Friday Diary: 12th May, Mass Observation & the diary of an Ordinary Woman by daintydora

This week I kept a day-diary on Tuesday 12th May for the Mass Observation's annual call-out to capture the everyday lives of people across the UK. Mass Observation Archive Poster

Why 12th May?

In 1937 Mass Observation called for people from all parts of the UK to record everything they did from when they woke up in the morning to when they went to sleep at night on 12th May. This was the day of George VI’s Coronation. The resulting diaries provide a wonderful glimpse into the everyday lives of people across Britain, and have become an invaluable resource for those researching countless aspects of the era. May 12th 2015 is likely to be quite an ordinary day, but for those researching, the ‘ordinary’ it can often provide extraordinary results.

I'm just getting ready to send my 12th May diary in to the archive, having written previously about my love of keeping a diary and my favourite female diarists.

What I love so much about Mass Observation is the idea of contributing to a public research project where my words will not only live on beyond my life, but also help to inform researchers of what life is like for 'an ordinary woman' in 2015. (Writing this makes me think of Anne Frank and her famous diary, though she did not have an ordinary life at all.)

I wrote a 12th May diary last year. It's interesting to read back over what I wrote then and remember that day so vividly.

It's also topical to republish this book review that I wrote about Margaret Forster's Diary of an Ordinary Woman. It is written in diary form with just the occasional authorial note, so immediately draws you into the visceral first-person narrative.

Starting off in 1913 when the protagonist - Millicent - begins her first diary at the age of 13, the strong character voice from the outset reveals Millicent to be selfish, stand-offish and pass-remarkable which causes friction in every relationship she has - with family, friends and lovers.

She comes across as reserved, prim, lacking in warmth and not hugely likeable, but with strong principles and a determination to achieve something important.

As well as this she wants - demands - a room of her own (while growing up) - shades of Virginia Woolf - space of her own (as an adult), and time to think, reflect and process her thoughts.

And write her diary.

The short entries of the diary-format kept the pace up for me, and I liked the fact that Millicent wasn't some people-pleaser character that can do no wrong. She is often misconstrued and misunderstood. This only served to make her more real to me.

Part of the appeal of the book was to experience the events of the early twentieth century through Millicent's eyes. Autobiography almost; social commentary.

Before long, war breaks out and the entries evoke the fear, uncertainty, rationing, hardships and day-to-day considerations of London at that time - Millicent must always carry her gas-mask with her for example; she has to spend the night in an underground station during an air raid.

I had read a similar diary a few years ago which also recalled war-time London - Love & War in London - A Woman's Diary 1939 - 1942 by Olivia Cockett. It was both compelling and sad all at once; not knowing what was going to happen next, but understanding the constraints of living in the midst of war; experiencing that heightened sense of futility, fear, frustration and unfaltering hope for peace and freedom and an end to the uncertainty of the situation, all the while reminding myself that what was on the page actually took place.

Back to Millicent. It was just before the midpoint of the book that I flicked to the end. Not to find out what happens at the end, or to read the final page. I would never do that. I just sometimes like to know how many pages there are in the book. How many I have left. Sometimes I want there to be more because I'm enjoying the story, other times, not so much. Either way it's like a reading reward.


The page I found was the Author's Note. I didn't think it would be any kind of spoiler - usually this part goes along the lines of "...blah blah lives alone with ten cats and a budgie in Nottinghamshire and this is her third book.", or "...blah blah has travelled widely, lecturing in creative writing at blah blah university and now has 2 children with blah blah and they all live in a grand old house in London."

I didn't see any harm in reading the few lines that presented themselves. Teeny, tiny lines. A short paragraph. Huge mistake.

***Spoiler, Spoiler***

It turns out that the diaries were complete fiction, not real at all, fabricated; not the actual story of a woman growing up in war-torn London, just a figment of the author's imagination (and research).

A gamut of emotions followed: anger, upset, disappointment...disgust. It almost stopped me reading on. I had believed in Millicent being real. All that was ruined and the whole thing felt like a sham. An empty shallow sham of a book. I hadn't read the back cover, just picked up the book at a tombola, put it on a shelf, then picked it out at random and started reading. There's a lesson learnt.

And I don't know if it was finding out it wasn't real, or just the second part of the book wasn't as strong, but I didn't enjoy it as much from then on in, and particularly not the dénouement.

What I did love however was the reference to Mass Observation.

The Mass Observation Archive was originally founded in 1937 as a social and anthropological exercise in gauging and capturing the thoughts, opinions and day-to-day doings of the population through diary writing. 'Millicent' hears about it, and decides she will contribute her own musings and experiences.

This chimed with me as I too am a mass observer. Major confession. I've been sending diaries and replies to 'Directives' for around three years now. Each response is archived forever and is used for research purposes.

When Millicent was writing about how wonderful it would be to contribute to Mass Observation, I was thinking, I really need to get my latest response sent in. I felt a kinship and a synchronicity which drew me into the book even further, so it felt doubly disappointing to find this was just another clever deceit of the author.

Would it have been better to find out at the end? Would I have guessed by then?

Answers on a postcard.

NB. The book review part of this post was originally published in 2013.


Mass Observation - 12th May Diary by daintydora

I love writing diaries. And reading them. I've been a Mass Observer for a few years now, and really enjoy contributing to a long-term social history project such as the Mass Observation Archive; a UK-wide life-writing project which is used for research, teaching and learning.

The 12th May 1937 was the first year that Mass Observation asked people living in the UK to record the details of their day, to coincide with George VI’s Coronation.

The subsequent 12th May diaries "provide a wonderful glimpse into the everyday lives of people across Britain, and have become an invaluable resource for those researching countless aspects of the era." Some people may live fantastical, amazing and glamorous lives, but the majority of us don't and it is the minutiae that is the most interesting; a fly-on-the-wall insight into the highs and lows experienced on a typical day, which would likely be in stark contrast to a special day such as a national holiday or Christmas Day. I thought I'd share an excerpt from my 12th May diary for this year, which I will be submitting to the Mass Observation archive, whilst also spreading the word and work of Mass Observation.

"I woke at 4am, but got up at 6am. I had vivid dreams of swimming through many pools, and had ideas buzzing inside my head. I typed some immediate thoughts down on my laptop and then replied to various emails, enjoying the feel of being awake so early. I got ready for work and was in a bit of a rush after my burst of morning productivity, so had to bolt down my muesli (a homemade mix of oats, bran, dried fruit; all sorts). After a short detour, I walked to the train station. The ground was wet from the previous nights' rain and I noticed that the blossom from the trees has mostly blown away. My train was busy but not so busy that I didn't get a seat. I phoned my Dad and caught up on some news. I arrived at work..."

Anyone at all can submit a diary for 12th May as you don't need to be an existing 'observer' or sign-up, or even submit it today. The only rules are:

"Write as much as you can about what you do, who you meet, what you talk about, what you eat and drink, what you buy or sell, what you are working on, the places you visit, the people you meet, the things you read, see and hear around you, how you are feeling and of course what you yourself think."

Go on. Write a diary for the 12th May 2014, and surprise yourself with all that you saw, felt, heard, did, wondered, dreamed...the lives that you touched with yours, the interactions you had, the conversations; and those that you inspired by just being you.


famous writers & diarists on keeping a diary by daintydora

A quote each from some of my favourite and well-known writers and diarists. Their thoughts toward keeping a diary and what to include in it mirror my own from my previous post on the topic. Joan Didion - "How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all?...The point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking. That would be a different impulse entirely, an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess."

Susan Sontag - "In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself. The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather - in many cases - offers an alternative to it..."

Sylvia Plath - “I want to write because I have the urge to excel in one medium of translation and expression of life. I can't be satisfied with the colossal job of merely living. Oh, no, I must order life in sonnets and sestinas and provide a verbal reflector for my 60-watt lighted head.” 

Anais Nin - “Ordinary life does not interest me. I seek only the high moments. I am in accord with the surrealists, searching for the marvelous.” 

Doris Lessing - "A story is how we construct our experiences."

Anne Frank - “I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”

Virginia Woolf - “What sort of diary should I like mine to be? I should like it to resemble some deep old desk or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself and refined itself and coalesced, as such deposits so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life, and yet steady, tranquil compounds with the aloofness of a work of art."


I call myself a diarist by daintydora

I call myself a diarist. But what does that really mean? Is a diary a true record of events, facts, social history to look back on, or simply my impression of the truth; an outpouring of personal thoughts and feelings? Does it matter? Diaries

I'm not sure what the truth really is sometimes, and I think that's OK.

When I write my diary, I write with emotion. The emotion I feel at the time of writing taints the text, the words, the legibility of the the writing.

Sometimes I'll type up a record of a specific event or day (such as for Mass Observation Archive 12th May diary project), but I know that writing by hand equates to writing from the heart, from where emotions stem from; whether they be joy, happiness, love, hate, anger, fear.

I aim to write a daily diary, and am fascinated by the idea of not just recording my thoughts (getting them down, getting them out), but of being able to learn something about myself by going back over these entries, and of potentially finding themes, repetitions of important points (dreams, goals), a representation of my inner self, my inner life, on paper; black and white, the essence of my heart - and my head - captured.

At the start of the year, my diary for 2013 complete (but not completed, simply superseded by time), I read through some entries and was amazed at the things I had chosen to include. Not the big things, the life events, (were there any life events?), but the minutiae of daily life.

That's where the real interest lies; the nitty gritty of why I love to keep a diary. I can look back and remember things I had forgotten had even happened. Thoughts that I had, ideas, or just funny incidental things that would otherwise have been lost.

I consider myself to have a good memory - a photographic memory in some cases - but a diary is always written in the now, in first person, rooted in the action. OK, there isn't usually any dialogue, but often there is a reference to it, 'He told me I was beautiful. I didn't believe him.' There you have fact + feeling.

And I think the real truth is hanging somewhere in the limbo between fact + feeling.

As we all filter events in our own personal way, there is no one, overarching truth. In any collective recollection of a specific event - a flashbulb moment leading to a flashbulb memory perhaps - the real truth would be found, roughly, between the facts (as described, transcribed, diarised), and the feeling. Once the action has happened, it is dissected and interrogated by feeling, by emotion and the emotions aroused by the moment or occasion.

So for the purposes of my own diary, my own personal facts + feeling become the only truth that counts.

I call myself a diarist.