University of Sussex Special Collections and Mass Observation Archive Blog

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12th May: Be a Mass Observer for the day




On Monday 12th May the Mass Observation Archive will be repeating its annual call for day diaries written on the 12th May. Everyone is welcome to take part. You can read more about how to do so on our website. The first 12th May diary day was organised by Mass Observation back in 1937. The date, which you may already recognise, was chosen in order to create a unique record of the Coronation of George VI. The result was hundreds of reports from people across the nation documenting the day and their own activities. Diaries from a wide variety of people, such as ‘Conservative and Church of England’ to ‘Communist and Atheist’,  were sent  to Mass Observation’s office in Blackheath, London. Royalist, Republican and those in between are also represented. In fact, one of my favourite diaries is written by someone for whom the celebrations are a nuisance:

“I was awakened at 2.10am by a newsboy yelling “Daily Mail”. I crawled out of bed and was quite surprised to see that the Hotel opposite and the streets were alive with all types of people. I admit I thought London had gone crazy and felt annoyed with the world in general. I returned to my bed, determined to sleep. It was impossible, the rush of cars and noise of heavy traffic was deafening. I tried counting sheep but to my horror found I was counting human footsteps”  – Female, 28 years old, nurse, London  (May the Twelfth, 1987, p.102)

Other diaries are more enthusiastic about the Coronation and excitedly detail the preparations for the event:

8.20: Postman came at the usual time, bringing one ½d. letter, with the first of the new King’s stamp that I had seen. I liked it. […]

8.40: Started decorating my bike with red and blue (not ‘blue and red, I mentally note!) Tissue paper. The mudguards and other parts that I had enamelled white were quite dry. The decorating took longer than I had expected. At 9.0 I was still in the middle of decorating my bike, and only finished doing so at 9.40, when the church bells of the local parish church warned me to hurry for the 9.45 service. I got a buttonhole of forget-me-nots, red primulas and white cherry, took a bite of bread-and butter and set off at 9.42 for church. – Male, Cumberland (May the Twelfth, 1987, p.181)

Mass Observation continued to collect diaries written on the 12th day of the month throughout 1937 and into 1938. At times, they supplemented their request for day diaries with general questions about home life, smoking habits, politics and a rather special survey about  objects found on mantelpieces. The outbreak of the Second World War meant that Mass Observation faced the possibility that contact with the Mass Observation diary writers would be disrupted. For this reason, the day survey project was developed into a call for regular diaries that could be written without the need for regular prompting or guidance and sent to Mass Observation’s London office when it was safe to do so. However, the 12th May has always been a special day for Mass Observation –  almost like an unofficial birthday – and because of this in 2010 we decided to re-launch the 12th May diary project and have been asking for submissions annually since then. Unlike the 12th May 1937, the 12th May is often a very ordinary day with people writing about their everyday experiences:

Once up I drank a couple of cafetiere made coffees as I cannot function without caffeine in the morning.  I usually have fresh fruit and home made muesli for breakfast but as it was a Sunday and I had bought some reduced croissants yesterday I had one of those.

I faffed around answering emails and doing bits and pieces for a paper I am writing – finding books and printing off notes and generally not doing very much but trying to convince myself that I am. I couldn’t seem to get down to things and thought – a fairly common feeling – oh shit I have wasted my life (past and present) and am doing nothing. Rationally this is untrue. So I updated my cv file ‘latest cv’ which cheered me up and inevitably made me realise that I was doing loads of stuff. I suppose it is some sort of CBT that I have adopted over the past few years but I am very conscious of time’s winged chariot nowadays. When I was young I used to like Andrew Marvell’s poem To his coy mistress from which that phrase comes but realise that the sentiment is far more relevant for an older person than, presumably, the young woman in the poem.

I didn’t feel like doing much as the day was so cold even though it was May. In the afternoon  whilst listening to music on radio 3 I made a lentil bake that my partner could heat up for his dinner and I could have later. I had a cheese and salad sandwich before going out. – Female, London, 12th May 2013 (MT_2013_35)

For those studying history “from below” this record of ordinary detail and routine is invaluable.  At times though, the 12th May has surprised us and led us to record a more “significant” day. For instance, in 2010  12th May was the day that the new Tory-Lib Dem coalition government was formed and the majority (although not all!) of the diaries that were e-mailed into the Archive reflected on the formation of the new cabinet:

 Arrived at work late, thanked feck I don’t work at the sort of place that minds, and began the weekday ritual of attempting to bring the brain to life with copious quantities of tea. It’s the first day in a couple of weeks that political conversations haven’t dominated the morning tea rounds – are we all forgetting about it now that we know what colours(s – for the first time in my lifetime!) the Government is? I find it odd – if anything, the fact that there’s a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition is the most interesting thing about this whole situation.

 I’m cautiously optimistic. I don’t see the LD’s position as a betrayal but  a necessary step (given the numbers resulting from Thursday’s election) towards what I fervently hope will become a new type of

government. I’m hoping they’ll temper the worst inclinations of the Tories and result in a more moderate politics overall. Let’s face it ? that’s how things work in business all the time. It would be nice, though, if it didn’t still seem to be such a bloody old boys network, though – where on earth are all the women?! I can’t say I feel particularly represented, whether you’re talking age group, gender, or socio-economic background. The news filtering in (via Twitter – amazing source for breaking news!) later on that Theresa May is in the cabinet didn’t cheer me much. Firstly, her voting record on issues of gay equality seem particularly bad for someone who will have ministerial responsibility for, um, equality. Secondly, BBC News chose to provide the helpful snippet of information that she has an ‘exotic collection of shoes’. I can only assume that Ken Clarke’s sock collection isn’t sufficiently sexy, as naturally a 21st Century press wouldn’t have only provided random and irrelevant sartorial comment in relation to a woman, would they? Pfft. It was quickly noted at work that it should be interesting to see how many other people end up on a rather surprising website if they Google her name without the h, too… – Female, Nottingham, 12th May 2010 (MT_2010_228)

  Since initiating the 12 May diary project, we have collected over 1300 electronic diaries. In more recent years we have extended the Project to collect diaries from prisons across the UK, community groups and primary and secondary schools. These diaries are used by researchers in the reading rooms at The Keep and in group visits from school and university students. This year, we are aiming to collect as many diaries as possible people from across the UK. We have produced a diary pack that has been sent to all schools in the local area (you can download the pack here) and message is being spread through our networks and on Twitter using the hashtag #12May. But we also need your help – whatever sort of day the 12th May is, don’t forget to submit your own diary to the Mass Observation Archive!

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