Monday, 14 May 2012

May 12

May 12 marked the 75th anniversary of a remarkable venture, the Mass-Observation Day Survey of the coronation of George VI. MO had been launched earlier that year and was just about to issue its first publication, called simply Mass-Observation. At that point the venture had around 50 Observers around the country, who reported the minutiae of their daily lives on the 12th of each month.

For the coronation MO changed their focus. Their Observers were providing a survey of the riches of their ordinary daily existence, but this provided the opportunity for examining the extraordinary. From a combination of observation and documentary sources they put together a record both of

MO meant different things to the different people who'd launched it. It was part poetic, part sociological, and part psychological, and it aimed grandly at providing data for a snapshot of everyday life across Britain. It was received very badly by sociologists, particularly, although its worth has come to be recognised by social historians above all. The book that resulted from the coronation day survey is wonderful and beautiful, and brims with the real stuff of people's lives (1).

It is, of course, also full of the stuff of folklore. Here is spontaneous singing: there is a useful index of the popular songs mentioned through the text. Their documentation tells us not only what songs were being sung in this context (contemporary popular songs, music hall songs, hymns, political anthems and patriotic songs) but also when and where and how. Two girls in Birmingham sang It's a Sin to Tell a Lie, having also been playing tunes on comb and paper; a 'disorderly procession' down Shaftesbury Avenue was led by youths banging dustbin lids and singing Glory Glory Hallelujah; two sailors outside Edgware Road station were taunted with Popeye the Sailor Man. This isn't songs as artefacts, it's singing as practice.

The book is also a rich source of contemporary legends. In the run-up to the coronation stories circulated that it would not take place. On Romney Marsh such remarks are reported twice: on both occasions they were offered as parting gifts by gypsies who had just been given a lift.

May the Twelfth deserves commemoration. I have little interest in royal events, but I'm enthralled and delighted by the rich documentation of people's lives.

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1: May the Twelfth: Mass-Observation Day-Surveys 1937 by Over Two Hundred Observers, ed. Humphrey Jennings and Charles Madge (London: Faber, 1987)

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