Saturday 11 August 2018

People Watching (but for the nation) - Kelly McCaughrain

I once tried researching my ancestors and very quickly ran into all kinds of dead ends. I think having an unusual surname is considered a good thing in genealogy research but mine was a little too unusual. There just weren’t any other McCaughrains. Anyway, in between haranguing my elderly relatives for info, I was often heard to lament the fact that so little of the past survives. And even where there are birth, death and marriage certificates, these leave me (a voracious fiction reader) deeply unsatisfied. I want the stories. I want people’s voices and opinions and thoughts about the neighbour’s new curtains.

I’ve also been heard to say that my generation will leave so much of ourselves behind that our descendants will be sick hearing about us. Computers and the internet have us frozen in aspic, surely. Our descendants will only have to look at our Facebook pages and read our blogs and check our Amazon orders to analyse our entire lives.

But actually, when I thought about it, is this really true? The Amazon orders may well survive but…

My university thesis? On a floppy disc I no longer have a disc drive for.

My teenage video letter to a penpal? On a video I can no longer play.

My digital photos of the last 5 years? On an external hard drive which, last time I plugged it in, wouldn’t work.

My mixtape CD made for me by my husband? Gathering dust since my laptop has no disc drive.

My first attempt at a novel and many short stories? On a pen drive I lost somewhere in the Jordanstown campus of the University of Ulster.

My DVD of a bellydance performance I once did? (yes, really). On a DVD I can no longer play (possibly a good thing).

My MySpace and Bebo pages? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Firing information into the ether is clearly not the answer. Or, if it is, it’s going to require some intentional effort towards preservation.

Enter the Mass Observation Project.

If you saw Victoria Wood’s excellent Housewife, 49 on TV you’ll know about the Mass Observation project.

I love this photo. It's the hat.

It was begun during WWII and invited members of the public to keep diaries on anything and everything, which they sent to the archives to be preserved. Which sounds slightly Big Brotherish but actually wasn’t. In fact, I get the feeling that the people who ran it weren’t so much number-crunching spies bent on selling you products and accusing you of communism as a couple of forgotten secretaries stuck in a cupboard trying desperately to hold onto enough funding to buy teabags. It’s now a charity, in fact, and a public resource for historical research, curated by the wonderfully named Ms Fiona Courage (I so want to name a character after her). And let’s face it, if the government wanted to know all about you they’ll look at your Tesco receipts and internet use, not your diaries.

Anyway, Housewife, 49 was the story of one Mass Observer, a housewife from the Lake District called Nella Last. She wrote about 2 million words for Mass Observation, on whatever paper was handy, mailed faithfully to the project over the course of 27 years. 

Some of these diaries have recently been published in 3 books, all of which I read because she was actually a wonderful, natural writer. They contain everything from details of how she managed with food rationing to arguments with her son and husband, gossip from the neighbours, politics and mental health.

She seems to have suffered from depression and had had a breakdown prior to starting her diaries and was suffocating in her marriage to a man who I think was suffering PTSD from WWI himself, and it was really the diaries that saved her. These, along with the Women's Voluntary Service, which she joined despite her husband’s disapproval, were the outlet she needed in a very lonely life.

The real Nella, with her son, Cliff

She writes so well I found even the soup recipes fascinating. Which made me think that, if I was the poor sod someday tasked with analysing all these diaries people sent in, I’d probably be profoundly grateful for the entries written by people who are naturals with words.

Which makes me wonder why more writers don’t do this? (Or have even heard of it?) I mean, writing? Observing? 

Because, amazingly, it’s still going. They send out a ‘directive’ 3 times a year asking you for your thoughts on a couple of particular topics – The NHS, Eurovision, The Royal Wedding, Time Management, the use of purses – anything at all. It’s like having someone email you random writing prompts. They’ll also pick particular days – 12th May – and ask everyone to fill out a diary for just that day and send it in, to get a picture of what was happening across the nation on one particular day. And they welcome special reports on any topics or events that interest you. It's all optional, of course.

As someone who’s always kept a diary, this appealed to me. And it’s not just about the historical value of it, though I do think that’s important. I think diary-writing is writing. And writing anything makes you a better writer. When you haven’t the creative energy to work on your epic fantasy novel, you can still be honing your art by keeping a diary. And the thought that someday some future writer might be reading your words for their epic historical novel set in the early 21st century is fantastic.

You’re not only honing your craft, you’re helping writers of the future. Who knows what tiny realistic detail they’ll glean from your observations that they couldn’t have got just from reading back issues of The Times? Petrol cars were noisy? Chalk squeaked on a blackboard? Halloumi replaced goats cheese as the veggie option in all restaurants in 2015?

OK, I do sometimes find myself writing about what I had for lunch and thinking, who’s going to care about this? But think of it this way:

I recently found a very old, exposed but undeveloped Super 8 film belonging to my Grandfather. It contains 3 minutes of silent footage, possibly of the inside of the lens cap, and it’ll cost me about £60 to develop in a process with a 50% success rate but, on the other hand, it could be 3 minutes of my now deceased Grandmother washing dishes so I am of course going to try. 

What you consider not worth committing to paper, may be absolutely invaluable to someone 200 years from now.

So, if you fancy some writing practice that isn’t just screaming into the void, check out the MO website for more info and consider signing up. And if you work with young writers maybe suggest it to them too (I think most of their respondents are in the older age brackets). Their last email to me said they're keen to recruit new writers and that numbers have been declining. There are only a couple of hundred people doing this in the whole UK so your contribution would be valued, I'm sure.

And don’t worry, everything is kept anonymous. You won’t be publicly identified as the person who only pretended to like The Shape of Water while secretly thinking Splash was a much better movie.

Come on, admit it

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the YA novel Flying Tips for Flightless Birds

She blogs about Writing, Gardening and VW Campervanning at 



Rowena House said...

Wonderful post! Never kept a diary, but my mum did. That and her vast collection of (mostly transparency) photos are an endlessly fascinating record of a life: holidays, meals, seasons. And the cars people drove! So lovely that Nellie found an outlet.

Penny Dolan said...

Fascinating - and I didn't know MO was still going!

Pippa Goodhart said...

I didn't know it was still going either. I will follow this up. Thank you so much for telling us about it, Kelly. And now I want to see 'Splash'!

Susan Price said...

Yes, thanks for the link, Kelly. I did write for Mass Observation for quite a long time -- as, I suspect, did Penny and Pippa. I can't remember why I stopped.

I am, though, perfectly happy to know that I shall be comprehensively forgotten in short order. I wrote for MO as a way of paying the debt I owed to others who had left records of their everyday doings -- and for the way it got me thinking about things.

Unknown said...

Very interesting. I enjoyed your post, my wife writes when she's going through her bipolar cycles, she has filled two books but their written in Punjabi and I can't decifer them, but quite often I think about what she writes. I have a rough idea, quite often it's at the lowest point of her depressive state. Sometimes she's in a trance like state, other times tears are streaming. When. She finishes writing I ask her how she feels, sometimes she's better sometimes still the same. My mind is quite often in a deadlock, regarding the content. I want to know, but I'm not sure of the cost, will it just give me cause for more concern.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

You haven't seen Splash! Ah, the 80s joy that awaits you.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

So beneficial in so many ways!

Kelly McCaughrain said...

So many people find writing therapeutic. I certainly do. I really hope it helps your wife.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Yup. I think they stopped but then started up again in the 80s.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Love old photos!

Anne Booth said...

What a great post! Thank you!