Bad jokes, fighting cats, and odd uses for prams: snapshots of Irish daily life
One of the very first singled out a bewildering array of topics: behaviour of people at war-memorials; shouts and gestures of motorists; the aspidistra cult; anthropology of football pools; bathroom behaviour; beards, armpits and eyebrows; anti-Semitism; distribution, diffusion and significance of the dirty joke; funerals and undertakers; female taboos about eating; the private lives of midwives.
Stories from home
Taking their cue – and some of their ideas, gathered during a visit to the Mass Observation archive at the University of Sussex – I launched Mass Observation Dublin. As observations trickled in week by week they were by turns humorous, touching, informative and, without exception, profoundly fascinating.
They proved a thrilling mix of the mundane and the lyrical, from the variety of items carried around the city in prams (bales of hay, a wheelie bin, shopping, and on occasion a baby) to the strange poetry of a list of objects on a mantelpiece.
Some aspects of contemporary Dublin life were entirely predictable, if no less revealing for that: the extraordinary number of people clutching take-away cups of coffee (15 out of 22 people entering a city-centre office on the morning of November 9th); the abiding love of Dublin buskers for Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl. Some observations were reassuring (at least for the resolution-breaking or nostalgic among us): there are still more people running for the bus than running for exercise; wristwatches remain in surprising abundance.
Others revealed the moments where the cogs and wheels of everyday life begin to grind and stick: a barman cleaning the same spot on a shiny bar like a glitch in a record; a guard dropping sheaves of documents in a puddle; sugar bowls and milk jugs, left on tables outside a cafe, filling slowly with rainwater.
Comparisons between the 1930s observations and our own efforts were also revealing. Eating in the street, once considered “not quite the thing”, is now acceptable. Ditto bank-holiday excursions and cycling clubs.
Fast-forward to 2011 and an observer records the elaborate make-up ritual of the girl sitting beside her on the bus, who liberally applies foundation, powder and blusher for at least 10 minutes. Threads of continuity are also apparent.
Unsurprisingly, strange personal habits die hard. The gentleman who refused to wear any clothes with buttons in 1939 is echoed in an astonishing array of modern tics and peculiarities; from the man who habitually smacks lamp-posts as he walks along to hear them “ding” to the woman who has to remove every bubble on the surface of her tea before she can drink it.
Equally, the particular things that people noticed and chose to record were often brilliantly idiosyncratic and spoke of the highly individual nature of curiosity. An Imperial College lecturer who took the Piccadilly Line every morning and evening in January 1938 noted with meticulous care the reading style and precise folding method of every newspaper reader in the carriage using a complex series of abbreviations.
He might have found congenial company among the 2011 observers who drew diagrams of the cars and bikes parked outside all the houses on their street or noted every bird that passed their office window on the morning of November 2nd.