12th May 2020 an introduction to the diaries

By Chloe Daniel – Mass Observation Archive Assistant

23 March, 2020. The country, along with life as we knew it, stopped. School’s out. Non-essential shopping is no longer permitted. Gatherings involving more than two people now prohibited. You may only leave your house for a small number of reasons and exercise outdoors is now limited to once a day. ‘Lockdown’ begins. Of course, reader, I probably do not need to explain the reasons behind this. If you are reading this in 2021, you will already know. If you are reading this in the future, this period was so momentously life changing that I imagine you would have learnt about it in school. Or maybe your grandmother or grandfather told you what it was like to live through this strange time. For the sake of clarity however, I will explain.

How the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded in the United Kingdom

COVID-19 is a disease which was identified in Wuhan, China in December 2019. Questions surrounding this illness, which seemed to attack the respiratory system, soon began circulating around the world. At first, the attitude amongst ordinary people in the United Kingdom generally seemed to be one of nonchalance (or at least from what I remember). In fact, as of 9 January 2020, health officials were still unsure if the virus even spread via ‘human-to-human transmission.’[1] As the month went on however, the cause for concern progressed. Alarming reports of a hospital in China being constructed in ten days to treat coronavirus patients began to cause anxiety.[2] If this new disease is nothing to worry about, what would be the need to panic build a hospital? On the 31 January 2020, the first two cases of coronavirus were confirmed in the United Kingdom.[3] Over the next couple of months, the number of confirmed cases in the UK continued to grow. It became clear that a serious problem was arising. On 5 March 2020, the first person to die of the coronavirus in the UK was announced.[4] Just six days after this, on 11 March 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that coronavirus was to be officially classified as a pandemic.[5] On 23 March 2020, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared on television sets across the country.[6] 27.5 million people watched his sobering message[7] The disease was spreading quickly and taking many lives. Something needed to be done. A national lockdown was announced and together we needed to adhere to the restrictions I mentioned above, in order to control the spread of the virus.

“Mass Observation has annually been asking for people to send in a record of their day on 12th May. The diaries provide an amazing insight into the lives of ordinary people across Britain”

The (ongoing) period that ensued would be life changing for many. For some, there would be periods of immense sorrow and loss. For others, this period would bring newfound happiness in areas previously unexplored. For the majority, I think it proved to be a mixture of the two. After all, our thoughts and feelings are not linear.

The 12th May 2020 collection

How do I know about how people were feeling, you may now be asking?

A Google map showing locations of MO diarists
12th May – Map detailing diary locations (sample size: 1000 diaries)

The Mass Observation Archive sent out a call for 12th May 2020 diaries. This was not a new directive. In fact, since 1937, Mass Observation has annually been asking for people to send in a record of their day on 12th May. The diaries provide an amazing insight into the lives of ordinary people across Britain.[8] The call for 12th May 2020 diaries occurred during the first lockdown. The responses will be a fundamental resource for those who wish to learn more about life for ordinary people during the coronavirus pandemic. The response rate was astonishing. Over 5000 people sent in a diary for 12th May 2020. Entries arrived from every corner of the United Kingdom, from Aberdeen in Scotland to Marazion in Cornwall. The youngest diarist I have so far encountered was just three years old whilst the oldest was ninety-one. Responses have arrived from people of all races, religions and genders. From those living in city locations to others in the countryside. Similarly, the range of occupations of our writers is also broad, from school children and students to nurses, teachers, lawyers, administrators, architects, archivists, photographers, bakers, civil servants and engineers, just to name a few.

12thMay Pie chart detailing age groups of the diarists
12th May – pie chart detailing age groups of the diarists (sample size: 1000 diaries)

As the Archive Assistant working on the 12th May 2020 collection, it is my duty to catalogue each diary and ensure that they are properly digitally preserved so that they can be made accessible. This means saving an original copy of each diary and then a second copy with any sensitive information redacted so that they can be used for research and other purposes. Of course, many diaries are deeply personal, and some writers do not wish for their submission to be used for research purposes, so these are stored separately and securely. Whilst cataloguing the diaries, I record any demographic data contained and I also record anything specifically notable about the diaries which may be of use to researchers. As you can probably imagine, almost every diary written during a pandemic has something very notable included.

Pie chart detailing gender groups of the diarists (sample size: 1000 diaries)
12th May – pie chart – gender groups of the diarists (sample size: 1000 diaries)

Reading the diaries is an emotional journey. Some entries provide very raw accounts of loss and death and detail the anguish of losing a loved one, as well as the difficult grieving process which follows.[10] These can be very hard to read and highlight the dark realities of living under the threat of a deadly virus. Many diaries also discuss separation and the heartache this causes. Grandparents who can no longer see their grandchildren, students unable to return to their parents and lovers kept apart.[11] Others detail financial worries or concerns around losing employment.[12]

There are, however, those who detail happy experiences during lockdown. One set of new parents have recorded how happy they were to be working from home as it meant they could experience precious time with their new-born baby.[13] Some have used this time as a period of self-development, to start new hobbies and even look in to setting up new businesses. Others have used this period has a time to connect with nature and appreciate the natural world.[14]

Photograph of a sunflower seedling
12th May – sunflower competition – writer MT_2020_589 – for her street sunflower growing competition… she said she hoped to maintain ‘the friendliness and support from neighbours and strangers.’

Some of the diaries have made me laugh, a few have made me cry, some I can relate to and some experiences seem to be a world away from my own. Even though each lockdown story is different, this period also seems to have brought people together. Of course, there are times that it has brought out the worst in people, panic buying being one of them.[15] Yet there also seems to be a tremendous sense of community spirit which has been documented in many of the diaries. Writers discuss shopping for their isolating neighbours or volunteering at foodbanks.[16] The main thing that I have taken from the vast majority of the diaries is that this experience has put into perspective what really matters for many people. Very few entries detail materialistic things such as how important it is to have the nicest car or newest phone. Instead, they discuss the food on the table, the importance of health, contact with friends and family and the need to treat the world and those around us with kindness. Many entries finish off with the writer stating that they hope that after this is over, we focus more on these things and continue to look after our communities. I sincerely hope so too.

Over the next few months, I plan to share more information from the diaries with you. I will be writing on the different themes and trends that I notice coming from the entries. I will also be discussing the ways in which I think they may be useful to future researchers and the areas that they can provide insightful information on. These diaries provide 5000 individual stories of what it is like to live through an event that changed history. To me, the beauty of the diaries is that they are not giving us a retrospective account but instead provide an expression, sometimes even an outburst of thoughts and feelings in the actual moment. I feel very privileged to be the first person to look at many of these diaries since they were sent in by the diarists almost a year ago and I look forward to sharing my findings with you.

[1] Author unknown, ‘Wuhan pneumonia outbreak: Mystery illness ‘caused by coronavirus’ (9th January 2020 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-51047576 [Accessed 20th February 2021]

[2] Author unknown, ‘Coronavirus: 10 days of hospital building in 60 seconds’ (2nd February 2020) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-asia-china-51348297 [Accessed 20th February 2021]

[3] Author unknown/ James Gallagher ‘Coronavirus: Two cases confirmed in UK’ (31st January 2020) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-51325192 [Accessed 31st January 2020]

[4] Author unknown ‘Coronavirus: Woman in 70s becomes first virus fatality in UK’ (5th March 2020) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-51759602 [Accessed 20th February 2021]

[5] Author unknown/ Philippa Roxby, ‘Coronavirus confirmed as pandemic by World Health Organisation’ (11th March 2020) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-51839944 [Accessed 20th February 2021]

[6] UK government/ speech by the Prime Minister (Coronavirus: Boris Johnson’s address to the nation in full) (23rd March 2020) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-52011928 [Accessed 20th February 2021]

[7] Conrad Duncan ‘ Boris Johnson speech becomes one of the most-watched TV broadcasts in history’ (11th May 2020) https://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/boris-johnson-speech-statement-tv-broadcast-viewers-lockdown-coronavirus-a9509156.html [Accessed 20th February 2021]

[8] Author unknown, ‘Wednesday 12th May 2021: Would you like to keep a one- day diary for Mass Observation? (n.d) http://www.massobs.org.uk/write-for-us/12th-may [Accessed 20th February 2021]

[9] Google Maps, Map data 2021 GeoBasis-DE/BKG 2009, Google, Inst. Geogr. Nacional

[10] Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_759, 12th May 2020.

[11] Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1016 and MT_2020_858, 12th May 2020

[12] Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_834 and MT_2020_901, 12th May 2020

[13]  Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1060, 12th May 2020 [1] Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_856, 12th May 2020

[14] Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_856, 12th May 2020

[15] Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1235, 12th May 2020

[16] Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1208, 12th May 2020

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Posted in MO (Mass Observation), The Keep

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