Listening to Britain
The disputatious historian David Starkey said recently of our second Elizabethan age: “Only once she’s gone will we really be forced to confront the changes that have gone on in Britain during the period of her reign… She has acted as a kind of facade.” But if the royal pageantry just gone by offers the comforting embrace of continuity, it also offers the chance to look at the ever-changing nature of life on our little island.
How different is Britain today from a slightly earlier incarnation at Her Majesty’s Silver Jubilee, 35 years ago? One of the best places to look for answers is Sussex University library. There, in the large brown boxes of the Mass Observation Archive, are the diaries of ordinary Britons who recorded their experience of the celebrations during the summer of 1977.
More than 100 volunteers were recruited by academics to document what they saw and heard around them. On June 7, one 78-year-old woman in Norwich took her two young grandsons to see the town’s carnival of floats. “A remark which I overheard in a street… by a man of about 35 to another man of about the same age, ‘Well cheerio old cock, ’ave a jolly jubilee, what a load of old crap it is’!”
Unsurprisingly, the archive material reveals more excitement and anticipation in London. One female observer watching the Queen’s procession at Trafalgar Square noted crisply: “Everywhere a bobbing sea of heads.” She also jotted down: “A stationary lorry… is covered with people, jostling for the best view. The police try to move them off, shouts of ‘Ah! Shame’ and ‘Give ’em their money back’… People have wedged themselves at the most peculiar positions… Father and son have built a pyramid of milk crates.”
From the West Midlands, one report of an all-transvestite football game ended with the pleasing footnote “all ended up in the canal”. Scotland, then as now, did its own thing.
Apathy is apparent in the many references to the “English jubilee”. Some of the smallest Silver Jubilee details are period: spacehopper races and jelly sculptures on paper plates. But the fundamental elements found at this celebratory juncture – ever-present humour, gentle cynicism, drunkenness, a fondness for dressing up and a stark regional divide – are still with us as we mark Elizabeth’s 60th year on the throne.
Dorothy Sheridan has worked with the Mass Observation Archive since 1974, as archivist, director and now as trustee. “Looking at the  material, there is a strong sense of people needing a break,” she says.
“The people who participated in street parties were not likely to be critical of the monarchy, you have to bear that in mind when interpreting the material. I don’t think it was an outpouring of patriotism by any means, but it was an opportunity to have fun during a depressing time. Like now, it was a party in the midst of austerity.”
To discover the origins of Mass Observation we need to go back to another significant event in royal history, the abdication of King Edward VIII at the end of 1936. By choosing to marry American socialite and divorcée Wallis Simpson rather than remain on the throne, the end of his reign threw up all sorts of questions about monarchy, the establishment and the will of the British people.
One group of intellectuals thought the crisis demonstrated how the newsreels, the BBC and even public polling revealed very little about how “ordinary” people actually thought.
In 1937 three young men – anthropologist Tom Harrisson, surrealist poet Charles Madge and film-maker Humphrey Jennings – placed letters in the press inviting people to participate in an ambitious new social research organisation.
Aimed at creating “an anthropology of ourselves”, a team of selected observers and hundreds of volunteer writers were asked to study everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain. In one of the early experiments in Bolton, Mass Observation investigators quietly slid into public meetings, religious occasions and sporting events, recording behaviour and conversation on the street, at work and in the pub – in as much detail as possible.
“Until then nobody thought the mundane and everyday was worthy of interest,” Sheridan explains. “Until then nobody really thought people could document their own lives, rather than having it mediated by academics and others. The participants were called snoopers – one person was even arrested as a German spy.
"But I don’t think they were intrusive. I suppose it’s always been difficult to draw the line when you are trying to record reality. People who were nervous about the research worried that it would throw up all kinds of anti-establishment thought. Which it often did.”
Fiona Courage, curator of the Mass Observation Archive at Sussex, believes it was a democratising impulse, as well as “an inherent nosiness”, that characterised the research. “It was a way of gauging real public opinion, as opposed to public opinion as it was perceived and reported on in newsreels and media of the time.
"Humphrey Jennings had been using real people to tell their own stories in his documentaries – until then you had actors playing the firefighters or housewives in public information films. That sense of reaching beyond those people who usually mediated then followed through into Mass Observation.”
Although the work ended in the 1960s, it was the one-off Silver Jubilee project that revived Mass Observation research on a more permanent basis. Since 1981, Sussex researchers have issued an average of three questionnaires a year to its roster of 500 diarists (4,000 people in all have helped document life in the last three decades). As with the original surveys, the results are published anonymously.
Excitingly, The Big Issue has been working with the Sussex team to extend Mass Observation into often-neglected corners of national life. For this year’s jubilee festivities, our vendors were asked to record what they saw and heard around them on the streets, whether in diary form, drawings or poetry. By including the voices of the country’s most marginalised, it is hoped the contours of Britain 2012 can be drawn more precisely.
The media landscape today is, of course, quite different to 1977 or 1936. We are a noisier people, and we are less private than ever before. With 10 million Twitter accounts and round-the-clock send-in-your-texts requests, it can feel as if everyone is constantly airing views and sharing photos. Yet Sheridan trusts there is still value in gauging experience somewhat differently, in asking people to quietly, anonymously reflect on the richer details of everyday life.
“Before I retired, I did wonder at one point whether it [Mass Observation] had a future,” Sheridan reflects. “There seemed so much social media and blogs and so on around. But there is something about it that allows participants to be free of some of the constraints and expectations we have now in airing views publicly – they feel they can be candid and open and honest. So it remains an important avenue for feelings and observations and experiences.
"The people participating are not egotistical – they know their voice is interesting for being part of a collective. They know they are part of a kaleidoscope of voices across the country today.”
Street Life 2012
When the founders of the Mass Observation movement placed a letter in the New Statesman in 1937, they suggested volunteers collect observations of everyday life, down to the minutiae: “Behaviour of people at war memorials. Shouts and gestures of motorists. Anthropology of football pools. Beards, armpits, eyebrows. Female taboos about eating.”
The Big Issue is now working with Sussex University, hosts of the Mass Observation Archive, to record life in 2012 in all its glory: contemporary Britain’s gestures, taboos and beards. Some of our vendors have been eagerly making note of what they see and hear over the four-day jubilee, and we hope to publish the results online and in the magazine in the coming weeks. Participants’ material will also go into the university’s records.
Dorothy Sheridan, trustee and former director of the archive, is looking forward to the results. “We are aware the idea of keeping a diary inevitably excludes some people, so it’s important to broaden participation. Like the original MO studies, it will be marvellous to record what people see on the streets.”