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.
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.
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.
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.