Monday, May 13, 2013

Observing May 12, 1937

Wandering my bookshelves on Saturday, I happened to pull down a volume from the Faber Finds series: a publication from the Mass Observation program in England titled May the 12th. Being as the day itself was May the 12th, I opened it up.

For those of you who don't know, Mass Observation was a program aimed at setting down the character of everyday life in Britain, the ephemeral as much as the important. From 1937 until the early 1950s, a combination of volunteer diarists, paid investigators, and mail surveys built up an archive of British daily life that, years later, can astonish you with its evocative detail. David Kynaston's incomparable histories of postwar Britain draw heavily on Mass Observation reports, and the result is that his books convey the texture of daily life, and the immediacy of individual voices, like few histories.

Because I was supposed to be working--prepping for publicity calls or working on my Donald Westlake book, one or the other--I didn't sit down and read May the 12 from cover to cover. But I did flip through it and note some passages worth sharing, in case you were wondering what was going on in England at this time of the year seventy-six years ago, the day that George VI was crowned at Winchester Cathedral.

The first I'll share comes from a twenty-eight-year-old single woman who worked as a children's nurse and identified herself as a Conservative and a member of the Church of England:
One Wednesday, May 12, 1937, I was awakened at 2.10 a.m. 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. I think I must have dozed off when I was suddenly awakened by a man's voice shouting through the keyhole, "Nurse, it's a quarter to five." It was the cook. That seemed to me the last straw. For a moment I wondered if he had taken leave of his senses, but the steady tramp of feet on the pavement outside brought home to me in a flash that the Great Day had dawned. "At least," I said to myself "I hope their Majesties are also getting up at this unearthly hour." I dressed and after the inevitable cup of tea I went to the nursery.
I think you could probably separate the world meaningfully into those who view the morning cuppa as a pleasure and those who refer to it as "inevitable."

I'll quote two passages from the next observer, identified only as a Platonist. (Seriously!) After opening his notes with, "I noticed with malicious pleasure that the weather was not fine," and assuaging his regret at the lack of rain with hope that the situation might change, he starts to go about his day:
After breakfast I put some hair oil on my head, as a prophylactic against threatening baldness, noting the resemblance between the King and myself in respect of this action. At this time (10 a.m.), when I was in my bedroom, I was a little startled to see a bird (a sparrow, I fancy) beating its wings for a short time (perhaps three seconds) against the window-pane. For a moment I thought it was perhaps imprisoned between the panes of the open window. On going nearer I concluded that it had seen, and was trying to get out, a daddy long legs or some such creature, which was motionless in an approximately upright position (i.e. head near ceiling) against one of the panes. I thought (i) of "nature red in tooth and claw" (ii) that the bird was observing the source of its sustenance, even as the Coronation crowds would be doing, (iii) that the bird's observation of the daddy long legs ought to be included in mass-observation. I noticed also the terrifyingly fragile and almost beautifully exact structure of the insect. (I wondered whether it was technically an insect, and counted six legs on it.) I thought also that it was too transparent for decency. This last thought arose from my squeamishness.
The second passage comes from later in the day:
At about 5:45 an unexpected incident happened to me, to which I recall no parallel in my life. I opened a "printed paper rate" postal communication from the Cambridge Preservation Society. This communication had reached me about three weeks earlier, but, having been extremely busy, and perhaps also not anxious to explore a request for money, I had left it unopened. (The envelope bore the words "Cambridge Preservation Society.") Inside, besides the printed communication from the Cambridge Preservation Society, I found a sealed envelope addressed to a person whom I did not know, and bearing undistributed tamps to the value of 1-1/2d. Rather impulsively, I opened it up, and found inside a document evidently not belonging to the communication from the Preservation Society, and of a suspicious and perhaps illegal nature. In some alarm at my unintentional but still reckless participation in an affair that might possibly lead to legal proceedings, I resolved to send the document to the Secretary of the Cambridge Preservation Society. This, coming at the end of a boring and long-drawn out stretch of work, too me by surprise.
But what was in the envelope? What sort of shady dealings? Money, murder, general mayhem? Alas, Mass Observation will never know!

I'll close with a passage from a 21-year-old woman from a small village in Essex. After spending the day in the village listening to the broadcast of the service, she helped serve the village's free supper and managed some of the details of the public dance. Then she went off on her own adventures:
After this I went to a more sophisticated dance at a nearby town where they had a pageant representing the different colonies in the Empire--then home to bed at 4 a.m.--slightly whistled!
With which we gain a new word for drunkenness, one that even Edmund Wilson's Lexicon of Prohibition knows not. Work be damned, that seems enough achievement for one weekend, no?

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