Every time I watch Housewife, 49 (with Victoria Wood) I mean to write something about Mass Observation.
Here are some facts, and some of my thoughts on the first project that was founded in 1937 and ended in the mid 1960s.The Archive is housed at the University of Sussex.
Mass Observation was a government led project that aimed to record everyday life in Britain using around 500 volunteer ‘observers’ who either kept diaries or replied to open-ended questionnaires. Unusually, they also paid investigators to anonymously record people’s conversation and behaviour at various ‘everyday’ places such as work, on the street and at various public occasions like football matches etc.
The project kicked off in August 1939 when Mass Observation invited members of the public to record and send them a day to day account of their lives in the form of a diary. They weren’t given any specific instructions on materials, or how to write it, or about the nature of the content, so what was receive back varied greatly.
(480 people responded to this invitation and their diaries are now held in the Mass Observation Archive (Source Nella Last’s Peace. Profile Books 2008 p 303)).
menus taken from the project
‘Nella Last’s War’ edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming, 1981 (Falling Wall Press). 2006 (Profile Books), is probably the most well known account, as it was screenplayed in the 2006 television drama Housewife, 49. Written by and starring English actress and comedian Victoria Wood, it follows the experiences of an ordinary housewife and mother in the Northern English town of Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria during the Second World War.
The diaries to Mass Observation, often written in pencil, provided the narrative of the play as she documents her life. Edited versions of her diary have been published: Nella Last’s War edited by Richard Broad and Suzy Fleming appeared first in 1981 and has been more recently re-published by Profile Books in 2007. Housewife, 49 is based on this book which covers the years 1939–45. Nella Last’s Peace, which appeared in 2009, includes diary entries from her immediate post-war years. A third volume is planned for publication in 2010.
What occured to me reading about Mass Observation is that although there was a recent snapshot in a similar fashion in 2011 where the public were invited by Ridley Scott and the power of YouTube to share a day in their life, in the spirit of WWII, are the families of deployed soldiers, keeping diaries and any record of communication that they share by email, or letter or other for posterity? The personal and very touching accounts we have now of life during WWII not only for the general public, but also for the deployed soldiers, is very much the anthropology of the period, and it is these accounts that bring the period to life and to our hearts today.
I hope that service families are keeping their own private and personal accounts of their everyday life so that both their own children and children’s children, as well as possibly in future the public, can see the work that our troops and their families are doing to ensure safety, security and freedom today during this period of Counter Insurgency, or War on Terrorism.
Keep your pecker up! xx