallel lives on this one date are compelling. We share a lot of love for porridge, for morning exercise, tea in bed and for hiding back under the duvet. We are also habitual in grabbing for our devises before we rise, checking the news, e-mails and Facebook. It was the end of the week for a lot of our writers and pizza was on the table in quite a few households. Concerns and worries were heavily linked to politics, to the next general Election and to Trump’s Presidency. Towards the end of the day there were also thoughts and reflections upon the NHS cyber attack.

One thread that ultimately runs through is the action of recording, of writing, sharing and reflecting. This process itself; cathartic, healing, purposeful and productive for many.

As closing time hits the Reading Room, I spend time reflecting on the diverse lives I’ve shared today and as ever am in awe of the time our writers dedicate to Mass Observation.

To find out more about the Mass Observation Archive collections visit The Keep website

To  find out how to participate in 12th May 2018 visit The Mass Observation website

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