Simon Garfield writes in the Radio Times this week a short piece about Mass Observation. BBC Four, as part of their “Lost Decade” season; are broadcasting an adaptation of Garfields’ excellent diarists compilation book; ” Our Hidden Lives” starring amongst others Richard Briers. (So it must be ok.) next week.
When the Second World War ended 60 years ago the celebrations didn’t last long. The black-out material was removed from windows, but Britain seemed just as gloomy without it. The country was soon plunged into deep economic crisis, and men and women began to use a common phrase that perfectly summed up their frustrations: “But I thought we had won the war!” And then, amidst all the austerity and despondency, they went out and queued for hours for a tin of peaches to gives as a wedding present.
We know this to be true from an exact and fascinating source – the personal diaries of those who lived through these years and agreed to share their daily experiences with a unique organisation called Mass Observation, the purpose of which was to learn more about how ordinary people spent their days and what they thought about the world. Hundreds of people from industrial centres, country towns and remote villages wrote on a regular basis, completing their diaries after work as secretaries, shopworkers, civil servants, housewifes and electricity board inspectors. Some entries were exceedingly monotonous, but most revealed frank and funny stories about their neighbours, their allotments, their complex journeys to work, their reviews of the latest films, and their staggeringly inventive ways with mock cream.
The diaries are now archived at the University of Sussex, and they reveal a picture of Britiain impossible to find elsewhere. Where else can one read about the introduction of Clement Attlees introduction of the Welfare State in the same paragraph as one learns about the thrill of a child’s first banana, or how enthralling the film at the local cinema was that evening ?
Well its just like Jason Kottke but without the micropayments. Anyway I’m especially looking forward to the second volume of Garfields astonishing collection of diaries “We are at War”. A drama documentary called Little Kinsey, also based on 1949 mass observation diaries and focusing on bedroom habits, is on BBC Four next Wednesday. As Peterme is reiterating in his fascinating new “Designing for the Sandbox” (sandpit surely!) blog, then user created content has a long, long history. Before 1994 even.