Delving into Mass Observation – what the 12th May Day Diaries can tell us about health

24 April 2018

By Kirsty Pattrick

The joy of the day diary is that it catapults the reader into someone’s life for that brief moment. With a fascination of people, their lives and behaviours, this always feeds my sheer nosiness. The 12th May day diaries come from people of all ages across the UK, and they always leave me wanting more. All we know of these writers is their age and gender; that is our only request for the purpose of this collection, although some give further biographical information. I read of the mundane to the life-changing and utterly personal, feeling touched and richer from the experience.

12 May diaries submitted to Mass Observation in previous years

Examples of 12th May day diaries submitted to Mass Observation in previous years

Issues of health and wellbeing arise in so many of Mass Observation’s collections. These diaries capture the minutiae; the small, the repetitive, the routine. Yet what I see in a number of them is how daily events and actions are led by or the result of people’s health and wellbeing.

‘Today was a typical day as far as the last three months is concerned but not for my “normal” life. I was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time in December 2016. This time it has spread to my neck. The oncologist arranged for me to get a three-week course of radiotherapy. Since then I have suffered greatly with fatigue and can quite easily sleep for 16-18 hours a day.’ Female, 49

In The Keep’s Reading Room, I’m moved as I read of grief, loss and healing, of the value of friendships, of family and loved ones shared. The reflectiveness of those who wrote last year and the changes their lives have seen. For some, life can turn on its head far too quickly.

The 12th May 2017 was a Friday, and a wet day for many. Getting out into the garden was seen as a hobby for some, but a form of therapy for others; for health, for healing and for the serendipitous fun of seeing what food-growing skills they can master. Something I definitely identified with, reflecting on my sweetcorn harvest and cauliflower failure.

‘Life became unbearable due to his alcohol abuse and entanglement with someone else. My garden is my slave and I, its slave – a willing one.’ F,70

I saw similarities in routines: our use of media, commutes to school, work, exercise classes and duties of care, as well as food shopping, diet and financial worries. Yet within this ran a thread of how our daily lives impact on our health, and how our health has an impact on our daily life; from those in bed with colds and coughs, to injuries and then those managing illness, for some life-limiting and life-threatening.

12 May postcard

My friend ‘has dementia and over the past four or five years it has resulted in a personality change, sad. She forgets what she has ordered by the time it arrives, and actually thought she had already had lunch. He is very patient and calm, and lets some of her wilder statements pass.’ Female, 87

I read of cancer, the NHS, carers and the managing of medication along with the exploration of alternative therapies; the hope, the fears and the lifelines given.

‘My husband gave up work 16 years ago because of ME so he holds everything together at home and keeps the ship sailing while I go to work.’ Female, 55

Conversations with family, friends, groups or the local shop owner range from everyday actions, providing pleasure and happiness, to feelings of burden, frustration or an upset. For some, these events provided a beacon of support and a boost of mood.

My friend ‘wanted to introduce me to another friend whose child is self-harming and has recently made a suicide attempt. My older child did the same 5 years ago, so we chatted about that and what had helped in my child’s situation. It was all quite ranty and sweary, and much more fun than its sounds as we were all pretty honest about some quite difficult subjects and it felt quite cathartic.’ Female, 45

‘I sit on a table with three ladies who always make me laugh. I needed that today because my overall mood today was down. I woke up missing my children and my mum and I know I will go to bed feeling the same.’ Female, 55 Sutton Park Prison

‘I wake up at 6. I was feeling pretty low last night – stressed, poor and stretched in multiple directions – and it still weighs on me this morning. I try not to let it show. I sit on the sofa with my two-year-old and dutifully read through the first “Where’s Wally” book (my own childhood copy, it must be about a quarter of a century old)’. Male, 31

The diaries provide multiple windows of observation on the lives of individuals, families, communities and groups on the same date across Britain. They can give an insight into how people’s health and wellbeing, their feelings and emotions can guide their day and their actions. Ways of managing, overcoming and avoiding health issues are explored and explained; from medication and meditation to exercise and regular companionship.

The parallel lives recorded on this one date are compelling. We share a lot of love for porridge, for morning exercise, tea in bed, and for hiding back under the duvet. We are also habitual in grabbing for our devices before we rise, checking the news, emails and Facebook. It was the end of the week for a lot of our writers, and pizza was on the table in quite a few households. Concerns and worries were heavily linked to politics, to the next general election and to Trump’s presidency. In the evening, there were also thoughts and reflections upon the NHS cyber attack that had taken place earlier in the day.

One thread that runs through is the action of recording, of writing, sharing and reflecting. The process itself is cathartic, therapeutic, purposeful and productive for many. As closing time hits the Reading Room, I spend time reflecting on the diverse lives I’ve shared today and, as ever, am in awe of the time our writers dedicate to Mass Observation.

If you’d like to meet the Mass Observation team and hear extracts from 12 May Day Diaries dating back to 1937, do join us on Wednesday 9 May for an afternoon talk, Recording Everyday Lives. You can also bring your friends and family to The Keep on Saturday 12 May, for Writing Your Day with Mass Observation, a hands-on morning of activities. More details and booking info can be found on the Events pages of our website.

Mass Observation has teamed up with Action for M.E. for this year’s 12 May, with the aim of capturing everyday lived experiences of people living with M.E., or those caring for or living with them. Find out more about the project and how to take part on the Mass Observation website.